Why Extinction Rebellion should stay off the grass

In their latest stunt, protestors from Extinction Rebellion have dug up the lawn at Trinity College, Cambridge. Presumably they think all publicity is good publicity, but this looks like yet another own goal.

Trinity appears to have been targeted for two reasons, both stupid. One is opposition to the college’s involvement in plans to redevelop farmland in Suffolk. Protestors don’t like the idea that this land might be used to build new homes, or a new logistics site (aka lorry park) that would ease congestion at the port of Felixstowe. As it happens, both options sound good to me. But we have a planning system to thrash out these issues, without the need to trash a garden.

The second reason is that Trinity is believed to be the largest Oxbridge investor in oil and gas companies, using the income to educate young people and fund research into, among other things, climate change and the environment.

I wish Trinity had been as robust on this point as the bursar from St John’s (Oxford), whose response to student activists was reported (by Dominic Lawson) as follows…

st johns short

In contrast, the authorities at Trinity apparently decided not to ask the police to intervene. (It’s not inconceivable either that the protestors might get a relatively sympathetic hearing from the current Master, Dame Sally Davies.)

Of course, there is a serious point here. Extinction Rebellion seem to believe it is worth paying almost any price to reduce carbon emissions, even at the cost of crashing the economy, or overthrowing capitalism itself (which might amount to the same thing).

This is surely misguided. It may well be true that without capitalism we would not have had the agrarian and industrial revolutions, and all the economic and social benefits that followed, as well as the environmental costs.

However, companies are simply responding to demand for goods and services which, in some cases, happen to be polluting. That is ultimately our fault, not theirs. With better information and the right incentives, we, as consumers, can all make better choices. (For more on the economics of climate change, see this piece I wrote recently for 1828.)

There is also the question of how we should respond as investors. I get that some people no longer want to invest in industries that depend on fossil fuels. Nonetheless, divesting from companies in these sectors might be counter-productive, both because the world will still need fossil fuels for many years to come, and because these businesses are often at the cutting edge of developing the alternatives and new technologies that will replace them.

In particular, many energy giants (not just BP) are working hard to move away from oil towards natural gas, and to diversify further into renewable forms of energy. Similarly, who else but car companies are going to make electric vehicles? Indeed, free-market capitalism is good at rewarding entrepreneurs that do make a success of responding to environmental challenges – as shown in the soaring share price of Tesla.

All this seems to be lost on Extinction Rebellion and their fellow travellers. Alternatively, perhaps I’m just not trendy or progressive enough to understand how vandalising a garden helps to tackle climate change.

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