Are we all going to die? Of course, we are. The more important question is when. But ask someone from Just Stop Oil (JSO) and the answer might be rather sooner than you’d hoped. Tomorrow, quite possible. Next week, at best.
In an interview with Sky defending the group’s decision to invade the stage during a performance of Les Misérables a week ago, Zoe Cohen, a JSO activist, gave a performance that was so wailing, overwrought, and funereal, there’s no doubt many of the actors were watching with professional jealousy.
The media appearances of JSO activists are notable for the amount of emotion on show, and for the ghoulish quality of their pronouncements of the coming climate crunch and total breakdown of society. Hyperbolic in both content and deliverance, it is noticeable how often heightened emotional appeals are resorted to, with activists usually visibly distraught, wallowing in the dystopian future that everyone but them is creating
Last year activist Louise Harris released a two-minute video from atop the M25, in which she states ‘I don’t have a future’ and begins crying almost immediately. Phoebe Plummer, the group’s poster girl, has previously spoken of drilling for new oil and gas as an act of genocide.
It seems that death is perpetually on the minds of JSO activists, and joyfully close. This is their house style; it owes more to millenarian cults than professional lobbying. But the occupation of politics by Am-Dram performers relying on emoting rather than coherent or cogent points will be a disaster for British politics.
Basing your argument on emoting puts those debating JSO activists in a difficult position. Arguing against someone is made far more difficult when they becomes upset. It leaves you between the devil and the dep blue sea: either you double down, risking upsetting them and coming across as a Real Nasty Piece of Work, or you back off and cede the debate. In a recent exchange with Plummer, Jacob Rees-Mogg chose the latter option – and with the optics of a Cabinet Minister riding roughshod over the emotional pleas of a 22-year-old woman in the back of his mind, who can blame him?
There is of course room for passion and emotion in politics, but this is a style of argument that at every opportunity relies on emoting in order to dishonestly leverage someone’s natural instinctive kindness into support for your argument.
This is the result of several factors. Ed West has already taken a look at the developing trend of ‘political hypochondria’, but it’s also the result of the rise in grievance-based politics. In the dictatorship of grief the bigger the grievance your grievance is, the louder your voice. By talking up the potentially disastrous impacts of climate change (unless we do exactly what they want), these activists can essentially borrow against future grievance.
But, if JSO’s argument makes it more difficult to engage in a meaningful debate around climate, does the group have a meaningful role to play in those debates?
Obviously deplatforming people is wrong (even if we have to deny ourselves a little schadenfreude sometimes) but like every joke there’s a nugget of truth in there somewhere. Standards of debate in politics matter. Ours have dropped drastically over the last few years and, if we want to raise them again, we should seriously consider whether activists who rely on cheap tricks like this have a role to play in them.
The problem is that this emotional incontinence makes for excellent TV but can’t add anything meaningful to what any serious political system should treat as an incredibly serious debate. The way we’re reaching our Net Zero goals is having a vast impact; the legal requirements of Net Zero mean we’re shipping carbon-producing activities outside the UK rather than decarbonising them.
Closing down coal-fired power stations is a fine and noble aim, but our failure to replace that power generation means we only just avoided an energy crisis last year. Without new nuclear God only knows how our scanty baseline energy production is going to cope with increase in demand from the switch to all-electric vehicles and heat pumps in 2030.
Following the green agenda has complex trade-offs. But the dynamics of those trade-offs are changing all the time, both because of the constraints the legal commitment to Net Zero places on policymaking and because there’s an almost ceaseless stream of new tech innovations. With a decent – or at least semi-serious – standard of political debate, discussions around the climate agenda would be an opportunity to reassess how those trade-offs are balanced.
But we aren’t going to get very far along that road with someone who declares that any form of adaptation means genocide of their generation. We can’t create a climate change policy with disregard for the needs of human occupants, because climate change has the potential to be the biggest change to our civilizational infrastructure since the Industrial Revolution.
If JSO’s house style prevents us engaging with the meaningful questions of how we best combat change without a decline in living standards, then their main contribution to the debate is lowering the quality. If we want to improve the quality of our national debate – and we should – we have to deal in political action, not political acting. And if JSO cannot prove themselves to be rational actors, then we must treat them as irrational ones.