It’s the week after the week before in which many parts of central Bristol were brought to a standstill by Extinction Rebellion. Views on the cause, action and tactics varied.
I want to share some reflections. But I do this making clear that it is possible to question and challenge a group about its approach without being misinterpreted as undermining the goal, in this case, addressing the climate crisis.
I believe in protest as a lever in the democratic process. I am a student of black American politics. I participated in the Jubilee 2000 and the World Bank/IMF and anti-globalisation protests. They shifted public opinion and political awareness and supported real changes to the structures of international finance that drove poverty and the associated consequences for instability, migration and deforestation in the global south.
Extinction Rebellion has played an important role by putting climate change high up on the political agenda. I will be one of many city leaders who welcome this. We have been stressing the need for central government certainty and investment in transport and infrastructure so are be able to deliver the carbon neutral future we have committed to. Government for its part continues to disappear into itself, consumed by Brexit, power contests and delayed, unpredictable and zero-sum funding rounds. Anything that helps get Westminster looking outward is welcome.
But there are challenges.
Blocking the M32 was a tactical error.
Ahead of the planned protests, we agreed with Extinction Rebellion a Memorandum of Understanding to manage the protesters gathered in the Castle Park area. We closed roads around Bristol Bridge to ensure the safety of protesters and the wider public. The planned action was very high profile, and the message was being heard. But once protesters broke our agreement by blocking the M32, Extinction Rebellion began alienating members of the public with every inconvenience. I have been clear that this action stepped over the line, and I think it was a tactical error for the movement that ultimately proved to be counterproductive.
An emergency requires solutions.
I have asked XR for the specific actions they would like the city to take. The challenge is that beyond “tell the truth” and “act now” I have heard little yet in terms of specifics. There are obvious problems with this. If you have no agreed list of specific asks/demands, how do you know that what people are currently doing isn’t enough and isn’t being done fast enough? Secondly, if people say “OK, what do you want?” you have nothing to say.
This happened in the BBC3 documentary, Extinction Rebellion: Last Chance to Save the World. In an interview, the founder of the movement was asked “Does Extinction Rebellion have proposals for how to achieve carbon neutrality by 2025?” To which response was “No, because that’s not our job”.
I have noticed that when spokespeople are asked, they revert to highlighting the scale and immediacy of the crisis. I agree it is immediate, which is why I believe everyone must be developing solutions. If you are on a sinking ship, those who think through solutions, no matter how basic, are more helpful than those who continue to shout the ship is sinking.
As a council, we have successfully achieved our corporate target to reduce carbon emissions two years early with a 71% reduction of carbon emissions in 2017/18 (against a 2005 baseline) and last week we announced our action plan in response to the climate emergency declaration.
And the city is following our lead and stepping up to take responsibility. The City Office has established a city Environment and Sustainability Board to agree to a series of environmental goals up to 2050 through the One City Plan. I’m hopeful we can work with partners across the city to come up with clear steps and milestones to achieving carbon neutrality by 2030 and beyond.
Signing contracts, running procurement processes, addressing planning, participating in drawn-out negotiations are not as exciting or glamorous as protest, but it’s where many of the things that need to get done actually get done in local government. Again, protest has a critical place in our democracy, but it must be deployed wisely, understanding the people and institutions it is targeting, and with a clear set of actions it wants.
Diversity and Inclusion
Diversity and inclusion are vital to XR’s campaign if it is going to truly fulfil its stated aim of being a wide-reaching and representative democratic movement.
Democracy isn’t merely a question of voting rights for those in the club. It’s also about openness, connectivity and accountability to outsiders. Without doubt, class hierarchy and global racism are integral to a system whereby the global north has secured their growth without regard to the planet in general and Africa, Asia and South America in particular. These systems robbed so many people of the opportunity to shape the world and their place in it – now they threaten their futures too.
For XR to be successful, and bring people with them on their cause, becoming more diverse and inclusive is the challenge they have to take on.
We face a climate emergency, and we need action now. It’s about focused action and results. A friend of mine said a problem well defined is a problem half solved. We need a fuller and more nuanced understanding of the emergency itself, of the people and institutions in play, of what is required for success, and we need everyone developing solutions.
I have asked to meet with the leaders of Bristol XR again to suggest real solutions and actions for our city to tackle the climate crisis, so that they can be part of the conversation to affect real change.