September 21, 2021 - 2:50pm

What is your mental image of an environmental activist? Probably a young, idealistic millennial, eating lentils and wearing a multicoloured beanie. What is striking about Extinction Rebellion protestors, though, is just how old they are. The people blocking roads across England look closer to eighty than to eighteen.

The newspapers have been full of pensioners who have been getting themselves arrested: the Welsh 82-year-old, the Oxford 81-year-old and, perhaps most impressively, the 91-year-old from Kent. A study by Claire Saunders and others from the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity found that XR has “a much broader and more diverse age profile than has been the case for the previously small networks of mainly young activists,” with a mean age of over 40.

Maybe older activists feel more responsible for environmental decay, with one nonagenarian telling Sky that it was “his generation that had caused the damage that led to climate change.” Perhaps, too, having already enjoyed a long life and career, they find it easier to imagine living out the rest of their time on Earth in a more restrained fashion.

Putting old people on the frontlines of environmental activism also makes tactical sense. Polly Toynbee noticed this two years ago. Pensioners, she wrote in a column called “How older people became the heroes of Extinction Rebellion”, are the best “arrestables”:

…free of children, with pensions. They have no need to worry about damaged CVs and criminal-record checks, and so are model protest material, with the least to lose. Police, mainly easy on arrestees of all ages, are doubly wary of dragging older folks down the street.
- Polly Toynbee, Guardian

There is some history here: Bertrand Russell being arrested at the age of 89 at a protest against nuclear weapons gained recognition on both sides of the pond, as well as Walter Wolfgang’s forcible ejection from the 2005 Labour Party conference at the age of 82, after he had shouted “nonsense” at Jack Straw for defending the invasion of Iraq. The rough treatment of old people, rightly or wrongly, inclines us to feeling more sympathetic towards the geriatric rabble-rousers. This same sympathy is rarely extended upon the rough treatment of the young.

Nonetheless, few would want their protest movement to be entirely made up of old people. One needs some youthful vitality, and, besides, a movement without young people is doomed to its own extinction. Wherever you stand on “NIMBYs”, their cause cannot last forever simply because there will not be enough homeowners to sustain it.

Still, having a crack troop of pensioners makes a lot of activistic sense. You might argue that XR is rich in knee-jerk misanthropy and shrill pseudoscience, and that blocking roads is an absurd strategy that leads to tragic situations like a stroke victim not reaching a hospital in time to make a full recovery, but putting kindly old people in front of the cops is smart. If you happen to be organising your own protest you could take a worse lesson.

Ben Sixsmith is an English writer living in Poland. He has written for Quillette, Areo, The Catholic Herald, The American Conservative and Arc Digital on a variety of topics including literature and politics.