Extreme political discourse pushes public opinion. graphics by Adam Walsh

The Extinction Rebellion adds a new angle to climate discourse

Their demands are radical, and their methods are equally frightening.

With the resurgence of climate change in the media, an enterprising group was bound to take advantage of the political spotlight. The Extinction Rebellion, a group formed in May 2018, has swelled immensely, gathering new activists in this post-Greta Thunberg reality. The exact number of members is unreliable, but the group formed and grew rapidly, with close to 6,000 protestors activated in November 2018 during their initial protests in London.

This week the group has taken to the streets in Berlin, London, Melbourne and New York City, crossing international boundaries ranging from Germany, England, Australia and the United States respectively. Over the past five days, 1,300 members of the Extinction Rebellion were arrested in England, along with several hundred more in New York and Australia. Germany is doing what it can already, with Chancellor Angela Merkel attempting to put together a packet of climate change laws to present to parliament, which highlights how ineffective and out-of-touch these groups often are. Germany is doing the best it can, setting aggressive timelines on both nuclear decommission and reliance on coal, but the Extinction Rebellion still wants to protest there.

The group’s goals are ambitious, wanting laws forcing governments to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2025, which is about as realistic a goal as me getting a decent haircut, and that draws a line for me. We cannot make miracles happen, and planning large protests in a country allied to their cause tells me they are not the most savvy politicians. The group’s tactics also present a problem. Supposedly relying on civil disobedience and peaceful protesting, the group has protected individuals that destroyed private property, with one incident in April 2019 where nine activists shattered windows and spray painted a local Shell company headquarters, leading to a £6,000 (approximately $7,580) bill in damages. The Extinction Rebellion official website did not encourage these actions, but certainly did not condemn them either. For an organization that states that they “are a non-violent network using non-violent strategy and tactics as the most effective way to bring about change,” not actively condemning the actions of a rogue cell is sketchy.

A third issue is of demography. Whispers of white privilege float around, with critics saying the primarily white group has little to lose when arrested, implying that they will receive leniency in a biased court system. Also, the correlating critique that these arrests are wasting police resources actively besmirches their goals: how can the government spend more on climate preservation when all of these supposed activists keep siphoning funds by getting arrested?

There is an alternative reading. Perhaps the leaders of the Extinction Rebellion, Roger Hallam and Gail Bradbrook, understand their goals are impossible, which brings into question the intention of these radical fringe groups. Through the power of MS Paint, I can illustrate a possible explanation.

Looking at figure 1.1, a simple drawing of a political number line, with the right and left party sides, and a nice center median for the independents, where no fringe groups, no radicals, no monkey wrenches complicate things. The median is occupied by the greatest number of people and decreases as one moves away from the center. However, the further from the median one goes, individuals will become more outspoken in their beliefs. This center median and the area immediately around it is named the Overton Window, a political term that indicates the survivability of an idea based on how compatible it is with the Median’s accepted ideas.

Figure 1.2 illustrates what happens when a fringe group, like the Extinction Rebellion, develops, with the group pulling on the median. While such a group might have outlandish ideas, they make other, less strict ideas more palatable, indirectly lending more credence to what was originally the left side of the political spectrum. As more people become accustomed to these radical beliefs, they often times start supporting the simplified, less strict versions.

In the case of the Extinction Rebellion, one might not stop eating meat, but will start looking more carefully at candidates’ views on climate change, stirring the pot in the voting booth. This slow shift in ideology is the true goal of a fringe group; most radical groups are not aiming to completely convert the masses, instead preferring to isolate rivals through poaching their powerbases.

The creation of one of these groups is a manufactured political action, and figure 1.3 indicates the power struggle between radical groups, with each side attempting to create more and more extreme views to normalize something abhorrent to the common person. In the most basic sense, politics is a game of tug-of-war, with each party attempting to pull the rope to their side in key moments, like elections. While my diagrams are exceedingly simple, it is always important to look at the motives behind these groups and how one’s views change in relation to them. You might start seeing subtle changes that you do not expect. Everything relating to politics is fundamentally intended to influence your mind. I recommend examining your personal beliefs instead of simply listening to what each of these groups say.

Post Author: Adam Walsh