activism climate change

What can we learn from Insulate Britain?

“It is with an extremely heavy heart that today we have to announce that as Insulate Britain we have failed” said Insulate Britain yesterday. If you didn’t know the context, it would be a slightly strange statement. The cost of living is all over the news. The need to insulate Britain and buffer households from energy poverty is more obvious than it has ever been. So why the failure?

There’s no question that Insulate Britain were right in their key demands: to insulate all social housing, and develop a plan for everyone else. Current events bear that out, and we’ve known the need for insulation for a while. According to the Building Research Establishment, “the UK’s housing stock is the oldest in Europe – probably the world”. It desperately needs to be brought up to scratch.

The benefits are also obvious, and manifold. Efficiency measures save households money. Insulation makes homes healthier and more comfortable. It also cuts carbon, and this is essential to Britain’s climate targets. Everybody wins when houses are warm and efficient (except the gas companies, who make less money from our bills.)

It’s also a good thing to be demanding from the government, given the recent failure of their Green Homes Scheme, and the Green Deal before it in 2014. With both of those national strategies mishandled and then abandoned, it’s basically been a lost decade for fixing up the oldest housing stock in the world:

So Insulate Britain had clear demands that anyone could understand, in response to an obvious failure of government. What they wanted wasn’t controversial, and millions of people would benefit from it. So what went wrong?

In case you didn’t hear of them where you are, Insulate Britain are a civil disobedience campaign. Like a couple of other more radical groups before them, they broke away from the wider Extinction Rebellion camp in order to carry out more disruptive actions under their own name. Insulate Britain blocked roads across London and the country last year, earning a series of headlines in late summer and early autumn. A number of viral videos circulated of them being accosted by angry motorists, and radio phone-in shows did good business.

Britain, however, remains uninsulated. “We have failed to encourage our government to get up from their drinks parties, go to their desk and get on with the job.”

While Insulate Britain say what they failed to acheive, their statement doesn’t really question why. They end by saying that it’s our fault: “More of you need to join us. We don’t get to be bystanders. We either act against evil or we participate in it.”

I think we need to talk about that a little more. Personally, I have not been a supporter of Insulate Britain, though I have friends who are very involved – one of whom is currently in prison for her actions with the group. I support those friends, who I admire for their bravery and their commitment. I am 100% behind the demands of the organisation. It’s the methods that need to be examined, because I think it is the methods that have failed.

Insulate Britain set out to disrupt ordinary people and get themselves arrested. They disrupted roads and motorists, including blocking motorway slip roads. (Despite the news stories, they do not block emergency service vehicles.) But countless thousands of ordinary people were inconvenienced by their actions. And my problem is that there is no connection between motoring and insulation.

This matters. The current wave of climate protest is inspired by pioneers of non-violence such as the US civil rights movement. But when a black civil rights activist sat down in a segregated cafe, or on a bus, two things were happening:

  • First, the person carrying out the action was the person disadvantaged by the injustice. Their motivations could not be questioned, and they were claiming something that was rightfully theirs.
  • Secondly, the action was itself a redress of the injustice. This is empowering, and clearly gives them the moral high ground. When the police or the authorities intervene, they expose their complicity.

I think you can do civil disobedience without those two things, but it’s a much weaker prospect. Extinction Rebellion skirt a fine line with it, with some actions working better than others. Insulate Britain felt too far removed for me. The protestors were not experiencing an injustice, and were easily dismissed as extremists. And the actions did not address the injustice. When they were arrested for blocking a road, the police were clearing a public nuisance, not perpetuating an unjust system.

I was talking to an Insulate Britain organiser last week, and they were not worried about this. As far they were concerned, even the most negative press attention was still forcing the issue onto the agenda. But there is no shortage of social science that tells us that the messenger and the framing matter. Once the protests have gone through the culture war filters, they might turn people against a national insulation campaign for all I know. We certainly know from polling that the campaign lost rather than gained support as it went on.

These aren’t new observations, and Insulate Britain are probably aware of it. It seems to come down to whether or not you are prepared to take the risk. For some activists, it’s more important to do something. The moral need to take action seems to take precendence over strategy.

I think it could be different, and that Insulate Britain could have picked better targets. Imagine if they blockaded a building site of one of the big developers. We know that Taylor Wimpey, for example, successfully lobbied against plans for zero carbon homes. Imagine that their building sites came grinding to a halt, costing them thousands in lost work days. They would call for arrests, but behind the scences they might also think again about insulation. The general public would understand the connection – if they heard about it. But even if they didn’t, the signal would get through to the decision makers.

That might not have worked either, I don’t know. I remain a supporter of civil disobedience for the climate, but after the initial element of surprise in Extinction Rebellion, I think it becomes all the more important to pick targets strategically. Generating headlines is not the same thing as building support.

Two other observations, perhaps more positively. First, it’s a little early to declare failure. The suffragettes agitated for over a decade. Insulate Britain emerged in the summer of 2021. It’s far too early to tell what impact they’ve had, either positive or negative. If the government were to declare an insulation campaign tomorrow, they would have had an influence. Perhaps with a change in tactics, a more constructive approach for a few more months, they’d be seen as a key part of the victory.

Secondly, the people behind Insulate Britain aren’t done. From what I hear, their next campaign is more direct, and more obvious. Depending on what they choose to blockade, it might be a campaign that gets more popular support.

That’s my two cents worth. I’d be interested in what you think – not just whether you supported or opposed the protests, but what we can learn from the group. Because whatever happens to Insulate Britain, we do still need to insulate Britain.

6 comments

  1. The Great Homes Upgrade has been launched by the New Economics Foundation and is a democratic alternative method to persuade politicians.From my point of view the only thing Insulate Britain has achieved is to make many people believe that the policing bill is a good idea. Check out the Great Homes Upgrade now and act before the Spring Budget.

    1. Yes, I’ve spoken to people who argued for the policing bill on account of Insulate Britain, which would be a deeply unhelpful legacy.

      I have Nef’s campaign bookmarked to write about as a follow up next week, as it happens.

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