In Defence of Climate Rebels - from Edinburgh protests to Just Stop Oil
With climate protest becoming increasingly extreme and disruptive, it is easy to forget the role we play in ensuring the protestors aren’t demonised as they fight for all our futures, and instead holding the correct people accountable for the climate crisis. Finn Kelly tells us more:
Artwork by Zoë Brown (IG: @Zoe_r_art).
Political protest has the unique ability to expose the worst aspects of our world. Simultaneously providing some hope that change is possible. Following a succession of unpredictable and news-grabbing protests by Just Stop Oil in the past month an odd mix of feelings have been generated. On the one hand, disturbed by the extremity of their methods and the severity of their concerns, and on the other, moved by their courage and hope. The rebellion starting gun was pulled in the middle of October: two protestors threw soup on a painting by Van Goph in London. They call for the UK government to drastically respond to the climate and cost of living crisis. In the following weeks a series of similar acts have been undertaken, including a pie in the face of King Charles’ wax figure in Madame Tussauds, orange paint sprayed on buildings related to government or corporations such as Shell or Aston Martin, and several imitations of the now famous soup protest in art galleries throughout Europe.
The climate movement is no stranger to extreme and disruptive forms of dissent. Extinction Rebellion’s demonstrations that picked up in 2018-19 were often unpopular and divisive for their troublesome nature - perhaps most notably in blocking several public spaces in London including Waterloo Bridge. The protests of the last month have certainly generated a distinct tone of shock and indignation among the general public, political class and media. Among others, Home Secretary Suella Braverman has lashed out at “hideously selfish” activists - while pursuing new anti-protest laws, warned against by human rights groups, that offer up to six months in prison for protesters who lock themselves to buildings or infrastructure. On the other side of the Commons, Keir Starmer has emphatically vocalised his disapproval of Just Stop Oil blocking the M25. His words “get up, go home” have run sharply in the ears of anyone hoping for any real opposition against the government’s increasingly authoritarian attitude to protestors. To an extent you can understand why shock and even anger may arise - protests of this sort are inherently provocative and even infuriating for ordinary people. But why should this mean that they aren’t vitally important?
In an interview for Newnight, Phoebe Plummer (one of the activists involved in the initial Van Gogh protest), recognised the controversy of her action yet affirmed that her attitude to activism wasn’t that of a “popularity contest”. These words were echoed by another Just Stop Oil activist Emma Brown who spoke about the importance of the “radical flanking” effect in historical movements of protest - suggesting that though the more extreme wings of a movement may not be popular, they nonetheless contribute to shifting the centre ground of debate towards their views. With regards to the recent Just Stop Oil protests, she also commented that the attention economy of the 21st Century - which is defined by social media, rapid news cycles, and short attention spans - made the sensationalist and extreme nature of the protests necessary, to grab the eyes of the world with increasingly radical and outrageous demonstrations. The sharp end of this tactic is the anxiety we feel when confronted with the reality of the climate crisis. A reality made sharper every time the news is engulfed with another story about demonstrators. In his analysis, journalist Owen Jones referred back to the Extinction Rebellion protests of 2019, citing polls at the time suggesting that XR were deeply unpopular with a lot of the public, yet anxiety and concern felt by the public about climate issues soared to record levels after the protests. In the attention economy (that Emma Brown speaks of), it is easy to ignore the realities that face us - therefore it’s notable that Just Stop Oil’s decision to play along with the attention economy has enabled them to embed themselves in the public eye; which will serve to further expose the issues that concern them. Therefore the hope is that a radical flank may shift the centre ground of political debate to encourage more engagement with climate issues, and the public voting accordingly with higher levels of concern for the climate. With this analysis in mind, we may recognise an important shift in perspective on protest in general and specifically related to the climate: that now, more than ever, the ends justify the means.
That said, there is a reason that the phrase ‘climate justice’ has become so important. A green transition must be just, taking into account working people, the global South, and those with no responsibility for the crisis. With this in mind, it is apparent that the hardest Just Stop Oil protest to support is blocking the M25 - far from simply grabbing news headlines, this act seems to only hinder the lives of ordinary people. However, the appropriate response to criticism of this demonstration is two-fold: firstly, as ‘annoying’ as an act of protest may be it still holds an important discursive function - as per the radical flanking effect and the exposure of issues. Secondly, we mustn’t make the mistake of laying the blame at the wrong door: just as one shouldn’t blame trade unions for train delays, so too we shouldn’t hold young activists accountable for the future of the planet. Instead, just as we should hold railway bosses to account, we should call for the government to act in response to the protester’s demands, which are inarguably reasonable and important. We all share the responsibility for shifting the conversation in this manner - to sway the centre of debate away from the actions of protestors and onto the morals of the governments and corporations responsible for the crisis.
On Saturday the 12th of November a global day of action was organised by Egyptian and African civil society groups, in response to the COP27 summit taking place in Cairo. Visitors to Edinburgh staying in one of the many upmarket hotels around St Andrew Square may have been surprised to see an impressive congregation of protestors gathered. The defining tone as the protest began was one of mourning and the mood of the gathering was unmistakably serious. Solemn faces both young and old lined the square. A moving and surreal performance took place, with black clad performers symbolically laying themselves as the victims of climate change - lost species, lost futures, lost lives - as a row of performers dressed in ethereal and striking red costumes marched with fists held high through the graves. Meanwhile, a slow and solitary drum beat echoed, evoking a heartbeat or a death toll, to be accompanied eventually by bagpipes and singing from the crowd - all gave the strong impression of a funeral. After, as the march towards Holyrood was underway. The drums and chants that might be expected of a protest march were in full swing, but it is striking that the demonstration began with such a sense of loss and sadness. No other way would be appropriate. This is the tragedy of the climate movement in 2022 - the past year has seen such loss, that protests have grown to take a tone of mourning. The same vein of tragedy that ran through the St Andrew Square demonstration runs through the Just Stop Oil protests. The sense that we’ve already lost so much and future efforts are about mitigation rather than prevention is increasingly present. But this is no reason to choose despair over optimism.
As Sam Knights argues in an article for Novara Media, the climate movement possesses a strong radical flank with the likes of Just Stop Oil and Extinction Rebellion, but still lacks a central mainstream body. For the radical flank to shift the centre ground of climate debate, the centre of the climate movement also needs to be represented. This is where events like the protest seen in Edinburgh on Saturday the 12th of November become so important - whether it is turning up to a demonstration, voting in accordance with climate issues or generally organising and expressing ourselves, those who care about the climate need to participate in politics to fill the gap between the radical flank - those protesting - and the status quo, which neglects environmental issues. If the increasingly extreme methods of protest seem to be having little effect, it is because mainstream political options in the UK fail to accommodate climate issues - we have a responsibility to make sure those efforts aren’t wasted.