Questions are being raised about whether the environmental group has a class problem.
Extinction Rebellion (XR), an environmental group, aims to pressure the UK government into becoming carbon-neutral by 2025 by causing “maximum disruption”. So last Thursday a couple of XR members climbed on top of tube carriages at London’s Canning Town station during rush hour. Furious commuters responded by shouting insults and hurling items at the protestors, before dragging one of the XR protesters to the ground and beating him up.
Despite the violence, most of the comments on a Twitter video of the incident sided with the commuters. Even Extinction Rebellion’s own HQ says the tube protest was a mistake and that many XR members were “upset and so dismayed” it was done. Why?
Part of the problem is that to some, XR comes across as only representing a certain group of people - people who are more middle-class or left-wing than average, and who have the luxury of taking time off work to participate in climate ‘strikes’ and other protests. And by picking a tube station in rush hour, XR showed a particular obliviousness to the fact that for some people being late to work means forgoing pay or being fired. Canning Town was an especially bad choice in this regard. As one of London’s poorest boroughs its residents are much more likely than average to be working in the sort of low-pay, zero-hour, insecure type of jobs than penalise tardiness.
People can agree with XR that climate change is an “emergency” and also want to prioritise paying their bills and feeding their family over sending a message to the UK government. By not realising that, XR risked turning people not only off it as a group but off its cause entirely. There is evidence - look no further than America - that when people see environmentalism as associated with a wider set of political ideas they dislike (like socialism or liberalism) they start opposing it. But XR needs large swathes of the country to agree with its carbon-neutral aim if it’s going to achieve it. Democratic governments, after all, win elections by promising to implement the desires of the majority.
Read our explainer on: socio-economic class.