Could the built environment use a bit more radicalisation? Should we be chaining ourselves to construction site gates demanding 6-star NABERS ratings or marching in the streets for HVAC efficiency upgrades?
Last month, 39 people were arrested in the UK for blocking a major road and demanding not more rights, not more freedom – but more insulation!
The campaigners were part of a group called Insulate Britain, an Extinction Rebellion offshoot that demands all the UK’s housing stock be properly insulated by 2030 and social housing even sooner by 2025.
Since their first action the group has garnered widespread attention for carrying out more roadblock manoeuvres which all up have led to over 300 arrests.
Consensus tended to be that the intention was good, although many were strongly against the group’s methods. Blocking roads gets a heated response online, particularly if you insert a hypothetical ambulance into the picture – clicks and outrage abound.
But maybe that’s the point.
“The kind of outrage and debates that are coming out of their provocative actions are a part of the reason that model works,” XR Australia member and impromptu spokesperson for the non-hierarchical group, Rene Wooller told The Fifth Estate.
He says the group is using a “tried and tested model” for achieving change, but a key factor is that their message is “worthy”.
Wooller cites the WUNC theory of American sociologist Charles Tilly, which says for social movements to be successful they need to have worthiness, unity, numbers and commitment.
XR is aware of being portrayed as “violent extremists” by segments of the media. But Wooller says the divisiveness is part of forcing people to make a moral choice.
“When you disobey authority, you create a dynamic where people can either agree with what you stand for, or they can side with authority. And so, it gets people off the fence.”
As Wooller points out, the protesters themselves don’t want to be there.
“The thing is, no one likes the methods. Even the people doing it don’t like the methods. No one wants to be doing something that involves a lot of sacrifice, like paying fines and getting locked up. It’s not fun at all.”
In a statement, Insulate Britain said it shared “the frustration of the people being delayed on the roads”.
“The Insulate Britain protests could end immediately, the government has a choice: make a meaningful statement that we can trust on insulating our homes…”
Wooller was supportive of Insulate Britain’s actions, but when asked if XR was planning something similar in Australia, he said the situations were different and in Australia the group tended to focus on the country’s massive fossil fuel emissions profile.
“In Britain, where they’re not a massive coal producer, the Insulate Britain idea is very apt for their situation because they get really cold in winter and they use a lot of fuel and they’ve figured out that’s the single biggest bang for buck that they can do,” he said.
For a resource rich country like Australia, however, tackling the massive amounts of fossil fuels we’re pulling out of the ground to burn both here and overseas is a larger concern.
Although obviously it’s not either-or.
Australia does have its own — if considerably milder — push for better insulation which for over a decade has been widely acknowledged as a “low-hanging fruit” of carbon emissions.
But is it time to get serious? Like seriously serious. We can say to ourselves that change takes time, and progress is underway, but the science tells us it isn’t happening fast enough.
Even the long awaited changes to the NCC we’ve all been fighting for don’t go far enough. Last week’s Australian Institute of Architects webinar revealed a widely held will for greater change and strong ambitions for net zero by 2030.
One of the members of the AIA’s CAST sustainability taskforce, Caroline Piddock, told us her organisation would likely be pushing the building codes board to go much further than what was on the table, to regulated net zero.
Sounding more than ready to chain herself to something, Piddock said, “if we actually want humans to have a potential future on this planet that’s what we’ve got to do. And I’m not being hysterical. I’m just simply reading the science.”
“In case anyone didn’t read the IPCC report, we’re in serious shit. It’s a code red for humanity and it’s time people realised we’ve got to do something about it.
“Not in 2025, or 2028, it will be too late. How many hundreds of thousands of houses will be built and renovated by then all emitting tonnes of carbon every year that don’t have to happen?”
With so many of us feeling the same, maybe it’s time to light a fire under those in favour of the softly, softly approach, otherwise it all could be for nothing anyway.
So why aren’t we taking it to the streets? Even those of us who would consider ourselves greenies.
“The thing is that doing stuff like direct action traditionally belongs to a lower class culture,” Wooller said, “And we’re in a weird situation at the moment, which is the people who understand the problem the most are generally middle class.”
XR believes in the power of their protests and civil disobedience actions as having the power for change, and Wooller says it’s a technique the middle class is having to learn and adapt.
One of Australia’s most successful grassroots activism campaigns, Stop Adani helped see banks and many other companies shift their investment strategy to exclude fossil fuels.
Read this extraordinary account of direct action at Adani in The Fifth Estate by Mick Daley.
“By getting [the banks] to rule out investment in Adani they’ve had to actually update their policies on any new investments they do which has made it a lot harder for them to invest in fossil fuel projects.”
This doesn’t mean the end to new coal mines, with four new projects approved in Queensland this year alone, but it shows that the people do have power.
And the more people, the more power.
“The model is that [direct action] is inspiring for more people to come along and do similar things. And then if that works it reaches this crisis point where you’ve just got too many people to lock up,” Wooller said.
“And then police are forced to say, ‘this problem is way bigger than what we’re capable of dealing with so this is a political issue now, and you guys need to solve it.”