The planned choking of traffic in central London on Monday by climate activists of Extinction Rebellion falls somewhere between street theatre and direct action. If it is successful it will be costly for the demonstrators, some of whom plan to be arrested, burdensome for bus passengers who can’t get to work, and vexing for car drivers who (unlike those in emergency vehicles) will be held up. And yet, should it fail, the long-term costs of climate change will be immense for almost everybody now alive and for all our descendents, too.
In the short term, the rage of the frustrated motorist remains one of the most powerful political forces in countries like ours. The gilets jaunes movement in France started off in part as a protest against price rises on petrol; the Blair government sustained its first big defeat at the hands of lorry drivers in the fuel protests of 2000, which destroyed a sensible and ecologically necessary plan to raise fuel taxes steadily over time to discourage the use of fossil fuels.
Any movement towards ecological sanity will have to confront this anger. The drivers’ blockades were effective direct action in support of the destruction of the planet. The challenge today is to find means of direct action that work towards its preservation while winning the same kind of social acceptance and political force.
The idea that we can change the whole basis of our planetary economy without pain and inconvenience for the global middle classes is simply false. The enormous political challenge is to ensure that the pain of adjustment towards a carbon-neutral economy is fairly distributed. At the moment the pain is concentrated on those least able to bear it. This is true between countries, in as much as it is sub-Saharan Africa where the destabilising effects of climate change are most visible and painful. It is also true within the rich countries which consume more than they sustainably can. In the west it is the poor who will be hit worst by rising prices for food and fuel. Yet a future of less consumption and less convenience is inevitable. We can choose to some extent how and when to face it, but it cannot be indefinitely postponed.
The purpose of climate activism is to make that choice consciously and deliberately, with planning and forethought, rather than have it forced upon us in a series of improvisations between catastrophes. The activists of Extinction Rebellion use the metaphor of war, and this is not entirely exaggerated. Although one of the purposes of groups like Extinction Rebellion is to avert wars over resources, this may – paradoxically – require the kind of social and political mobilisation only otherwise seen in wartime. The sense of a common purpose, and of suffering borne in common, which has so often and so fraudulently been invoked in the rhetoric of the political right since the financial crisis must now be appropriated and given real meaning.
Yet it is not enough for climate change to remain solely a cause of the left. This is a cause that must ultimately transcend left-right distinctions. To achieve such an escape from traditional politics will not be easy. It will be fiercely resisted, because there are many powerful forces that benefit, in the short term, from smugness and inaction. But the movement needs to isolate and expose them.
The protests are intended as the start of a global movement, as they must be. By themselves, they will accomplish little. Yet the longest journey begins with the first step – even if this is the step taken by a driver who climbs out of their gridlocked car and tries to find some other way of continuing their journey.