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.
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.