Yellow Protests for a Brighter Future
When Labour and Environmentalism join forces
Last week I interviewed conservationist and activist, Charlie Gardner. An outspoken member of Scientist Rebellion, Charlie joined me to discuss why scientists feel forced to choose activism—after decades of ignored data, warnings and suggestions, these same scientists who have been fighting to understand the crisis are taking to the streets to be heard.
Towards the end of the episode, we discussed the importance of the confederation of the labour movement and the environmental movement. For too long, the environmental movement has been the cause of the middle class. Conservation has also typically been the right wing’s concern. And so, environmentalism—perhaps because it garnered attention historically and was presented as the protection of public spaces, parks and animals—was a movement for people who did not have to worry about their own livelihoods and spaces. They didn’t have to worry about saving themselves.
The fact that Extinction Rebellion (XR) then used tactics of nonviolent action, like deliberately getting arrested, also fed into this middle-class movement; it's only people who are safe to do so that can get involved in that kind of action. Now, XR never suggested that everybody had to get involved in that kind of activism, but it did betray the privilege of many of their members. That then led to difficult discourse with other social justice groups and some challenging shifts in their tactics and messaging.
Despite these changes and despite collaborating with other social justice groups to amplify the reality that the climate emergency is a social emergency, XR didn’t seem to break through and reach the working class until this year when the energy crisis finally showed the concrete links between energy, economy and dangerous politics.
A Concrete Crisis
The cost of living crisis is partly fuelled by the energy crisis, which is due to national reliance on importing fossil fuels whilst ignoring the benefits of investing in a national solar and wind-powered economy. Alongside historical short-termism, the British government allowed energy companies to rake in record-breaking profits during a cost of living crisis, even though oil and gas companies are heavily subsidised by government, and much more so than renewables.
This terrible and short-sighted governance has finally amalgamated the environmental crisis and the social crisis: all over the UK, we’re seeing the Don’t Pay UK campaign protest alongside Extinction Rebellion and Enough is Enough. Together, these groups are protesting the disgraceful leadership which is destroying people’s livelihoods, children’s futures, the social sphere and our planetary security by taking to the streets together all over the UK.
During my interview with economic anthropologist, Jason Hickel, he spoke of the necessity for the labour and environmental movements to join forces, secure common goals and face a common enemy. It seems to be finally happening as the climate crisis reveals itself increasingly to be a symptom of political, social and economic inequality powered by mechanisms of exploitation and extractivism.
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Historically, divide and conquer has been a winning tactic not only in war but in the management of citizens. When scientist Alexander von Humboldt travelled through South America in the late 1700s, he wrote about how part of the Spanish colonial practice was to separate groups by sowing mistrust and allowing them different opportunities. Spain was a centralised power and only those born in Spain and sent over were given managerial or political control in the colonies. Descendants from Spaniards perhaps owned plantations but they were given no political or decision-making power. The Spanish succeeded in ruling over huge swathes of territory from across the ocean by stirring conflict between the different classes and groups.
Maintaining differences only serves to maintain power for the few. Propaganda rags have served their masters by spurring the middle-class vs working class rhetoric surrounding the environmental movement: the environmental movement doesn't care about your jobs; the environmental movement doesn't care about your livelihood; the environmental movement would see working class families lose their jobs and go hungry; the environmental movement is disconnected from reality.
This is nonsense, of course. Green economic theories like degrowth envision sustainability as a socially just and necessary transition towards a fairer world in which, for example, everyone will have a green job guarantee. Extinction Rebellion and Scientist Rebellion are deeply connected to reality, which is why they are calling for the end of fossil fuels and a just transition which offers new employment, training and opportunities. These activists are calling for and researching how to build a better world. And if we don’t act soon, we may not even be able to build a liveable world.
Yet, fighting the status quo also means fighting propaganda. On the other side of the pond, we’re seeing astonishing things in the run-up to mid-terms from the Republican party, with both politicians and candidates spreading outright lies amongst their constituency in order to hold onto power. American citizens should be able to understand these lies as disinformation but are inundated with fake news the point lies become truth.
The UK is one of the Anglophone countries most at risk of inaccurate reporting on the climate crisis. A study published last year showed that whilst 90% of Anglophone coverage is accurate and in line with the scientific consensus of anthropomorphic effects on warming, right wing publications are more prone to publishing articles that are not in line with scientific consensus. The Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday in the UK published “significantly less accurate” coverage than their counterparts.
Environmental groups are protesting dangerous energy policies and inaction; unions are protesting working conditions, housing conditions, living wages and financial inequality. Essentially, environmental groups are protesting the energy industry and the labour movement is protesting the economy. Now, they can join forces because not only are they fighting for the same thing—and safe and just world—their calls for action protect the other group, thus opening a dialogue which can generate and share ideas.
Could this inspire a general strike in the UK? Could it allow for different messages to permeate previously separate groups? Could it see the rise of a new political party? Already, it seems to have broken down the lines between activists and general public—activists are the general public, and the confederation of these campaigns proves so.
This confederation is crucial given the climate crisis remains an abstract problem to many—and to others even a cause to be celebrated—whereas the effects of our reliance on the fossil fuel industry and subservience to neoliberal ideology are being felt by every household. The last time heating and electricity bills doubled in 2004 even Buckingham Palace applied for a poverty grant to cover the difference in costs. The Labour government rejected the request.
It is becoming increasingly clear that only people can save themselves from the jaws of late stage capitalism, neo-colonialism and extractivism and the accompanying inequality and suffering; that we must actively use our voices at every opportunity rather than praying the scratching of pencils in a ballot booth will roar loudly enough for the powerful to change their ways.
Cheer for the activists risking jail or death around the world. Cheer for the brave daring to say this world isn’t good enough. Cheer for the citizens marching for their neighbours. Cheer, for there is a whole world to be won.
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