• Holly Jo

Extinction Rebellion and Cultural Ignorance

This morning in an attempt to spur people into climate action, protestors coordinated by the Extinction Rebellion (XR) blockaded parts of the London Underground. The consequences that ensued from this protest were catastrophic; with angry commuters facing delays and the prospect of losing a day’s wages, they took matters into their own hands by dragging activists from train rooves and attacking them. “I have to get to work too – I have to feed my kids,” one commuter shouted at protestors blockading Canning Town station. This all comes amidst the XR’s ongoing occupation of London over the past two weeks, in which multiple disruptions have already been staged, including bringing the Westminster area to a standstill last Monday  and blocking employees at the BBC from entering the building on Friday. Such disruptions also had a significant knock-on effect for the emergency services, as XR ‘admitted that their climate protest could disrupt emergency care at hospitals’.


It's true that people on a low income are disproportionately affected by climate change, but they are also the group who suffer most from disruptive protests such as these. Trust forLondonranked Newham, the area in which Canning lies, as 31st in terms of poverty and 32nd in terms of low pay out of 32 boroughs investigated in 2017, with the results signalling that Newham constituted one of the ‘worst 4 boroughs’ in these instances. Blocking the town’s train station then would seemingly have no effect other than to prevent people already on a low-income from getting into work. One must question why XR chose to protest in this location rather than one of the more expensive London boroughs, such as Kensington and Chelsea, Lambeth, or Southwark, but then again we might also ask why they even targeted public transport in the first place, as it’s something climate activists should surely be encouraging more of us to use rather than putting us off. Thus, by targeting both low-income individuals and commuters, XR have only managed to alienate a community they might otherwise have been able to persuade.


Today’s protests and the events that ensued are all part of the wider problem of cultural dissonance surrounding the XR and the environmentalist movement as a whole, something that American activist, Van Jones, describes as “the unbearable whiteness of green”. Members of Extinction Rebellion are disproportionately drawn from the more privileged middle and upper classes, who can afford to take time off work or school in order to partake in climate marches and protests, and thus have become the predominant face of environmentalism. Climate action movements have also been accused of ignoring the environmental toll taken on low-income communities, indigenous peoples, and people-of-colour, all of whom are at an increased risk of climate change’s effects.


Even some things that we consider in the Global North to be good for our carbon footprint actually have disastrous consequences for such communities. For example, Tesla, widely considered to be the future of sustainable transport, sources lithium (the main ingredient in their rechargeable batteries) from Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile, all of which house the ‘richest lithium deposits in the world’ in their lake beds – the problem here lies in the fact that entire lakes have to be evaporated in order to access the chemical, lakes which indigenous communities have relied on for generations to provide water. People who purchase plastic bottles are also often condemned for contributing to pollution, but for those who do not have access to clean water, such as the people of Flint, Michigan, and more recently Newark, New Jersey, it may be their only option.


XR have removed themselves so far from the rest of society that they no longer understand the needs of the average citizen. A protest at a train station was never going to go well, yet it went ahead anyway – one has to wonder how protesters didn’t see today’s events coming from a mile off. Organisers had even planned a demonstration at Gatwick Airport for today which was swiftly called off following the massive backlash. In fact, the disruptions caused to the train lines this morning prompted many commuters to drive to work, thus unnecessarily damaging the planet; one commuter at Shadwell said ‘he had to get a “fuel guzzling black cab” to work, which “went towards their ‘cause’.” Their ignorance was further highlighted when the organisation compared themselves to Civil Rights Activist, Rosa Parks, in a now deleted tweet, something that has only angered the public further; one Twitter user responded, ‘Extinction Rebellion comparing their middle class white led movement which mainly targets working class, poor, diverse areas of London to ROSA PARKS during UK Black History Month may be the worst take of the year.’


A survey by YouGov asked participants today who they sympathised with more – ‘the climate change protestors’ or ‘the commuters who dragged them off’, to which the latter gained the majority vote. Such criticism is what prompted one Extinction Rebellion spokesperson to admit that this morning’s Tube protest was “a huge own goal” one that will no doubt haunt the organisation’s future forever.


As someone who is passionate about environmentalism and climate action, I can only express my great disappointment at today’s events and the ignorance that underpinned them. XR has undoubtedly harmed the British public’s perspective of climate activists, even those of us who weren’t involved in the protests or disagreed with them wholeheartedly, and will likely encourage a worse reaction from angry London residents who were held up by today’s demonstrations. But if it’s some consolation, not all environmentalists are ignorant.


Image credit: Daniel James

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