It is surely bad luck that Extinction Rebellion’s week of protests leading up to the August bank holiday was overtaken by the worst military defeat of a global empire at the hands of tribesmen since the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879. With the media focused on the cack-handed American withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the impotence of the British government, there was almost no coverage of the XR events. Nor, given that this was a prime holiday week and that many are still on furlough or working from home, were the XR protests as inconvenient as usual – it is a long time since XR made the headlines as angry workers dragged protestors off the roof of an electric train. But XR mission drift remains as problematic today.
Not making the news headlines might, in fact, prove to be a stroke of good fortune for a movement which generates a huge amount of noise but which has very little to say. This is because a large part of its focus is on a battle which was won years ago. With the exception of the USA – and even there the debate is being won – the world long ago accepted the climate science. The overwhelming majority of us are concerned that human activity is causing climate change and we are looking for realistic solutions to the problem. Here though, XR is devoid of answers. This is because the movement is primarily an emotional response to a gathering crisis. It is, if you will, a cry for help.
At this point, I can’t be the only one who has noticed that there is something of Southpark’s famous “underpants gnome” episode to XR’s campaigning:
Without a viable Phase 2, XR – whether deliberately or accidentally – plays into a climate of fear which is embraced by what has been labelled “crisis capitalism.” This is often summarised as “problem-response-solution,” as a means of selling a pseudo-solution which generates corporate profits. In this instance the problem is that the greenhouse gases generated since 1750 have bought about a degree off warming far greater and faster than would have occurred via natural processes. That is, indeed, scary – natural disasters like floods, hurricanes, wildfires and droughts are likely to become more frequent and more damaging. But fear is the very last thing we need if we are to come up with a workable solution because fear clouds everyone’s judgement. And it is into this judgement vacuum that corporate charlatans have perpetuated the myth that we can continue to operate a globalised industrial economy if only we switch to renewable electricity generation and then electrify all of the things which currently run on fossil fuels.
It is worth noting at this point that despite our best efforts – and billions of dollars of profits to the tax-dodging corporations, including the big oil companies themselves – non-hydroelectric renewables account for less than five percent of the world’s primary energy:
It also bears repeating that the reason countries like the UK and Germany appear to have reduced their carbon emissions is that they have outsourced so much of their manufacturing – including, ironically, the manufacture of wind turbines and solar panels – to regions of the world that have cheaper labour, poorer working conditions and little in the way of environmental protection regulations. Out of sight, out of mind, as they say.
Phase 2 is real enough, however. And it is based upon the unrealistic belief that, having only partially succeeded in weaning the electricity grid off coal, the UK is ready to lead the way in the far harder task of electrifying transport, home heating and cooking. This though, is the forward planning of the madhouse. It is the equivalent of believing that if you jump out of a plane without a parachute, you will have no choice but to learn to fly (and ignoring the more likely outcome). The government and its advisors have absolutely no idea how they are going to reach their net zero by 2050 target, but are determined to remove the things that currently make transport and home heating work anyway. In the meantime, they are setting up prizes for anyone who can develop the yet-to-be-invented technologies that might get us there:
“Great Britain’s energy regulator has launched a £450m fund aimed at innovative projects that will help the country meet its net zero climate targets.
“Ofgem will make the money available to energy network companies that are trying to ensure homes and business are going green…
“Funding will be considered for projects that cover heating and transport, data and digitalisation, and ‘whole system integration’, which refers to the entire journey of electricity from plant to plug.”
Worse even than the fact that most of the technology needed to reach net zero has yet to put in an appearance, is the fact that what few technologies do exist – such as electric cars and heat pumps – are eye-wateringly expensive. So much so that even a former Tory minister has questioned the affordability of the proposed plan:
“If we are serious about achieving net zero by 2050, then we will have to pursue policies that will involve costs for both taxpayers and consumers. It is not surprising that politicians do not want to confront the public with the consequences of pursuing bold targets – much better to maintain support by highlighting the opportunities and downplaying the difficulties.
“It is not, however, an approach that will survive contact with reality. Either governments will avoid the hard choices, in which case we are simply not going to meet the net zero target, or an unsuspecting public will revolt when confronted with the costs. The current political consensus won’t hold if it is based on concealment.”
In this, the XR movement appear to be much closer to the government and the corporations than to the wider public who they claim to be appealing to. As Tom Slater at Spiked puts it:
“Time and again in recent days Extinction Rebellion activists have been asked if their actions risk alienating people who they need to win over. (Polls from the last time around suggest more than half of Brits disapprove of XR’s tactics.) But this fundamentally misunderstands what this group is all about. It doesn’t really care what ordinary people think. This is essentially just the cultural elite trying to shame the political elite into enforcing eco-austerity faster than the current timetable.”
Supporters of XR will no doubt object that they are not in favour of “eco-austerity,” and would prefer the proposed energy transition to be funded by a levy on the fossil fuel companies; or at least via progressive taxation. But this is to mistake “ought versus is.” The fact of the matter is that we have a Tory government with an unassailable 80 seat majority whose instinctual reflex is to attack the poor at every opportunity. It is a government that had to be shamed into providing free school meals for a few weeks in the middle of a pandemic. It is a government ploughing ahead with a £20 cut to benefits despite rising prices and in the face of evidence that the cut will force thousands of families to have to choose between food and heat this winter. Meanwhile, what passes for an opposition is engaged in a degree of self-harming behaviour that would be sufficient to qualify as severe mental illness in an individual. In short, the price of the proposed energy transition is going onto household and business electricity bills irrespective of whether they are affordable.
Meanwhile, the only serious responses to climate change – such as a massive cut of the human population via extreme birth control, a massive collapse in economic activity and a huge cut to western living standards – dare not even be discussed. Instead, we are offered one final imperialist blow-out as the developed states consume the last of Planet Earth’s mineral and energy resources to provide the global corporations with one last gasp of greenwashed profitability before industrial civilisation collapses into ashes.
There was a time when environmental movements like XR would have been on the streets fighting against such a plan. Sadly, these days they are on the streets urging the corporations and the government to speed up its implementation. And given that, they are indeed fortunate that the Taliban victory in Afghanistan prevented a full week of scrutiny.
As you made it to the end…
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