Writing: Max Hunter
Illustration: Erica Zaja
You get a hell of a view from North Bridge. This artery connects Edinburgh’s north and south: the old and the new. It spans the chasm of Waverley, bringing commuters and tourists up from the bustling commercial centres and Georgian grandeur of the New Town, to the ancient quirkiness of the Old Town. Its symbolic importance for our city cannot be overstated. On Tuesday, we had the pleasure of imagining that space as something else, as what it will have to become if we are to survive the coming crisis. We all-too-briefly ended a tyranny that governs us so absolutely, we cannot imagine life without it. The reality of a public space so central to our city’s identity and utility, governed by the tyranny of the automobile: small metal boxes which carry an individual, or at most five or six people, to wherever they desire. All the while burning dirty fuels that are running out; fuels that are rising every year in cost – not just in dollars but in human lives and the ecosystems upon which we all, ultimately, rely for our survival. The symbolism of cars: their waste, their expense, the consumerist self-satisfaction that is inseparable from their design and conception, the individualistic ethos that they incubate and emit, along with all those other toxins. That is something we can surely learn to live without. And indeed we will have to.
Extinction Rebellion certainly thinks so. On 16th April they shut down the bridge. At 3 pm two co-ordinated roadblocks interceded at the north and south end of the bridge. Traffic was stalled, and protesters flooded the road holding banners aloft. This was done with the co-operation of the police, who formed up into a rank facing us. This so-far, so-friendly stand-off was duplicated down at the north end of the bridge. Above their faces – generally expressionless and professional – I could see gulls circling down South Bridge, in a sky that seemed grey and passive. Pretty soon the atmosphere became more relaxed, and a carnival mood started to take hold. A samba band stirred us with their incessant, uncompromising rhythm; a skeletal puppet held several feet in the sky wandered between the two camps. It seemed a ghoulish premonition of things to come.
Looking around, I couldn’t help but despair at the correlation between concern for the environment and white people with dreadlocks. But this is too flippant: those protesting our government’s shameful dereliction of duty don’t fit so easily into these stereotypes of privilege. Tuesday was witness to a rich tapestry. I tried to investigate this a bit further and see to what extent these protesters really do fall into the age-old trope. I spoke to a few people on the bridge, some protesting and others just passing by. I tried to get a feeling for their optimism, or the lack thereof. One man leafleting had come through from Glasgow for the day; I asked him if this gave him hope for a resolution. “I’m not convinced, to be honest. But I’m not going down without a fight.” Interestingly, he said he’d seen this coming in the ‘70s. Well, you’ve got that in common with the overwhelming majority of scientists, I thought. Others were angry with governmental inaction.
More than anything, there was contempt for the lack of honesty that our leaders continue to display. “It’s the only hope we have” one guy said. I remembered a chant I kept hearing that day: “Climate change and exploitation/ are not caused by immigration/ bullshit, come off it/ the enemy is profit!” I asked him if this risked alienating some supporters, or whether they were on to something bigger. “Profit is definitely part of the problem. The idea of infinite compound growth is a fantasy. We need a change in the modes of production.”
A few hours later tensions came to a head. After suffering our presence for about 3 and half hours, the police decided they had had enough. From the ranks of high-vis at the north end of the bridge came a loud-hailer declaration: that we were disturbing the peace and that it was their intention to re-open the bridge. At the briefing before the action, we had been given detailed instructions as to our legal situation. The police had been informed, they said, and Extinction Rebellion’s police-liaison officers were trying to establish a relationship built on trust. The police had been told we would be there until 9, but it was stressed that we didn’t really know what they would do. We were told what to do in case of arrest; we were even graded according to “arrestability”.
This was all very exciting to a naïve, untested activist. But as the reality grew starker, and as the loud-hailer went through the various stages of legal warning, my thoughts got a little clearer. What would getting arrested really achieve, apart from ruining my evening? The hypocrisy of that realisation, resting alongside my self-confessed willingness to disrupt a great many other people’s evenings, continues to sit uncomfortably with me. We’d been hanging around, refusing to move, but eyeing the high-vis with a wary eye, when the barked order was given for the police to advance. We walked slowly backwards, leaving behind those seated heroes who had refused to budge. Among them were an older couple that my companion and I had briefly talked to.
The man was originally from Gloucestershire, but had made Scotland his home. I had the most cogent, clear-headed, and hopeful political conversation with him that I have had in some time. Student politics too easily falls into the broadcasting of moral outrage for social brownie points. This man had no time for such shenanigans. He compared the attention that climate debates got in the Scottish parliament with what they received in Westminster. I agreed that Scotland seemed a friendlier political atmosphere for progressive ideas. I said I was loathe, on account of my family background, to split up our union, but that with every passing day there seemed a stronger case for it. “It’s going in the wrong direction really, isn’t it?” he said. “We should be coming together, not splitting apart.” As you read this, it is worth remembering that at the time of writing, 682 people have so far been arrested in London for similar acts of civil disobedience. Now as the gulls circled, and a rank of police stared on, I stood on tiptoes to peer behind them. That old man had bundled up his jacket and was sitting calmly with legs crossed, beside his wife, in a line of ten or eight others. Their grandchildren’s well-being and prosperity were at stake. This was very much their fight, and they weren’t going anywhere. About 30 minutes later my companion and I watched, as the evening grew colder, with a curious mixture of pride and shame, while they were carried away one-by-one into a public bus to be searched prior to being taken into custody.
The object of this action was disruption: a halt to business-as-usual. This is a point that truly needs making. The gravity, severity, and immediacy of this problem must be brought to public attention. Climate change is an issue which occupies about a tenth of our public discourse. It should be nearer to nine tenths. Its effects are already being felt by the world’s poorest and weakest. Those of us in the Global North have a rapidly diminishing time-frame in which to change our ways. Meanwhile our political conversation has been hijacked by the pet-project of empire-revival fantasists. The greatest tragedy of Brexit is not the event itself, it is the time wasted talking about it. In so many respects, we are moving foolishly, steadfastly, and perhaps irrevocably in the wrong direction. If there is one message that the people of Edinburgh – and of the UK – should take from this week’s disruption, it is the urgency that brings us to this protest. This action is not taken lightly, and this is not a struggle we sought: it has been forced upon us. The disruption to people’s lives is something of a nuisance, but the scale of the tragedy we are facing is immeasurably greater. Complaining about not being able to get to work on time, one day in the calendar year, when some of the world’s major cities will soon be under water, and when whole species have been driven to extinction, shows an appalling lack of empathy or understanding. It is the clearest manifestation of the selfishness and ignorance with which we will have to contend in order to tackle climate change. We have known about this problem since the 1970s. If power refuses to heed science, then we must find another way to grab its attention.
Extinction Rebellion has three demands. The first: that our government tells the truth about the scale, the sheer magnitude, of the crisis we are facing. This would be a clear departure from previous policy. Second (and perhaps most controversially): that we achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2025. Thirdly (and perhaps most intriguingly): the establishment of Citizens’ Assemblies. These consist of 100 or so citizens, all on the electoral register, chosen randomly across a representative spread of the population according to several demographic factors, such as age, gender, ethnicity, region, etc. This idea has an undeniably glamorous ring to it. In one stroke, it promises to cut through the tangled mess that our politics have become. An apocalyptic vision of our political development might be sketched as a mounting, dangerous dichotomy between parliament and ‘the will of the people’. The former represents privilege, authority. and the educational elitism that voters have been trashing recently; the latter an ill-defined, hazy, and vague populism that easily accommodates the whims of demagogues and the rhetoric of xenophobia, not to mention policy ignorance. Extinction Rebellion wants Citizens’ Assemblies to ‘oversee’ the changes brought about by their first and second demands.
These changes, by any stretch of the imagination, will have to be drastic: drastic in a sense unprecedented to the usually slow-moving, gradual-evolution style of politics that the British Isles (at least on this side of the Irish Sea) have become accustomed to. Think less Atlee’s ’45, more Stalin’s 5 year plans. But even in that flippant summary, there is a PR problem that we will have to deal with. We are accustomed to thinking of radical change as the preserve of authoritarian politics, and perhaps not wrongly. History is littered with examples of fast-paced change brought to bear by tyrants. Extinction Rebellion represents a challenge to this convention. There is something in their organisation, doctrine, and culture that speaks of change from the bottom-up: autonomy is central to their belief structure. However credibly you take this, a bottom-up approach is what we will need to fight this crisis. Citizens’ Assemblies represent a chance to synthesise the popular will with concern for the facts, to give a voice to the voiceless and bypass the poisonous dichotomy previously mentioned. They are not a silver bullet, but they are a crucial part of the picture, which we neglect at our peril.