It is no new thing to suggest that the Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests of recent weeks have missed the mark. With many activists doing everything to be arrested, some observers have taken a dim view of the movement as a whole. Misguided action has certainly hardened opinion towards the group, but I believe that the main reason some of these protests have misfired is a failure from the movement to convey the climate crisis as intrinsically linked to the everyday issues that people experience.
In fact, there seems to be a conscientious effort from the group to portray the current emergency situation we are facing as a sort of looming but relatively distant armageddon. The narrative from XR in the UK is one of a crisis that will affect our grandchildren, is far more important than the quotidian, and is a cause for utter desperation.
For XR, the threat of the climate crisis ought to surpass the worries of the here and now.
And yet in adopting this narrative, XR seem to have forgotten two key things. For one, thoughts of the here and now are not escapable for the vast majority of people. And secondly, for people in the global south, and the world’s poor more generally, the climate crisis is the here and now.
An insightful article by Athian Akec for The Guardian on the lack of diversity in XR details the way that climate change already affects millions of people in Africa. Akec notes that 12 million people across Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia are facing severe hunger because of low rainfall. A further 780,000 are estimated to die across the continent each year as a result of air pollution. The message of Extinction Rebellion is that we can save our grandchildren by taking radical action now. But whose grandchildren will be saved? The children and grandchildren of the global south are already in peril.
This is not to take a defeatist attitude, but to observe that warnings of a future crisis, and the ways in which those warnings are delivered, are tailored (perhaps unintentionally) to appeal to a western, middle class audience. For even in western countries, air pollution disproportionately affects the poorest citizens. In London, 85% of the schools most affected by air pollution have children attending from deprived neighbourhoods. And yet by taking the focus away from immediate concerns, Extinction Rebellion appear to bypass the present crises that the most marginalised people in this country face. And in doing so, they bypass those people themselves.
The stunt of targeting the early morning tube and DLR that some XR activists undertook last week has come under much scrutiny. Disrupting some of the most environmentally-friendly forms of public transport has been seen as an odd move for an environmental pressure group, not least by some members of XR themselves. But the strangeness of targeting the tube (apparently an attempt to show that ordinary inconveniences ‘pale into insignificance’ when compared with the scale of the climate crisis) is turned into something unpleasant when you consider the people who were affected by that disruption.
The tube protests took place shortly after 7am, located at stations in areas with high working class populations, which happen to also be close to the City. At 7am, the people making their way to work were more likely to be individuals working in service industries, as opposed to white-collar professionals. They were thus also more likely to be on zero-hours contracts, more likely to face job insecurity, and more likely to be renters. In short, the ordinary people whom those protests affected probably had the most to lose from that disruption. Extinction Rebellion demonstrated a blindness towards those whom their action would most affect. They also failed to realise that being an hour late for work can cost certain individuals pay, future work and much more, and this tellingly demonstrates the demographics from which Extinction Rebellion are drawn, and the demographics to which they struggle to relate.
An environmental activist movement must not simply preach to the converted. It cannot become an identity-driven and euro-centric force; it has to be inclusive, as this is truly an issue of global proportion. And as with so many of the toughest-hitting issues in this world, it is the poor and marginalised who are affected most. Their voices need to be a part of this movement, and that can only happen when the current leaders of groups like Extinction Rebellion stop dismissing the quotidian in favour of this one monumental crisis.
After all, everything is linked. 2.3 billion of the world’s poor do not have access to proper sanitation, and the poor in countries like India, where this problem is particularly acute, will bear the burden of climate change. Yet poor sanitation itself aggravates the rate of climate change. If sewerage systems collapse as a result of extreme weather events, countries with low access to proper sanitation will see the rapid spread of disease and antibiotic resistance. An issue that is often solely associated with poverty is an issue that in fact affects all of us, and will hit everyone harder as changes in our climate occur. As the effects of poverty are exacerbated by climate change, so they affect the rate and impact of that change on the world.
And other pressing issues are also tied to that of climate change. The inequalities that women face across the world are widened by the effects of global warming. Across many communities, women are primarily responsible for collecting water and sourcing fuel for cooking – these tasks are made harder by climate change. Add to that the fact that 70% of the world’s poor are women and it becomes clear that climate crises hit women the hardest. And yet women tend to be the leaders of the fight to find solutions to climate change; empowering all women across the world may result in an injection of new life into environmental activist movements.
And so it seems that Extinction Rebellion must change, and acknowledge that the here and now is just as pressing as the future. Dismissing everyday problems is only going to make environmental movements alienating to the vast majority of people. And that must not happen, as the fight to reverse the effects of climate change is only strong through worldwide diversity, and needs a polyphony of voices and targets to make the climate movement truly stand for social good.