The limits of Extinction Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion flags in Bristol July 2019

Why was I absent from Bristol’s Extinction Rebellion protests last week? I’m a left leaning voter who accepts time is running out for climate change action. Last winter I spent eight days upgrading my loft insulation to reduce my gas consumption by about 10% – which is one of many actions I’ve taken to reduce my carbon output. So why did I cycle past the protest each day instead of joining in?

Although XR are doing an important job of keeping climate change in the news cycle, I believe there’s a limit to what these street protests will achieve.

Firstly while the group’s name reflects the uncomfortable truth – unchecked climate change really could bring about the extinction of our species – sounding that alarm is unlikely to influence many climate change skeptics. Humans prefer to be re-assured than alarmed and we like putting things off until the last minute. I don’t say this to make pithy observations about human nature, I say it because these tendencies are a serious issue where climate change is concerned. The fossil fuel industry have vast resources and lobbying power which consistently deliver the message that we can just carry on as we are. Their message is a perfect fit for those basic flaws in human nature.

Secondly for anyone who seeks to turn the tide, are they aware of how they are perceived by those still going with the tide? Even non-skeptics can be annoyed by the disruption. On Weds 17th July 2019 the Bristol group went outside the official planned protest and blocked the M32 motorway, causing a son to miss his father’s dying moments. Sadly this very personal tragedy will be what some remember of XRs protest. And I’ll bet some will view the protest as a bit self-indulgent, especially when their daily life is forced to detour around a yoga session on a blocked road.

And that brings up the third reason I wasn’t at XR protests. The tent covered Castle Park had a festival feel this week. And with the drumming and chanting it just wasn’t really me. Without meaning to offend any protesters, I would say it all looks a bit “knit your own yoghurt” (to quote Alexi Sayle). This is the cultural baggage that comes with XR’s street protests. No matter how inclusive they aim to be, they are mostly appealling to specific groups of people. With the rise of populism, and the ideological silos of social media, cultural identity dominates politics now, frequently forcing rational policy discussion into second place. The UK media are reinforcing this too, and the right wing newspapers contain plenty of climate change skepticism, even denial. The total circulation of The Sun, Daily Mail, Telegraph, Times and Daily Express is around 3.6 million. The left leaning Guardian and Mirror, only 0.6 million. Were there any Daily Mail readers at XR’s protests? Precious few I would guess. And how many more viewed XR’s protest as the unwelcome actions of people they have little in common with, which means their message can be safely ignored?

The Extinction Rebellion banners say ‘System change not climate change’ which sounds radical. But XR have no specific policy solutions to achieve the seemingly impossible task of removing fossil fuels from the world economy. They are right that humanity must stop measuring success purely in GDP terms, which is at record levels while poverty continues and we torch the planet’s dwindling resources. But this obvious insanity has not led to a surge in support for the left. Frustration with an economic system that primarily serves the already wealthy has led to Brexit and right-wing populists like Trump.

Don’t get me wrong. Extinction Rebellion should continue to protest and keep climate change in the headlines. But to get lasting and meaningful change, policies with cross-party appeal are essential, and I believe the only cross-party policy that has a chance of implementation is some form of carbon dividend. The dividend calls for widespread carbon taxation, but unlike other taxes all the income is divided equally among the citizenry, instead of going into government coffers (I discuss the pros and cons in this post. The dividend appears both in the UK Green Party policy statement and is the key aim of heavily Republican/Libertarian US group The Climate Leadership Council. Our politicians are thinking in 5 year election cycles and we are running out of time to win over enough climate skeptics. Surely the Green Party should be heavily promoting the carbon dividend because ideologically it works for the small government right as much as it fits the left’s primary purpose of making society more equitable?

The environmental left must also harness the consumer desire for the latest technology. Tesla have single-handedly changed the perception of zero emission electric cars, which sell as much for their high comfort level, in-car technology and low running costs as they do for their contribution to air quality and low carbon. Electric cars and aircraft and electric planes are quieter, more comfortable, versatile and more efficient. With cost, range and charging speed improving, electric transport is better all round.

I’m not saying electric cars will save the planet – all cars consume resources. But there is no sign people are tiring of consumerism or switching to public transport quickly enough to significantly reduce energy demand. Those resources must become low carbon as soon as possible, and promoting quality of life improvements in a post fossil fuel world is the carrot that is needed to persuade skeptics that ending the oil age is a positive thing. And that is needed every bit as much as environmentalists, scientists and grass roots groups like XR continuing to ring the climate alarm bell.

When is a tax not a tax? When it’s a carbon dividend

Oil extraction

Expect to hear more about carbon dividends in the next few years. The latest IPCC report and the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events this year in particular, is perhaps finally focusing minds across party lines on ways to make carbon taxes politically acceptable.

Scientists and economists have long advocated carbon taxes as the most effective way to remove carbon from the world economy. While left of centre Europeans like me want increased funding for public services, history shows it’s an uphill task selling the tax increases needed to pay for them, even when voters say they want better schools, hospitals or more police on the street. Taxing carbon may be vital but people rarely vote for new taxes. With climate change the real cost is in the future, and it’s too easy for voters and politicians to think short term and let future generations pay, with the cost of inaction rising all the time.

In different forms, the carbon dividend has long been popular with environmentalists, and the dividend is now gaining traction with Republicans and Libertarians. This appeal across the ideological spectrum means a dividend may be the only way to get carbon taxes implemented – and perhaps more importantly, keep them in place through successive changes of government. Continue reading…

Public transport – an alternate route?

bus graphic

Public transport is the most efficient way to move people around our cities, so why is it not more widely used? In many UK cities people use their public transport unwillingly. Increased privatisation has not fixed the problem. Outside of London bus passenger numbers have been in sharp decline since 1984/85, down 37%. And privatisation continues – the (ironically delayed) 2017 Bus Services Bill introduced a wholly ideological clause to stop local authorities running their own bus services, even if that service is more cost effective than a privately run service.

Efficient public transport is vital to our environment and our economy, and I believe our overly privatised buses and trains are failing on both counts. Here I’m going to suggest a way to enable low cost public transport across the UK to improve our environment and increase passenger numbers. Continue reading…

Cancer is a lottery, not a judgement


Cancer is a dreadful illness. The conventional treatments can be harsh and unpleasant to endure, and perhaps there should be a better way. Many people have claimed the power of thought prevents and even cures Cancer, some of whom have themselves survived Cancer against the odds. But before anyone puts their faith in such claims I think there is a statistical point to consider.

According to Cancer Research UK, worldwide there were 14.2 million new cases of Cancer diagnosed in 2012. If all those 14.2 million people had been given the very worst prognosis by their doctors of only a 1 in 100 chance, that still means 142,000 of them would likely have survived, and half a million would have seemingly done the impossible by 2016. Fortunately the actual odds of surviving all types of Cancer averages out around 50/50 over 10 years.

So for every person who can testify to their thoughts beating the disease, there will be many more making no such claims, and many more who sadly will not make it. It’s an obvious point maybe, but only those fortunate enough to live through Cancer are then around to write an inspiring book, make a video, or charge for a ticket to their seminar on how they believe they did it. Continue reading…

The Human Animal – a breed apart?

chick with blackboard

For the majority of western history the only mind considered worthy of examination was the human mind. This is in part because we lacked the tools to examine how other animals experienced the world. However western science also developed within a Judeo-Christian cultural heritage – religious traditions which taught that God has taken us, and only us, over that threshold of animal awareness into the realm of moral beings, because we were the only animals with souls.

Although science has largely overtaken religion as a way of explaining human existence, like religion it has historically emphasised differences between humans and other animals, rather than common ground. In recent years more detailed experiments into animal cognition show much of what has been regarded as solely human characteristics, such as the potential for language, ability for abstract thought, the capacity for emotions, jealousy and cruelty even, can be found in other species to some extent. Here I want to consider some of that evidence with some observations on how this might be interpreted.

Taking a philosophical approach to scientific research might be seen as anthropomorphizing other species. Continue reading…

Free will, Determinism and Frogger


Is free will an illusion? Some recent neurological experiments have hit the headlines with that conclusion. The studies reveal that the conscious mind is sometimes slow to recognize a course of action the subconscious has already set in motion. Absence of free will is a possible explanation. Certainly most people don’t realise how much they invent reality to suit the events. Memory is highly subjective, and most of us occasionally use reason to justify decisions which are primarily motivated by our emotions.

Understandably scientists feel religion has got it wrong and science has got it right (generally true). Do some scientists further have a desire to liberate us from the burden of free will, apparently the remnant of an outdated belief system? Perhaps. Whether or not there is such a mission, there are significant problems with the assumptions behind these experiments, which mean going from free will may be an illusion to this proves free will is an illusion or even probably an illusion is quite a stretch.

You cannot be serious!

The cognitive studies involve simple motor tasks. For example, with brain activity being monitored, the subject presses a button Continue reading…