Endless debates about soup and paintings serve those who’d prefer we ignore the climate crisis

Opponents of meaningful action are trying to sidestep the immediacy of the threat to our planet

Expert opinion is settled and public opinion united on the urgency of climate action. If our politics or our discourse were in any way functional, there would be no confusion, no debate. We would simply be proceeding from one bold practical action to the next, following the blueprints laid out by the Climate Change Committee.

Instead, we have energy policies stitched together from reheated cliches, which on the one hand doesn’t matter, since no prime minister has been stable or focused enough to iterate them since Brexit, but on the other hand does matter. There is nothing more depressing than to go back to Amber Rudd’s “energy reset” speech of 2015: what if, instead of dismissing renewables incentives as “Blairite”, she’d actually taken them seriously and built on them? What if she’d pushed energy-efficient homes instead of the “unfettered market”, what if she’d made a plan to reduce dependence on gas from Vladimir Putin rather than increase it? “Spoiler alert,” wrote the renewables entrepreneur Bruce Davis at the time: “this doesn’t end well for bill payers.” And nor has it.

Obviously, Conservatives are only interested in their own internal dumb-and-dumber popularity contests, and cannot be trusted to make sound, long-term decisions in the national interest. They degrade everything in public life. But they only get away with this because of the discursive cover provided by pointless debates about climate action.

The 2010s saw skirmishes on the theme of: what’s more important, individual action or system change? What was the point of recycling when big business wasn’t making the changes required? Why insulate homes on the government’s dime when it could be faster to all go vegan? The question of individual responsibility raised the spectres of class and wealth: isn’t this just middle-class censoriousness? What if you can’t afford to eat only plant-based and organic? We were shuffled into silos determined by our wealth and privilege: a person on a high income could never share the attitudes of someone on a low income, therefore collective action was impossible.

A member of the public drags a Just Stop Oil demonstrator out of the way of traffic on Park Lane in London.
‘If your aim is to make an impact, any discussion, approving or not, gives you a boost.’ Just Stop Oil demonstrator on Park Lane in London. Photograph: Hollie Adams/Getty Images

This decade, that debate has been replaced with “what counts as a reasonable disruption, from a climate change activist?”. (Still with a side-order of seeking to stratify environmental action along class lines: much hay was made of the fact that one Just Stop Oil activist is called Indigo Rumbelow. Her detractors don’t even bother to explain any more why people with middle-class names can’t be credible activists, it’s just taken as a given.)

Is it reasonable for Extinction Rebellion to stop traffic? What if an ambulance can’t get through? Should people glue themselves to trains? What if people can’t get to work? What about throwing soup? But art! These discussions are pretty circular, and often have the pleasing effect of doing activists’ jobs for them: if your aim is to make an impact, any discussion, approving or not, gives you a boost.

But it’s the wrong conversation, since it chases activism down to its most absolute form, and risks alienating those who wouldn’t risk it all to glue themselves to a motorway. Consensus survives when it can accommodate a spectrum: degrees of commitment, certainty, risk-aversion, determination. Mass movements are built when the person who’s happy to be arrested after a week in a tree can work in harmony with a person who can afford to take a one-day climate strike, but definitely can’t get the childcare to spend a night on remand. The rigid focus, which dominates the government and much of the media, on how much activism is too much, isn’t designed to score any points about civil disobedience, but to destroy the unity that is the last real hope for any meaningful action. These divisions are just projected by a cynical commentary, and don’t reflect any serious engagement with the movement or the discussions within it.

Last week, the Green peer Jenny Jones hosted a meeting in the House of Lords on this question: is a mass movement possible and how could it be built? Rupert Read, one of the founders of Extinction Rebellion, introduced the idea of a “moderate flank”. He argued for civil disobedience on a mass scale, and considered what that would have to look like in order to draw in the millions of supporters it would need. John Foster, author of Realism and the Climate Crisis, replied that vast grassroots movements were too slow, and activism would always be the preserve of an intellectual elite; indeed, democracy itself was too slow for the challenges ahead. An audience member asked, can we not just do both? What’s wrong with a mass movement and an activist hardcore?

This should have been the answer to everything, this entire century: both individual action and systemic change; both extralegal protest actions and legal ones; both glue and writing to your MP. The either/or frame was invented by people who would prefer to do nothing.

  • Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

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Zoe Williams

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