Monday 11 November 2019

Emer O'Hanlon: 'Watching from seized-up London, I'm happy to see Ireland isn't so extreme'

Extinction Rebellion may be smart but their protests make everyday life a total nightmare, writes Emer O'Hanlon

Branching out: Extinction Rebellion protesters during a march to Leinster House. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Branching out: Extinction Rebellion protesters during a march to Leinster House. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

You've got to hand it to Extinction Rebellion - they know how to get people talking about them. Everyone heard of their antics last week, whether it's people storming Penneys, or chaining themselves to the Dail, or taking part in a 'cycling' march. I'm talking about the situation in Dublin, which has so far stayed on the right side of reasonable. Looking at the situation from London, I'm glad people in Ireland aren't falling for the extremism in the same numbers that I'm seeing here.

Getting to work has been a nightmare, though that's not a problem for protesters from Extinction Rebellion who don't appear to have jobs to go to. In London alone, they have blocked off a significant portion of the city from traffic, from Westminster to Trafalgar Square; they have arranged mass occupations at City Airport, and wholesale markets such as Smithfield and Billingsgate.

It's not designed to make you feel great solidarity with people gluing themselves to the road and shutting off bus lanes. Isn't public transport supposed to be the answer? A few times I just gave up and walked to and from home. I'm lucky I can do that, as I live centrally, but it's not possible for most people. It still takes me an hour to walk, more if I make a detour, which I've been doing so I don't have to see people doing yoga on bridges, because that just makes me even more annoyed on behalf of all the people whose lives have been disrupted by the protest.

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Extinction Rebellion claim it is their right to peacefully protest, and they're right. I would further agree that there is some sense in their aim that governments around the world declare an ecological emergency and make it a priority to reach carbon neutrality. In reality though, whether it's the march through London in which participants wore grieving clothes and performed mourning ceremonies, or groups of teenagers in tears because they think that they will die in ten years - it just becomes clear that Extinction Rebellion uses scare tactics to get people on board with its message.

Just because climate change is an emotive issue doesn't mean we should resort to extremist language and claims. The abortion referendum in Ireland was extremely polarising too, with accusations of murdering babies on one side and policing women's bodies on the other, but it was still possible (largely) to have a reasoned debate.

To Extinction Rebellion, however, refusing to be emotionally blackmailed by their scaremongering, or questioning some of their statistics, amounts to climate change denial.

In a segment filmed for BBC Politics Live last Wednesday, a member of the group in Leeds said that she was not personally cutting down her meat and dairy consumption, or stopping using cars or planes, because she thought it was "wrong to ask each individual to take total responsibility for that. I think that change needs to come from the top down".

Extinction Rebellion is trying to have it both ways. They want to emphasise individual responsibility when it comes to the right to protest, but not when it comes to changing their own behaviour. Of course, there are many individuals who do practise environmentally conscious living, but as a whole, the group does not advocate for it. What they are interested in is governmental policy.

Taken together with the private jet owners who have joined the protests, the rubbish left on the streets afterwards, the extra pollution caused in other areas by diverting traffic - what it all comes down to is eschewing personal responsibility, in favour of protesting for unachievable demands. It feeds an individual desire to feel that you are doing something to help the situation, but does not stop you doing what you want to do anyway.

In some cases, the protesters seem to lack normal human response. I've seen supposedly educated people show a shocking lack of empathy when confronted with the consequences of their actions. When one hospital was temporarily cut off, some protesters were quoted saying that it was wrong to concentrate on a few people in ambulances when we're all going to die soon anyway if we don't do something about climate change. Fervour has made them cruel.

What I saw on the streets last week was not a coherent and savvy political campaign, or a moving demonstration of the collective power of individuals rising up for their rights. What I saw was scaremongering, fanaticism, and an extreme kind of performance art. They're not really winning people round. I'm just glad that Irish people have so far resisted the madness to the same extent, though for how long, who knows?

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