As if fuel-starved motorists didn’t have enough to contend with, environmental protesters have decided that flinging themselves onto the carriageways of Britain’s major motorways is the next frontier in the fight against climate change.
On 4 October, a twelfth day of protest disrupted some of Britain’s busiest roads. Activists from the group Insulate Britain targeted the Blackwall Tunnel, Arnos Grove, Wandsworth Bridge and Hanger Lane in London. Insulate Britain, the group staging the protests, is demanding the government perform a retrofit of all UK homes to make them more energy-efficient.
Direct action can be an effective means of bringing attention to a cause. It is disruptive which is why it works; it annoys people and we like to talk about things we are annoyed about. Insulate Britain have certainly annoyed us. Tune into Talkradio and you won’t have to wait long to hear angry listeners calling up to deliver angry tirades against eco-hippies.
But chances are you wouldn’t know who Insulate Britain were if they hadn’t caused at least some level of inconvenience. An offshoot of the environmental direct action group Extinction Rebellion (XR), the group has learned how to get on the public’s radar from the attention-grabbing stunts of XR. According to YouGov, more people have heard of XR (74 per cent) than have heard of ActionAid (61 per cent), the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (65 per cent) and the Labour pressure group Momentum (39 per cent). As the US anthropologist Margaret Mead reportedly once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, organised citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
But how much disruption is too much? And is any level of inconvenience justified when the cause – in this case averting climate catastrophe – is an urgent, existential one?
Recent protests by Insulate Britain on the M25 reportedly saw a woman left “partially paralysed from a stroke” after being delayed in traffic for six hours. Following this week’s demonstrations, there were reports of ambulances being held up and harrowing video footage emerged of an angry female driver confronting demonstrators. The woman was travelling through the Blackwall Tunnel to visit her 81-year-old mother, who was sick and had been rushed to hospital earlier that day.
In their casual disregard for the consequences of their actions, Insulate Britain recall the New Statesman contributor John Gray’s description of revolutionary movements as “a continuation of religion by other means”. An apocalyptic vision is marshalled by an enlightened vanguard, in this case “climate catastrophe”; actions which harm individuals are justified in the name of “humanity”; the ends justify the means.
In response to viral footage of the woman begging Insulate Britain campaigners to let her pass through their roadblock, a co-founder of XR Roger Hallam said he would refuse to move out of the way even if an ambulance were carrying a dying patient. Hallam believes that man-made climate change is “the biggest crime in human history”.
If you adopt the same priestly arrogance, you can just about see Hallam’s cold utilitarian logic: how much is an individual life really worth when the stakes are so high?
Nor does such self-righteous eschatology concern itself with popularity. In a supportive article for the Conversation, two academics wrote that Insulate Britain is willing to “take the hit” in order to “get home insulation in the news and up the government’s agenda”.
As environmental campaigners, Insulate Britain certainly has a strong case. Britain has some of the least energy-efficient houses in Europe. Around 15 percent of the UK’s carbon emissions come from homes, a contribution larger than the country’s entire agricultural sector (10 percent). Moreover, it is prohibitively expensive (around £20,000) for an individual to make their home energy efficient.
Nor can there be any doubt the world faces a serious environmental crisis. It is a crisis which calls for urgent government action. Yet despite the understandable cynicism among environmental campaigners toward Boris Johnson, there are some hopeful signs. To its credit, the government is making targeted promises on the environment: it will this week announce that all of Britain’s energy will come from renewable sources by the year 2035. The government is acting following sustained pressure by campaigners – pressure that has been exerted through democratic channels.
Mead’s much-cited quote was correct in the fundamentals: historically, direct action has often been a precursor to lasting change. But the second half of Mead’s proclamation is too sweeping and sums up much that is wrong with the activist mindset. Direct action isn’t the only thing that brings about meaningful change; the deliberative process of liberal democracy can too, albeit without the spectacular adrenaline rush that accompanies gluing yourself to things. Often the two work in tandem: the concerns highlighted by protesters gradually percolate into wider public consciousness, leading politicians to take action.
Slow-going democratic change can be understandably frustrating for those demanding a rupture with the status quo. Wouldn’t it be easier to railroad what Hallam refers to as “the collective selfishness of people in the north” for the sake of humanity?
Yet in a liberal and democratic system the individual has rights. The right to get to hospital unimpeded should probably feature among them. I’m not sure those stranded on the M25 willingly signed up to “take the hit” for the wider environmental cause. If people are to perish on the tarmac for the sake of the world’s future unborn children, shouldn’t we ought to ask them first? The biggest sacrifices in the fight against climate change shouldn’t be outsourced to ordinary people caught in the crosshairs (and speaking of setting a personal example, the leader of Insulate Britain reportedly doesn’t even have insulation in his own home).
There is a reason that liberal democracies eschew the notorious mantra that you “can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”. A casual disregard for the rights of the individual rarely leads to anything good, no matter how lofty the proclamations of a self-righteous activist vanguard.
Do you love humanity in the abstract yet have little time for the day-to-day concerns of individual human beings? As one woman yelled at the protesters earlier this week: “How can you be so selfish?”
[See also: The power trap: Why the energy crisis is a crisis of politics]