Madeline Grant: We Should Reject Extinction Rebellion’s Brand Of Neo-Puritanism

  • Date: 08/10/19
  • Madeline Grant, The Daily Telegraph

We should treat their warnings of imminent catastrophe with scepticism

An Extinction Rebellion environmental activist action group known as The Red Brigade

There were decent citizens, concerned about the future of the planet, among the thousands of activists who took to the streets yesterday for Extinction Rebellion’s (XR) climate strike. Yet the organisation they represent has become increasingly irrational, uncompromising and extreme. Their latest bout of demonstrations includes disrupting public access to a Central London hospital – with XR activists, not medical experts, apparently given the ultimate say on whether to allow patients through. One Scotland Yard source warned that the protests are putting greater strain on police resources than the 2017 terror attacks.

XR is frequently portrayed as a “new-age” hippy collective, a label that ostensibly fits with their vegan diets and impromptu yoga sessions. Yet their flashy audio equipment and polyester tents run in tandem with a weirdly Medieval vibe. Druidic visionaries in red and green robes mingle with acrobats and circus performers. Even their dance moves are a strange fusion of the old and the new; eurythmy meets Morris dancing. Their trendy eco-radicalism likewise disguises antiquated ideas.

Reading its policy agenda, it becomes clear that XR is a fanatical group preaching imminent global destruction. It proposes to dismantle swathes of the economy and return to an agrarian, “prelapsarian”, pre-capitalist way of life. Its members share a moral certainty – bordering on arrogance – that justifies their extreme behaviour.

Their gospel is one of abstinence – at least for the little people. Like the 17th century Puritans who believed the state should enforce moral standards by closing down theatres and cutting down maypoles, the XR “Roundheads” tried to “occupy” Heathrow to stop people reaching their holiday destinations.

In Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, based on the real charter fair held at Smithfield since the 12th century, he savagely satirises this “Killjoy for the sake of it” tendency. Yesterday, the Puritans’ intellectual descendents tried to “occupy” the real Smithfield Market – a largely middle-class clique trying to destroy the businesses of market traders only guilty of trying to make an honest living from selling meat. The hypocrisies of jet-setting eco-celebs like Emma Thompson passed without censure.

XR’s alignment with BirthStrike, a movement which encourages people not to have children in response to the coming “civilisation collapse”, rehashes another failed ideology, Malthusianism. Back in 1798, the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus published his influential Essay on Population, predicting famine unless wars and disease raised the death rate. He was proven wrong by the explosion in the global population and food supply that followed, thanks to agricultural innovation. The long-term trend has been for real food prices to decline and production to rise far more rapidly than population.

But no matter how often apocalyptic warnings fail to come true, another one soon arrives, and doom-mongers are often poor predictors of human ingenuity. In 1894, a newspaper columnist argued that in 50 years the capital would be buried under 9 feet of manure – failing to anticipate the arrival of the combustion engine that would soon render horse-drawn transport a quaint novelty.

We should treat XR’s warnings of imminent catastrophe with similar scepticism.

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