On Friday 13 September, Heathrow Pause – an offshoot of the environmental activist group Extinction Rebellion – planned to protest over the building of a third runway at Heathrow airport. Their intention was to fly drones in the exclusion area around the airport, thereby grounding flights and disrupting travel.
Whilst their actions were non-violent and in the end no flights were disrupted, the police still arrested 20 of the protesters. Seven of these were ‘pre-emptive’ arrests, mostly on the charge of ‘conspiracy to commit a public nuisance’. As well as these pre-emptive arrests, police used signal jamming equipment to prevent the drones from being flown.
The rationale behind these protests is clear: although Parliament declared a ‘climate emergency’ earlier this year, this has translated into no concrete action or improvement whatsoever. Indeed Boris Johnson, once a vocal opponent of a third runway as London Mayor, has u-turned on Heathrow expansion since becoming Prime Minister.
We can be under no illusions about how urgent the climate crisis is. The IPCC estimates give us less than a decade to radically transform our economy. It is, therefore, absolutely correct that we must take immediate action to avert the worst of these consequences.
The Tories will always condemn groups like Heathrow Pause and Extinction Rebellion, since they expose the real interests of these big business politicians.
This out-of-touch elite can only ever pay lip service to environmental issues for political points. They will always prioritise profits over the planet. They will never challenge the real, systemic cause of climate change: the capitalist system.
The environmental movement will always face attacks from those at the top. Capitalist politicians will never be convinced by moral arguments or publicity stunts. Their only concern is to protect the profits of the bankers and bosses. The capitalists, in their relentless pursuit of profits at any cost, have every interest in retaining the status quo.
Instead of appealing to the Tories and Liberals, therefore, the environmental movement must base itself on mobilising and organising workers and youth - those who have a shared interest in ripping up the root of the problem.
It is important to understand the limits of the kinds of methods being employed at the moment by groups like Extinction Rebellion.
In order to transform society on the scale required, and to run it in the interests of the majority, we need to fight for full democratic ownership and control of our economy. As Heathrow Pause themselves point out, it is the ruthless profiteering of big business that is the real cause of this climate crisis. Our tactics and strategy must be shaped by this reality.
Whilst the actions of individuals can play a decisive role at key moments in history, it is mass movements which change the world. Above all, it is the organised working class which has the power to transform society.
There are millions of workers in this country and around the world who, if organised, would have an unstoppable power to transform society along sustainable, socialist lines. We must base our strategy, therefore, on this power - on the mobilisation of the labour movement.
Many individual members of groups like Extinction Rebellion have made personal sacrifices in their efforts to raise awareness of this issue in the hope of forcing concrete action. However, appealing morally to a political class who will not listen, and who have no interest in changing the logic of this rotten system, will not work.
Serious environmental groups must move beyond calling for activists to get arrested, for vague ‘Citizen’s Assembly’ proposals, or for apolitical publicity stunts.
We must understand that climate change is not ‘beyond politics’. Small-scale, individualistic direct actions will never be sufficient to create the political and economic change we need.
We must move beyond trying to find ‘legal loopholes’. As we have seen countless times throughout history, the law is written by the rich, for the rich. It will always come down on the side of the bosses.
We must do more than simply shutting down airports by flying drones. Our movement must be about taking control of our economy, not just paralysing it. This means fighting for a socialist plan of production, involving nationalisation of the big polluting monopolies, to be run under workers’ control and management.
A world to win
Socialism will not be won on a technicality. It will be won through the political struggle of the working class, taking control of the economy out of the hands of the billionaire class. To do this, the environmental movement must join the organised working class, with the labour movement taking a lead in this struggle.
This has already started to happen with the popularisation of radical green policies, like those up for discussion at this year’s Labour Party Conference. However, in order to be successful, these demands must seek to challenge the capitalist system and fundamentally transform the economy, not simply reform or tinker around the edges.
We have the power to transform society - and we have a world to win!