It is always troubling to see a group or an individual with whom you appear to share a goal defy the principles that you believe in and jeopardise the cause. In an ideal world, it would be possible to accept our differences and live separate lives, not affecting each other and only interacting when our means and goals align. But there comes a point where the shared goal is lost. For some time now, legitimate concerns have been widely expressed about the conduct of climate activists. Extremists harassing innocent people going about their lives. Radicals disrupting small businesses. And now, attacking the freedom of the press.
Bringing attention to the issues of climate change is crucial. That might require performing acts that would otherwise be unacceptable, causing disruption to the general public or hindrance to businesses. However, there are two limitations to that: relevance and utilisation. The first one requires the actions to somewhat correspond with the topic of the movement. The second is connected to using the platform created thanks to the protests, to deliver on the predetermined goal. Without accomplishing the change that the attention was brought to, and as rising awareness can only go so far, protests lose validity and disruption is no longer justified.
The goal of XR activists, at least at its core, appears to be relevant to environmentalists across the political spectrum: preserving and improving our environment for future generations. However, when this goal stops being at the centre, and there appears to be no workable plan as to how to accomplish the desired change, the connection between the two is lost. At some point, the protests stop being about environmentalism but instead become a platform for protesting itself, diminishing the Extinction, and leaving just the Rebellion. It is time to stop seeing Extinction Rebellion as synonymous with environmental activism and look to more responsible organisations.
The problem with groups which burn fiercely and openly is that they tend to burn out quickly, leaving nothing but dust in their path. Once the attention is acquired, it needs to be followed by a comprehensive platform to accomplish the goal. Thus, what tends to have a much bigger impact in the long run are organisations which are not based around disruption but on finding dialogue. The organisations which build bridges, rather than burn them. Organisations which think three steps ahead, not just about what is trending. By focusing on the people, they are given the initiative and create solutions from the ground up.
You might have noticed that, despite how outspoken it is about its beliefs, and its success in bringing attention to itself, Extinction Rebellion has not succeeded in bringing about any major policy change. By focusing on calls for a total overhaul of our economic and political system, grand proposals and promises, threats of global annihilation and tribalisation of the debate, they miss the reality of the political system. This can apply pressure to create change, but if one criticises any realistic moves towards change as “not enough” then no change can be made. Big changes in narrow fields on a wide spectrum of policy areas are better than an overarching proposal that cannot be fulfilled. Like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children, and rather than a revolution, we need pragmatic reforms to improve our government and the economy but also ourselves.
Politically feasible wins across parties and platforms combine to make a significant difference – this is what I and the British Conservation Alliance work towards. From clean tax cuts and green bonds to community action like tree-planting and litter-picking to working with companies to improve their environmental impact, there are many ways an organisation can make an impact and improve human lives at the same time.
Environmentalism does not have to be a zero-sum game. Humanity can grow with the environment. We organise beach clean-ups where their communities come together and improve their local environment. People usually notice the litter in their vicinity, but they wait for the government to solve it instead of doing it themselves because that is its job. We empower them to work together to deliver the improvements, and with that, establish a relationship with each other that links them through their shared care for the environment. And that applies to individuals, communities and companies, all the way up to the national and international level.
Another important aspect of the struggle for a greener future is that there ought to be no enemies in this battle. We are all in the same boat. We all need to fight pollution, climate change, resource depletion, floods and droughts. We all need to work together to bring about the necessary change. We all benefit from the planet being cleaner and healthier. The mission is not to fight those who disagree with us. In fact, it is almost exactly the opposite. They are the ones we should be trying to convert to our global coalition. Show them why we are doing it, what needs to be done, and how we can do it.
Climate activism is by no means homogeneous. We tend to be bound together in the eyes of the public, which means the actions of one affect all others. As numerous examples show, this has its benefits and drawbacks. However, as it stops being a fringe movement, it is important to differentiate, adapt to the current situation and find the best path forward. It might be that without Greta Thunberg’s media exposure, environmentalism would not have gotten such momentum. However, movement needs to be followed by legislative action and voluntary human behaviour, so that it stops being just a movement and becomes the new reality. That cannot be accomplished simply by jumping onto the top of a train.
Environmentalism is about accomplishing real change. Environmentalism is restoring tree cover through the work of nature NGOs. It is engaging communities to make their lives greener. Environmentalism is the improvement of the planet for the sake of natural resources, plants, animals and people. But these actions must be for the improvement of the environment.