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You don’t have to be lefty to love Extinction Rebellion

October 10, 2019 - 8:32am

Boris Johnson with Margaret Thatcher’s biography

It almost seems Boris Johnson was performing a parody set piece of himself this week. He showed up to a Thatcher biography book launch and described Extinction Rebellion as “uncooperative crusties” who should stop blocking the streets of the capital with their “heaving hemp-smelling bivouacs”. Boris’s father Stanley promptly and proudly declared himself an “uncooperative crustie” as he showed up to join protests.

The insult inevitably captured the headlines, but in his remarks the Prime Minister also acknowledged that Thatcher was ahead of her time in acknowledging the impact of “greenhouse gases”. In 1989 she gave a speech to the United Nations warning of the impending crisis around carbon emissions:

What we are now doing to the world, by degrading the land surfaces, by polluting the waters and by adding greenhouse gases to the air at an unprecedented rate — all this is new in the experience of the earth. It is mankind and his activities which are changing the environment of our planet in damaging and dangerous ways.
- Margaret Thatcher

At first glance, Thatcher and Extinction Rebellion have little in common. There is a strong showing of dreadlocks and drum circles on the blockades this week, which can make the movement superficially easy to write off. But behind these front line volunteers, hardened and committed enough to camp in the rain and get arrested, are myriad others, parents and grandparents, lawyers and accountants, business owners and farmers. People who love the indigenous species of this little green island, who fear for the unmanaged change our emissions will bring and seek to conserve all that is good and ancient about our habitat.

The changes required in the way we live mesh well with those proposed by critics of our globalised, highly mobile, high speed liberalism. We need to learn to love the local, fly less, be closer to the land. The ever upward trajectory into more technology, more consumption, more progress needs slowing. It is clear the past has much to teach us, and conserving the legacy of what we’ve been given is a value most on the right would be happy to get behind.

Walking through Westminster this week I was moved by observing a white-haired woman in her seventies, dressed primly in Barbour and tweed, laying on a cold and wet road peacefully resisting arrest. Her dignity and determination had something of the Iron Lady about her.

This issue of the impending climate catastrophe is one that can and must unite people across the political spectrum if we are going to pull back from the brink. It’s as urgent for members of the Countryside Alliance as those who worship Gaia, Mother Earth. So I want to channel the spirit, not of our current flip and performative Prime Minister (whose advice to the protestors was to give up and go buy the book) but the one whose biography he was flogging, who saw the writing on the wall and spoke out.

Elizabeth Oldfield is the former head of Theos. Her writing has appeared in the FT, Prospect and The Times. Her Twitter handle is @esoldfield


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