Beyond XR: How can the environment movement appeal to more conservative people?

Beyond XR: How can the environment movement appeal to more conservative people?
Analysis: Less focus on individuals’ choices and trying to find a green ‘centreground’ are among the tactics to broaden the scope of political action to tackle the climate crisis, writes Harry Cockburn

Extinction Rebellion is just three years old, and in that short time the movement has had a colossal impact – raising the profile of the climate and ecological crisis around the world – but in the UK at least, has it already fulfilled its mission?

Even as a two-week civil disobedience campaign is underway in London, some key figures previously associated with XR appear to believe this is the case – and not only for the group they were involved in, but also Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future campaign, which came to prominence around the same time.

That these movements could have peaked may sound odd. The devastating impacts of the climate crisis have perhaps never been more acutely felt, especially by the western world, as they have been this summer, with apocalyptic wildfires and deadly flash floods razing or inundating communities around the globe.

Surely XR – the most visible branch of the environmental movement – can use to its advantage the growing concerns about catastrophic climate breakdown, and build up the support required to force greater political action?

For many people, the appeal of XR is unambiguous: the climate science is clear, action must be taken now to radically cut emissions, politicians are not responding fast enough to the threat, and getting out on the streets has a track record of getting results.

But despite this, there are growing concerns the movement has not gathered the momentum its heady early triumphs seemed to promise.

While the coronavirus pandemic has been a major impediment, has it been the only force holding the movement back?

A 2021 YouGov poll, found just 17 per cent of those surveyed had a positive opinion of XR, whereas 41 per cent had a negative opinion. In 2019, a year after XR launched, the movement’s approval rating was 36 per cent – more than double the 2021 figure.

This change begs the following questions: has the radical faction of the environmental movement achieved everything it can for the moment? If so, what else can be done to put pressure on those in power to take the steps required to tackle the crisis?

Two major former XR figures, Roger Hallam, and Rupert Read, who left the group separately and at different times, have both recently spoken about a more inclusive movement as being critical in galvanising greater numbers of people.

In an interview with Lockdown TV earlier this year, Mr Hallam put forward a case for why embracing many of Extinction Rebellion’s aims are in line with “small c” conservatives’ values, and suggested activists needed to put aside differences to find common ground with people they may not previously have wanted to stand alongside.

He said: “At this time in history, we have to start going above and beyond our sectional interest.

“I think that’s a key element of social conservatism at its best, which is to put the national interest, the interest of the whole of society above the sectional or cultural interest.”

Speaking about the membership of XR, he said: “There’s been a lot of the usual suspects, as it were, urban students and that sort of thing. But lots of people, for instance, are over 50. And they have a pre-Thatcherite culture, as you might say. Their culture is more: there’s a right and wrong in the world. We’re moderate people, but we don’t go about destroying the next generation. We have a connection to the land. We have a connection to traditional small town politics.”

His former colleague, Rupert Read, has suggested political parties concerned about the environment should learn from XR and Greta Thunberg’s success, enabling them to take more people with them, through “doing a vanilla-ised version” of what XR has done.

In a blog post on his own website, and in an article he has co-written in Byline Times, Dr Read described XR’s success as creating a “radical flank” to the existing environmental movement, which has helped legitimise many of the concerns and demands of longstanding core elements of the movement, such as the Green Party.

But now, with the risk of XR’s tactics apparently at risk of alienating some demographics, he has suggested a “more moderate” approach.

“To get somewhere, we need to give up our aspirations to ideological purity and our desire to scream ‘we told you so!’ in favour of a caring, inclusive alliance-building.”

This, he said, could be an approach which builds broader appeal and a warmer feeling among the public which would be much harder for politicians to ignore.

“When XR makes demands, regardless of how reasonable they are, it is too easy for those in power to play politics. Faced with an organisation that only has a 17 per cent approval rating demanding environmental reform, it becomes easy for the government to demonise it and to ignore its demands.”

The article adds: “Imagine roughly the same demands coming from an organisation with a 50 per cent approval rating, or 60 per cent. Or 70 per cent. Would the government simply be able to ignore them then?”

But what are Extinction Rebellion’s demands – for the current demonstrations, and over the longer term?

A spokesperson told The Independent: “We stepped into this rebellion with two clear goals. First, to engage with the general public about the climate emergency, build our movement, and get enough people on the streets to create the political space for the government to act now on the climate emergency.

“Secondly, to get our immediate demand met: for the UK government to immediately stop all new fossil fuel investments. This demand is an obvious first step if the government is going to demonstrate to the public here in the UK, and to the world, that they are serious about taking climate leadership ahead of hosting the UN climate talks in November.”

They said the purpose of these demands was to “create a conversation in the mainstream media and among the general public which shows the government’s refusal to act as completely unreasonable in comparison to our disruption”.

Describing their approach, they added: “The more we disrupt with nonviolence and care at the centre of everything we do, the more we hope public perception will shift, therefore bringing in more people while creating a dilemma for the government in which they feel under pressure to act at a faster pace.”

But are XR “bringing in” enough people to really achieve this?

Another battleground related to the perception of the environment movement, and which appears to be in the process of recalibration, is the clash between capitalism and the environment.

The climate movement has long pointed out the irreconcilable differences between capitalism’s ceaseless demand for economic growth, and the finite resources on our planet. This has ultimately, and logically, resulted in calls for alternative political-economic systems as a fundamental part of dealing with the climate crisis.

But given the tiny number of years the science suggests we have left to halt emissions, there is increasing awareness that serious greenhouse gas reductions will have to be undertaken within the framework of capitalism.

In a blog this month, journalist James O’Malley wrote: “It just means that the solution is going to probably lie in really boring stuff, like fiddling with taxes or the government underwriting loans in order to shift incentives towards low-carbon activities. It probably means that by 2050 we’ll still have lots of problems. The bankers will still be getting rich. There will still be income inequality. Power will still be unevenly distributed across society. But at least hopefully, the amount of warming will be limited.”

Meanwhile it appears some activists are actively courting neoliberal values – albeit in a tongue-in-cheek manner – as a means of reframing the climate debate.

For example, this week, Greta Thunberg retweeted someone highlighting the “poor marketing” used in the climate debate, which had suggestions for re-evaluating how to think about the crisis, and why putting ourselves first could logically result in radical climate action.

These included, among others: “The planet isn’t in danger, we are in danger”, “it’s not about being obsessed with nature, it’s about being obsessed by surviving,” and “the most nationalistic selfish thing to do to ensure our power and health is to keep oil in the ground. It also happens to be the most globalistic and humanitarian thing to do as well”.

It remains to be seen if committed neoliberals will find themselves smacking their foreheads with sudden realisation and rushing to join the environment movement, but over longer periods, effective framing could lead to greater engagement with the issues.

Another key example of the environmental movement’s recalibration process is the drive to stop blaming and shaming individual people and their lifestyle choices for the climate crisis, and instead hold governments and corporations to account.

The fact that 70 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions are caused by just 100 companies is a comfort to those who are genuinely concerned about the environment, but aren’t in a position to give up what is perceived as a normal way of life – such as driving, flying, eating meat etc.

This approach takes away at least some of the guilt people may have been feeling as the climate crisis has worsened, by shifting blame for existing systems onto the government, which remains the only agent which can put in place the new rules required to change society for everyone at the same time.

Guilt-tripping people into living environmentally-friendly lives can only go so far, and at worst, puts people off feeling aligned with any movement expounding environmentalism.

In the race to fill the growing political vacuum which concern over the climate crisis has created, the movement is hoping to find a path which can bring together more traditional voters who may have long voted for the Conservative or Labour parties, but also remain palatable to the XR activists which have pushed the issue into the public consciousness.

It is notable that the Green Party is not widely regarded as a viable force for winning the level of power needed to have a meaningful impact within the timeframe the climate crisis demands.

As Dr Read writes, the Green Party “has never got anywhere near power in the UK, and almost certainly won’t under the first past the post system, at least not within this decade”.

Following the publication of this month’s latest IPCC report, UN chief Antonio Guterres said the findings represent “a code red for humanity”.

“If we combine forces now, we can avert climate catastrophe. But, as [the] report makes clear, there is no time for delay and no room for excuses.”

With the British government still examining opportunities for new coal mines, oil fields and undertaking extensive road building projects, there is huge space for climate and environment-centric opposition, but it remains to be seen what kind of coalition can unite enough people to rise to the challenge.

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