Since coming to public attention in April 2019, Extinction Rebellion has become equally, if not more, known for its controversial tactics than its aims and mission. Supergluing themselves to a DLR train and to the London Stock Exchange are just two ways the group has caused disruption in a bid to protest climate change and reverse the policies driving it. In September 2020, as the UK eagerly waited for news on the pandemic and lockdown, the group took things a step further and blocked access to printworks, preventing newspaper deliveries. 

Rebels Without a Cause?

Since forming, ‘XR’ has spawned several spin-off climate justice groups such as Animal Rebellion and Just Stop Oil — now infamous for throwing cans of Heinz tomato soup over Van Gogh’s beloved ‘Sunflowers’ and spray-painting Harrods orange. In 2021, the associated group Insulate Britain disrupted traffic and slowed an ambulance, leaving the patient in transit paralysed.  

What is clear, is that the demands of Extinction Rebellion (and Co.) have become embroiled in a debate over tactics. Defending their ‘civil disobedience’ — instead of raising climate change awareness — has become a central aspect of the group’s activities.   

The demonstrations carried out by XR and associates aim to bring compliance in exchange for an end to inconveniences. But the once noble mission to enlighten the public about the dangers of climate inaction has sidetracked into climate bickering. The group’s uncooperative tactics have bitterly divided the population into several rival camps: supporters versus opponents and those who can afford to volunteer versus those who see XR activism as a rich person’s luxury. Failing to garner wider support has prevented the group from becoming a cohesive and credible network of climate activists. Even their television appearances have descended into chaos. Almost four years on and XR has become more of a nuisance than a climate-fighting machine.

Teal’s Appeal

Environmentalist Alison Teal uses an approach that works with and not against society. Rather than exploiting conflict as a cause célèbre, her activism focuses on plastic pollution precisely because: ‘it actually might be the thing that unites us. It is not just one country’s problem, it’s everyone’s problem,’ she tells me when we speak.

XR’s controversial style may generate media appearances and free publicity in the short term, but the approach is inefficient so long as people sympathise with the cause but oppose the means. Teal uses free-to-view visual media to arouse sympathy for both mission and method, ensuring that any progress made is, well …, ‘sustainable’. She must be doing something right since her work, uploaded online, has amassed over 90,000 followers on Instagram and 62.9 million ‘likes’ on TikTok.

Sympathy for the plastic crackdown has flowed naturally from the enormous appeal of her eye-catching and eye-opening work. ‘As a photographer and filmmaker, visually, the plastic has just been something I’ve been able to document and go on to be able to change multiple environmental laws through my films and my photos, showing the monstrosity of this plastic pollution problem,’ she explains.

Teal’s gentle approach, grounded on seeing is believing, has been so effective that she can boast of having effected real environmental change. ‘We are already seeing the results of inspiring change, not imposing it, and achieving it democratically. I dove in and helped create a [film] campaign to ban toxic sunscreens in Hawaii and they passed the legislation. I’ve been able to dive into plastic-polluted waters, post what’s happening online and within a few days ban the plastic bag in California.’ All this has been accomplished by one person without vandalising precious artworks or obstructing vital public services.

But it’s not just her democratic style of activism that makes Teal’s environmentalism more likely to resonate. It’s also her eagerness to lead by example and her unflinching willingness to literally get her hands dirty for the environment. In August 2021, it was revealed that XR co-founder, Dr Gail Bradbrook, drives a diesel car. The following month, an Insulate Britain campaigner came under fire for refusing to disclose whether his own house was insulated.

In the court of public opinion, hypocrisy is not a charge Teal can ever be pinned with. Her trademark pink surfboard is made of recycled coffee cups and its traction board comes from reconstituted wine bottle corks. However, this is a person who is hardly new to sustainable living having grown up in a ‘sustainable grass shack in Hawaii built out of sustainable woods. We compost, we live off solar power,’ says Teal, like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

Meanwhile, Just Stop Oil deface buildings with paint, which requires removal by white spirit. This decreases fish populations and is a key example of how climate change hurts traditional communities. Ironically, the toxicity of white spirit was something a Just Stop Oil activist knew nothing about and the group has been graffitiing buildings the entire month of October.

Extinction Rebellion and Co. argue that it is possible to: ‘want to get to net zero and still drive a petrol car’ — because using unecological measures reflects the system they wish to change and the reality we find ourselves in.

Yet their actions belie this. They admit to: ‘disrupting everyday people’s lives’ as punishment for relying on the exact same system they themselves end up using.

More to the point, how can the long-suffering public ensure that the demands of ‘XR’ (et al.) are met? Every new disruption is All. Put. On. The. Consumer.

Teal’s effective approach to helping the environment comes from her deep understanding of the tensions between industry and ecology. She appreciates that there is a fine line between what is reasonable to expect from consumers when it comes to sending environmental messages. In setting smaller and more manageable aims that reflect the amount of power the average consumer actually exercises, Teal’s method is more practical. She delights in ‘starting a ripple effect of kids falling in love with the ocean and then wanting to protect it,’ while recognising that the public can only make baby steps towards climate justice. ‘Only when the big companies come on and say, “okay, we’re gonna ban plastic,” that is where the huge change needs to be made,’ she admits soberly.

Simply put, Teal is in touch with reality. The same cannot be said of someone throwing soup over a beloved painting and thinking this will galvanize people to protect the planet.

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