Not long after the first of the Australian Extinction Rebellion sit-down protests, Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon spoke on radio to the effect that these traffic-disrupting acts of civil disobedience were not doing the climate-change protesters any good, at least in winning people over. The visuals on television later that day were of the disrupters at work (ie. first still, chained or glued to things, and later being carted off by the police) followed by angry commuters venting their annoyance to camera. No one that I saw was at all sympathetic to the cause. And it is hard to imagine why they ought to be, unless they were already supporters of the rebellion. I’m sure Mr Fitzgibbon is spot on about all that.
And the whole episode has made me think about what is going on here, and apparently is to continue. I was reminded of 1968 and the student and other protests of that year. The young people of 1968, part of the large post-war birth-rate, rebelled against the older generations. The young had grown up with television, which gave them a sense of what was happening elsewhere, and they were better educated, for the most part, than their parents. The revolts in Hungary, Yugoslavia and Poland in that year, the fear of a nuclear war, the conflict in Vietnam, the civil rights movements in the USA and the growth of feminism all provided grounds for protest, and attracted a large cohort of protestors across the world. My own academic body, the Australasian Political Studies Association (APSA), was meeting in 1968 as the Soviet army rolled into Czechoslovakia, and at the AGM a motion came up from the floor that APSA formally protest to the Soviet Ambassador. I was probably in sympathy with the movers of the motion, and was surprised when my elders and betters argued against it. Our body’s constitution rather prevented it anyway (I hadn’t noticed that) and one or two of our expatriate German/Jewish/refugee professors were strongly opposed: this was how Fascist and Communist parties operated, by taking over institutions through making them partisan in a particular way. APSA needed to stay out of the partisan political world. What would come next? The motion was defeated. *
The point is that the 1968 protestors in country after country had the numbers, the causes and the enemy to make a protest valid in their eyes. And they used television well. TV loves crowds, fights, teargas, and numbers to build news and stories that inform and entertain us at home. Today’s protestors have the smartphone and the Internet as well. It is pathetically easy for them to summon each other, to change plans as the situation develops and quickly to find reporters and talk to them. But why climate change? I think the answer is much as it was in 1968: it’s largely an issue where the young can blame the old for whatever evils the young can detect. And the climate-concerned (there — I didn’t say ‘alarmist’, which seems to annoy some) have been hammering away at the issue for the last thirty years, so the young have grown up with it. More, it allows references to the evil rich and the deserving poor, and most young people are relatively poor, compared with the previous generations still alive. ‘Compost the rich!’ was a banner being carried in one of the demonstrations. Really?
The mainstream media gave the protestors plenty of attention, for the reasons already set out, but I saw virtually no proper investigative journalism, the kind where the reporters ask the protestors what they actually know about the issue. There was a decent one in the UK (Andrew Neil on the BBC grilling Zion Lights — yes the BBC!), and you can read about it and see the interview here.
I haven’t found anything equivalent in Australia, and not much more overseas. In my view the media have let down the reading and viewing public badly on this issue. But that has been continually true now for a couple of decades, so it’s not surprising. I doubt that even a handful of those who protested have any real knowledge of the science, and why it is unsettled. If they did, most of them would not be protesting.
The civil disobedience aspect of all this is a major worry, in my view. The Canberra Times printed a long op ed on this question, which originally came from The Conversation. The author is a research fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Sustainable Society Institute. He takes for granted that there is a ‘climate crisis’, and concludes: As Extinction Rebellion causes chaos in our cities, we must avoid superficial, kneejerk reactions. Whatever your views on civil disobedience, the climate emergency would be far less serious if governments had taken action decades ago. Further inaction will only lead to more numerous and active social movements, driven by the same mixture of love and rage that provoked Extinction Rebellion.
What profound non-knee-jerk reactions should we have? What evidence is there for a ‘climate emergency’, anyway? What would governments have done decades ago that would have avoided in 2019 whatever emergency we are talking about? He doesn’t say. My interest lies partly in what is to follow when the protestors face court. There is no doubt whatever that the blocking of traffic by chaining yourself to an object or super-gluing your hand to the road, and forcing police and traffic people to stop what they are properly doing to end the blockage constitutes a public nuisance and no doubt other offences as well. What view will the courts take? That the protestors were just high-spirited young people having a bit of fun > slap on the wrist and don’t do it again? Will the protestors argue the laws are bad, governments have failed to act, and their actions as protestors deserve support, not censure?
I’m sure that some will want to go that way. The true protestor would plead ‘Not Guilty’ and cop the penalty. Fine. Acts of civil disobedience come with the obligation to accept that disobedience to the established law carries its own penalties, and that one recognises that time in jail, a fine, community service for a non-trivial period — whatever the penalty — has to be accepted as part of the civil disobedience, not wriggled away from on the grounds that the fate of the world is more important than the law of the land. We will see. Whatever the outcomes, there will be more fuss.
* Fond memory: I think it was at the 1968 APSA meeting that Dr Frank Knopfelmacher (Melbourne) had a quick spat with Professor Henry Mayer (Sydney). Knopfelmacher was famous for his quarrelsome style. Mayer had made a statement, I no longer remember its content, and Knopfelmacher, in his languid and accented English, responded ‘Strangely, I find myself in agreement with Professor Mayer…’ to which Mayer said, very quickly, and loudly, ‘I must be wrong!’