Have Insulate Britain changed the way we perceive protest?
The climate activism group have been accused of causing chaos for commuters and school kids, and of snarling up ambulances. But in the face of the world’s most urgent crisis, direct and disruptive action might be most effective.
Over the last few weeks, the Insulate Britain movement has been polarising to say the least. An offshoot of Extinction Rebellion, they’ve been taking part in active – that is, human – road blocks across the Port of Dover, Junction 14 near Heathrow Airport and the M25 surrounding London. Sometimes gluing themselves to the ground, the group are demanding that the government insulate all social and council housing by 2025, while overseeing the insulation of all other housing by 2030.
“It’s a hard ask, but it’s scientifically what we need to do,” says Shane Collins, a Green Party councillor and Insulate Britain representative. “The first thing is that [insulation] would help to significantly reduce fuel poverty. Around 8,500 people a year die from the effects of living in cold or damp housing. With the increase in prices [of] energy, that number is likely to greatly increase in 2021.”
Collins also argues that insulation would create hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of jobs – “proper jobs with sick pay and holiday pay,” he states. “It could help towards reducing unemployment, not to mention that insulation is the cheapest and easiest way to cut emissions. Domestic heating is 15 per cent of the UK’s emissions. Insulating houses could cut 10 per cent of that, while cutting people’s fuel bills. It’s a win-win on every level.”
Reasonable demands, right? But in the process of bringing their cause to the masses, Insulate Britain have pissed off more than a few people. Last month, ink was thrown in elderly protestors’ faces after they blocked rush-hour traffic near the Dartford Crossing in Kent. The week before that, a woman branded “SUV mum” went viral for threatening to drive her car into protestors who’d disrupted her school run.
But as the diplomatic wrangling continues at COP26, and anxiety surrounding the climate crisis is anything but abating, is people’s anger at groups like Insulate Britain, rather than the government for a lack of action in the face of a climate catastrophe, misdirected? As the impact of global warming creeps into our daily lives, disruptive action might just be the only way to get those in power to listen.
Whether direct, effective action against one of humanity’s most urgent crises can be done without alienating people along the way is contentious. After all, if it doesn’t annoy people, is it really doing its job? But the push-back to their protests doesn’t bode well in terms of the wider positive impact of Insulate Britain’s direct action.
This hasn’t seemed to discourage the group, though. For them, this is the bottom line: does the inconvenience of having your morning commute interrupted compare to the threat of natural disasters – much of which are already affecting less affluent parts of the world – and will undoubtedly hit our shores in the next few decades?
“When these ideas around insulation first came up, I thought: ‘God, insulation? That’s so boring!’” Collins continues. “But now, we’ve broadened the debate by using tactics of roadblocking, which are risky because they’ve led to many people disliking us. It’s a classic shoot-the-messenger type of situation, particularly within the right-wing media. We’re always accused of stopping ambulances, which like all good propaganda, [has] a grain of truth there. While we do let ambulances through, they’ll be minorly delayed because we have to clear a path.
“This kind of thing is blamed on us rather than the state of the NHS, where ambulances on average take four hours to arrive.”
As the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – which is still being debated in the House of Lords – threatens to clamp down on our freedom to protest, Collins recognises that Insulate Britain have been squeezed into a fairly radical and extreme position.
“Blocking motorways isn’t something that anyone really wants to do. But we’ve slightly run out of options. We’re just throwing the dice. As David King, the ex-government scientist [and head of the Climate Crisis Advisory Group], has said, what we do in the next three or four years will determine the future of humanity. We’re terrified and angry that the government is knowingly leading us into this. They don’t want to say it because they don’t want to scare people.”
Which is why, arguably, the importance of collective action in the face of increasingly draconian government measures has never been more vital. Historically, peaceful and disruptive protest has been effective in getting social and climate issues onto the political agenda. In 2019, pro-choice campaigners were instrumental in decriminalising abortion in Northern Ireland, while feminist group Sisters Uncut have organised highly successful protests and blockades to highlight cuts to public services for domestic violence survivors. Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter is one of the largest anti-racism movements in history.
And, indeed, issues surrounding the climate crisis, systemic racism, sexism and economic disparity are all interlinked and ultimately part of the same battle. Hence the power in coming together, collectively, towards a common goal – although that will always require some groups to step forward first. And if that means having ink thrown in their faces, so be it. As Insulate Britain see it: it’s a dirty job but, if the planet is to be saved, someone has to do it.
All that said, direct action can take many forms. Little wonder that, while Collins doesn’t necessarily have high hopes about the future of the planet, he preaches optimism of action over pessimism of the mind.
“In terms of creating political and social change, the first step is thinking about how you spend your daily money,” he explains. “What sort of products do you buy? Are you consuming green energy or fossil fuels? Then there’s campaigning, petitions, pressure groups, [all of] which most people have taken part in one way or another. There’s also non-violent, direct action, which gets the media and public involved.”
And, of course, there’s democracy.
“Finally, there’s electoral politics,” Collins concludes. “Often, direct action is the precursor to getting political change in motion. A combination of these factors is when you start to see big societal change – but it’s important for all of them to be taking place at once. On their own, it simply isn’t enough.”