Why traditional Civil Disobedience is the wrong approach in the climate fight

When you think of direct action on the climate crisis, you would probably first think of Extinction Rebellion protestors blocking London bridges; or some other big disruptive protest in which people get dragged off by police, and the mainstream media talk about how terrible it is that people were slightly delayed in getting to work. I’m not against large, peaceful protest, but I don’t think traditional civil disobedience is the most effective way of putting pressure on governments. The tiny benefit isn’t worth getting arrested for.

The most effective method of pressurising governments and businesses in my opinion is the mass refusal to participate in the endless growth based economic system. This can take the form of working less hours or not at all, not buying things we don’t need, as well as more targeted boycotts of certain products or services. And you don’t have to get thrown in a police cell for your troubles either.

One of the easiest and most crucial things we can all do right now is moving our money out of financial institutions that support the fossil fuel status quo. This can be complicated when it comes to pensions. But for bank accounts, it’s easy to switch to a more ethical bank; and there are automated tools which transfer your scheduled payments across as well. You’ll still have to change any accounts that use your debit card manually, but it’s no different than when your card expires and you get a new one. It’s no great hardship, and very much worth the effort.

Another hugely important element of the strategy of deliberately tanking the economy is housing. In many cultures, it is normal to live in multi-generational households for your whole life. I’m not necessarily suggesting that; but certainly in the western world, people are often a bit too keen to move out of home very young, and parents have been told that this is a good idea over many decades. I think it’s unnatural to want to separate ourselves from our families so young, and we should take the opportunity to live together for as long as families enjoy it. Obviously it’s not going to suit everyone for various reasons. But if you get on well, it’s definitely a very effective method of doing the opposite of what the system wants you to do.

This is also one area where boomers can have an outsized influence in the climate fight. They tend to have the money to be able to support their kids and grandkids to be full-time activists. Everyone who is able to not work while also spending as little as possible is hugely important. Imagine if everyone who was able to do it did so. The economy would be in ruins (as far as the elites are concerned anyway), and the government would be forced to change tack (or just get annihilated in the next election).

Interestingly, the effect seems to be happening already thanks to our incompetent and uncaring government. The latest jobs data in the UK shows that there are more job vacancies than people actively looking for work. The suggestion by experts and the media is that this is entirely due to hundreds of thousands of Brits being (possibly) permanently incapacitated by Long Covid, which the government allowed to happen through their intentionally useless handling of the pandemic; from the beginning really, but particularly the last 10 months since “Freedom Day” in July 2021.

Clearly I don’t want to tank the economy by people being unable to work. I want it to be a choice, but it really demonstrates that we will get there by hook or by crook. This government is so cruel and at the same time so stupid that they can’t even do economic growth right. Having said that, I don’t think that it is entirely down to Long Covid. There must be quite a few people like me who refused to go back to work during covid and subsequently checked out of the economy; and those numbers will keep increasing. Especially now with the cost of living crisis that the government of course chooses not to solve. I can imagine young people renting flats giving up on that to return home, and possibly cutting back their work hours too, if not quitting entirely. Why work your arse off in a system when you never get rewarded for it anyway?

To sum up, I fully support all climate protests, but we need to get smart and use the establishment’s precious economy against them. And you can see that it’s going to work. Even just this “worrying” jobs report has the government and terrified, and that’s of their own making. It wouldn’t take much concerted action at all for them to feel more pressure than they’ve ever felt from every climate march or protest in history, combined. They don’t care if you go and protest, as long as you still drive a car and go flying off on holiday. If we refuse to work and stop spending money, they will be panicking almost immediately; along with the bankers, investors and economists. We all saw what a house of cards neoliberal capitalism is during the first covid lockdowns. It won’t take much for it to all come crashing down, to be replaced by something that actually works for all of us, and the rest of life on Earth.

We Live in a Beautiful Place Ruined by Cars and Pollution

The beautiful South Downs with the English Channel in the background

We have the sea a couple of miles or so to the south of us, and the hilly countryside about the same distance to the north. You would think that it would be a paradise for cycling in the UK, but unfortunately, that couldn’t be further from the case.

Between the hills and the English Channel are houses, roads and cars as far the eye can see. There are no bike paths, but there are drivers in huge cars who hate you because you’re on a bicycle. The air is thick with pollution from car exhausts, wood burning stoves, petrol lawnmowers, strimmers and chainsaws; even bonfires. I don’t know if the pollution gets worse every year, but it definitely feels like that. And it’s not even just when you’re outside that you feel it. During the summer garden work season, but mostly in winter, you get hit with it immediately upon cracking the window.

It’s really unpleasant, and you really get an idea for how bad it is when you go out at night. I used to like going for bike rides at 10 or 11 at night when it was quiet. At that time, there were almost no cars and therefore no exhaust emissions. But even then, the crisp, cool air was still incredibly smokey. You can only get that kind of continuous daily pollution around here because of wood burning.

In terms of open spaces, our parks are few and far between. They’re small, they’re basic, anti-cycling, unlit (and therefore scary at night); and have barely seen improvement since I was born 34 years ago. There aren’t really any nice sights that you’d find on a casual walk around the town either. It’s nothing like in Japan where you’re never far away from the next temple or shrine, or other beautiful piece of architecture or patch of nature.

In terms of alleyways and other pedestrian infrastructure, they’re narrow, dirty, and dark with high walls. Not the kind of place you’d want to go at night, and not really during the day either. They’re also not cycling friendly as you might expect. It doesn’t compare well at all to somewhere like Singapore, which has its PCN (Park Connector Network). The car free routes connect up parks in the city, as you would expect. They’re wide and open, with space on both sides. It never feels closed in like alleyways here, and Singapore is far from a bicycle friendly city itself. The reason for the huge difference is that a town like Worthing was built to maximise every bit of space for homes and other development. Nothing was left unused. Preserving natural beauty was not considered. They only considered a future of cars and houses. Nature didn’t matter, cycling didn’t matter because cars now existed and were supposedly better in every way.

It’s not hard to see how the way the town was designed and built has lead to one of the least progressive councils in the country, where nothing ever gets done. But the great thing is that, while it would be difficult to fix all of the disastrous design mistakes, there are things we could do to make the best of what we have. Banning private cars, banning wood burning, bonfires, petrol garden tools, private fireworks for example. If we only did these things, the difference would be massive and immediate. It’s not going to happen because of politics, but it can happen because of the climate crisis.

Even just in the last week, we’ve seen widespread flash flooding across the country. We’re seeing it more and more this year and it does feel like something has to give soon. We have COP26 coming up, and while I have no faith in any political action at either the local or national level, as I’ve mentioned many times; it does present a huge opportunity for people to realise that politicians and corporations aren’t coming to save us. We have to boycott business and make the lives of politicians a living hell to the point where they don’t want to stay in office. That’s basically our only chance now.

Has Insulate Britain Achieved Anything?

Before I begin, I want to make clear that I do support the aims of Insulate Britain protesters. I applaud their bravery in blocking motorways around the country, when the risk of violence against them is so high. But has it convinced anyone in the country who wasn’t convinced already? I would say probably not.

We live in a country which has learned nothing from the covid-19 pandemic (which is still very much ongoing, contrary to popular opinion). Our commitment to the capitalist cause is unwavering and the vast majority of the country don’t have a clue about the impending climate disaster. People are still unwilling to switch to EVs, let alone getting rid of their cars for climate change. Not only that, they panic buy petrol and get into fights at filling stations, such is the sheer terror of having to live in a small country without access to a private car.

Under these circumstances, it’s entirely unsurprising that Insulate Britain has been a complete disaster and doomed to fail from the very beginning. Even the leader couldn’t catch a break when he went on Good Morning Britain. The over simplistic media are always more interested in a juicy case of hypocrisy than the overall picture. Not that he was a hypocrite anyway since he didn’t own his home and couldn’t afford to insulate it even if he did. But the media never let an unfortunate detail like that get in the way of a great gotcha moment.

So what have Insulate Britain achieved so far?

  • Made angry motorists even angrier
  • Been called hypocrites
  • Given the government an excuse to crack down even more on peaceful protest in a supposedly democratic country
  • Not convinced a single person of their agenda

Probably the biggest thing they’ve achieved is to teach other organisations how not to do it, as well as giving them a PR boost. Extinction Rebellion are going to be seen in a far more positive light for blocking city centres following this disastrous campaign by Insulate Britain. XR warn people and authorities in advance where they’ll be and for how long (to avoid being accused of blocking emergency vehicles). They also either create a party atmosphere or provide some kind of interesting performance aspect that attracts the media to cover it. They think things through far more, and people will now start to recognise that after seeing IB’s approach.

Don’t get me wrong, XR made some bad choices in the beginning and did some things that had a similar effect to Insulate Britain. However, they’ve generally improved over time and become smarter about choosing what types of action to do and what not to do. IB don’t seem to have learned anything at all.

Imagine if XR had started by blocking motorways a few years ago when people were even less sympathetic to calls for climate action than they are now. It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that someone would have been killed by a motorist. We’ve seen it close to home in Worthing a few years ago when a man was killed by a fellow motorist after he left his car to talk to talk about a road rage incident.

So, what I would say to Insulate Britain protesters now is please find another way for your own safety. Go to town centres instead for example. Blocking motorways, airports, train stations and things like that will not work in this country. You’re putting your lives on the line for no reason. Mainstream British culture still has its fingers firmly stuck in its collective ears and is singing the la la song as loudly as anywhere in the world (even Australia).

Edit: I just saw a clip of an interview with Roger Hallam (co-founder of XR) where he said he would do the same thing as Insulate Britain did (not let a woman through to visit her mother in hospital) and would block an ambulance if necessary. I find that a very odd thing to say when you have an opportunity to distance yourselves from IB as they have been doing recently.