The Need for a ‘Moderate Flank’ in Climate Activism

By Rupert Read and Joseph Eastoe.

This article originally appeared in the Byline Times.

‘Environmental’ awareness has exploded in recent years.

A previously marginalised movement and an under-acknowledged debate was at last thrust to the forefront through Greta Thunberg and her ‘Fridays For Future’ and the Extinction Rebellion (XR) group.

The crucial feature about these new movements is the way in which they were designed to utilise extra-legal action. In the case of the school climate strikes, this has been systematic non-attendance at school. For XR, it takes the form of mass civil disobedience on the streets.

Drawing on successful precedents from history – including how the emergence of radical feminists in the 1960s made reformist feminism seem mild and unobjectionable – XR was explicitly designed as a ‘radical flank’ to the existing environmental movement. It was designed to be bolder and to go further than it. The goals of the existing movement would be made to seem more modest and reasonable, by way of being ‘outflanked’ by XR.

In this way, even if it was not successful in achieving its own aims, it would help legitimise the movement at large. In this sense, XR’s radical nature was a tactical choice.

And whatever else can be said about it, XR has galvanised a social awakening about a set of issues that will determine whether or not a decent future is possible for us; issues which were not receiving the attention they urgently deserve.

On the other hand, XR has progressively taken more risks and ‘escalated’ it actions and, as a result, it has become more polarising and unpopular. Radicalism may have some tactical advantages, but it also comes with a price. According to a 2021 YouGov poll, only 17% of those surveyed have a positive opinion of XR, whereas 41% have a negative opinion. Just two years ago, the movement’s approval rating was 36% – more than double the current figure. It is therefore important to remember that radical flank effects can be negative as well as positive – they can discredit the entire cause, as well as making more room for it.

Such divisiveness around XR is by no means to be equated with divisiveness over environmental issues. Indeed, there is now overwhelming support from the British public to deal with dangerous anthropogenic climate change and the ecological crisis – partly as a result of the agenda-shift that XR has successfully helped to achieve.

In the largest poll to date conducted on climate change in 2021, 81% of those surveyed in Britain said that climate chance was a global emergency – the highest proportion in the world. Moreover, 67% of those surveyed want the UK to lead the world when it comes to tackling the issue. However, only 35% of those surveyed believe that Prime Minister Boris Johnson can be trusted to make the right decisions on climate change and the environment, with a majority (57%) believing that he cannot. 27% of those surveyed believe that the UK is doing enough to curtail carbon emissions, with a majority (51%) believing that the UK is not doing enough.  

This is strong evidence that XR’s basic strategy has worked. The significant rise in these figures in the past few years – particularly in the UK, the country in which XR was founded and has been strongest – was achieved in large part by XR changing the conversation.

 

The Limits of XR’s Growth

 

One thing that XR is certainly right about it is that time is running out to do something about the climate emergency. Thus, maximising the efficacy of eco-activism is essential.

An important correlation between the achievement of a social movement’s goal is with the size of its bottom-up base of support. Is there scope for XR to grow or has it hit its ceiling?

Since autumn 2019 – when the Canning Town debacle cast a shadow over XR from which it is yet to recover – the movement has shrunk. It has achieved some remarkable things since then, including stopping the Murdoch press for a day; and having some juries and magistrates find rebels not guilty despite the facts of their cases not being in dispute.

However, going forward, it is likely that XR has fundamentally achieved what it can as a radical flank – moving the centre of gravity of public opinion on climate and nature. Very large numbers of the population who are not already active in XR don’t show any likelihood to get involved in an organisation they perceive as too radical. This difficulty has been underscored by the further escalation of tactics understandably pursued recently, such as moving to window-breaking.

To maximise the number of people who would be willing to demand more from the Government, our case is that there now needs to be a more ‘moderate flank’. To capitalise on its success as a radical flank, new organisations are required that don’t labour under XR’s reputational difficulties and which are capable of attracting significantly wider public appeal.

There is also a more pragmatic, political dimension to this. When XR makes demands, regardless of how reasonable they are, it is too easy for those in power to play politics. Faced with an organisation that only has a 17% approval rating demanding environmental reform, it becomes easy for the Government to demonise it and to ignore its demands. Imagine roughly the same demands coming from an organisation with a 50% approval rating, or 60%. Or 70%. Would the Government simply be able to ignore them then?  

Thus, the moderate flank of environmental activism is required for both bottom-up and top-down reasons.

The former would maximise the number of activists willing to involve themselves in eco-activism – and, in our view, this would need to focus specifically on involving parents. As is observed in the book Parents for a Future: “By focusing our minds on the young vulnerable generation that we lavish our love upon, [we] will appeal not only to anyone who’s ever had children, but to anyone who understands the duty of care that parenthood entails”.

The top-down motivation for a moderate flank is that the acceptance of demands from eco-activists would be more appealing to politicians if it comes from an organisation that has high levels of approval amongst citizens. We must ensure that we do not lose the millions of voices crying out for change by only giving them the option of XR – or nothing.

We must ensure that we eliminate any excuses from those in power to not do what is necessary.

The ‘moderate flank’ concept was co-created by Rupert Read and Adam Woodhall. They will be developing this proposal in the coming weeks and months. ‘Parents for a Future’ by Rupert Read is available now.

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