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…For the times, they are a-changin’

Extinction Rebellion has forced political engagement with the existential threats science has been warning about for decades, writes ALAN SIMPSON

IF I WORE a hat I would tip it to Extinction Rebellion (XR). Its occupation of key parts of central London amounts to far more than a protest rally. 

It is a moment of seismic significance — one that will come to be seen as the tipping point into a new framework of existential politics.

It is only the system itself which seems unable to grasp that XR is already the winner.

Officialdom does not seem to know how to deal with the politeness of the protesters. Church leaders and celebrities cheerfully join in. XR’s spokespeople are unfailingly clear and polite.

Ministers may call for “the full force of the law” to be used against the protesters, but even the Met Police spokesman has had to concede that “one thing that is unusual about this demonstration is the willingness of those participating to be arrested, and also their lack of resistance to the arrests.”

The police are genuinely confused by those queueing up to ask: “Excuse me, Officer. Is it my turn to be arrested?”

XR has (rightly) chosen to take the whole movement into propositional rather than just oppositional space. 

Sure, it is blocking London streets and bridges, but to fill the bridges with potted plants and shrubs and music and dancing has reminded people of what places look like when priority is given to people rather than traffic. 

Sure, it has disrupted trade and business, but this gets put into perspective by Bank of England warnings that climate crises could blow a $20 trillion hole in the global economy.

Our children are right to warn that we should be afraid — of not acting fast enough, of not being bold enough — but the warnings have to race us into transformative change, not bunkers of despair. 

This is a message the political system seems unable to countenance.

From opposition to proposition

For at least the last four decades Britain’s social and environmental movements have been forced to live in “oppositional” space.

Market rules and planning priorities were progressively shifted in favour of commercial interests.

Communities and localities retained a “right to object,” but the market was put firmly in the driving seat. 

Local authorities quickly came under pressure to accept lower building standards, higher building densities and weaker environmental guarantees. 

They became the arbiters of austerity — forced to deliver cuts, obliged to lower standards.

Pretty soon, this created a public mindset that also became oppositionalist in character: all that we retained was a right to object. 

Democratic rights of local accountability and local accountability were pushed aside in favour of more corporate proposals for “growth” and “development.” 

This suited a Whitehall mentality that had always been contemptuous of localisms, much preferring the deals it could do with corporate lobbyists who, by coincidence, increasingly came to occupy the corridors of government itself.

For a brief period, after Labour passed the Energy Act 2008, I was asked to be an (unpaid) adviser to Labour’s first climate secretary — Ed Miliband MP. 

I was asked to do this having assembled a rag, tag and bobtail coalition of political rebels whose numbers were sufficient to force feed-in-tariffs (Fits) into the Energy Act. 

In essence, what Miliband asked was that I brief him on all the things his civil servants were unlikely to tell him. 

It was a shrewd move, given that big energy interests were already in the process of shovelling around 100 “secondees” into Whitehall “to assist with the new energy thinking.”

In reality, all this amounted to was the drafting of legislation to prop up their cartel control of the British energy market. 

The 2010 coalition government effectively handed this prize to big energy. Today’s government response to XR’s demands merely reinforces the XR claim that climate politics in Britain is now driven by lies, not leadership.

The truth, the whole truth and nothing…

The swift government press release in response to the XR protests — in which it tried to claim climate leadership — was a huge tissue of lies. 

In reality, Britain’s leap into renewable energy technologies came out of Labour’s energy legislation, not as a result of Tory policies. 

The real Tory record is to have ditched Fits, blocked onshore wind, removed tax relief to community energy co-ops, pushed through fracking approvals (in the face of overwhelming local opposition), introduced “transferable tax histories” for the oil and gas industry (allowing long-term decommissioning costs to be shifted to the taxpayer) dumped the zero-carbon homes standard ditched their own (disastrous) “green deal” energy efficiency “loans” scheme, and thrown some £12 billion of public money into a Mickey Mouse “smart meter” programme (designed only to allow big generators to save money through remote meter-reading, but not to promote the growth of local energy grids).

Most heinous of all is the Tory claim to have made dramatic cuts British carbon emissions since 1990. In reality, free-market economics have been used to ditch British jobs, drive production offshore and hide the carbon footprint out of sight. 

It’s like peeing in the neighbour’s garden and pretending it’s a viable sewage system.

Once you add in the footprint of British consumption it turns out that Britain’s CO2 reductions, post-1990, amount to zero. This is the missing “truthfulness” XR demands from any government worth having.

Swords into ploughshares

Then you get to XR’s “targets.” I’ve heard lots of good people saying: “Britain can’t get to net-zero by 2025. It’s not technically possible.” Rationality may say they’re right. Our kids’ survival may say the opposite.

The world has abundant examples of rapid transition from peacetime to wartime economics. 

Faced with the threat of German invasion, Britain produced 400 warplanes in a matter of months. They did the same in the United States, shifting car manufacturing into aeroplanes because that’s what the war required. Today, it is the war we’ve been waging against ourselves that we need to mobilise an answer to.

Could Britain replace 25 million gas boilers and 25 million fossil fuel vehicles in little more than half a decade? I’d rather set the challenge and fall short, than duck it and die. 

If people had the emissions going back into their own homes (and vehicles) we’d pretty soon come up with alternatives. 

The trouble is we’ve not had to look at the invisible killing fields our current lifestyles are based upon.

It has taken a David Attenborough and an Extinction Rebellion to force political engagement with the existential threats science has been warning (and weeping) about for decades. 

Yet still we don’t know if politicians get it.

So who will lead?

With Parliament returning this week, Greta Thunberg got to address MPs. Many were there for the photoshoot.

How many will sign up for the transformation remains to be seen.

The Labour opposition has the chance to at least force a debate on the challenges set by the climate occupation of central London. 

Labour would be barking mad to miss the opportunity to seize this platform. At the very least it would give Labour the chance to set out how all the political goalposts have to be shifted … beginning with the things Britain must stop doing.

Airport expansions (across the board) have to be halted until airports themselves can show how they can live within annual carbon budgets that reduce by 15 per cent a year. 

Fracking has to be abandoned. The national infrastructure programme must shift from roads to rail, and from private to public priorities. 

Energy-saving investment must be put at the centre of its remit, along with restoration of the infrastructure of Britain’s soil and air and water resources.

Localities must be given access to real resources, enabling them to deliver their own annual carbon reductions and the development of more sustainable lifestyles and communities. 

Some of this will draw on the smart technologies now at our fingertips. More will draw on today’s smart kids; the generation who understand that a viable “tomorrow” cannot be built upon economic models that are already past their sell-by date. 

Perhaps this generation deserves its own “ecological peace corps,” making them the drivers of radical change. They could hardly do worse than today’s driving fraternity.

In the heady days of my own student youth I recall a 1960s slogan, painted on a Paris wall. It read something like:
“La revolution qui vous demande de vous sacrifier pour elle, c’est la revolution de ton papa.”

Roughly speaking, it translates as: “The revolution that demands you sacrifice yourself for it is your dad’s revolution.” 

If my generation can’t grasp this, and make the changes now, maybe we should just get out of the way. As Dylan said, back in the day: “…the times they are a-changin’.”

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