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Disrupting public transport was a mistake, but Extinction Rebellion is clearly making an impact


Disrupting public transport was a mistake, but Extinction Rebellion is clearly making an impact

It’s funny to think that, around a year ago, no one had ever heard of Extinction Rebellion (XR). What a difference 12 months makes. Within a year, the movement has gone from obscure, to mainstream, to leading the news, to being hit with a backlash – particularly after activists took over London’s public transport system at rush hour.

As you’d expect with a group challenging the status quo, XR has faced a barrage of criticisms, some fairer than others. And, as ever, most of it misses the point.

Clearly the threat posed by climate change is real, and given current projections suggest global temperatures are on course for a 3-5 degree Celsius rise this century – even taking account of recent government actions – it’s no controversy to say human responses have been inadequate.

This is not a single, coherent organisation, with clear answers to a clear crisis

So you can see why XR – and an increasing proportion of the public – are worried. Governments, globally, are failing the people they are meant to serve and clearly the public have a right to protest, no matter the disruption it causes.

Yet, while the cause is just, it’s hard not to look at aspects of XR and feel uncomfortable, not least with the way some members seem to idolise being arrested. Most people do not have the luxury of taking time off work for a week-long sit-in, or a stint in jail, and though activists will tell you they take great care to make sure only people that can afford to be arrested run into trouble, like most of the environmental movement, XR appears to be loaded with middle-class white people.

Climate change affects everyone, but the drum circles, twee placards and agit-prop theatre only appeal to a small group, while putting most people off. At times, environmental protests seem as much about providing social opportunities for hippies as trying to enact change.

But there’s no contradiction in agreeing with a cause while finding the way it’s being pursued troublesome – or even deeply irritating – and the real question here is one of tactics.

Clearly the group’s decision to disrupt the London Underground, stopping workers from getting to their jobs, was a mistake. Senior members of the group have since admitted it.

But, with no fixed leadership, the protest went ahead, and while most of the criticism from Tory MPs and right-wing commentators was predictable, more damaging was the sight of baffled working-class Londoners trying to work out what the group had against public transport.

Yet evidence suggests the protests are having an impact. In 2013, Ipsos MORI found 59 per cent of the public believed the planet was ‘heading for disaster’. This year that figure had risen to 78 per cent.

Meanwhile, it’s also worth keeping in mind the Tube action was opposed by almost three-quarters of XR supporters themselves. More than 3,700 people responded to an online poll circulated on the group’s social media networks, with 72 per cent of respondents saying they were opposed to the action “no matter how it is done”.

And this is the key point, because this is not a single, coherent organisation, with clear answers to a clear crisis. It is a multifaceted, chaotic, vibrant, energetic movement, which is probably better understood as some sort of echoing scream of rage than any sort of fixed body. These protests have been more spontaneous and less centralised, but harder to manage and harder to control.

It’s this chaos that’s helped them – these protests have managed to reach into public consciousness in a way previous movements have not. But XR’s strengths are also its weaknesses.

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