“All progress depends on the unreasonable man” ~ George Bernard Shaw
If we continue to just ‘do our bit’ for the environment we are going to hell in a handcart, Extinction Rebellion spokesperson, Adam Woodhall warned the energy industry yesterday.
Speaking on the keynote panel at the annual Energy Live Expo in London, Woodhall said the failure of the ‘do your bit’ narrative of industry to stop a rise in global emissions made the Extinction Rebellion movement a logical next step to harness societal and governmental change. Fellow panelists - all experts and veterans in the energy sector - agreed. The shared consensus across the panel was that there is legitimacy in Extinction Rebellion’s non-violent civil disobedience campaigns given the desperately precarious trajectory we are on heading to 1.5°C+ global warming.
Two decades ago, in a previous career incarnation, I produced business conferences for the UK energy sector. At the end of the last millennium, climate change was a sidelined footnote in energy debates about demand forecasting and gas storage solutions. Fast forward 20 years and climate breakdown takes centre stage. At yesterday’s opening session, Energy Live News Editor, Sumit Bose, asked how many in the audience supported the non-violent civil disobedience actions of XR - and it was nearly all hands in the air. In the sessions that followed, Energy Managers presented their net zero carbon journeys of their company. Sustainability Managers talked waste heat recovery in facilities. There was talk of the ‘Blue Planet’ effect, and praise for the bravery of one 16 year old Swedish school student, Greta Thunberg, and activism of 93 year old David Attenborough. And all this support for the actions of XR. Times they are a changing. But what is now to be done, and how fast can decarbonisation happen?
The burgeoning Extinction Rebellion movement does not put forward a definitive range of preferred options for mitigating against climate heating, instead it advocates the tough decisions be put to the people for decision making. Woodhall's fellow panelist, Kirsty Gogan of Energy for Humanity, agreed with XR’s emphasis on the importance of citizen’s juries, or citizen’s assemblies. She said when you bring together a representative demographic and give them a deeper understanding of technical issues they tend to arrive at the same conclusions as experts - whether it be climate change or abortion. Yet unlike options presented by experts, informed citizens’ decision making on tough issues has an accepted public mandate. Rapid decarbonisation demands uptake of the range of available technology, one of which is nuclear, a widespread taboo subject which she argues must be looked at again, and citizen’s assemblies are a platform to delve into this prickly subject.
It is this public mandate which is central to the actions of Extinction Rebellion. Love them or hate them, XR have put climate change into the mainstream vernacular. At last. Adam Woodhall - by day a writer for the Economist and sustainability consultant - argued commentators are wrong in describing XR as just another iteration of the older environmental movement. He argues XR is fundamentally different. Its decentralised decision making - and exponential growth in under a year - means not all the actions will be agreed by all and actions will not be dictated from above. And unlike past movements, the raison d'etre of XR is to not be reasonable. This is not a 9-5 job, or a pleasant hobby. On Waterloo Bridge and Westerminster in February 2003 a million people gathered to protest the imminent invasion of Iraq. We all politely went home at the end of the day and the voices were ignored. What may have happened if they all sat down and refused to budge? In April this year, this is exactly what XR did. They lay down, set up camp, some glued themselves to the street. Inconvenient, disobedient. And they have been heard, with the government declaring a climate emergency shortly thereafter, with barely a murmur of disagreement.
Mike Hughes, President of Schneider Electric, agreed with the ‘unreasonable’ element of XR, referring to the quote from George Bernard Shaw ‘All human progress comes from unreasonable men’. Emotion, he said, was the push needed in the climate change narrative. It can no longer remain a purely technical topic, but part of the emotional message of this story for action and understanding.
Also, Steve Halliday, former CEO of National Grid and new President of the Energy Institute, was on the panel and voiced support for the energy behind XR’s actions. He agreed the sense of rebellion, chaos and revolution was warranted after the ‘straight line, linear thinking’ of the past have failed to significantly alter human behaviour and consumption. We’ve done the easy stuff with energy reductions, he said, now we need to use every available energy source there is, pushing behaviour change on an individual level and business level, and urgent government regulation to speed it up. A warning to XR, however, is to look closely at the evidence behind all low or zero carbon options, and avoid the danger of falling down a ‘dark alley of mythology’.
The stakeholders in the room are in a place to take drastic action. Exponential advances in renewables, waste to heat, electrifying fleets, the nuclear option, heat pumps - all this and more are on the table for rapid decarbonisation. The tools are available for the technical revolution. Hard decisions, painful decisions lie ahead for industry, for government, for individual choices. But any pain now, as Adam Woodhall pointed out, is far less painful than strife, revolt and calamity that lies ahead if we fail to drastically decarbonise. Right now.
That’s why I support the inconvenient and noisy disobedience of Extinction Rebellion. We now all have to be environmentalists - whether we like it or not.
Alison Baker, Founder, Ally Bee Knitwear & Co-founder of In The Drink UK