Guest blog – Blocking motorways by Ian Carter

Ian Carter worked as an ornithologist for 25 years before retiring early to spend more time writing about wildlife. He wrote The Red Kite’s Year with artist Dan Powell and a sister volume The Hen Harrier’s Year will be out next spring. His recent book Human, Nature is about our relationship with the natural world and the philosophical issues that crop up when we fight to conserve wildlife and wild places.

Ian has written several guest blogs here including a series on Wild Food.

Blocking Motorways – are the current protests helpful?

I’ll come clean at the start: I’m not a fan of the protests by Insulate Britain. I do admire the bravery and commitment of those involved. They genuinely believe they are acting for the common good. These people are not thugs, there for the kicks, but individuals willing to take considerable personal risks in order to make their point. I understand the motivation, and I agree the cause is urgent, but I think these protests fail on all fronts.

First off, if legitimate protest extends to inconveniencing thousands of randomly chosen people then where will it end? Yes, rigorous action is needed on climate change. But other people have different causes in which they believe with equal passion. There is Black Lives Matter, institutional misogyny within the Police, destruction of the rainforest, the mindless bombing of Palestinian civilians… I could go on (and on). I don’t buy the argument that climate-related protest alone merits some sort of trump card because of the seriousness of the consequences. And I don’t see a way in which legislation could be set up so as to rank the importance of protests. While you may be phlegmatic about being delayed for the sake of climate change, how would you feel if the next Countryside March morphs into a weeks-long campaign to stop ‘ignorant townies’ from going about their daily routine? The last major motorway protests were by lorry drivers calling for cheaper fuel, an objective wholly at odds with the current protests. If climate change protesters can do this with minimal consequences, then so can everyone else. Where will it end?

There are potentially serious consequences when major roads are blocked and the media have been playing their usual games with this. Whatever the truth of individual incidents, it’s obvious that people who have very good reasons for getting somewhere quickly will have been prevented from doing so. Our roads are not solely occupied by people trundling into the office or heading out to the shops. People do use roads to visit dying relatives in care homes, or turn up on time to perform surgery; and ambulances really do use them to reach people who need urgent help (and they will be slowed even if they are allowed through). Take a moment to think of an occasion in your own life when you’ve needed to be somewhere urgently (or have someone reach you) and consider how a long delay might have played out. If no-one has yet died because of these protests, it’s only a matter of time. I wouldn’t want that on my conscience.  

It may seem trivial but at a time when we are all being asked to make personal sacrifices to reduce our impacts, I can’t help but think of the extra carbon that drifts up into the atmosphere every time cars are brought to a standstill. It’s a small point but it’s also an open goal. It invites ridicule and it plays into the hands of those who seek to resist change. Climate change protesters no doubt think they are a justifiable exception to the rules, but doesn’t everyone else think exactly the same thing?

The protesters have suggested that however much inconvenience (or worse) results from blocking roads the consequences of doing nothing are so dire that any action is justified. Everything else has been tried and has failed, they say. What else can we do? It’s a powerful argument but I think it falls down. Not only is it impossible to restrict the rights of protest only to the most serious causes, but I think these protests are, in any case, counterproductive.

It’s true, of course, that disruptive protests can work. There are countless examples through history. Ironically enough, the lorry protests from two decades ago achieved their goal of freezing fuel duty (and more carbon has entered the atmosphere as a result). But the current protest feels different to me. Tackling climate change is about trying to influence everyone, not just a particular niche interest group. This is not a cause that simply needs more publicity. We have gone past the stage where people are unaware of the issues and publicity stunts are required. The challenge now is persuading people to act. I struggle to see how a handful of people routinely disrupting the target audience is going to help. Rather, as we have seen, it will allow climate sceptics and a gleeful media to paint the protestors as extremists. Here is a group, they will say, that can muster only a tiny number of supporters and so is forced into extreme measures.

If you can gather tens of thousands of people to actively support a cause then a march, and the resulting blocking of roads, feels reasonable, proportionate and justified. The message is a powerful one. If you can find only twenty people then roping in the extra thousands against their will may feel like the only option. I think it’s unhelpful and those involved are hindering rather than helping the cause.


18 Replies to “Guest blog – Blocking motorways by Ian Carter”

  1. Thoughtful and interesting as ever, Ian.
    But I feel obliged to comment:
    How would I feel if ‘the next Countryside March morphs into a weeks-long campaign to stop ‘ignorant townies’ from going about their daily routine’?
    Considering the landowning classes have been quietly but effectively inhibiting the behaviour of ‘ignorant townies’ with their fences, title deeds and lawyers for the past several centuries, would we notice?

  2. Ian asks where it will end? A much better question is where will the climate and ecological crisis end? On the current trajectory, and after spending virtually my whole life trying to understand this, it will result in the total collapse of our civilization and billions of people starving to death – unless we radically alter our system and our societies. It is as simple as that. If you say this to many, they will say, where is the evidence for this, the scientific study, the paper that supports this? Yes, there is no single study or paper supporting this, although that is the big picture of you put together lots of individual paper.

    The reason for the lack of a single study coming to this conclusion, is not the lack of evidence. It’s because there is no field of science, no scientific organization studying all these crises in an integrated way. The UN is only just starting to say that the climate crisis must be directly connected to the biodiversity crisis (under the auspices of the IPCC and IPBES). That there must be common solutions to both. In the words of Sir Robert Watson, eminent scientist and former chair of both the IPCC and IPBES – “We cannot solve the threats of human-induced climate change and loss of biodiversity in isolation. We either solve both or we solve neither.”. This was from a Guardian article “Loss of biodiversity is just as catastrophic as climate change”, by Sir Robert, 6/5/19.

    Yet, the climate and biodiversity crisis are but 2 components of the much wider ecological crisis. There are no whole studies, because no one is studying it in an integrated way. Partly because of the massive level of complexity, and partly because of cultural denial, where no one wants to contemplate the type of society wide change necessary to avoid catastrophe by the failure to move towards a truly sustainable society.

    On Twitter, Ian has assured me that most people now understand the climate crisis. No they don’t. Most people don’t even understand what biodiversity means, let alone why it is a crisis. Most worrying, Ian doesn’t appear to understand it, because he refers to “destruction of the rainforest” as a separate issue. Hence my Sir Robert Watson quote. Yes, undoubtedly Ian understands the climate crisis is real, but I think he has no understanding at all of just how serious it is, how inextricably it is linked to all over components of the ecological crisis and the true unsustainability of our society, and the degree of change necessary to make our society sustainable. Because if he did understand he would not just see it as another issue, and would realise that the other issues he highlights become utterly irrelevant if our civilization collapses and billions of people starve to death.

    Let me briefly justify this last point. Our population is approaching 8 billion. Huge numbers of people live in massive cities, with no means to sustain themselves except for long complex supply chains, which are very vulnerable to disruption. Which would be impossible if our current economic and political structures collapsed. The world population was well under 1 billion before the industrial revolution, maybe 1/2 billion. This gives some indicator of the carrying capacity of the Earth is for humans in a non-organized economy. We could simply not feed 8 billion people without those organized supply chains. Bear in mind this will be in an ever worsening climate breakdown, where future food supply problems are envisaged even in an or organized economy. You only have to look at how our current economy and political management is crumbling at 1.1C of warming. I am baffled at projections that envisage our current world order, organized economy persisting with 2-3C of warming and much greater biodiversity collapse.

    Obsessing about a handful of protestors, and ignoring the context, is very symptomatic of the problem. Okay, you suppress peaceful but disruptive NVDA and what next? Do you really want none peaceful direct action, because that will happen. I do not support this and said Roger Hallam’s comments were tactically naive because they breached the tenets of NVDA. But a lot of people understandably feel very strongly about this, and I am regularly seeing people saying only violent revolution will work. I don’t support this, my point is simply if you take away people’s right to protest peacefully, some people will take it upon themselves, to find a way to disrupt things none peacefully, if peaceful protest is outlawed. I think Ian has no understanding of the depth of feeling.

    1. I don’t think it’s down to depth of feeling so much as a sense that this type of protest is not helping. If I’m right (and it’s only a gut feeling) then that is a concern for all of us. If people are turned off this issue at such a critical stage, then it will make meaningful change even less likely.

      1. Okay Ian, say what the right tactics are? Given that all other tactics for the last 30 years have failed.

        The UN projections released last month, put us on course for a 16% increase in emissions by 2030. This is based on the most optimistic assumption of the policy currently pursued by governments actually working. There is good reason to believe that this policy won’t work. The latest IPCC report, says there have be immediate and drastic reductions in emissions within the next decade, to avoid the worst effects of climate breakdown (remember, emissions are projected to rise). We have less than 8 years of the carbon budget needed to stay below the 1.5C Paris target on current emissions levels (remember in actuality emissions are forecast to keep on rising). Once that carbon budget is used up, we would have to go to zero, not net zero emissions to keep under 1.5C of warming.

        Within the last 30 years we’ve had the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, by far the biggest international summit of any ever held, not just environmental, in terms of attendance by heads of government and heads of state. We’ve seen all manner of campaigns. We are on the 26th COP talk.

        Yet your argument about Insulate Britain protests are hindering and not helping the cause. This is based on the tacit premise that we were making progress until these protests came along. Because if you are not assuming this, why have you ignored all the failed campaigns of the last 30 years to focus on this campaign?

        I’m not condoning these tactics, not saying they would be my chosen tactics etc. But what I am saying is that absolutely no one is any position to say what tactics work. In my 50 years of being environmentally aware, only the young people’s climate movement inspired by Greta Thunberg has proved successful in terms of growing numbers, and properly holding to account the failures of our governments. Once again, why selectively single out these small protests for criticism, when no other campaign has made not one bit of difference. Emissions have continued to rise and are projected to rise for a long time to come. So I’m baffled about where the successful tactics are?

        Just after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, I challenged the leading expert on air pollution, who had written the standard text on it, when he said, now we know what the problem is, we can address it. I said, hang on, I’m old enough to remember the 1972 UN Environment conference, and this was what was being said back then. He started to argue with me, and then just slumped back, gave up and said I was probably right. Yet here we are 29 years later, kidding ourselves that we’ve only just discovered what the problem is, but we are making progress. When actually more anthropogenic GHG emissions have been emitted in the last 30 years, than in the previous 250 years.

        The big myth is we’re making steady progress, so don’t rock the boat. On every measurable parameter, that is rubbish. All we see is politicians talking up how they’ve got the problem beat, more blah blah blah. Once again I remember the blah blah blah in 1972, 1992, over 26 COP talks, and the projections are that in reality, not based on the BS of politicians, emissions are going to carry on rising for the foreseeable future.

        1. I think we’re talking past each other. My argument is not that the issue isn’t a serious one. And I’m not trying to play down the extent of the threat. I’m arguing that this type of protest might make meaningful progress even less likely by turning people off the cause. This is impossible to verify so it’s just an opinion. If you disagree (specifically on this point) I’d be interested to hear your reasoning.

    2. Ian can certainly speak for himself with respect to whether or not he understands the seriousness of the climate crisis but acknowledging and understanding this seriousness is a separate point from whether or not blocking the motorway is a good tactic for grappling with it. We can quibble over what proportion of the population are aware of and understand the issue of climate change but is the tactic of Insulate Britain likely to persuade those who don’t yet get it to change their behaviour to a lower carbon lifestyle? Is it likely to persuade the government to change its polices with respect to the insulation of buildings? Like Ian, I fear that the protest is likely to be counter productive, allowing the government to dismiss the protestors as extremists and hardening attitudes of many in the general public (egged on by the press) against climate action (especially action that requires them to make personal changes).

      Civil disobedience can certainly be an important and effective means of fighting for a cause and there is no reason why it should not form a significant part of campaigning for action on climate change. However, in order to be effective and really help to bring about the desired change it needs to be well-targeted and I don’t think this is.

  3. What interests me, and perhaps I am incorrect, is why climate change activists seem to be focusing on countries that seem to be trying, perhaps ineffectually, to solve the problem? We do not hear enough about the success or failure of activists confronting the so-called BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries which are, without question, doing the least to improve the mess this planet is in, and are probably contributing to the problem.

    Is it that these governments are oppressive and sanctions are rarely imposed? They are the ones whose roads need blocking rather than those in Britain. Smacks of self-publicity rather than effective protest.

    1. There are huge environmental movements in the developing world, with campaigners often facing difficulties we could barely imagine. Human Rights Watch documented 227 murders of green activists worldwide in 2020. Rather than asking why people in other countries don’t do more, ask why people in the countries historically responsible for most greenhouse gas emissions are so complacent.
      One of the reasons western countries have managed to cut emissions is because we’ve offshored dirty extractive & manufacturing industries elsewhere. The US is by far the largest cumulative contributor to greenhouse gas emissions; while the BRIC countries are among the top 10 (partly because they’re huge!), so are Germany, UK, Canada & Japan.
      Even so, the worst culprits per capita for emissions include the gulf states, Australia, Canada & the USA. Although the UK has cut its footprint considerably, per capita it’s still over double Brazil’s and 3 times India’s.

      1. “We do not hear enough about the success or failure of activists confronting the so-called BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries which are, without question, doing the least to improve the mess this planet is in, and are probably contributing to the problem.”

        I suggest if you do not hear enough, it’s because you haven’t been looking. There are incredibly brave climate activists in all these country, many who have faced multiple arrests. I follow Greta Thunberg and she follows me. Greta has repeatedly highlighted the actions of young climate activists in all these countries, such as Howey Ou (Ou Hongyi) in China, Arshak Makichyan in Russian. In India, the police arrested a prominent young climate activists, and supporters of Modi were burning effigies of Greta in the street, and her and other activists faced a torrent of death threats. There are too many climate activists and environmentalists in Brazil to mention, including many allied to movements operating in the UK, Europe etc.

        You bizarrely state “countries which are, without question, doing the least to improve the mess this planet is in, and are probably contributing to the problem.”

        Until 1999, the UK’s cumulative carbon emissions were higher than China’s. The Industrial Revolution, driven by fossil fuels started in the UK. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief (5 Oct 2021) about who is historically responsible for most emissions shows the US well out in front, 20% against China’s 11%. The US has far higher individual carbon footprints than any of the countries you name. So your claims are not supported by facts.

  4. Cards on the table – I was arrested on an action during one of the major Extinction Rebellion and Animal Rebellion events. I superglued myself to an entrance to a government building.

    I share your safety concerns about blocking motorways but I do support the targeted disruption of the infrastructure that is creating this environmental disaster.

    It seems to me that most NVDA (as long as it doesn’t put the lives of others at risk) are legitimate. Political lobbying, legal challenges, research and covert expose work, targeted NVDA, blogging, marches, petitions, literary, film, music and art educational activities, voluntary work for organisations which support green lifestyles … all these are, in my opinion, legitimate methods of exerting pressure on governments.

    Greenpeace, the Hunt Saboteurs Association and Animal Rebellion are all NVDA groups which, in my opinion, use this form of protest to the best effect. Animal Rebellion’s actions are spot on in targeting the entrances to the depots of the key supply chains for some major meat product manufacturers.

    1. With respect, the Hunt Saboteurs Association is not always peaceable. I have seen their actions first hand.

  5. The simple question here is whether these road blocking tactics work. Personally, I fear they will only alienate large numbers of people who need to be better persuaded to adopt energy conservation as a way of life. Self-righteous activism is rarely as effective as some of its proponents claim.

    1. The road-blocking tactics work very well to block roads and alienate people and are most effective when the police arrive to protect them.

      The actions “demanded” by these people are listed in a wish-list that they call their Master Report and generously include an option to keep our existing gas or oil heating systems but we must pay for the removal and storage of the CO2 emitted which is good to know as such systems don’t exist so they cannot be serious. During their enforced “retrofit” residents would have to move out of their homes for several weeks. Get this report and have a read – it’s comedy gold

  6. I know it’s not quite what Ian’s blog is about (I’m not happy with the way the protests are done though), but I have to say it’s absolutely brilliant that this is about common or garden, seriously unsexy, but absolutely vital insulation. Sod carbon emissions for a moment, insulation is basically mending a hole in the bottom of a bucket rather than to try pouring in water faster. This is real conservation – trying to use less as opposed to ‘sustainability’ or ‘renewable’, which all too often means justifying the production and sale of unnecessary crap (bottled water, virgin fibre bog roll, tropical hardwood toilet seats etc). Reduce demand then look at replacing what you use with a more benign alternative should be our Modus Operandi with all natural resources, not parroting the insipid and pretty meaningless ‘sustainability’.

    For far too long some organisations were pushing for a return of wood fuelled heating because it didn’t use fossil fuels, burning trees to save coal, decades after we were told we should recycle paper to save forests. What a shambles. Of course burning logs are quite ornamental (it helps if you can mentally shut out the fact that’s dead wood that could have been providing wildlife habitat for years, even decades going up in smoke). Wood stoves were therefore sexier than boring old insulation so the latter was pushed aside by people who really should have known better. That was a social as well as ecological insanity. Instead of cutting everyone’s fuel use and costs the rather middle class option of having a dinky wood stove was put to the fore. For people on low incomes, the disabled, the elderly just how practical were wood stoves going to be in keeping them and their families warm? Sod all mostly I would think. How many of the same people would gain a hell of a lot from better insulation? A hell of a lot.

    I think their methods stink, which is a dam shame, because I see Insulate Britain as a return to the far more rational, sane type of environmentalism we used to have. It underlines that we as consumers have responsibilities and opportunities, and that government can help us fulfil/realise them, no kneejerk response to pass the buck entirely to multinationals. It’s also about real conservation, fixing the hole in the bucket not to keep pouring water in.

  7. I hate it when protests inconvenience me and force me to think about the issues being protested instead of ignoring them.

    That is the general subtext of pretty much every complaint. And I’m as bad as everyone else sometimes, but, the thing is, if a protest isn’t dragging people’s attention in a way that cannot be avoided, then it isn’t a successful protest. Protest is what people do after attempts to raise discussion and get people to think about an issue has already failed, or been ignored.

    People bitching about the inconvenience and demanding to know why there isn’t polite discussion are both late to the party and have usually been steadfastly ignoring all attempts at polite discussion for a long time. They are just mad because someone pulled their heads out of…the sand… and forced them to listen for once. The media were always going to hate on anything, of course, because the UK media, without exception, is scum.

  8. As an Insulate Britain protester who has been part of the recent road actions, perhaps I can bring in another perspective here. I’m a lifelong naturalist who has only taken up nonviolent civil disobedience in the last couple of years, following many years of writing to MPs, petitions, campaigns, going on marches, standing with placards etc, mostly concerned with the eco emergency we are facing. Local conservation projects and rewilding initiatives have given me hope but at a certain point, I let in the devastating existential situation we are in – the greatest threat to our civilisation in our species history and the 6th Mass Extinction (or rather, extermination) – and allowed myself to feel the unbearable grief. It was then I had to act. You can’t unsee it once you’ve let it in.

    We’ve run out of time and the current incremental remedial changes are completely insufficient. The UN report out this week warns of a disastrous 2.7C based on current pledges of countries, and so far, hardly any countries have even kept to past pledges. Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government, said that what we do in the next three to four years will determine the future of humanity. This is not just one among many worthy “causes” that one could support – this is about the possible collapse of our global life support systems.

    Throughout history, positive change has often been brought about by disruptive protest.
    Think the Suffragettes, or the US Civil Rights movement which were both disliked by most of the population at the time. A couple of hundred ‘freedom riders’ in the Deep South went to prison for ‘illegally’ riding black and white together on segregated buses. This forced President JFK to intervene and thus was an important win for civil rights brought about by a few people.. ML King was hated by most at the time of his death. Mandela was called a terrorist by Mrs Thatcher.

    Radical change is never popular. I wish we didn’t have to do it; I really don’t like disrupting motorists on the roads or sitting in police cells; it is a last resort. XR, with the radical closing down of central London in April 2019 was to a considerable degree responsible for the UK declaring the first national Climate & Eco emergency. Marches at this point are totally ineffectual even if there are 100K marching.

    Actions in Insulate Britain are carefully planned to not be near hospitals and to always leave a lane for emergency vehicles and we always move immediately if there is an ambulance. Don’t believe what you read in the billionaire press. Yes, of course there’s a risk someone could be hurt or even die due to the blocking of roads, and I deeply regret this, yet set it against the recent Chatham House report which predicts that on our present trajectory, more than 10 million people each year will die from heat stress by the 2030s.

    The talk shows and tabloids are fixated on ‘hypothetical’ ambulances being stuck in road blocks while the real world ambulances are stuck outside hospitals which don’t have enough beds. They obsess on any reason to avoid talking about the real emergency we are in the midst of. The M25 is often gridlocked due to one thing or another and any march or large event such as a football match causes disruption and possible holding up of ambulances.

    It’s not about popularity or whether we are liked or hated; it’s not a membership organisation concerned about attracting or retaining subscriptions.
    A mere 120 people have made a very unsexy – yet vital subject (insulation) – part of the national conversation and embarrassed the government as the global spotlight falls on the UK, the COP26 host country, in this small window of opportunity. The papers and talk shows discuss Insulate Britain and insulation every day. In that sense the campaign has already been partially successful. Insulation could be a win-win for us all: for emissions reduction, real job creation, fuel poverty relief and cutting deaths due to cold. Whether the government will now act on insulating homes remains to be seen. That would really be success. If you can think of a more effective campaign, please suggest it and I may well join you.

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