After the April protests, memorable for Emma Thompson belching out first-class carbon dioxide to get to the Oxford Street pink boat, Extinction Rebellion (XR) is back on the streets of London. Derided as a bunch of middle-class hippies, look more closely and the group is aiming to go to places other eco-movements can’t reach, including both wealthy professionals and the working class — neither hitherto obvious greenies.
XR does seem to have caught the sympathies of some at the smarter end of society. In September, the Financial Times held a festival at Kenwood House, where the audience — FT readers in linen jackets and floral dresses — were asked whether they supported XR’s actions. Three-quarters raised their hands.
One leader there told me about a Government minister’s aide who was on the verge of signing up. At another event, a woman told me that her husband, who holds a senior position at Goldman Sachs, wanted to quit his job to become a full-time environmental “rebel”. She suggested his chequebook might be a better way to support the cause.
It is easy to see why the guilty, reusable-cup-clutching middle-classes dance around pink boats to atone for their jet habits; but Extinction Rebellion is also aimed at attracting the working class — a somewhat trickier proposition. Why would the steelworker or shelf-stacker want to engage in eco-neurosis when they’ve got more pressing concerns?
The new green movements are patronising, Wigan Labour MP Lisa Nandy argued in an article for the Guardian last week. This middle-class movement doesn’t recognise its privileges, she wrote. How can you ask someone to give up their car when they are having to commute miles to work, because local jobs have gone and there’s no decent public transport? Or give up meat when there is so little in the cupboards and you’re using food banks.
But Roger Hallam, one of the founders of XR, has nevertheless been taking his case to them. A bearded Mancunian who presents himself as somewhere between Worzel Gummidge and William Blake’s God, he is currently in prison awaiting trial after his “Heathrow Pause” drone flying last month. But before that he spent the summer months on tour, promoting his group not just to potential new sign-ups on the festival circuit but also in working-class towns and cities such as Scunthorpe, Sunderland, Swansea, Cardigan, Penzance and Derby.
The topline message was this: climate change is going to affect everyone, and even more so those who have fewer economic choices. To sort climate change quickly – XR’s target is net zero carbon by 2025 – a radical restructuring of society is required. And to make it fair, you need to pull the decision-making process away from government and big business, back to real people, including the steelworkers and shelf-stackers, through citizens’ assemblies. They make better choices knowing their own realities.
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It doesn’t answer Nandy’s questions of how you get around without a car, but Hallam, a persuasive speaker, reports that his Scunthorpe meeting was unusually successful — better indeed than the regular XR recruitment drives. But that might be because he’s pushing a second message to them, about how Extinction Rebellion is how you take back control.
I’ve been watching the rebel leaders give their regular spiel at festivals and private events for the last few months. Attendees are shown videos about temperature hyper-loops – when global warming feeds on itself – and fed a frightening collation of well-sourced climate data that point to “the sixth great extinction”. Then it is explained that the paralysis gripping you in the face of this is grief. Once that’s understood then you can begin to take action.
The results of these talks are similar each time – the audience starts curious but cynical, but by the end they’re surprising themselves by nodding along, and a quarter admit to thinking about signing up. The emotional message works: XR is approaching a million followers across social media platforms, local groups that had five members in April now have 300, and this week’s protests are international. One event for fundraisers convinced oil heiress Aileen Getty to follow up with a donation of £500,000.
In his account of his working-class town tour, called “The Time is Now”, Hallam said he got a different response. While the metropolitan middle classes sign up to be crowd fodder, they aren’t so keen on being picked up by the police for protesting. But in Scunthorpe and Swansea, those who came to listen to the talks on climate change, grief and citizens’ assemblies were volunteering to be frontline “arrestables” at three times the rate of their middle-class counterparts.
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He identified a nihilistic streak in these towns. His ideal candidate, Hallam said, was a woman in her fifties whose husband has left, and whose children have grown up. When you feel like you’ve got nothing left to lose, when the sixth great extinction is coming and you’ve got no say, why not?
Others in the XR movement prefer the street carnival, but Hallam wants prison cells stuffed full of arrestees so that courts have to judge whether it is the protestors or the polluters who are guilty. He is himself relishing a crown court hearing in mid-October over his Heathrow actions.
It is also worth noting that, apart from Cardigan, those places Hallam chose to visit were Leave-voting areas. Extinction Rebellion noticeably never talks about Brexit – when asked members will just say that it doesn’t matter when the Arctic is on fire – but Hallam believes what ignited the working-class Brexit movement is convertible into environmental rebellion.
At one of his talks to the Byline Festival in Sussex – audience: radical intelligentsia – Hallam talked about the working class and how a leftish eco-movement really needs to think about “immigration controls, an end to the globalisation mantra, and also to start talking in terms of tradition, nation, honour – the things that socialists in the 20th Century talked about but have become taboo to the Left”.
He wasn’t being official XR spokesperson on that occasion but the thinking ties in with XR wanting goods and people to travel less and local economies servicing their immediate needs. And it is strikingly similar to some of the Brexit messaging: your jobs and your identity are under threat because of external things: the EU, globalisation, climate change (delete as appropriate). This is the answer.
It is quite a logical leap but that is what the guru Hallam is good at – plugging into feelings, in this case the alienation, the resentment and the lack of control felt by those who are on the wrong side of our current political settlement.
Unquestionably, Extinction Rebellion is political as well as environmental. It grew out of RisingUp, an economic justice activism group run by Gail Bradbrook, another of the original rebels. What they’ve hit on with XR is to not talk about overthrowing capitalism – it is barely mentioned in their literature – but to channel the concerns about the environment and make them the reason for social change. That’s how to get both the top and bottom ends of society to unite around a cause.
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It is quite easy to pick apart XR. Some of its thinking folds in on itself: if you don’t set 2025 as the carbon zero target – already fairly implausible – you don’t need a social revolution, just good long-term planning. If enough people care enough to vote at the ballot box for parties with strong environmental policies, you don’t need a citizens’ assembly. And using eco-protests as a means of getting economic justice could be seen as a bit two-faced.
But Hallam and Nandy are both right in saying the current environmental movement – go vegan, take the train, buy solar panels – only works for those who have the means to make the choices. FT readers can write letters; those at the lower end of society need some ownership of the process that is going to affect them too. If the only outlet comes by pitching tents and waving colourful flags, there’s a problem.
Hallam is prone to exaggeration, so there’s a question of whether his recruitment has worked. XR has claimed to have bussed in nearly 10,000 people from across the country, a five-fold increase on April, of whom 4,500 are up for arrest. But if these are the “workers” or just the grannies won’t become clear until people are named and the arrests are made. Still, if he has succeeded in getting industrial towns to join the XR, the political temperature will rise another degree.