Insulate Britain’s use of civil disobedience to fight the climate catastrophe was a catastrophe in itself. Search for the pressure group on YouTube and you see clips of delighted rightwing journalists taking apart its leaders. Sympathisers will say that a right wing that has barely recovered from its climate change denial was always going to lay into the activists. But Insulate Britain did not have to make life so easy for its foes.
The physical courage of demonstrators who walked into the speeding traffic on motorways counted for no more than the urgency of their cause. They targeted ordinary people, who were just trying to get to work or take their sick relatives to hospital, rather than fossil fuel companies and the finance industry that supports them. Their tactical stupidity left them wide open to attack.
Their failure ought to teach us that civil disobedience is not as easy as Prof Erica Chenworth’s “3.5% rule” once made it sound. The rule held that no government could withstand a determined challenge from a tiny minority. As military regimes from Belarus to Burma have shown, dictatorships can withstand challenges from considerably more than 3.5% of the population by setting the army on them. In democracies, leaders of direct action movements cannot just mobilise a required percentage of the population. They have to be smarter than the mainstream politicians they are challenging. They have to use street theatre, argument, wit and controlled anger to convince the watching electorate to rethink its assumptions. Extinction Rebellion was creative and more popular than many Conservatives realised.
Insulate Britain, by contrast, put forward a spokesman, who stormed off a TV show after its hosts accused him of being a hypocrite. (He was demanding the insulation of homes but had failed to insulate his own.) The protest was over and the campaign accepted its inevitable defeat on Friday.
I wouldn’t be too quick though to dismiss the “doomist” extremists, however. There will be many more where they came from. As the Earth heats, you can expect everything from furious, but rational protests to apocalyptic, quasi-religious movements. Nor will all the uprisings be to liberal tastes. From Mussolini’s march on Rome to today’s anti-vax riots, civil disobedience can just as easily be used by liberalism’s enemies. James Murray, one of the best environmental journalists around, points out that you can trace eco-fascist movements back to the Nazis. Desertification and wars brought by heat and drought will push refugees towards safer countries. Their flow could turn today’s small groups on the eco-right into popular xenophobic movements that want the military to use lethal force to stop the desperate reaching cooler countries. This is not such a fanciful idea. The current Conservative government is already considering using the navy to turn back migrants in the Channel.
Nor is the “doomism” of today’s activists as eccentric as it might seem. Environmentalists popularised the term after the most successful unpublished paper in academic history appeared in 2018. Prof Jem Bendell, of Cumbria University, argued that societal collapse was inevitable and it was too late to prevent it. No reputable journal would publish him. Thoughtful green activists said Bendell’s imagined apocalypse was sci-fi rather than science. They warned his fatalism undermined demands for change from the environmental movement. Bendell didn’t care. He put his paper on his blog and hundreds of thousands downloaded it, including the men and women who were to inspire Extinction UK and Insulate Britain.
It targeted drivers going about their business. It put the lives of its supporters and everyone else on the road in danger
Their belief that we have only a tiny amount of time left to make revolutionary change is not too far from Bendell’s deep doomism. More surprisingly, it is not too far from the arguments of global institutions that seem to operate on a different planet to ragged protesters.
The International Energy Authority’s review of the benefits and risks as the world prepares for clean energy transitions did not say there was no time or next to no time left. It looked forward to nations honouring their commitment to reach the net-zero target by 2050. But pessimism gnawed at the agency. Plans to cut global carbon emissions will fall 60% short of the target, it said last week. There needs to be $4tn (£2.94tn) in investment over the next decade to bridge the gap and rich countries must do what they have failed to do with the distribution of Covid vaccines and show generosity to the poor world.
Against such hopelessness stands the global change in the thinking of governments, businesses and hundreds of millions people. Insulate Britain’s failure to mobilise their concern exemplified the movement’s failure. It targeted drivers going about their business. It put the lives of its supporters and everyone else on the road in danger. Terrible tactics allowed its enemies to portray the protesters as middle-class snobs, who cared nothing for the men and women struggling to get through life, rather than campaigners for a better future.
They might have said we live in a country that pays exorbitant prices and rents for substandard housing. Never have so many billions been given for such shoddy goods. Yet such was the incompetence of Insulate Britain, it turned a campaign to help everyone staring at their fuel bills in terror this winter into an elitist cause.
The UK could still be insulated. Indeed, the government is promising to do just that. We switched from town gas to natural gas. Why can’t we switch from natural gas to heat pumps and from draughty to warm homes? Yet as soon as you start believing that change is possible, pessimism creeps over you like a chill. Countries all over the world have net-zero pledges but no routes to get there. Governments have not prepared their public for the changes to come. The details are not there. The hard work has not been done.
Stay with the image of men and women darting on to a motorway as the fumes rise and traffic thunders. Now picture Johnson, Biden, Macron and the other Cop26 leaders linking arms across the carriageway. They are taking a stand, just as the Insulate Britain protesters did. But like the doomist demonstrators, they have no idea how to win the battle they say they want to fight.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist