Extinction Rebellion has taken to the streets again and no doubt we’ll be dismissed with the usual complaints. Why don’t we protest in China (as if we have any influence there)? We’re dancing too much. We’re clogging up traffic. And most of all, we’re HYPOCRITES. Why don’t we start fighting the climate crisis ourselves? How did we arrive here – did we drive? What about that holiday we took to Spain, eh? EH?
Well, I’ve travelled around the world from Cuzco to Cape Town; eaten Happy Meals at McDonald’s; and even (gasp) partaken in recreational drugs, whose environmental impact is well documented. I’m not pretending I’m better than you; in fact, I’m probably worse. You can call me a jet-setting junkie. Hell, I wrote a whole book about it. And even though I’ve taken steps – for example, no longer eating beef (by far the worst thing to have in your diet, in terms of saving the planet), and not flying while travelling unless it’s completely unavoidable – I can’t say my carbon impact is zero. I’ll happily admit I fall short of the monastic standards seemingly required for anyone to be concerned about the future of our planet.
Taking this purity test to its logical conclusion, the climate movement would consist of about three monks who, having forsaken all material possessions and subsisting on nothing but wild berries, walk all the way from the mountains of Shangri-La to sit quietly in a corner of Parliament Square, where they can safely be ignored by lawmakers and the public and nothing would ever get done. It’s an oil company’s wet dream.
Hypocrisy is a distraction, and a lazy way to delegitimise the movement without addressing its actual concerns. It’s very difficult to live in the modern world without having some sort of negative impact on the environment. If you don’t own the house or pay the bills, how much say do you even have over where your energy comes from? Can you afford solar panels? What about the building you work in?
The focus on personal responsibility allows us to forget systemic issues. Even if everyone reading this became cave-dwelling hermits growing their own vegetables, it would make no difference when just a hundred (mainly energy) companies are behind 71 per cent of all emissions. But sure, the climate crisis is your fault because you didn’t take enough cold showers and spent a gap year in Thailand.
Don’t get it twisted: doing what you can as an individual is great. Of course you should try to recycle, eat less meat, and cycle to work instead of driving a car. But it’s like trying to put out a house fire with a water pistol. In fact, in the mid-2000s, the very idea of a personal carbon footprint was actively promoted by a PR firm working on behalf of those Earth-conscious folks at British Petroleum, as a way to deflect the blame onto you for not flicking the lights off when you leave the room. Not long after that PR campaign, BP caused one of the worst oil spills in history.
And yes, as consumers we’re all complicit, but counting on tens of millions of people to do the right thing doesn’t sound like a winning strategy. We’re talking massive lifestyle changes here – look how hard it was to get everyone to agree about Covid. I’m sorry but, tick-tock, we don’t have time to wait around for an ecological awakening to sweep the masses. Change has to come from the top down.
Politicians talk a big game about cutting emissions, then rubber-stamp a new coal mine or hop onboard a private jet to fly to a conference down the road. Talk is cheap when you set emission targets 30 years from now, by which point the Thames Barrier will have broken and Westminster Abbey will have become an aquatic home for refugee polar bears. We need them to act now.
I’m no expert so I can’t tell you step-by-step what must be done, but I’d like to see the government do something about palm oil, move away from our dependency on fossil fuels, or even something as basic as a carbon tax (which can be used to offset taxes elsewhere, so if anything we could be getting a tax break), and rewilding.
If we look at the big picture, it doesn’t really matter if someone at an XR protest ate a couple of cheeky cheeseburgers: at least they’re doing something now. The same goes for what I call Schrödinger’s critique: when you’ve got some people telling us to get a job, and others calling us a bunch of middle-class dweebs with too much time on our hands. Who cares what we do when we’re not protesting? We all have to live on the same planet, and if some of us are privileged (or unfortunate) enough to have nothing to lose by making a nuisance of ourselves, we should be on the front line. Decades from now, when we’ll finally get to see what the Mad Max films look like as a documentary, will you still be angry that someone stood up to say, “Maybe this will be bad”?
No struggle is won without a fight. I don’t want to be part of a silent majority that shut up and took it while our planet died. Yes, I’m a hypocrite, but I’d rather be a hypocrite than let the world burn.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies