Most people reading this will have seen by now the headline-grabbing antics of Extinction Rebellion – naked protests, traffics jams and superglue prime amongst them. Most of us, I think, intuitively agree with these protestors that there is something deeply wrong and unsettling about how we’ve come to treat our environment, and we’re more aware than ever that something needs to be done to combat the damaging effects this is beginning to have.
The warming planet, the mountains of plastic in the ocean, the escalating species extinction in every corner of the globe – the alarm is being sounded in too many ways from too many sources for any of us to ignore any longer.
What perhaps comes equally easy to many of us, however, is a sense that, in the face of the enormity of climate change, there’s little we can actually do about it all. Not only can this translate to us being paralysed by indecision or inaction personally, but, particularly in the face of the giant polluters like the US and China, it can make any national action by the UK government seem feeble. How much more so, then, can we feel this sense when we see protestors calling for more action in little old Lincolnshire? This is perhaps the most common response I’ve come across during my recent involvement with Lincolnshire Extinction Rebellion – not that climate change isn’t happening, but that we can’t do much about it.
Firstly, we need to be very careful with arguments about who is ‘most’ responsible – a good chunk of the emissions that come from places like China are due to production aimed at fulfilling the needs and wants of consumers in other parts of the world, Lincolnshire included (which means changes to our consumption and our economy can have a bigger impact than we might think).
Additionally, as a nation the UK has a considerable historic role in fossil fuel discovery and use – just because other economies have long since overtaken us in fossil fuel production doesn’t mean we get to dodge our responsibility for the mess we’re in.
Blame aside, even if the US, China and Russia reduced all their carbon emissions to zero, tomorrow, the rest of the world would still need to follow suit – just because these are the biggest players doesn’t mean the rest of the world’s emissions don’t need to go as well. We all need to do our part, collectively. We start then where we are, where we know, whether that be New York, Beijing or Lincoln and grow from there, encouraging friends and family in other places to do the same, building a movement, and working together when we can on national and international issues. The more local victories, the more groups declaring an emergency, the stronger the pressure is on other, bigger polluters to do more, the more the narrative and accepted wisdom changes.
But let’s talk worst-case scenario – we in Lincoln try really hard to mitigate our role in climate change, and no one else bothers to. What might Lincolnshire then look like? We’d have more investment in public transport (making commutes cheaper, safer and quicker); more cycle lanes (safer cyclists and healthier citizens); reduced air pollution and therefore improved health; safer, quieter roads; better, healthier diets (and lower costs on healthcare); reductions in heating and energy costs for households and public buildings; more green spaces and easier access to nature, to name just a few possible side effects of good environmental policy.
But perhaps the biggest attraction to the activism of Extinction Rebellion, for me at least, is in using it as a gateway to a more democratic city. Groups such as this can be important places for people to learn about activism and develop their political education, giving them the skills and confidence to engage further in politics, and for us as a community in Lincoln and the wider county to start a conversation about the sort of city, country and world we want to live in. Protests and sustained public pressure send a powerful message to local officials that they are now being held to account by their citizens beyond just election time – they can show the power people have when they come together.
In the face of an issue as huge as climate change, it’s easy to think there’s not much we can do. But change has only come throughout history through ordinary people doing what they can where they can to bring about a better, fairer world. Start small and build from there. With enough of us doing that, together, we might just have a chance.