Extinction Rebellion suggested that 30,000 marched in central London yesterday. We had worked hard to build support for a coach from Plymouth to the protests, the one-day turn-around being a significant barrier to mass support. 6 hours there, 4 hours marching then 6 hours back again on a cold and rickety charabanc isn’t enticing. As XR says, if we are to stop global catastrophe then some sacrifice will be required! 

Yesterday was heartwarming amidst the constant rain. 

The Saturday protest was mid-way through the October Rebellion and largely London-based. Plymouth and Portsmouth activists made efforts to attend where others outside the Home Counties didn’t, with trade union activists seeking to build the embryonic links between environmentalists and trade unionists. 

A trade union rally in Trafalgar Square managed 3-400 people before marching together to join the XR march for the Dead. Remembering the recently extinct animals alongside the indigenous peoples devastated by invasions and capitalist incursions, street theatre offered symbolic coffins and skeletons alongside mourning marchers and red and green spirits of Nature, life and death. 

My purpose was, as part of the political recognition that real power lies in the workplace, to help encourage trade unions to embrace the climate action. Most of the roughly six million trade unionists in Britain are far from being convinced that there is a Climate Emergency, or that we face a catastrophe in short-time. Nor, indeed, that there is anything that could be done were this to be true. 

My imagination runs rampant each time I think what could be done if trade unionists gained the knowledge shared between most of the 20,000 environmentalists yesterday. We climate activists all tend to study the climate science and clench our gut to read the latest observations, such as this week’s methane fountains in arctic lakes spewing global heating gases 24 times as destructive as C02; the California fires now coming into the cities, shooting soot int the stratosphere, collapsing homes and leaving at least a millions without electricity; and the super-typhoon that has flooded large parts of Eastern Japan causing tens of deaths and hundreds of millions of pounds worth of destruction.

These are serious times according to all scientific predictions. In many areas of the global climate system, tipping points have been reached and passed, and there are many still to come. The very fact that, this year, meteorologists have had to add a grade to the measurement of hurricanes and typhoons in order to describe their strength is singular evidence of the developments in extreme weather. Once-in-a-hundred-years events are now appearing yearly. 

The feedbacks between different climate systems are accelerating warming exponentially. So a regular exclamation from various climate commentators is “this is happening far faster than we predicted. David Attenborough, a darling of the British Broadcasting Corporation, popular environmentalism and natural history programmes, offered such a fresh exclamation only this week. Strange, then, that the BBC chose not to report anything of yesterday’s protests. Instead they cheered the passing of Typhoon Hagibis so that a world championship rugby match could go ahead!

It is difficult for the general population to recognise and understand the undoubted crisis we are already immersed in whilst the major news distributors deny or distort the events. A call went out to swamp the BBC with complaints in order to ensure coverage. A BBC spokesperson is reported to have suggested that a sufficient number of complaints would force them to respond. They simply need the feedback.

The absence of honest discussion is certainly one explanation for the increasing hostility being voiced against Extinction Rebellion. From the mother screaming at our bicycle protest last Friday, shouting from behind the wheel of her car that we are frightening her child, to the cars and bikes revving and jolting forward as if to run into the marchers of Regent Street, their anger is as real as their denial. It is, I’m convinced, more a symptom of the deep and deepening polarisation and tensions in society than just response to climate change, but nevertheless a serious challenge.

On the interminable journey there and back again, as if acting-out these divisions, the environmentalists sat at the back of the Plymouth coach and the trade unionists sat at the front. We travelled separately together and on arrival the XR activists went to Marble Arch and the TU activists went to Trafalgar Square for separate events. The divide was explicit and total. And yet the subsequent two marches converged in Oxford Street, uniting in shared shouts of System Change not Climate Change. 

In November 1999 my sister and her family joined the mass protests of 40,000 in Seattle against Climate Change and the World Trade Organisation’s anti-environment policies. Anthea, 53 at the time, stood on the front line against hostile and armed Police using CS gas and rubber bullets, the protesters of every hue protecting each other.

The protests were historically unique marking the first attempts at the unification of Turtles and Teamsters, that is environmentalists and trade unionists in common cause. The policies of environmental destruction were also destroying jobs and livelihoods. The shared interest was obvious. Clearly, little progress was made and the relationships failed to last.

Twenty years later we find circumstances far worse and the social divisions re-cemented. Yesterday the largest industrial trade unions in the UK – Unite and the GMB – intentionally boycotted the protests and threatened to discipline any of their employees who attended. The “official” policy commitments to a Just Transition away from carbon jobs are yet to permeate through to honest acceptance of the Emergency and the need to Act Now.

And, just as negatively, any acknowledgement by the environmental movement that we could sure do with the help and support of 6 million organised trade unionists is shallow and secondary at best. I belong to the tendency which recognises that the fusion of environmental concern with the concerns of the organised working class is essential. 

Societal transformation to green jobs, carbon-neutral housing, low-emission integrated mass-transport systems free at the point of use, localised production and distribution, re-enfranchisement through citizens’ participative workplace democracy, will all make life better for the mass of the working class. The shitty carbon jobs, the filth of coal and oil, diesel carcinogens and plastic particulates can all be eradicated if production is re-organised. 

Global heating means nothing can stay the same and the coming catastrophes mean nothing will stay the same. We, the working majority with little or no resource to hand other than our bodies and minds, have got to unite to protect ourselves and survive. It is the collective power of the organised working class that is essential to beat the deniers. 

The non-violent direct action of mass strikes can shut down the polluting industries far more certainly than any mass protest. The democratic decisions of mass union meetings focussed on the necessary industrial re-boot have far more immediate clout than any Citizens Assembly however constituted (to be clear I’m not advocating an either-or approach). The unity of environmentalists and trade unionists can produce the critical mass required for fundamental system change.

Right now, both “sides” need to listen to the others’ feedback, and come together. 

Sunday 13th October 2019

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