These Extinction rebels are putting politics before planet

Large scale demonstration organised by climate change protest group Extinction Rebellion 
A demonstration in Piccadilly Circus, London, organised by the protest group Extinction Rebellion

The group's silliness must not hide the fact that markets are now driving a greener approach

Gosh, it’s so easy to mock the Extinction Rebellion lot that it almost takes the fun out of it. Almost.

On Thursday I walked around their camp in Trafalgar Square. Between two exits of the roundabout, a group was holding a “people’s assembly”. A woman called Rachel was whipping up the crowd. “So,” she said, “if we’re positive about it, then… yay!” Her audience, including one dressed as a Red Indian, another in a pith helmet and several lying in bathtubs, looked up belatedly from their phones and clapped.

A man started playing Darth Vader’s theme tune on a trumpet. A pink wheelbarrow full of apples trundled past. A little boy stood at an art stand, choosing a print for a t-shirt. He requested a crocodile. Sadly, the only available options were an egg timer, an eye and a skull. There are no creatures where you’re going, little Jonny – only death.

Nearby, a woman was arguing that austerity was to blame for “eco-anxiety” among children. She was drowned out by a march protesting animal rights and pleaded, irritably, for the crowd’s attention. At the top of the Mall, a man tried to lead a meditation session: “Make a sound. Allow yourself to open up and connect.” No one did, so he hummed. Half the crowd hummed back, uncertainly.

Alright, enough. Like I said, it’s too easy. For all the silliness, there is a serious point here. Humanity’s impact on the environment has accelerated in the last half century. CO2 emissions have doubled in the last 50 years and the consensus is that it’s too late to stop warming of 1.5 degrees C. A huge proportion of vertebrate species populations are in decline and the range of places they live is narrowing dramatically. And we are losing ancient forests at unprecedented rates.

Against these worrying trends, sceptics point to others. Global land temperature rises paused from 2007 to 2012. Many animal studies don’t include invertebrates or urban wildlife. We are losing trees, but also planting them at record rates. Yet for every encouraging fact, there is a counter: ocean temperature rises have not paused but accelerated. Species studies might disagree on details, but show similar trends. And while it’s great to plant trees, new forests don’t absorb as much pollution or host as much biodiversity as old forests.

Of course, there are many unknowns. But given the compelling evidence of these worrying trends, anyone with a basic sense of prudence should be alarmed. Even an uncertain risk of a potentially very destructive event justifies action.

So, in a sense, it’s easy to agree with a basic tenet of the Extinction movement. The problem is that, despite their claim to be concerned with the environment, it is just one of their conflicting priorities. The others are an anxious blend of political resentment, spiritual desolation, creative expression, obsessive anti-capitalism and public group therapy.

At Thursday’s protests, one man called Joe declared that everyone at the protest should “acknowledge that we all feel guilt”, but that they ought “not to internalise that guilt but to externalise it as love and rage at the system”. At another tent, a man with an origami BP logo strung around his neck declared: “A lot of the reason why we’re in the climate crisis is because of colonialism.” He urged his audience to “make these connections between these struggles”. “These connections”, though, are precisely the problem.

“These connections” amount to an elaborate theory, which goes like this: the first countries to develop capitalism exploited poor countries to get rich. In doing so, they produced the first carbon emissions, starting us on the road to hell. Now that the great extinction is nearly upon us, those same poor countries are the first to suffer. Rich, capitalist countries have a “climate debt” and must pay up to achieve “climate justice” and avoid “extinction”. What’s required is a revolution to overthrow capitalism, the system that begat all these problems.

This is, you will notice, a highly religious framework, with a concept of judgment day, original sin and redemption achieved by confession and good works. We could spend hours plumbing the psychological basis of this religion – the causes of the rage felt by the teenager, Greta Thunberg, the activists’ consumerist addictions, materialist guilt, self-hatred, family trauma, and so on.

I prefer to stick to the topic at hand: how to halt environmental degradation. Here is how an actual scientist, one of the authors of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on 1.5 degrees’ warming, put it on Newsnight: “I don’t know if we’ve got time to overturn capitalism first and solve climate change later. I’d rather enlist some of the forces we’ve got available to us today.” This was a polite way of putting it. You see, if the overriding priority is to solve the problem, rather than to subject everyone to your drama performances, then the best strategy is to embrace and use market capitalism, rather than attack it.

This is precisely what governments and investors are currently doing. A glance at the research agenda of analysts at Goldman Sachs gives the game away. One report describes, “how Big Oils and Big Utilities can profitably enable a $16-30 trillion clean energy infrastructure investment”. It notes that half of major European oil firms’ investment budgets are being spent on low carbon energy, driven by a surge of shareholder concern.

Another report describes the “monumental opportunity” and “booming investment” in offshore wind. Yet another analyses the coming “electric vehicle boom”, noting that “the internal combustion engine is entering its twilight years” (notwithstanding James Dyson giving up on his attempt). Whether it’s solar power, wind power or energy storage, costs are plummeting. Car firms are racing to develop battery technology. This might have been triggered by government incentives, many of them flawed in design, but it tells the story of the market’s transformative power, rather than its inherent evil. Businesses are desperate to get a slice of the green pie, as they should be.

What the Extinction Rebellion protesters don’t realise is that they have been overtaken by markets. Investors can see the writing on the wall and are acting accordingly. If this change isn’t happening fast enough, it is mainly because China – a supposedly socialist country – has embarked upon an orgy of coal-fired plant building. In fact, whatever you think about market economies, history tells us that there is at least one other system we know is downright lethal to the environment: revolutionary communism.