The issue of climate change activism and the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement has caused me a good deal of intellectual and emotional soul-searching. A journey that began last year with a large helping of scepticism on my part took me last Friday to a cell in Sutton Police Station, where I whiled away several hours. I’m not going to tell that story here, but my enforced idleness at least gave me the opportunity to reflect on the various criticisms of XR that have been doing the rounds of the media, formal and social, during its actions over the last couple of weeks and why I’ve now come to find these criticisms unconvincing.

So below I bring you a sceptic’s guide to XR scepticism, in a two-part post that’ll be continued next time. In this first one I focus on issues that strike me as requiring a genuine, substantive response and/or that I wrestled with myself in embracing the movement. In the next one, I discuss objections that seem more like flummery to me (“XR is too white and middle-class”, “XR is a millenarian death cult”, “technical innovation will save us” etc.) but nevertheless tell us interesting things about our times.

I’ve chased down a few references and datasets to inform this post after regaining my freedom and internet connectivity (same thing, right?), but I’m dashing this out kind of free-form while I can still remember my thoughts without explicitly linking to many sources for these criticisms. They’re not hard to find online for anyone who cares to look.

Here we go, then – XR defended, Part I, in relation to four common objections.

1. With their nylon tents, smartphones, coach rides to London and so forth, XR activists demonstrably participate in the fossil fuel economy and are therefore hypocritical.

This is one I wrestled with personally longer than I should have. But it would only be true if the point of our demonstrations was to showcase our lifestyles as exemplary beacons for others to follow. What we’re actually saying is that climate change poses a massive collective problem to which we as individuals certainly contribute, but that can only be satisfactorily addressed right now if our most powerful collective institutions at present – namely our governments – treat climate change with appropriate urgency and radicalism.

Maybe it helps to invoke the language of addiction. If an alcoholic tells you they desperately want to quit drinking because of its damaging consequences, and then you see them knocking back the vino, you don’t accuse them of hypocrisy. The analogous role of government presently is to say “alcoholism is a very serious problem and we’re bringing through some truly radical policies to tackle it. Possibly next year. Or the one after. In the meantime, would you care for a glass of wine?” We need to get ourselves off fossil fuels – and we need governments to make it easier for us, not harder.

I’m not convinced that governments are capable of doing so. But I think it’s worth at least spending a few days of the year raising one’s voice alongside others to remind them that they really should.

I wonder if the argument about hypocrisy pulls so strongly because humans have a finely-tuned urge to push back against even the most minutely articulated suggestion of social superiority, which is no doubt evolutionarily functional in face-to-face settings (though regrettably not functional enough to prevent the emergence of monarchies, empires and capitalist world systems). It too easily leads us astray in our modern, vast, mediated societies when we read structural critique as mere personal self-aggrandizement. But if climate change activists need to get over any personal self-satisfaction – and I think XR does a good job in emphasizing the importance of this – then so do their critics. Would you rather be looking at the wreckage of a dying civilization and feeling good about yourself for at least not putting on airs and graces, or might you heed the warning of people who, like you, are contributing to the problem but are at least trying to sound a warning bell and chart another course?

And if you’re still not convinced, maybe this meme might help.

2. The protestors’ demands are cruel and absurd: they’d result in old people dying/poor countries unable to develop/us all living in the stone age.

The XR demand relevant to this is for the government to act now to reduce Britain’s emissions to net zero by 2025. It’s quite a stretch to get from there to the kind of claims in the sentence above, but I’ll try to unpack this a little.

If the government went for net zero by simply mothballing all fossil fuel infrastructure immediately, ceasing to airfreight medicines and so on then yes more old people would probably die. But instead it could aim towards net zero while attempting to mitigate social harm, especially to the most vulnerable people. If it did that, the people who’d experience the largest decline in their fortunes wouldn’t be vulnerable old people but fossil fuel companies and other corporate players. And, well, y’know, most of those planes in the sky aren’t up there carrying medicines… I can’t help feeling that the rush within the right-wing media to identify vulnerable groups who’d suffer from decarbonization is something of a smokescreen to deflect attention from the non-vulnerable groups who’d suffer from it more.

When it comes to poor countries being able to develop, I’d agree that it would be good for the poorest ones to be able to do so – even at the cost of higher emissions. For example, compare Burundi (GDP per capita: US$245; CO2 emissions per capita: 0.04 tonnes) with the UK ($41,125; 6.5 tonnes). However you distribute that average $245 around in Burundi, most people are going to be really poor, so the case for increasing it is strong. But here’s the thing: ‘development’ accrues mostly to the people or the countries who can gain the largest returns on investment, and this in turn depends on who has the most money to invest in the first place, as I showed in more detail here. Meanwhile, there’s a net financial drain from the poor countries to the rich countries. If rich countries like the UK junked their fossil fuel infrastructure and contracted their economies, it would increase the welfare of poorer countries while decreasing global emissions.

There’s also another facet to the issue of ‘development’, but I’ll come on to that under my next heading.

Finally on this point, would decarbonization and economic contraction revert us to the stone age, or at least to premodern living standards? To me, continuing on the present ‘business as usual’ pathway that could take us close to 5oC of warming by 2100 seems more likely to result in a future stone age than degrowth and decarbonization. But, as voluminously argued on this site over the years, a move towards more egalitarian, low energy, labour-intensive, local agrarian economies is more likely to increase welfare and living standards globally than decrease it.

3. Britain is a world leader in decarbonization with a tiny contribution to global emissions. Why aren’t the protestors targeting China or India instead?

It could perhaps be plausibly argued that Britain is a world leader in decarbonization, but what this mostly goes to show is how crap world leadership on decarbonization has been. In 1960, global CO2 emissions averaged 3.1 tonnes per capita, while by 2014 they’d reached 5.0 tonnes (the absolute increase, of course, has been much higher). The corresponding figures for Britain are 11.15 and 6.5 – a good improvement, but 6.5 tonnes per capita is still well above the global average and not good enough. Indeed, on current performance Britain is set to miss the carbon budgets that its own government has set itself for the mid-2020s and beyond. So on the basis of those figures alone, I’d argue there are plenty of reasons for us in Britain to protest to our government about inaction over climate change.

One reason that Britain’s emissions have declined quite impressively is that we no longer have a large, energy-hungry heavy industry and manufacturing sector, a baton that’s now been passed to other countries – China in particular. So the Chinese figure of 7.5 tonnes of CO2 per capita (still way below the US figure of 16.5 tonnes) needs to be interpreted in that light – a good proportion of China’s emissions arise in service of imports demanded from wealthy countries like Britain (India, by the way, emits 1.7 tonnes per capita, and is also a net exporter).

How big a proportion? According to this analysis CO2 emissions embodied in trade constitute -16% of Chinese emissions and +37% of UK emissions – so if we correct the figures I gave above accordingly (is that methodologically sound? I think so…) the Chinese emissions turn out at 6.3 tonnes per capita and the UK ones at 8.9 tonnes – another reason, I’d argue, for us in Britain not to get too uppity about Chinese emissions. If you throw in a proportion of the emissions embodied in all the local infrastructure to deliver those exports (roads, factories, ports etc.) then those figures would look even worse.

But whether the Chinese figures turn out higher than Britain’s or not, there’s a wider point to be made. If the poor countries of the world really ‘develop’ and attain something like the levels of wealth currently enjoyed by a country like Britain (though frankly this is fanciful within the present structuring of the global economy), then they’re probably going to have to do it along the lines that China did – with relatively cheap, low tech and dirty industrial infrastructures (concrete, coal etc.) So currently, the only path to ‘development’ on offer through the mainstream economy is one that leads to earth systems breakdown. We need to construe alternative futures – and as I’ve argued on this site and in my forthcoming book, the most plausible one I can see is a small farm future of local agrarian autonomies that nourish their ecological base.

Another dimension to the issue arises from the fact that carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels tend to accumulate long-term in the atmosphere, acting as a growing stock that forces temperatures ever upwards. Therefore, any carbon dioxide that we choose not to emit, in however small an amount, helps towards mitigating climate change. This also means that although many different things can happen to a given CO2 molecule, most of the ones emitted from fossil fuel combustion in humanity’s recent industrial past are effectively still up there, doing their climate forcing work.

On that front, this dataset again provides interesting information on historic, cumulative CO2 emissions. As recently as 1920, Britain was responsible for a quarter of all global cumulative emissions. That figure has now sunk to 4.9% – though that’s still quite a bit higher than its current annual contribution of 1.1%. Only four countries have higher cumulative emissions – the USA (way out in front at 25%), China (13%), Russia (6%) and Germany (6%). If you adjust the figures for each of these five countries by current population size then Britain comes second only to the USA, and not by much. Given that there’s a fixed budget of only about 14 years-worth of current global annual emissions to retain a 50-50 chance of staying within 1.5oC of global warming, one interpretation of these figures is that Britain has already had more than its fair share of fun with CO2, and now it’s time to step back gracefully – ideally by reaching net zero emissions in 2025 as XR demands – and cede space to countries like Burundi.

You’ll note that quite a lot of the figures I’ve used above are on a per capita basis. That seems fair to me. Each person has to take some responsibility for their own local emissions, rather than pinning the blame generically on other countries – and, as I’ve shown above, British emissions are pretty bad and worse than they first appear from current production-based emission figures when various corrections are introduced. Still, it’s true that whatever Britain does about its emissions, the consequences will be dwarfed by what China or India do because they’re much bigger countries.

But there are, finally, three lines of argument that suggest to me this has little bearing on the case for UK citizens to direct climate activism at the UK government.

First, since – as I indicated above – emissions are a cumulative stock, not a transient flow, then any CO2 that we’re able to avoid emitting has positive consequences for climate change mitigation. It really doesn’t matter that Britain is a small, insignificant country in terms of current global emissions – whatever we can abate is a help (incidentally, it’s funny how the sort of commentators who say that Britain is a small, insignificant country when it comes to climate change say exactly the opposite when it comes to Brexit…)

Second, since Britain was one of the first industrial/emitting powers, has one of the world’s largest economies and has emissions per capita that are still 30% higher than the global average, it’s hardly likely that bigger, poorer, ‘developing’ countries will commit seriously to climate change mitigation if we simply point the finger at them and don’t take radical steps to reduce our own emissions. Therefore we need to pressurize our government to do more.

Third and last, though it began in Britain, XR is an international movement, with people lobbying their governments in many countries. Usually, it’s easier for citizens to influence their own government than foreign governments, who have no formal or de facto accountability to them. A hundred British protestors blockading Waterloo Bridge is disproportionately more influential than a hundred British protestors blockading the Chinese Embassy – or Tiananmen Square for that matter. And to those enthusiasts for capitalism and freedom who say XR activists should be lobbying against climate change in Tiananmen Square, I say you should be lobbying for freedom there, so let’s go together – but you first.

4. How does stopping ordinary Londoners going about their business and the police from focusing on real crime help advance the cause of climate change mitigation?

This is a favourite of angry, right-wing radio talk show hosts and – though I must confess it’s one that I’ve struggled with too – ultimately I think they answer their own question. It does so in some measure by getting self-important blowhards in the media to talk about climate change and thus to raise it in public consciousness in ways that simply wouldn’t happen with legal demonstrations that would get precisely zero media coverage in comparison with Brexit, the royal family or the football results.

Most members of the public I encountered in the course of the protests were either enthusiastically or cautiously supportive of XR, and only a few abusively opposed – a number of the latter looking quite well to do, rather than ‘ordinary’. As I stood lined up against a wall with my fellow arrestees behind a phalanx of police officers, one kind passerby stopped and thanked each one of us personally for what we were doing. Almost every activist I’ve spoken with has similar stories about the high levels of public support they’ve met, sometimes from unlikely quarters like arresting police officers or city bankers. I think there’s more support for XR than a casual reading of the daily press might suggest.

As to the use of police resources, it’s up to the police and the government to decide what they want to devote their resources to. As the climate and other crises deepen, governments are going to have to spend an increasing proportion of their resources on the ‘intermediate economy’ that furnishes the final products – spending more of their income just on figuratively keeping the roads open. On that score, maybe they should thank XR for giving them a taste of things to come and letting them get some practice in.

In the midst of the latest rounds of protests, the Metropolitan Police issued a Section 14 order that enabled them to arrest any group of three or more identifiable XR activists assembling anywhere in London. Regardless of the underlying issue that’s being protested, I think a lot of people found the wider political implications of that troubling, just as a lot of people found the wider political implications of the government closing down parliament in order to get its way over Brexit troubling. It seems likely to me that the way many of the political, economic and ecological crises of our age will manifest is in increasingly divisive and authoritarian forms of governance – of which these perhaps are early signs. I think this needs resisting, and I think XR is helping to shape that resistance.


Note: Except where otherwise stated, all data reported above is derived from the World Bank’s World Development Indicator dataset, 2014 data (the latest year for which it provides emissions data).


Teaser photo credit: By Henning Schlottmann (User:H-stt) – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0