Devastate to insulate?

As Insulate Britain call a ‘temporary pause’ in their campaign of road blocking, Bill Stickers asks participants is this the road ahead, or a cul-de-sac?

After five weeks of causing disruption through human roadblocks, ignoring arrests, assaults, High Court injunctions and the threats of new laws, Extinction Rebellion spin-off Insulate Britain (IB) are vowing to continue gluing themselves to the UK’s highways and byways if a solid commitment to insulate all social housing isn’t given by October 25th.

To say this is an innovative form of action is an understatement. Blocking roads to insulate buildings? How does that stack up? Has such a mundane demand ever been allied to such militant direct action?*

I spoke to Alex, an Insulate Britain activist, about his experience:

“As an environmental activist of many years standing — M11 protests onwards — I got involved with the Insulate Britain campaign because it stops traffic and highlights the climate/nature catastrophe foisted upon us by the industrial capitalist system … The message was stark — act now or face the consequences of the domino effect of irreversible tipping points — Arctic ice sheet melts; subsequent blue ocean events; dead, acidified seas; the Amazon rainforest, now a carbon emitter rather than sink, turned into a savannah.”

In recent days, Insulate Britain activists have experienced increased hostility from motorists. Alex reported being frightened at the anger and hostility they experienced when participating in an action at Blackwall Tunnel:

“So much anger out there. I’ve never been called a cunt so many times in one day. That isn’t to say there weren’t pockets of sympathy — after being nicked for my second action on the A501 at Old Street roundabout on the Friday, two young men breached the police phalanx keeping us cuffed and up against the railings to say thank you individually before being moved on.

“By consistently sticking to its guns IB is keeping the government on its toes and Johnson to his manifesto pledge. The issue here is what next? Once the dust has settled and the whole aspect of energy conservation is examined in greater depth, this is an obvious example of how you can do it effectively and actually cut 15% from CO2 emissions. It hits all the right buttons of sustainability, viability and social justice: low cost, low resource and effective at energy saving. More importantly, it can viably be done by 2025 with the win going to those at the sharp end of climate change.

“By focusing on the low-fi fix of insulation in our leak-prone housing stock, Insulate Britain has decided to ditch the polar bear and go for something closer to home — more jobs, less waste, lower emissions. Of course it is hard to not feel for people who will be unable to heat their homes this winter, which is forecast to be particularly bitter, because of climate change. Close to 8,000 people may die simply by not having the money to heat and eat and so they go without the heating to afford their groceries, especially if they can’t get to a food bank. The climate crisis is becoming ever more urgent and anything which can mitigate its effects is necessary.

“An estimated 62% of our energy flow is effectively wasted due to inefficiency: The devastating human side to all this is particularly older people left deciding whether to spend on heating or food. IB campaigns to stick this right in the face of the government day after day after day.

“So, this isn’t simply about ambulances (and by the way they are always waved through, and ambulance drivers are trained to get through traffic jams anyway). It’s about forced migrations already happening due to war and famine from Yemen through to Madagascar.

“Before the actions I was thankfully advising on how to stay calm and take a truly, non-violent approach. Bearing in mind we had physically frail but mentally tough, older people on the road it felt right on this occasion, and it is the campaign’s current MO.

“The IB community is made up of exceptionally kind-hearted, committed comrades with whom I did and still do feel a deep affinity. They came from all walks of life, many in their 50s and 60s — builders, teachers, gardeners, engineers, and people who had given up jobs to devote their lives to the cause. They were liberal, middle class; they were working class; they were religious; they were out of work; they came from HS2 protest camps; they worked for wildlife trusts; they were of no fixed abode; or mums of four; or like me came from ecological anarchist community backgrounds. All have that same drive to act for real meaningful change from the grassroots up.”

Insulate Britain activists are using the Roger Hallam/XR theory of social change, which derives from widely criticised studies by Erica Chenoweth, and argues that disruption of national infrastructure is key and that filling the prisons (non violently) is a viable path to social change. Insulate Britain have taken this approach to a level not seen even with Extinction Rebellion, virtually daring the government to make martyrs of them.

In a refreshingly honest interview IB spokesman Liam Norton said that in essence the whole campaign …

“has been an experiment. We don’t know if we can sustain it, or achieve critical mass but we have to try. In effect 150 people acting together, non violently, have troubled the highest councils in the land. Our demands are totally reasonable, we’ll have to see”.

An individual who has attended several actions in Kent, Essex and Surrey in an observational capacity said:

Unsurprisingly a hostile media are focusing on the confrontations between livid motorists and the protesters. While there is little doubt that many of those inconvenienced are furious and ready to kick off with those blocking the road, that only tells part of the story.

Some of the people stuck in traffic jams are genuinely entertained by the drama unfolding in front of them. Others are up for a good old fashioned debate with the activists about what they’re hoping to achieve. One thing that none of them seem to be ready for is an argument with a retired vicar or middle aged special-needs teacher who fears for the future of her grandchildren.

If all the blockaders were in their twenties some of then would clearly have wound up in hospital by now. But the tactic of peaceful engagement, de-escalation and martyrdom by arrest and eventual imprisonment has pretty much taken all by surprise. Whether this will pay dividends and get publicity for their very reasonable demands remains to be seen.

It is clear that they are sincere in their belief that being in jail during COP26 will embarrass the government and highlight their failures to implement a simple measure that would make sense for all as we head into what is expected to be a very cold winter. They also clearly have a deep understanding of the science behind their fears and genuinely feel that what amounts to criminal negligence by governments has left them with no choice but to do this.”

The final word on Insulate Britain has yet to be written, daring intervention or disastrous misstep? One thing is clear, as the climate crisis deepens people will respond much like Insulate Britain has, feeling something needs to be done.

~ Bill Stickers


*Technically speaking of course blocking roads is civil disobedience, direct action would be nicking Celotex from Travis Perkins and stashing it in people’s lofts.

Pic: Things get a little heated at an October 13th action, by Guy Smallman