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Climate activists fighting Boris Johnson should take a leaf out of Gandhi’s book

The civil rights leader knew that protests alone aren’t enough to spur radical change.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
10 February 2020

Boris Johnson has a problem. The prime minister presides over a Tory party that has little interest in climate change and a UN climate summit in Glasgow this November could shine an uncomfortable spotlight on his climate commitments. But if Johnson tries to tackle the issue head on, climate activists, like Extinction Rebellion, will have to think of new tactics to avoid draining public support.

The last Tory majority government in 2015 set a precedent for the party’s climate policy. No longer dependent on a Liberal Democrat coalition and with the Labour party in disarray, the Tories pushed through a raft of measures reserving climate legislation. Funding for solar and wind was cut, while North Sea oil received subsidies. But most damaging of all was the scrapping of a plan to make all new homes carbon-neutral from 2016.

Whatever the rhetoric, little has changed since. Although a few Tory MPs and peers do take the risk of climate breakdown seriously, they have almost no power in a new Parliament dominated by neoliberals. 

Which brings us to Johnson’s dilemma in the run-up to Glasgow. The early indications are that he will do his best to talk-the-talk, making announcements that speak of action, but aren’t followed through. This is in marked contrast to the aims of the main opposition parties in last December’s election with the Scottish and Welsh nationalists, the Liberal Democrats and, above all, Labour, promising much more.

Johnson’s strategy is neatly illustrated by his proposal to phase out new petrol, diesel and hybrid car sales by 2035, five years earlier than planned. It looks good on paper but is useless unless there is a firm plan backed up by plenty of financial support.    Moreover, in the past year the government has actually cut back further on measures specifically designed to speed up the changeover.

The problem for climate activists is that any semblance of progress could make it difficult to argue for more urgent decarbonisation. All the signs are that current global targets are far too modest given the acceleration in climate breakdown, increasing signs of dangerous feedback loops and tipping points. Carbon emissions are still rising year-by-year when they should be falling worldwide by close to 8% a year. A global decrease in emissions to under 40% of current levels by 2030 might just curb the excesses of climate breakdown but even that will be a close call.

Extinction Rebellion and other activist and policy groups are only too well aware of the need for new approaches and are conscious of Johnson’s ability to give the impression of action. They may also find that when Labour gets its act together with a new leader the party will stick firmly with its manifesto commitments on climate policy and this will help enhance public awareness.   

In these circumstances, it will pay to go well beyond the actual process of radical decarbonisation to recognise the many social changes required to move to an ultra-low carbon economy. This will certainly need new thinking, not least on the role of nonviolence, and might well be aided by looking back to events of a century ago in India. 

When Gandhi returned to India after his formative years in South Africa, he and his supporters engaged energetically in a complex and rapidly developing process of resistance against the Raj. Their strategies varied depending on the cause: from strikes against rising rents to boycotts supporting mill workers. Gandhi prefered to avoid violence in favour of a focus on non-cooperation and movement building.

Although the circumstances are radically different a century later and in very different societies now facing potentially catastrophic change, there are still some relevant lessons to be drawn for the current era.   

We are greatly helped by a new book, ‘Gandhi the Organiser’, by Bob Overy which covers this precise period. Overy himself was a member of activist groups. In his preface, he describes how, while first researching the book back in the 1970s, he was one of many anti-nuclear campaigners involved in the tactic of mass arrests. He writes: 

I remember being arrested, found guilty of obstruction or breach of the peace, and fined, then refusing to pay and being jailed for a few days or the longest, two weeks, but I noticed that the numbers following the same path were dwindling. That experience is one that has encouraged me to research and write this book.

How does this relate to climate activism? The point here is that if climate breakdown is not averted then just about every element of society will be subject to a deeply insecure and violent future. Avoiding that is not simply a matter of phasing out the release of carbon. It will require changes in almost every aspect of the way we live, from food to transport, shelter to leisure, and health to economic exchange.   

Gandhi’s campaigns a century ago remain relevant because they fought injustice and also offered a wider vision for society. Success may, in practice, have been variable, but it undeniably led to the end of the colonial era.

In short, anybody involved in progressive social change will find Overy’s book useful, but for those engaged in climate activism it’s lessons are vital.

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