Energy and Environment

Eco-Hooliganism: the result of a tragic miscommunication?

Eco-hooliganism has become a daily feature of life. The sight of eco-activists blocking major transport arteries and bringing traffic to a standstill – provided they are not too busy vandalising artworkssmashing windows, attacking petrol stations, or pouring out milk bottles in supermarkets – has become the new normal. Of course, if a gang of football hooligans did the exact same things that groups like Just Stop Oil, Insulate Britain, Extinction Rebellion etc do, the police would come down on them like a ton of bricks. Yet since these groups are pursuing a high-status cause, and can count of the endorsement of the Guardian-reading classes, they can get away with almost anything.

But where does this eco-militancy suddenly come from?

Sure, environmentalism is a fashionable cause – but it was already a fashionable cause 10, 20 or 30 years ago, and we did not see daily acts of eco-vandalism then.

Earlier green groups were tame compared to the current lot. Take “Plane Stupid”, an anti-air-travel initiative that used to be quite active in the second half of the 2000s. They used to boast:

“So far we’ve occupied Stansted, East Midlands, Aberdeen, Heathrow airports, shut down easyJet and BAA’s headquarters, stopped private jets at Biggin Hill, London City and Edinburgh airports; sat atop the House of Commons and the Scottish Parliament, […] and chucked green custard over Peter Mandelson.”

This was a summary of their “work” of several years. Today, a Just Stop Oil protester reading this would probably chuckle, and think “Not a bad start, but what about the rest of the week?”

Nor is it the case that environmentalism has become more apocalyptic over time: it always has been, and that has always been part of the appeal. For example, in 2004, the Guardian reported:

“Climate change over the next 20 years could result in a global catastrophe costing millions of lives in wars and natural disasters. […]

[M]ajor European cities will be sunk beneath rising seas as Britain is plunged into a ‘Siberian’ climate by 2020. Nuclear conflict, mega-droughts, famine and widespread rioting will erupt across the world.”

Apart from the dates (which are always the weakest part in any Millenarian doomsday cult prophecy), this could very easily be a pronouncement from Just Stop Oil, Insulate Britain or Extinction Rebellion today. This rhetoric has been mainstream for a long time. So, again, why is it only now leading to daily outbreaks of eco-militancy?

Maybe we are asking the wrong question here. The behaviour of green groups may seem obnoxious and irrational to those of us who do not agree with the underlying ideology, but it makes a lot of sense on its own terms. Imagine you took apocalyptic rhetoric of the above kind completely at face value. You are 100% convinced that we are fast approaching a literal extinction event. Not “GDP might drop by a few percentage points”, not “More people will suffer heat strokes”, not “We will have to spend more money on irrigation and flood protection”, but the full Mad Max package.

You also believe that most people, including most policymakers, are not aware of the scale of the looming catastrophe, or are in denial about it. Only a small, enlightened elite, which you see yourself as part of, truly understands the situation in all its seriousness. You do not see your policy agenda as an ideological preference, which people can agree or disagree with. You see it as the only thing that can save humanity from its literal extinction. You believe that it is your responsibility to shake humanity out of its complacency.

How would you act in such a situation? Why – you would probably do more or less what Just Stop Oil, Insulate Britain and Extinction Rebellion are doing. And you would certainly feel fully justified in doing so. You would be a very strange person if your attitude was: “I know that if we don’t do exactly as I say, we are all going to die a horrible death. However, I also accept that some people disagree with me, which is fine. Although millions of lives are at stake, I don’t really want to inconvenience anyone.”

So rather than asking why today’s eco-activists are so militant, maybe we should flip that question around, and ask why yesterday’s eco-activists were so comparatively tame, given that they already used the same apocalyptic rhetoric as today’s activists.

The only plausible explanation I can think of is that old-fashioned environmentalists do not take their own rhetoric completely at face value. They seem to have a tacit, unspoken understanding that when they talk about how the planet is going to become a burning hellscape in a few years’ time, they do not mean that literally. They say that, because it is the fashionable thing to say, which everyone feels socially obliged to repeat, but at some level, they know perfectly well that this is not going to happen. “We are all going to die” is merely their overdramatised way of saying “Climate change is bad, and we need to do something about it.”

One feels reminded of the semi-satirical “Anglo-EU translation” guide, which makes fun of the English habit of speaking in a socially coded way, saying one thing and actually meaning something else. This is not a problem as long as everyone is familiar with that social code, but it leads to misunderstandings when you have to interact with people who are not. The main problem here is that the people who are using that social code are usually not even aware that they are doing it, so they cannot easily stop it, or explain to an outsider what they are doing.

I suspect something similar is going on here. There must be some Guardian and Independent readers of the old-fashioned variety who are secretly a bit uncomfortable with the new eco-zealots. But what are they supposed to say to their newer comrades? “I know we’ve been saying this whole time that the world will go up in flames if we carry on like this for a minute longer, but… we didn’t actually… mean it like that. You know, it’s more like… a manner of speaking”?

That is not going to happen. Old-school environmentalism would lose much of its appeal if its adherents admitted to themselves that they don’t actually believe their own drama. It would also mean that they would come under fire from their newer comrades, who would accuse them of having gone over to the dark side, possibly bribed by Big Oil.

So it is more likely that the hitherto non-militant environmentalists will belatedly start believing their own hype, and self-radicalise in order to keep up.


Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

2 thoughts on “Eco-Hooliganism: the result of a tragic miscommunication?”

  1. Posted 22/10/2022 at 15:53 | Permalink

    Hooligans huh? I can just imagine what you might have been writing about 100-200 years ago and how you’d have framed it.

  2. Posted 23/10/2022 at 15:21 | Permalink

    I have to laugh at you guys deleting my comment. You describe free speech as ‘one of the key features of classical liberalism’ and something you claim to model yourselves on. But here you are, shutting down freedom of expression at the first opportunity.

    What a complete joke your organisation are.

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