Earlier this year Extinction Rebellion announced that they would take a break from civil disobedience for a bit in order to focus on building broader coalitions. They called instead for a peaceful and inclusive gathering in London. With no law-breaking involved, anyone who had been hesitant to get involved could no turn up and take part. Called The Big One, it specifically aimed to gather a crowd ‘too big to ignore’.
It was a nice idea, though personally I don’t believe in crowds too big to ignore. On two occasions I’ve seen what a million person march looks like in the streets of London (Iraq war and Brexit), and neither time did it tilt the balance. XR’s crowd of 60,000 people, short of the hundred thousand they hoped for, would be very easy to ignore.
I went anyway, because we should do what we perceive to be right whether or not it has any chance of success. I met some friends. I mooched about the ‘people’s pickets’, arranged around Parliament Square like a trade fair. It all felt safe, yes, but without the carnival atmosphere of previous XR events and certainly without the frisson of chaos that comes with direct action.
There was lightning in the air in those early actions in 2018, and 2019, a sense that the power structures of the city and the government were on the back foot, and anything was possible. And it worked – whether XR recognise it or not, the energy of the moment delivered Britain’s net zero commitment, and a string of emergency declarations and new ambition.
There was little sense of any similar breakthrough this year. Andrew Matthew Macdonald, a sociologist studying climate activism, points out that media coverage was very low. The solo activist who disrupted the snooker championships the week before got considerably more attention than the tens of thousands outside Parliament.
This is where the Catch-22 becomes apparent. If you break the law in your climate protests and disrupt ordinary folks, then you’re a criminal and nothing you say matters. If you demonstrate peacefully, nobody will notice and so nothing you say matters either.
No wonder young climate activists end up throwing soup at paintings. Anything to try and draw attention to a government that continues to licence new oil and gas as the climate breaks down because of the burning of these very things. And honestly, which is the greater madness?
Is there a way through this impasse?
I think there three things to consider about the future of climate protest in the UK. First, the problem I have with XR’s Big One is the messaging, not the idea itself. There’s no magic number of people that’s so big that it forces the hand of government, but building coalitions is a good idea. I think the big win from XR’s gathering is that there were so many organisations involved – people who had been cautiously supportive in the past but now felt confident to commit and sign on. It’s not exciting. It’s not news-worthy, but building coalitions is how you actually get numbers that matter. It’s a platform for advocacy as well as protest – less visible but ultimately more powerful.
Secondly, the absence of news around XR’s protest only proves the point for those arguing for disruptive action. See? The peaceful and inclusive stuff doesn’t get us anywhere! Neither will these people be deterred by the new sentences brought it by the Public Order Bill this month, which criminalises locking on, disrupting infrastructure, and a variety of other new powers. They are explicitly written in response to Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain. I don’t think these groups are going to go away, and neither should they – well targeted direct action is very effective.
Consider the Animal Rising protest at the Grand National recently. Because the protest was so obviously connected to the cause, it sent a powerful message. The protestors were unable to stop the race entirely. If they had, they would have saved the life of the horse Hill Sixteen. (Before anyone parrots the organisers’ line that the protest stressed out the horses and made accidents more likely, two other horses were fatally injured in races over the weekend at which there were no protests.) It’s very easy for people to understand the protest, even if they don’t agree. This isn’t always the case with direct action, but it shows that it can be done effectively and with integrity. The challenge is for climate activists to be imaginative and strategic in their targets.
Third, and Macdonald notes this in his article too, there’s a possibility that this impasse will push some people towards more underground action. A deeper form of radical action that doesn’t seek media attention, but goes straight for the causes of the destruction. It’s in fiction in the films How to Blow Up a Pipeline or Woman at War, or the novel The Ministry for the Future. In the latter, Kim Stanley Robinson imagines both grassroots ‘eco-terrorist’ networks, and ‘climate black ops’ teams running covert military operations against fossil fuel targets. In real life, it hasn’t got much further than groups letting down SUV tyres, but that might not be the only example for long.
The government is using new legal powers to build taller fences to protect the fossil-fueled status quo. That may well backfire.
The three possibilities I’ve sketched here aren’t mutually exclusive. I expect all three – more advocacy from a wider coalition of allies, ongoing disruptive protest actions, and the emergence of actors who directly target infrastructure rather than court media attention.