First there was Greta Thunberg and the Children’s Crusade. Now there is “Extinction Rebellion”, a growing middle class movement, originating in the UK, overwhelmingly first world, dedicated to “non-violent civil disobedience in an attempt to halt mass extinction” which threatens, according to them, as a consequence of global warming. It has grown rapidly in the year since its foundation and now boasts offshoots in a number of countries, including Ireland, as well as several branches outside the first world including India. Extinction Rebellion (ER) has become the current middle class cause celebre and, like the global warming issue itself, seems likely to run for quite some time, shortly visiting cities and countries it hasn’t touched before.

It has garnered considerable publicity, particularly on account of disruption to London city centre traffic, and has recently attracted support from a number of celebrities, academics and some of the great and the good, spearheaded by actors Benedict Cumberbatch, Jude Law, Ruby Wax and Ray Winston, musicians Bob Geldof and Adam Clayton, authors Ian McEwan and Nick Hornsby together with a selection of senior British Labour MPs. At least the celebrities in their open letter have acknowledged that, with their high carbon lives tied into a fossil-fuel economy, they are hypocrites but have gone on to point out that the seriousness of the current situation merits using their “profiles and platforms” to draw attention to what they term as “living in the midst of the 6th mass extinction.”

The movement is clearly about sensitising public opinion about global warming and in this sense can claim success, though arguably it is pushing against an already open door, to which it would respond that the door is not opening fast enough. ER has two main “demands”: for the Government (initially the British, but now others, including the Irish) to “tell the truth” regarding the seriousness of the climate situation and the urgent need for action and secondly for the Government to act immediately to halt “biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2030 (Ireland- for the UK the demand is 2025!) while reversing all policies not in alignment with that position.”

There’s also a third more problematic “demand” – to “ensure a just transition”, “where the most vulnerable are not expected to sacrifice the most”; this, moreover, “to be made within a global context” to “ensure that profits are not placed before our planet.” This last demand is accompanied in utterances in the UK for a rejection of normal political structures and the establishment of a Citizens’ Assembly to lead and decide on matters pertaining to climate and ecological “justice.” So much for democracy and elected governments.

Thus far the ER’s chief achievement in Britain has been to generate considerable short term disruption to traffic flows and commuting in Central London, holding up traffic for hours at a time, with additional antics including protesters supergluing themselves to pavements, the doors of some Tube trains and even the gates of Buckingham Palace, with the promise of more to come. Additional activities in October included disrupting a flight out of London City Airport and some minor disruption to the London Underground, where protesters sat on the roof of a morning Tube train before being dragged off by angry commuters. This last has caused some fissure in the ER ranks, with the majority apparently eschewing interfering with the Tube, but undoubtedly the incident has given cause to ponder about what the next round of actions will bring. (After all, if there is indeed an emergency threatening the future of the human race, surely minor local actions such as interfering with the Tube to highlight the emergency can be justified??)

Relations with the London police were initially cordial, in view of the expressed nonviolent nature of the movement, and in Ireland to date, where the actions have been more low- key, relations with the Gardai have been good. However the October days of action in London have strained relations between ER and the Met, which has been hard put to cope as the levels of disruption have increased from minor to major. Protesters blocking roads have had to be lifted away by police, with consequent major demands on manpower and diversion of scarce resources away from combatting serious crime including the growing one of people trafficking, where a recent appalling incident involving the deaths of thirty nine migrants has brought the issue into sharp focus.

The London police are treading warily, with no desire to turn the protesters into martyrs. However 1800 arrests alone were made during ER’s autumn campaign. Charges are being processed and so far 384 protesters have ended up with criminal records, though in the case of many seasoned protesters these merely constitute badges of honour. Sweeping restrictions on protest gatherings by ER across London have now been introduced and are currently under challenge in the Courts on civil liberty grounds.

Whither the next step? Future protests are planned. It is all very well to declare, as spokespersons for the movement assert, that its members are willing to face arrest. It’s not rocket science to grasp that the court system and prisons in Britain, Ireland and elsewhere would be unable to cope with mass arrests and imprisonment of normally law abiding middle class citizens, so for most it is likely to be a quick in-and-out process with at worst a fine (though for some, the unforeseen future consequences of having a criminal record could come back to bite).

There is also the calculation that politicians of whatever hue would be unwilling to court unpopularity by cracking down too hard on protests about a topic on which there is considerable public worry and concern. This could change. Were future protests to intensify – as the movement hints – adding to commuter frustration and generating collateral damage including causing death or serious injury to the public, the current neutral public tolerance of ER could dissipate. Former President Mary Robinson has already cautioned the Extinction Rebellion protesters lest their tactics alienate public opinion.

The immediate “demands” of Extinction Rebellion cannot be realised easily. The Truth is already out there and well publicised. The Earth faces a major ecological crisis over the next generation or so. Shifting from a fossil fuel economy is happening – albeit slowly. Could it be speeded up? Of course. Though to achieve carbon neutrality by 2025 or 2030 would involve immediate dramatic changes in lifestyle, including severe restrictions on road, rail and air transportation as well as on the current energy consumption patterns of the general population including work, heating, lighting, cooking and cleaning, not to mention shopping and leisure. All can be addressed, and, in so far as the government CAN address them – are. But not overnight, or in a few years, even were unlimited financial resources and manpower available.

There’s a further point. The Emergency is global, not regional. Its causes are rooted in massive recent population growth, the ready availability of cheap fossil-fuel based energy, and the perfectly legitimate drive to raise living standards in regions outside the OECD Golden Circle. 50% of all greenhouse gas emissions have occurred since 1988!. We may aspire to lead by example. But who will follow?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s