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Sticking to the message

Direct action without education is a meaningless expression of pure energy.

How to kill an important political message stone dead. 1. Irritate the hell out of Middle England, 2. Be revealed as a hypocrite by the popular press. 3. Let everyone know what sort of person you are by claiming you would refuse to let an ambulance go past your protest, even if said ambulance were to be taking a dying patient to hospital.

Well, done, Roger Hallam, hirsute leader of the Extinction rebellion splinter group Insulate Britain, you managed to tick all of those boxes and, in the process, took your important message about the need for action on climate change and flushed it down the pan. Or, in case you do live as you preach, dropped it into your composting eco-loo at the bottom of your garden. Actually, though, to refer back to point 2 above, where one of the tabloids has discovered that Hallam has a number of gas-guzzling diesel vehicles stashed away at his uninsulated home. Do as I say, not, …oh you get the point.

Insulate Britain is calling for a national programme to ensure all of the country’s housing stock is insulated to be low energy by 2030. This is a good message. Goodness knows we’ve been banging on about the need to do this for long enough.

In fact, there already is a perfectly good campaign to do the very things that Insulate Britain is campaigning for. It’s called the National Retrofit Strategy and it has been launched by the estimable Construction Leadership Council. The NRS bills itself as “a  twenty-year blueprint for how the construction industry can work with Government to retrofit the UK’s 28 million existing homes.”

If we are to stand any chance of meeting the carbon reduction plans that the Government has laid out for us as a nation, then those 20million homes need to be sorted, both in terms of their energy efficiency and their water efficiency.

There has been a great deal of talk and hand-wringing over the fact that we are probably, by default, going to end up back in a situation where we have a choice of a handful of gas and electricity suppliers, and bills that have increased four-fold. There hasn’t been quite so much said about the fact that those bills could be a bit less if only we used less fuel. Better insulated homes and buildings use less fuel and therefore cost us less to heat. They also mean we are using less of the stuff that damages the planet.

So, Insulate Britain does have a point. It is vital that we insulate and improve these buildings before it is too late. But they risk damaging that important message by irritating the hell out of everyone.

The construction industry has a great opportunity here to grab the message that Insulate Britain have highlighted and run with it. Let’s make some noise, lots of noise, about the massive improvements that the industry is making, not just in sorting out its own emissions, but in developing new products and systems that will help all of us to insulate the homes we live in.

I suppose there is always the argument that direct action works by raising the profile of the issues at hand, rather than by directly influencing the outcome. Would women have got the vote in Great Britain under the Representation of the People Act in 1918 if the suffragettes hadn’t chained themselves to railings, starved themselves in prison, and if Emily Wilding Davidson hadn’t gone under the King’s horse at the Derby? Probably, but it might have taken longer.

Today’s terrorist is tomorrow’s leader with a seat at the table. As head of the Irgun, Menachem Begin targeted the British in Palestine, in the post-war period, but by the time I was growing up, he was Prime Minister of Israel, and I believe that Nelson Mandela chap did OK when he got out of prison.

Hallam and his acolytes may believe that in gluing themselves to the road, preventing ambulances and emergency services from accessing the places they need to get to, they are doing the right thing for the planet. Or they may just want the fight.

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About Fiona Russell-Horne

Fiona Russell-Horne
Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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