Friday, 26 July; the Sustainable Futures Report and I'm Anthony Day. No, this one is not about electric vehicles. I'm holding that over for a future episode because I wanted to catch up with Extinction Rebellion and last week's protest.
By the way, the text of the interviews in last week’s episode is now up on the blog.
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The Extinction Rebellion demo in Leeds lasted right through until Friday morning. Relations were good with the police and there were no arrests. On Thursday there was a march into the centre of Leeds where a massive die-in involved everyone lying down in Briggate, fortunately a pedestrianised street. There was a great picture in The Guardian, and you can definitely see my feet! Oh, and the singing ladies weren’t there.
There were arrests in London. This was less to do with the more militant attitude of the Metropolitan Police and more to do with the fact that six activists deliberately blocked the gates at London Concrete in Bow to prevent workers or vehicles from entering the site. Cement and concrete are some of the most carbon-intensive products, so it was an appropriate choice. As much as anything activists wanted to get their day in court to raise the profile of the demonstration.
As I said, there were no arrests in Leeds but there was disruption, particularly traffic congestion. Some people complain that they lost hours of work as a result and it's likely that some of those were on contracts working hours they could ill afford to lose. It’s easy to say that avoiding long term catastrophe justifies the short-term disruption, but that’s little comfort to such people, even though many of them support the cause. In Leeds at least, the whole exercise appears to have been closely planned and the police kept informed to minimise disruption. It would be good to protest without inconveniencing anyone, but if no one is inconvenienced, then no one takes any notice.
Nevertheless, a backlash has started.
The Metropolitan police obtained a Section 12 Order stating that: "No boat, vehicle or other structure may form part of any procession by 'Extinction Rebellion' or join the procession at any point on its route or at its final location on Friday, 19 July 2019 within the London region.”
Extinction Rebellion (XR) has been warned that they will not be allowed to bring London to a standstill and repeat their Spring chaos in a new "bigger" protest on October 7.
Laurence Taylor, Met police deputy assistant police commissioner, also urged the courts to impose tougher sentences that would act as a deterrent to future protests. As I mentioned before, they are busy prosecuting the 1100+ demonstrators who were arrested in April.
Extinction Rebellion spokesperson Rupert Read said the commissioner’s comments were “interesting”.
He said: “When masses of people take non-violent direct action, the matter is no longer entirely in the police’s hands. If and when 10,000 people sit in a street and refuse to be moved, then what the police will ‘allow’ is neither here nor there. There aren’t enough of them to arrest us all and when they arrest some of us, others take their place.”
Mike Schwartz of Bindmans, one of the defence lawyers involved, said the move by the police and the CPS appeared to be “a deliberate and expensive” attempt to “browbeat those in society most motivated to do all they can, peacefully but firmly, to mitigate environmental collapse”.
The Policing Challenge
Of course the police are in a difficult position. Their responsibility is to keep everything moving, prevent disruption and ensure that lives and property are safe and secure. Whether or not individual officers support XR’s call for change is irrelevant to their duty. In Leeds the bridge that was closed is a bridge that has to be closed in times of violent weather, so comprehensive diversion plans are always in place. On the other hand paralysing a city centre or blockading London would have far more serious consequences. The purpose of Extinction Rebellion is to urge the government to act. Only the government can take the actions which will have a significant effect towards reducing emissions and mitigating climate change. With the best will in the world, everyone else can refuse plastic straws in their cocktails, have a meat free Monday and spend less time in the shower, but only government action can be big enough to save the planet. Until the government acts the XR approach is civil disobedience and non-violent protest. There’s every sign that it will continue indefinitely.
Last week the Policy Exchange think-tank published a report entitled “Extremism Rebellion”. No doubt which side of the debate they’re on.
One of the authors, Richard Walton, calls for politicians to stop endorsing or legitimising Extinction Rebellion, which he says promotes an ideology of ‘post capitalism’ and ‘de-growth’, encourages law-breaking, increases the burden on the UK’s police force and causes serious economic and social disruption.
Mr Walton even suggests “it is not inconceivable that some on the fringes of the movement might at some point break with organisational discipline and engage in violence” and calls for police to be significantly more proactive in enforcing laws that relate to public protest.
Or, as somebody said to me, some “false flag” protesters could commit crimes while claiming to be supporters of XR in order to damage its reputation.
Ignoring XR’s commitment to non-violent protest the report claims that its activities could escalate into offences under the Terrorism Act, and that XR should now be treated as such an organisation.
A Way with Words
That’s the last time I'm going to use the T-word in this article. The reason for this is based on something I learnt at a recent event run by the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment and the British Psychological Society. It was explained that people will remember words without necessarily remembering the context. For example: if you say that wind turbines are not very noisy, then the listener is likely to remember “wind turbine” and “noisy”. If instead you say that wind turbines are almost silent they will remember “wind turbine” and “silent” and be far more likely to be well disposed towards them. The message, of course is exactly the same.
One of the chants at XR protests is “System Change, Not Climate Change”. The Policy Exchange report sees that as an attack on capitalism and accuses XR of promoting anarchy, using it as justification for the movement to be suppressed. Many in the movement do not believe in capitalism as it currently operates, with an obsession with growth, with GDP as a crude measure of prosperity and with widening inequality between rich and poor across the world. Some believe in a steady-state economy with a more equitable distribution of resources. That’s a system change, but it certainly has nothing to do with anarchy.
The use of the T-word by Policy Exchange led to headlines in the popular press. “Give a dog a bad name,” says the old proverb, “and you may hang him.”
The story was picked up by the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. Afterwards a delegation from Extinction Rebellion met with the broadcaster and during the meeting the BBC admitted that it had broken its own editorial guidelines over the Policy Exchange report, in that the interviewer did not ask who had funded the report. Policy Exchange routinely refuses to identify its sources of funds, so here is an organisation seeking to influence public policy, yet it could be funded by the fossil fuel industry or even by foreign governments. If their research is objective and independent, why would they not reveal their backers? More worrying is the statement from the BBC that they would not rule out coverage of future anonymously funded "think-tank" reports.
It is a strategy of vested interests to set up institutes and think-tanks and issue quasi-academic reports. It was done by the tobacco industry, by the American power industry resisting controls to prevent acid rain, by the nuclear armaments industry and by the oil industry.
One thing that marked these organisations out was that they included expert scientists of the very highest international calibre, yet they were not experts in the field under study. Also some of these eminent scientists appeared in institute after institute, lending their considerable reputations to support positions that they were not qualified to judge. Compare this with the reports prepared by organisations such as the IPCC, where each document is rigorously scrutinised and peer-reviewed to assure scientific integrity.
The vested interests do everything they can to sow doubt. As long as people can be persuaded that “the science isn’t settled yet”, they will sit back confident that nothing needs to be done.
Blame The Messenger
When powerful interests want facts denied another of their tactics is to attack the messenger. You may not remember Ralph Nader, but he published a book in 1965 called “Unsafe At Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile”. Some of the cars he described were not just unsafe, they were downright dangerous. Nader is remembered as one of the first consumer champions, but the response of General Motors was to do all they could to destroy his reputation. They interviewed his friends and acquaintances and asked about his political, social and his religious views, his sexual preferences and his personal habits. They kept him under surveillance in public places, sent call girls to try and entrap him into illicit relationships; made threatening, harassing and obnoxious telephone calls to him; tapped his telephone and eavesdropped on his private conversations with others.
Nader was right, the industry was forced to build safer cars, and he successfully sued GM, which paid him $425,000 damages, which was very large sum of money in 1970. It probably helped that Nader was a lawyer.
Target the Individual
Another tactic that is used by the rich and powerful is to sue individuals rather than the media that published their views. They know that individuals will either settle or may face bankruptcy. Some go bankrupt even if they win.
In 2008 Simon Singh cast doubts on the claims of the British Chiropractic Association and was sued by them for libel. He refused to settle out of court. The first judge found the libel proven, but this was reversed on appeal. Singh was right, but the process took more than a year and cost him tens of thousands of pounds. Had he lost, he would have been bankrupt and his reputation destroyed. Had he settled, his reputation would have been severely damaged.
Much more recently, last week in fact, journalist Carole Cadwalladr has stated that she will defend the libel case brought against her by Leave. EU co-founder Arron Banks. She has won awards for her investigations into the sources of funds and the misuse of data by the Leave campaign. Arron Banks is a multi-millionaire. Carole Cadwalladr is not.
How long before the more prominent members of XR face such attacks?
There is no doubt that there are immensely powerful organisations that must radically change their business models or cease their operations altogether if the world is to avoid a climate catastrophe. It would be naive not to expect them to fight back, or to underestimate their ability to manipulate the press, politicians and social media.
It took the leak of just a few emails to destroy the position of Sir Kim Darroch, British Ambassador to Washington. And the leak of emails from the University of East Anglia is widely believed to be an attempt to derail COP15, the 2009 IPCC conference held in Copenhagen.
Something to think about as you relax with your cocktail in the sun.
We're almost in August, but unlike previous years I'm going to continue to publish because I missed a number of weeks earlier in the year. I probably won't do an episode for the bank holiday weekend. Next week's episode will be the recording of the online discussion forum which we held a couple of weeks ago. We'll repeat this in the autumn, so if you're a patron and you’d like to take part please do get in touch. And if you've got ideas, comments or opinions that you would like to share then please do get in touch as well at firstname.lastname@example.org .
That's the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday 26th July.
I'm Anthony Day.
Keep cool and have a great weekend.