THE row over the Extinction Rebellion (XR) decision to dig up Trinity College Cambridge’s lawn highlights a dilemma facing climate activists.
Trinity is among the biggest landowners in Britain — by some calculations only the Crown Estate, the Church of England and the National Trust own more — and, given its investments in fossil fuels, targeting it is not illogical.
Doing so by ruining the hard work of college gardeners and creating an eyesore from an attractive public space is more controversial, but socialists and trade unionists know that effective action often involves creating some inconvenience.
Tory MP Anthony Browne is “horrified at the sight of XR causing criminal damage.” But the fact that action is against the law doesn’t mean it is not justified. Anti-nuclear, anti-war and anti-fracking campaigners have all at times committed criminal acts in order to expose or prevent greater crimes; so indeed have countless fighters for social justice and workers’ rights.
More pertinent are objections from Labour councillors and local trade unionists that this is not the best way for XR to make its points. XR Cambridge’s lofty response — “if you think digging up some grass is disproportionate, you may not understand the crisis” — risks patronising critics, many of whom are potential allies, rather than convincing them of the justice of the cause.
It is not that the action is “disproportionate.” Obviously it is not, in the sense that it involves negligible destruction compared with the processes XR campaigns on such as fossil fuel extraction, deforestation, overfishing and industrialised farming.
But digging up Trinity’s lawn is not a preventive action, so proportionality isn’t the best measure of its effectiveness. It’s a stunt — an action designed to attract attention to the issue being highlighted, not one which could directly impede Trinity’s investments in fossil fuels or proposed sale of farmland to the Port of Felixstowe.
And as stunts go, this one is likely to be counterproductive, just as some of XR’s previous actions have been — to occupy London’s much-loved Smithfield and Billingsgate markets last autumn, for example, disrupting small fish and meat traders rather than the giant corporations whose domination of global food chains is responsible for driving small-scale and sustainable farming out of existence, or the institutions that heavily subsidise industrial-scale agribusiness such as the US government or the European Union.
Such objections may be dismissed as “whataboutery,” the tactic of deflecting criticism from one injustice by pointing to another. No-one can campaign on all just causes at once, and given the way in which environmentally damaging processes are embedded in sector after sector of the modern capitalist economy, picking the most deserving targets for our protests is not going to be easy.
But that very context — the fact that the drivers of climate change and environmental degradation are intrinsic to modern capitalism — demands smarter tactics than this.
XR’s strategy for 2020’s goals include “ensuring that at least half of the nation sees the issue of climate change as their top priority.” That’s not a practical proposal for reshaping our economy on greener lines, as were the plans in Labour’s Green New Deal, but then XR is not a political party standing for office. The goals focus on winning hearts and minds, and creating a random nuisance is unlikely to deliver that outcome.
That isn’t a call for groups to abandon direct action. Indeed, with a Tory government in the pockets of the major polluters established for the foreseeable future, the left needs to prioritise community, street and workplace campaigning over Westminster politics and that means challenging corporations, landowners and councils.
But chants of “system change, not climate change” are meaningless if the system responsible is effectively ignored. The strategies we adopt need to utilise trade union and community power to confront environmentally destructive companies and policies in a way that challenges capitalist practice.
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