Spring has sprung, and overnight the high street is awash with miraculously cheap summer dresses.
Flick through the racks of floaty, swishy nothings in any H&M store right now, however, and it’s clear something has changed in the last few summers. Swinging from all that throwaway polyester are tags bragging about how much of it is sustainably made from recycled plastic bottles, not oil. Their tights and knickers use a man-made fibre made from recycled fishing nets, and by the till is a bin of reusable shopping bags.
These stores know their young customers are eco-conscious where past generations were oblivious, impressively fluent in the evils of plastic and diesel. But they’re also human, still occasionally craving the disposable fashion they’ve always had. They want what most people secretly want, which is to enjoy the pleasures of a pre-climate-conscious age – foreign travel, strawberries out of season – but in ways sustainable enough to let us feel good about it.
The protesters have public sympathy for their broad aim. But that’s a very long way from securing consent to specifics
The Extinction Rebellion protesters’ big pink boat has been moored a stone’s throw from H&M’s flagship branch at Oxford Circus for days now, floating on an ocean of what looks like general goodwill from passers-by. Doubtless it’s exasperating for anyone who just wants to get home on the bus, or for 999 services trying to move around a gummed-up city, and if protesters deliver on threats to shut down Heathrow over Easter then perhaps the public mood will turn sour. But last week, at least, it was impossible not to get swept up in the infectious optimism of it all. What’s not to love about chilled-out tunes, free food, the sunny feeling of reclaiming streets from the traffic and, above all, the very strong feeling that they’re on the right side of the argument?
To watch passing shoppers and tourists stop and film the protest on their camera phones is, however, to wonder how prepared we really are for the life of minimal consumption inherent in treating climate change as an emergency. The protesters have public sympathy for their broad aim in the bag. But that’s a very long way from securing public consent to the specifics.
Extinction Rebellion wants Britain to commit to reducing carbon emissions to net zero by 2025, rather than 2050, as the government is considering (which would itself be a step up from a target we’re not even currently on track to meet, to reduce them by 80% by 2050). And in practice, that indicates the kind of collective effort rarely seen outside wartime. It means goodbye to petrol cars, gas boilers and cookers – fine for those who can afford to replace whatever they’ve got now, impossible for the poor without significant subsidy – and hello to restrictions on flying. It implies eating significantly less meat and dairy, and no longer treating economic growth as the first priority, with all the possible consequences that entails for pay, tax revenues and public services. We might hope to create jobs in green industries but shed them in carbon-based ones, with no guarantee of the new, clean technologies basing themselves in those towns hit hardest by the loss of old, polluting industries.
All of that might be necessary to stop global warming in the long run, but the difference is that doing it in six years, not 30, means it would have to happen at breakneck speed, with painfully little time for communities to adjust. Those who are prepared to accept sacrifices for themselves need to be honest about what they’re wishing on others, which is why alarm bells ring when Extinction Rebellion’s Gail Bradbrook says that “this is not the time to be realistic”. We’ve seen in the three years since the Brexit referendum what can happen when campaigners win an argument by refusing to be realistic about what their dream means for other people.
Yet there’s another lesson from recent history here, and it points towards taking campaigns themselves more seriously than campaigners. Eight years ago the tents were sprouting in the shadow of St Paul’s Cathedral, not Marble Arch, and the cause was economic inequality, not climate change. But otherwise the similarities between the Occupy movement and Extinction Rebellion are uncanny. Then, too, the protesters’ demands were dismissed as wildly unrealistic, and they were mocked for demanding the overthrow of capitalism while queuing to use the loos in Starbucks.
If their argument was at best half-formed, however, they were just doing what protesters are supposed to do, which is articulating a powerful feeling that something is wrong. I didn’t see it at the time, but in retrospect they were canaries down the mine. They were pointing to a boiling anger building up against a perceived elite that would ultimately manifest itself in far more destructive ways.
You can trace a direct path from Occupy not only to the rise of Corbynism but to Vote Leave’s exploitation of those anti-establishment feelings, and to their weaponisation by the far right. What starts out as a relatively benign movement of frustrated leftwing idealists doesn’t necessarily stay that way. In years to come, if the effects of climate change start hitting home in tangible ways – rising food prices hurting the poor, natural disasters triggering upsurges of migration or territorial conflicts – what stops all of that being somehow weaponised, too?
What we should have learned from 2011 is that when protesters are asking a valid question, it’s no good scolding them for not having all the answers, or even for personal hypocrisy. It may not look good for Emma Thompson to pitch up at Oxford Circus in solidarity with climate change protesters shortly after flying in from California, where she was appearing on a chat show. But in the broad scheme of things, so what? Climate change is an existential threat, and the response to it doesn’t currently feel urgent enough. So long as they keep hammering those two essentially inarguable points, Extinction Rebellion is going to resonate, not just with woke teenagers but increasingly with older people loath to bequeath their grandchildren a fried planet.
So if ministers had any gumption, they wouldn’t be sitting in Whitehall talking tough about police crackdowns. They’d be down at Oxford Circus, chatting to the crowds, pointing out what’s already being done – starting with the fact that the government’s independent climate change experts are about to publish a landmark report on speeding up progress to zero emissions – but also listening to arguments for why that might not be enough. Giving protesters exactly what they ask for is rarely a good idea. But identifying what the millions who broadly agree with them actually want is critical, and the lesson from Oxford Circus is that what people want has changed. Woe betide politicians who fail to keep up.
• Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist