In a way, it doesn’t really matter whether the Just Stop Oil activists are right about climate change or right about their demand that “the government halts all new oil and gas licences and consents". It doesn’t even matter if they are right about their tactics – including the latest protests in Shepherds Bush and Westminster, ahead of two weeks of “planned disruption” over Christmas – being necessary because the politicians are ignoring them.
Let’s just assume they are: completely right, that is. Let’s leave those arguments there, and just consider where all this direct action may be taking us.
As we see the protests growing in effectiveness and number, it seems plain that there’s nothing the authorities can do to deter these people. The police can’t be everywhere. Suella Braverman loves passing new laws with tougher penalties, but they’re useless against people who are so fanatical in their beliefs, as you would have to be to spend a couple of days dangling off a suspension bridge in a nappy. The Just Stop Oil folk won’t mind being jailed, still less fined.
Indeed, it may not be very long before some follow up a motorway stoppage with a hunger strike, on the grounds that they are political prisoners, which in a sense they are.
It’s all getting a bit feverish, and the fear, frankly, must be that sooner or later, one way or another, someone is going to get killed. And when that happens, the era of peaceful disruptive protesting will have crossed a line, and entered a new stage in its evolution – an uglier one, where these green militant movements set themselves apart from the rest of society.
Violence will become more commonplace. Martyrs will be created. There will be a feeling that the ends justify the means. The environmental movement, noble in its cause and devoted to peaceful means to achieve its ends, will end up hurting people. That is not their intention, but it’s getting out of control.
You can’t see precisely how the loss of life will happen, but you can see how it might. When I watched the video of Louise Harris, of Just Stop Oil, atop a gantry over the M25 I saw a distressed, deeply committed young person ready to sacrifice her safety for her cause. She’s perfectly right that people her age won’t have an old age unless the world does something about the climate emergency. Extinction Rebellion have named themselves right – it is about extinction.
On the other hand, it is obviously not safe for amateurs to go climbing high up motorway gantries and bridges, like the Dartford Crossing protesters did the other week. Accidents seem inevitable, even if they wear harnesses and take precautions. They could easily plunge to their deaths, with or without traffic running fast beneath them. They are putting their own lives in danger, and potentially those of others. That is also true.
Or there are the sit-down protests, also a speciality of the Insulate Britain movement. The news bulletins and YouTube are full of videos of such people blocking the roads, and enraging the drivers. Before the police manage to get there, there’s a certain ritual. They have their high viz jackets on, they find a way to stop the cars and vans, they sit down, get the banner out and have some sort of organiser patrolling around.
Then the motorists and couriers and parents taking the kids to school get out of their vehicles and beg them to shift themselves, and they obviously refuse. It gets even more tense when there’s an ambulance or fire engine stuck in the traffic, racing to save lives somewhere.
Then there’s the next phase, of passive resistance, where the drivers grab these often elderly protesters by their rucksacks and jackets and drag them on their backsides, as if lifeless, to the pavement. That’s violence. The banners are chucked aside.
The demonstrators offer only essentially passive resistance, and never put up a fight, but get up and plonk themselves back down again. Then they do it again and again, and the drivers get more and more frustrated. But what happens if one of these militant pensioners gets so roughly manhandled by a builder that they bang their head on a kerb? Surely no one wants that to happen.
A variation is when the protesters glue some part of themselves to the highway, up to and including their faces, thus immobilising themselves and unable to escape any more serious trouble. Sometimes an irate car driver will slowly move their vehicle right up against a protester to try and “nudge” them out of the way. This is not a safe procedure, nor a legal one, and the jeopardy to the protester is once again clear.
They’re brave to sit there with some deranged Range Rover mum about to flatten them, but surely this sort of confrontation is going to end badly.
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And when it does, there will be more protests, more demonstrations, very possibly more violence, and suddenly it’s no longer about greenhouse gases and draught excluders but civil rights and a more open sort of cultural war, one on the streets, one that’s hurting people, whatever their views on global warming.
I’ve avoided using the word “terrorism” because that seriously isn’t about to happen, but it seems inevitable that blameless people will get themselves hurt and hurt others, by accident, misjudgement and misadventure, and that tragedies will happen, and that’s not good.
We do also have to wonder about if and when some people in the environmental movement, normally so peaceful and humane in spirit, will be so driven by their own frustrations and the righteousness of their cause that they fall into the trap of believing that the ends justify the means, as they see the very future of humanity is at stake.
It might be that they are right, and the political system is risking them. But then what? What if direct action becomes violence against property, such as an oil refinery, road or airport, and ends up in loss of life? I don’t think it entirely implausible, as the years go on and the climate crisis turns critical. That too does make one fearful for the future.