Blockading highways. Deflating tires on SUVs. Shutting down airports. Throwing tomato soup on van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.”
The past year has brought a new wave of confrontational environmental protests, with groups like Extinction Rebellion (XR), Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain seeking to force lawmakers’ and corporations’ hands on climate action.
Such controversial tactics have grabbed global attention — and public disapproval. A University of Pennsylvania survey found that 46% of Americans say disruptive non-violent actions decrease their support for efforts to address climate change; just 13% say it increases their support. Research in Toronto and London shows similar failures to draw public backing.
Climate activists, too, realize their tactics are falling short: XR made waves with its announcement this year that it will seek a mass movement over mass disruption. But Karen Bell, a senior lecturer in sustainable urban development at the University of Glasgow, says XR is still missing the point.
“Their idea was, ‘How can we get more working class and BAME (Black, Asian, minority and ethnic) groups involved?’” explains Bell, who interviewed 40 working-class and minority Brits for her 2021 report “Beyond Inclusion,” which examines how XR’s tactics have alienated these communities.
“But people were saying, ‘We don’t want to be involved. We’ve got our own [environmentalist efforts] that we’re doing. They’re important to us, why are you not coming to help us?’”
Bell, who grew up in British public housing and served as a community worker in such council estates, left a life of activism to study environmental justice and the “just transition,” a framework to ensure a fair and green economic and environmental future. Her work explores how to better include and support working class and minority communities’ environmentalism.
Analyst News spoke to Bell about how the movement for climate action is leaving working-class communities behind, and what today’s youth-driven climate activists can learn from the older generation of environmental protestors. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What has your research shown about how working-class and BAME communities perceive climate activism groups like Extinction Rebellion?
Although most people we interviewed were interested in sustainability and concerned about climate change, they genuinely didn’t think they could get involved in Extinction Rebellion’s tactics. The illegal activities particularly put them off; XR says we need to break the law, because the law is not working for us. If you come from a disadvantaged or marginalized group, it’s very difficult to break the law, because there’s no going back once you’ve got a criminal record. For white middle-class activists, it’s different.
XR didn’t seem to understand that if you haven’t got a professional job, it’s difficult to take a day off in the middle of the week and join their protests. Because they largely involve middle-class white people, they’re going to come up with middle-class white people solutions.
The question is, why are they not getting involved in local BAME-led and working class-led environmentalism? They’ve set an agenda and are saying, “Come join us, we’re the experts.” That doesn’t resonate with people.
What should activist groups be campaigning more for?
A lot of working-class environmentalism is quite local: We need more green space, we don’t want to live under a set of pylons which are making us ill, we’re being polluted by this factory. In every BAME and working class community, there are people working on an environmental issue on their own, with hardly any support and money. Climate activists could be there helping these communities.
If you come from a disadvantaged or marginalized group, it’s very difficult to break the law, because there’s no going back once you’ve got a criminal record. For white middle-class activists, it’s different.
One of the big movements that’s exciting a lot of working class people at the moment is the train worker strikes. That’s an environmental campaign, because they’re trying to make the train service better. We need policies that make life better for the marginalized, the low-income and disadvantaged groups, as well as working-class people. We could have cheaper and more reliable bus and train services, which could help these communities. We can support policies around insulation that will drop people’s energy bills and prevent them from dying from cold in the winter. We need to create green jobs as part of the transition towards sustainability.
We need to share things better. We need to redistribute the wealth of the world so the poor have what they need. So many people don’t have sanitation, water, electricity — the basics. But the rich are flying around in jets. They have swimming pools in their gardens.
But ultimately, why are we talking about people’s individual actions, like light bulbs and going on holidays, when we need to talk about some of the big corporations and the military? You’ve got about 260 countries in the world [whose] greenhouse gas emissions, together, are less than that of the U.S. military alone.
Is there ever a place for illegal activity in the climate movement?
Sometimes it comes to a point where you have to — like in South Africa, they had to get rid of apartheid. But it’s the way XR talks about breaking the law as if anyone can do it.
Do what you need to do, but don’t do it in such a way that people are going to say, “You’re trying to control me, or you’re going to make my life more difficult.” That’s the two things that people are very worried about. A lot of working class and BAME people are under incredible stress trying to make ends meet.
Why are we talking about people’s individual actions, like light bulbs and going on holidays, when we need to talk about some of the big corporations and the military? You’ve got about 260 countries in the world [whose] greenhouse gas emissions, together, are less than that of the U.S. military alone.
It’s the disruption and moralizing of ordinary working-class people’s activities that might be putting people off. These disruptive tactics, which are stopping people from getting to work, can be catastrophic for working-class people. You can lose your job. I’ve been a cleaner, a motorcycle courier, a factory worker. If you get there 10 minutes late, they may get rid of you.
How can we raise awareness without being alarming or disruptive?
It’s difficult not to be apocalyptic when the situation is fairly apocalyptic — people are dying because of climate change. But now they don’t want to hear it, because they think the solutions are too restrictive. There’s a lot of fear, which is why we need to bring people into the conversation and support them.
We need positive messages. People love [British broadcaster and natural historian] David Attenborough, and [his books and the BBC documentaries he has presented] very much changed their mindset. It didn’t disrupt them, it didn’t make their life more difficult, it didn’t keep saying “you’re wrong.” It was just saying, “Look, here’s a problem, and this is the suffering that it’s creating,” in a way that people could understand and through somebody people trust.
In 2008, you made the move away from community organizing to begin working as a researcher. Why did you leave activism for academia?
I’ve been an activist my whole life, and I did that at the expense of getting a good job and having time to rest. I eventually decided that I needed to carry on trying to make a change in the world, but also look after myself. Quite a long time ago, I decided no more illegal activity, because that was very stressful. You get police knocking on your door at 3 o’clock in the morning. I’m claustrophobic, and being locked in a van is quite traumatizing.
I just thought to myself, what I need is a career where I get a decent life. I’m in a privileged position now. I have people listening to me. I’ve got other ways of getting my message out and it’s effective: I can research things that need more focus, write papers, engage with the media.
I started thinking for a while that there are better ways people can campaign than standing on the street in a protest for six hours — they could have written something for a newspaper in that time. But I actually think we need different approaches. We do need the people who can do the illegal activism, but not to talk about it as if everyone can do it.
As someone who’s been involved in this work for decades, what’s your advice for youth getting into activism?
Look at the message that your group is putting out. Is it a message that’s not condemning ordinary people, that’s showing a positive vision of what’s possible, that’s being inclusive, that’s supporting what people are already doing in disadvantaged, marginalized and poorer communities?
Listen to the older activists and their experiences, because they have tried a lot of things. As a young activist, you can challenge them and say, “I know you’ve tried something similar before, but it’s going to be different” and have a discussion.
A friend of mine died recently. She was in her 90s and still an activist. How she did that was she linked all her activism to fun. Instead of moralizing and disrupting, make people laugh; make them feel good about themselves and have them feel that they could be part of what you’re doing.
Try to look after yourself — do things you enjoy, so you’ll be able to do them your whole life. If you get burnt out, you can only do it for a few years. We want people to be able to do it for life.
Correction on March 30, 2023: An earlier version of this article misstated Karen Bell as an “activist-turned-academic.” She is an “activist-academic.” We regret the error.