Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg

Watching the events of the past couple of weeks has felt very strange. The Extinction Rebellion demonstrations have been heartfelt and passionate, and in a sense it's been great to see them. But...

You knew that was coming, didn't you? Especially the ellipsis.

I have a bit of a problem with any sort of demonstration, because I don't believe they actually achieve anything. I've seen too many good causes crash against the shore only to be stranded by the tide, achieving nothing because of the state's intransigence. A million people marched against the Iraq War, a similar number marched against Brexit, and nothing changed. Putting it bluntly, it seems to me that demonstrating is a futile exercise, one that may make the participants feel good about themselves but generally speaking has about as much affect in the real world as a fart in an empty lift.

Putting my cards on the table, I agree with what Extinction Rebellion represent, and their aims (though I would appreciate more focus on how they intend to achieve them, and how they intend to minimise the fall out if they ever do, in part because the UK is only ever three meals away from starvation thanks to just in time supply chains). I think they're noble, incredibly so, but ultimately doomed.

Part of the reason for that is the way politics has historically worked in the UK. Green issues has always been relegated to 'student politics', one of those things you'll grow out of when you have a family or a car, or a house. Once you have responsibilities (and can't afford to fight against the powers that be anymore), then you'll understand that, to quote David Cameron, all the 'green crap' doesn't matter and you should be entirely focused on your family and providing for them. A similar line is often spun around vegetarianism, and veganism, they're seen as faddy nonsense that young people will grow out of, even though people have been going veggie for over fifty years now.

I guess it's just another sign of how stuck in the past the UK can be at times, lunging forward in terms of technology but not in any other way. After all, we still make comments about Hitler being a vegetarian whenever the subject comes up, even though he wasn't and its pretty facile anyway (you know who was vegetarian, the poet Percy Shelley - who most people have probably never heard of even though his wife, Mary, wrote Frankenstein). 

Returning to today, I wouldn't imagine that anything will really change once the protests are over, instead, things will go back to normal and even in the face of adversity, Westminster will act as a facilitator of pollution, rather than a cleaner economy. Partly, this is because the state has spent forty odd years divesting itself of any influence in the real world, preferring to cosy up to big firms and let them run loose. As with so many things they've modelled their actions on Harold Macmillan's old trick of marching left while staring resolutely right, talking green while acting blue. Only Brexit has threatened to break up that party, and that hasn't been because of green issues.

Disrupting politics for a wee while has worked in Extinction Rebellion's favour, but let's be realistic. Their influence ends when the demonstration is over. They've got the theatre of it down pat, and are attracting myriads of fresh supporters but that doesn't equal policy change, or even government lifting its head from the mire of Brexit to squint at the crisis before it. It's fair to say that it's more likely that the environment will be brushed aside once again so that profits and investment aren't effected. I don't even think that will be malicious, its far more likely to simply be the nature of neo-liberalism, the way business and government work hand in hand - even if government has historically been the loser, the krill to business' blue whale. To evoke another animal, we know what we're dealing with, are we really going to complain when the scorpion stings us?

The other problem is what XR want. While their demands are made with the noblest of intentions, it's hard to envisage how they can be made into reality without causing a panic, or people going without. They're laudable, but without the 'how' acquiescing to them will only cause harm. They aren't things that can be brought in overnight - which unfortunately is how the pressure group has phrased them. Parliament takes time to do things, no matter how simple, and any changes, if they are going to fundamentally alter the course of climate change, will have to be whipped through the house most stringently. Does the planet (in this cycle of life at least) have that time? Do the activists have the patience to see the course through or will they give in to British cynicism? At present it's hard to say, but I suspect they will.

Twitter has brought class into the equation too, and there have been accusations that the Middle Classes of not wanting things to change, but until recently green politics wasn't just for the young, but the affluent as well. Bourgeois families could 'afford' to think about the planet, while other, poorer, families were just making do, with no time to lift their heads from the grindstone and all that sort of stuff. The truth that XR want so much will have to bring home to everyone how much of a problem they are, and what can be done to change. This is one area where nobody in the West is innocent, and it's pretty foolish to pretend that we are. Sadly, I think the current moralism we see on display will only result in finer hair splitting as various groups scramble for the moral high ground.

The social network has been home to the backlash against the 16 year old figurehead of a generational climate upheaval: Greta Thunberg, who astonished everyone over the age of 30 by calling for a children's strike to protest against the lack of action by their elders. Generation Z, rather than the Millennials, raising its own political voice to lash out at the Baby Boomers. It's been disheartening to see users saying that she should be humiliated or punished after her speech to the Houses of Parliament, simply for speaking the truth.

Leaving aside the fact that this feels very much like scapegoating a child, and one with Asperger's too, it also smacks of willful ignorance, something for which there should be no excuse now. To say you don't believe in climate change is to essentially act the ostrich. It's also to say you'd rather fight a stupid battle than actually effect change, for which I suppose we should all be grateful if only in Darwinian terms. Yes, I do mean that if you're going to threaten a child, you'd be better off out of the gene pool, in the same way that it would be better for the rest of us if you shut up and just got on with things.

Again though, it was a piece of theatre, it doesn't start to resolve the ways in which countries can make the steps to a carbon neutral economy, to not burning fossil fuels or rewilding. And perhaps it shouldn't. These are things that adults need to decide, and quickly too. I would love to see a rewilding bill in front of Parliament next week, or a proposal to shut down all the fossil fuel burning plants in the country, but that won't happen. It will take new ideas and the willingness to take risks to change the way things are, and I'm not sure that our politicians are capable of those things.

What needs to happen is a changing of the guard, old politicians being replaced by a new generation that understands what needs to happen and is willing to take the necessary steps. Only then will we see things changing.

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