Devil’s Advocate: Is Extinction Rebellion helpful for our society?

Yes – Jack Campbell

Yes – Jack Campbell

In our increasingly polarised world, there is one issue which can seemingly unite us all — or, at least, those of us with regard for scientific fact and the not-so-trivial matter of the continuation of our species: climate change. With just about everyone who is anyone backing the cause, climate activism is very much en vogue.

Last month, Greta Thunberg took this to the literal, making an appearance on the cover of British Vogue’s September issue, traditionally seen as the most important issue of the year. In politics, too, positive moves have been made. In early May, the UK Parliament became the first national government to declare a climate emergency. This was followed a month later by a commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, at an estimated cost of 1 to 2 percent of 2050’s GDP.

But for Extinction Rebellion, this promise is too little, too late. The group wants net carbon emissions cut to zero by 2025 — less than six years ‘time. Comparing Greta Thunberg— the mild-mannered, soft-spoken, placard-wielding teenager — with Extinction Rebellion, you begin to see why the movement is not so popular: not just amongst the general public, but amongst climate activists, too. Extinction Rebellion is crass and crude and many things beyond that. It has shown buttocks in the Commons, glued themselves to an array of buildings, and recently attempted to halt flights at Heathrow with drones. Civil disobedience is the name of the XR game, straight from the playbook of insurgents in Paris and Hong Kong, who have taken to the streets in the past months.

The question remains whether it will cross the bridge from currently non-violent protests to the kinds seen in the aforementioned movements. Mao wrote that a “revolution is not a dinner party,” and Extinction Rebellion wants nothing less than a revolution. Indeed, if your only exposure to the group was co-founder Roger Hallam, you could be excused for thinking them to be anti-capitalist, or even anarchist. His talk of “the elites” whose climate nonchalance will bring about “social collapse” is more doomsayer than realist, but it gets to the heart of the issue: society as we know it is at stake. Any movement towards the two degrees maximum temperature increase, set out in the 2015 Paris Agreement, will require each and every one of us to fundamentally change our lifestyle habits. And soon the question of whether the group is good for society, look to 2050: the time when the UK’s net carbon emissions should be zero. Should protests stop and life go on as normal — habits unchanged — I do not believe that target will be met. Carbon emissions have increased 4.3 per cent in the past two years alone.

The problem lies in incentives, personal and global. The West —where technology is developed and life is good — may be committed to cutting carbon emissions, but the story is different for developing economies. Emerging markets around the world are going through their own industrial revolutions, and they are prepared to pollute regardless of the impact. From an economic standpoint it makes sense for them, and developed nations like ours could not expect these countries to hamper their own economic development when the issue at hand is primarily our fault. The UK did, after all, create the industrial revolution.

China is a good example of this. It is the largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, and under the Paris Agreement is expected to reach peak CO2 emissions by 2030. That means that for the next ten years, whilst other countries begin cutting emissions, China has free rein to continue to pollute at ever-increasing levels.

So, on the assumption that the 2050 target will not be met, Extinction Rebellion isn’t only good for society: it is necessary. Its crass bravado is trivial when faced with the very real threat of the extinction of our species. Whether you agree with its admittedly questionable tactics or not, the message behind the madness speaks to an honourable cause we can all agree with. The clue really is in the name. The movement is rebelling against the extinction of our species. It is as simple as that. Extinction Rebellion is helpful to society from the simple perspective that if it weren’t to kick so hard up the backside of those in power, inaction on climate change would continue. Inaction is complicity in a matter so large, and right now each and every one of us who is not taking to the streets or shouting at the top of our lungs or doing something — anything— to sound the alarm is complicit.

Over a thousand Extinction Rebellion protestors have been arrested thus far — doctors, students, and everyone in between. Arrests make news and news makes people listen. In a world that is burning — where we are burning — Extinction Rebellion’s brashness is perhaps the best hope we have to shake ourselves awake from the climate catastrophe we are sleep-walking into.


No – Matt Leighton

Climate change is a very serious issue and requires a serious political approach. Extinction Rebellion is not that. While their goals of stopping polar bears drowning and literally preventing the end of the world are noble indeed, their approach, media profile, and platform show XR to be a joke of an organisation. Rather than helping the public understand and support the steps necessary to fight global warming, Extinction Rebellion alienates most of the public and misinforms the rest.

Let’s start with the tactics used by XR. Most successful lobbying groups, whether it be the Gandhi’s Satyagraha or the American Civil Rights Movement, aimed to win public support by engaging with the people of the nation in a productive manner. However, instead of campaigning in a calm, considered way, the intrepid members of Extinction Rebellion have decided to fly drones over Gatwick Airport, glue themselves to tube trains and lie down in the wine aisle of Waitrose. Surprise surprise, it turns out that stopping people from going on holiday, delaying them from getting to work and generally being annoying doesn’t inspire support. At worst, Extinction Rebellion could be tainting the entire cause of climate activism by associating action against global warming with increasingly infuriating protests.

Aside from the questionable methods of XR, it is undeniable that the organisation is an entirely middle-class-run group with only middle-class concerns. For example, one of their main tenets is the end of what they call excessive economic growth. This brilliantly illustrates the privileged nature of most XR members. Sure, when you’re eating avocado toast and drinking Kombucha during your gap year in Indonesia, you might think that economic growth is needless, but try telling that to the billions of people living in undeveloped countries all over the world. Economic growth means better living conditions, prospects for the future, and opportunity for so many people who are simply not well off enough that they can afford to spend time in prison protesting for the climate. I believe that it is fundamentally unfair to tell Brazil or India that their citizens are not allowed to attain the living standards which we in the UK enjoy because growth might be bad for the climate.

Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg are hell-bent on policies which are not only incredibly impractical but may even be totally impossible. For example, the current government emissions target is to reach net-zero by 2050, one of the most ambitious aims in world politics. This is estimated to cost over £1 trillion to achieve, and will involve such measures as banning all non-electric cars. Essentially, these are not conservative proposals, but instead incredibly radical, while achievable. XR on the other hand insist on net-zero emissions by 2025; how much this would cost, no-one knows. How it would be done? No-one knows, because it simply is not possible unless we decided tomorrow to tear down every building and return to nature.

However, the most egregious flaw with Extinction Rebellion is their hatred of any science and technology which does not fit their mantras. It is almost as if these people do not want real solutions. For example, on the Extinction Rebellion website, it explicitly states that carbon-capture technology does not, and can never, exist, and as such should not ever be pursued. They even denounce nuclear power as ‘unclean’, despite the fact that it emits almost no carbon dioxide. Most egregiously however, Greta Thunberg and XR are supporters of the ‘Green New Deal’, an American piece of legislation which calls for the ‘elimination of all farting cows’. Sure, livestock farming does contribute massively to the global carbon footprint, but the solution isn’t just to murder all cows and declare that Sunday roasts are now dangerous contraband. This would be akin to declaring that diesel cars pollute the air too much, and so must be cast into the sea and replaced with horses. We put a man on the moon, split the atom and invented the Jaffa Cake, and I therefore refuse to believe that we will be wiped out by flatulent cattle.

The answer to this issue, as is the answer to climate change in general, is technology. Indeed, the University of California recently discovered that by adding small amounts of seaweed to animal feed, methane emissions from cattle could be cut by up to 99 per cent. So shake your head at those who insist that we all become vegans and wear shirts made from hemp, because guilt-free meat is back on the menu. In essence, Extinction Rebellion activists are a bunch of middle-class indulgent wastrels with too much time on their hands and without the sense to actually research the topic they care so much about. The real solution to climate change will be found in a laboratory and produced in a factory. It certainly doesn’t involve glueing yourself to a train.

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