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What’s the point? Extinction Rebellion revisits Trinity College lawn




Opinion | By Mike Scialom

Extinction Rebellion outside Trinity College, August 19, 2020. Picture: Mike Scialom
Extinction Rebellion outside Trinity College, August 19, 2020. Picture: Mike Scialom

The digging-up of Trinity College’s lawn in February and divided opinion across the land, but this week those arrested in connection with the protest headed straight for the scene of the action immediately after their first hearing in court to say they would be happy to do it all again.

The lawn seems not to have grown back in the intervening period, which has seen a global pandemic, a new record temperature of 130 degrees, ongoing deforestation, species extinction, coastal erosion, accelerating glacier melt - the Greenland ice sheet lost a record 1m tonnes of ice per minute in 2019 - serious reverses on already-diluted international climate treaties, populist politics encouraging further oil production ... and Greta Thunberg lamenting two wasted years since the first school strike.

Yes it was in August 2018 that Greta Thunberg staged the first school strike by refusing to go to school until after Sweden’s September general election of that year, to protest inaction on the incoming climate crisis. Her influence spread , with councils and nations declaring a climate emergency. Extinction Rebellion emerged late in 2018. In September 2019 the world’s most famous teenager organised the biggest climate strike in history .

Greta Thunberg with UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, Austrian president Alexander Van der Bellen and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The teenage environmentalist said this week that politicians wanted pictures with her to make them ‘seem like they care’ about climate change. Picture: Ronald Zak/AP
Greta Thunberg with UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres, Austrian president Alexander Van der Bellen and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The teenage environmentalist said this week that politicians wanted pictures with her to make them ‘seem like they care’ about climate change. Picture: Ronald Zak/AP

If it’s seemed like something significant is happening, the underlying trends remain unequivocal. Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels is a pipedream. Even 2 degrees is looking unlikely. This is not Greta Thunberg’s - or Extinction Rebellion’s - fault. The warning signs have been lingering for decades.

The first serious evidence of man-made climate change - a hole in the ozone layer - was discovered in 1985. Action was swiftly taken - CFCs were banned in consumers items (such as fridges) and in industrial settings. Then it was back to business as usual: in the 1980s economies were booming as deregulation fuelled booming Western economies.

By the 1990s rampant globalised consumerism was unstoppable. It continued into the first decade of the new century, was marginally sidetracked side-tracked by wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, then Libya, Syria and the Ukraine, and the financial crash on 2007/8. Then, between 2010 and 2020, another phenomenon proved an irresistible diversion as the internet - via smartphones and social media - started making inroads into human experience.

Even now, with irreversible climate devastation already under way , petrol and diesel engines are still being made and sold in their millions across the globe. And after a pause during lockdown, commercial airline flights have resumed. Even as it becomes obvious that the twenties will be a story of unfolding horror for the climate change losers - who face heatwaves, food disruption, land sliding under water, air pollution , drought , uncontrollable wildfires and devastating weather events - the reluctance to make the necessary changes is all too obvious.

But fixating on the university won Extinction Rebellion few new friends. Digging up the lawn outside Trinity College in February succeeded in highlighting the apparent reluctance to divest, but the tactics split the community into two camps - those who believe the university is forever corrupted by its association with fossil fuel entities, and those who insist that the university’s efforts to develop sustainable alternative fuels are genuine and deserve to be taken seriously.

There’s no sign that the university has any intention of fully divesting from fossil fuels any time soon. Extinction Rebellion’s escalation of protests to force the university to fully divest will be rebuffed. The protesters must surely know this. Gesture politics is not what this movement is about - and it’s not Extinction Rebellion’s fault that the opportunity to change course has been all but spurned in the last two years - but the fact remains that very little has changed in terms of the economic dynamics driving the collapse of the Earth’s most basic mechanisms. Since the time Extinction Rebellion emerged, the university and its spin-offs and associate organisations have addressed and in some cases resolved numerous sustainability issues - Xampla’s edible microplastic replacement , zero-carbon aviation , the Thwaites glacier mission , the Cambridge Carbon Map , a solar farm , wildlife habitats and natural green space initiatives , an environmental accreditation scheme , investment in cleantech ... this is not a one-dimensional organisation. It may be too late for BP, Shell, ExxonMobil and the rest to convince us that their intentions are now green, but is the university really in that league?

With every passing month, the changes required to reverse the collapse of life on Earth need to be more implausibly dramatic. Somehow or other, the incredible talent that Cambridge is home to has to work together. The lawn action was surely the high point of Extinction Rebellion as a protest movement so far, but things have moved on.The coronavirus pandemic has shown what is possible with a common goal. Surely that collective will to survive - and to make changes where necessary - can be used to address climate change too?

Since the pandemic started, the world has learned something it had forgotten: to survive, we have to work together, and ultimately that has to include the university, lawn or no lawn.

Extinction Rebellion outside Trinity College, with the ruined lawn to the left. Picture: Mike Scialom
Extinction Rebellion outside Trinity College, with the ruined lawn to the left. Picture: Mike Scialom


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