For over three decades, activists have been calling for action on climate and environmental breakdown through conventional means. We have marched in demonstrations, written letters to our MPs, signed petitions, even carried out direct action against the organisations actively contributing to the crisis and targeting infrastructure such as power stations and oil rigs. Many people have sought to make a difference through individual changes, reducing their environmental impact through their transport choices, by insulating their homes and recycling.
Despite this, we are on a cliff-edge. David Attenborough says “If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.” Greta Thunberg says “the science doesn’t mainly speak of great opportunities to create the society we always wanted. It tells of unspoken human sufferings, which will get worse and worse the longer we delay action – unless we start to act now”.
While the environmental movement has done incredible, vital work over the past decades, Extinction Rebellion (XR) recognises that this is not enough to stop environmental catastrophe. Only government action to change the system we live in can save us – and new tactics are needed to force the government to sit up and listen. Polluters barely notice a power-station shut down, big infrastructure projects continue in spite of protesters physically impeding construction work, and the work of activists barely registers on the public consciousness.
Public disruption is impossible to ignore. Those caught up in it experience it and feel it. The initial response is often anger towards the protestors. Others see it in headlines and on social media. This is evident from the regular “swarming” roadblocks XR activists in Cambridge have been carrying out over the last few weeks. On 5th February, articles covering XR occupied the top two most-read slots on the Cambridge Independent website (see right). Note that the second story is in regard to a planned week-long roadblock. We have also had a flurry of media requests from the likes of Cambridge News, Cambridge Independent, BBC Radio Cambridge.
Similarly, after some recent swarming actions we have seen a large increase in website traffic (see below). On Wednesday 22nd January, we received 2,251 site visits; by contrast, our highest number of daily visits in December 2019 was 52. Since we stepped up our disruptive action in Cambridge, our site visits frequently hit the mid-hundreds, usually coinciding with our actions. Here in Cambridge, this provides a platform for our more targeted disruption at institutions such as oil and gas company Schlumberger and allows us to expose the university’s and local institutions’ contribution to the climate emergency.
Similarly, think back to the April’s International Rebellion, which in the UK consisted of five major roadblocks in London, which lasted just under two weeks. This dominated headlines across the UK and transformed public opinion in regards to the climate and environmental emergency. While highly targeted actions have proved ineffective in getting the issue of climate breakdown high up the agenda, 71% of the British public now think climate change is a more pressing issue than Brexit, according to a ComRes poll. Google searches for “climate change” spiked enormously on April 15 when the XR protests began and search performance for this term remains strong (see below). At the same time, the government is at least pretending to take the issue seriously and the Labour Party placed the climate and environmental emergency at the centre of its manifesto in the 2019 General Election, including a net zero target of 2030. Whatever your politics, this would have been unthinkable a year earlier.
Public disruption seems to be having an effect and is producing tangible results in the right direction. Compare this with the October Rebellion, when disruption targeted around Westminster, which had little impact on the general public, drew little attention from the media until the police crackdown on protesters in the second week.
The aim of Extinction Rebellion is not to make everybody join us, or even to like us. Most of us don’t want to upset people and – just the same as anyone else – we would like to be liked. Greta Thunberg says “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean, yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you?” We feel the same. We shouldn’t be standing in roads, risking arrest, jeopardising our jobs and our security. But the priority however is not being popular but applying sufficient pressure that politicians have no choice but to enact radical, rapid system change to limit global temperature rises to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Under current policies, we are on track for 2.8 - 3.2 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels. Pledges limit this to 2.5 - 2.8 degrees. We are falling off a cliff. The action we are taking is our last chance to avert the collapse of the biosphere and our human societies along with it.