A man clutches a photo of his young children on the 6pm news. “I’m just a father of two children that’s very frightened of their future,” he says, as he begins weeping. He is lying on the ground in the middle of a busy city street, locked to a hearse representing the world in which his family is living. So began the London Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests this week. In Ireland, protesters gathered outside the Dáil chanting: “Our future, our lives, our right to survive.”
People have been joining XR as the climate crisis has become more pressing and as it has started to hit closer to home. Many are first-time activists, beginning to understand what this will mean for their future and that of their children. Others are veteran activists hoping that XR’s tactics will tip the scales. All feel deeply let down by government inaction over the climate and ecological crisis.
Activism is about signalling the reality of an issue and charting a new course. It's an education for those who join the movement
XR can’t be faulted for trying to communicate the need for urgent action. Current policy responses are chronically insufficient. Take, for instance, the planned Shannon LNG gas terminal, the lack of adequate supports for citizen-led renewable energy, or the refusal to end all oil and gas drilling.
There has been criticism of XR, however. Many highlighted that its tactic of asking people to get arrested is exclusionary for those more vulnerable to the criminal justice system.
Others such as the grassroots collective Wretched of the Earth feel more attention should paid to the global economic structure – built on colonial projects, domination and pursuit of profit – that underpins the crisis.
These are valid points but it also has to be noted that that it may be hard to add diversity and intersectionality to a group such as XR once its “DNA” is fixed.
For all potential criticism of XR, it should be understood that civil disobedience is not something people enter into lightly. People are terrified. People are grieving. People are holding on to hope that if we act now we can still avert the worst of global warming. It is this that is pushing people to engage in such actions. Thousands of people doing so across 60 cities should be a wake-up call as to the severity of our current situation.
Activism is about signalling the reality of an issue and charting a new course. It’s an education for those who join the movement, and the general public more broadly. It’s a contest over meaning, in this case as to the cause of and responses needed to address the climate and ecological crisis.
If those most excluded by the system aren't part of the movement, then the solutions we advocate will likely compound injustices experienced by them
It is true that our future and that of our children will be impacted by climate change. But that is only part of the story and the reasons why we have to take action. The other part is that people are already dying due to climate change. The crisis has got to this point only because for centuries it was people far away, who didn’t look like us, who were paying the costs of the pollution, extraction and exploitation of our system. The moral of the story is that it is this system of relationships to nature and one another that needs to be addressed if we are to solve the root causes of these crises.
As a movement we have to articulate that story, because the stories we tell about the problem and its causes will colour the solutions we come up with. If those most excluded by the system aren’t part of the movement, then the solutions we advocate will likely compound injustices experienced by them.
What people need in the face of climate change is empowerment, hope and vision
For those already in the environmental movement, if we understand the current system to be the issue, the question becomes who are those who have been most impacted by the system? Are they meaningfully included in our groups? How can we build connections based on solidarity and justice with those individuals, communities and movements?
For those not yet in the environmental movement, once you understand the systemic cause of climate change, and connect the dots as to what its impacts will be, you realise it will affect all that we care about. A climate-changed world will be a more violent, racist, sexist, ableist and classist world. There are already clear warning signs of this at our current one-degree warmer level. As climate change becomes more severe it will deepen existing injustices and wash away progress hard won over generations.
Responsibility lies with government to ensures the worst of climate change is avoided, and that we are resilient in the context of a climate already changed. In the absence of this, in order to push for political action, and to make sure such action is as just as possible, we need to build broad, inclusive movements.
What people need in the face of climate change is empowerment, hope and vision. It’s time now for us to come together to address root causes and cultivate societies that will take care of one another as we enter into the times ahead.
Louise Fitzgerald is an IRC Government of Ireland postgraduate scholar at UCD School of Politics and International Relations