The anti-G7 protests in Cornwall confirmed to me a trend I had suspected for a while: that XR, coming out of the year(s) of lockdowns, is by far the biggest activist environmental force around. However many criticisms we have of their politics, that makes it imperative for us to engage with them.
As well as organising and mobilising for national and international protests, there are countless local XR groups which are still — or becoming once more — active. Urgency was added to my longer-standing intentions to get involved, not only by the recent upsurge in extreme weather events, flooding spreading to take out two London hospitals and cause wider devastation across the capital. Urgency was also heightened by my sense of regret at only too late finding out the details of a — quite badly advertised — set of XR actions against Bristol airport’s proposed expansion at a nearby town.
It was not difficult to find and join the Bristol and even sub-Bristol postcode specific WhatsApp and Telegram groups, or to get the details of their local meetings.
On 26 July I went to one of these meetings for the first time. It was well worth going, and I found doing so exhilarating.
There were around twenty people there. Bear in mind that it was not particularly (or at least not well) promoted. I get the impression that this was not particularly better attended than other weekly meetings: plus it was not one of the “big” monthly ones. And most of their actions have, as you’d expect, a higher turnout still.
While the politics and demography of these twenty activists leaves much to be desired, if we had a better and comparably active environmental organisation, we’d be in a very different situation. We have to start from where we are.
The main event was a speaker about fossil fuels, an educational in the run up to August’s nation-wide week of rebellion. I thought she was overly heavy on the technical (and institutional) details, and light on politics. The former seemed to serve to boost “expert” credentials and obscure the limitations and liberalism of the latter.
Yet there were opportunities for me to make much-needed political counterpoints.
Pointing to net acceleration of coal-fired power station construction to record highs — mostly in India and China — I highlighted that a picture of coal production and consumption having peaked in recent years isn’t as rosy as the speaker suggested.
Likewise, fossil fuel companies — coal, oil, and gas — have astronomical wealth invested in both fixed and circulating capital. Despite seeking and receiving many billions and trillions of investment cash and government subsidies respectively, they aren’t anywhere near as vulnerable to divestment or market pressures as the speaker suggested. We should oppose all investment and subsidies, and divestment movements have helped raise the profile of climate change: but we should not overstate how much we have and can win by such methods.
Indeed, carbon emissions are not only not falling, they are still accelerating.
Even insofar as market-based approaches can help, they won’t take us far enough or fast enough. This is doubly true when we consider wider sectors which are currently enmeshed in the fossil industry, premised on fossil fuel use.
The solution, I submitted, is to take energy — and other sectors — into democratic public ownership, and directly make the transition from fossil fuels to renewables, as fast as possible. This different solution in turn shapes our targets and strategy.
Someone gave a brief intro to the plans, centred on London, for the 23-29 August rebellion. It will target the city of London and the financial sector. It will also be seeking to initiate many wider conversations about the climate crises, and co-organising a Kill The Bill demonstration with Black Lives Matter.
Direct action against financial institutions, pursued periodically by sections of the environmental movement, in many ways represents a severely foreshortened critique of capital.
Nonetheless, my suggestion of collaborating with those trade unions and trade unionists campaigning to nationalise the banks was greeted with sympathy and some support. Even much of the more radical end of the environmental movement, however, after it correctly recognises the value of engaging with unions, does not do so well. Often “the union” is seen as synonymous with its leaders, and the approach the leaders are taking. This way of seeing things can produce understandable dismissal, or a bureaucratic way of relating to the unions and their membership.
The insights and involvement of class-struggle environmental socialists, with our workplace and rank-and-file orientation, become invaluable in this context. Similar interventions were key when we discussed, for example, putting pressure on local Labour MPs over the airport and environment.
I certainly will be attending future meetings, getting stuck into affinity- and working-groups, and participating in the week-long rebellion: and you should too!