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Getting stuck in: the RI sector must back Extinction Rebellion as it targets finance today

We need public protest, consumer protest, business protest and political change.

See separate story on Lord Stern/XR here

Workers at the London Stock Exchange (LSE) – including some of you – (FTSE Russell is based in the building and David Harris is Head of Sustainability at the LSE) today found themselves stuck outside out of their office by protesters from Extinction Rebellion (XR) who were glued on to the front and back entrances (see picture). Extinction Rebellion switched the focus of its guerrilla protests to the finance industry and what it called “the corrosive impacts of the financial sector on the world we live in.” The LSE protesters (mostly in their 50s and 60s) included a research scientist, a support worker for vulnerable people, a retired head teacher, a civil servant and a doctor of archeology. Standard youth protest this is not. Performance protest it most certainly is. Today’s demonstrators are dressed in suits with Robocop style masks on their faces with the golden ‘extinction’ symbol (an egg-timer) painted on them. On their chests they have text on financial ticker style LED screens saying: ‘tell the truth’, ‘climate emergency’ and ‘you can’t eat money’. Another of last week’s tragi-comic, theatrical events was a choregographed ‘die-in’ at London’s world-renowned Natural History Museum.
What to make of Extinction Rebellion?
At RI we have members in the company who have joined the protests. We have others who are more sceptical – who have seen this kind of protest before; one called it ‘protest clicktivism’. Why disrupt transport and people’s workplaces: won’t that turn the public off? Everyone recalls the Occupy movement: look how far that got before it was brushed off the streets.This time must be different.
Earlier this week, a letter appeared in the Times newspaper floating an offshoot of Extinction Rebellion called XR Business. The letter was drafted by XR co-founder Gail Bradbrook in combination with John Elkington, the respected CSR and sustainability expert. It was signed by investment figures including Seb Beloe, a partner at Wheb, the London-based sustainability-focused asset manager.
In a recent blog titled, I love Extinction Rebellion Elkington said he was working with XR on how to “build bridges, rather than blocking them, to the business world.” On its draft website (currently down) XR Business said businesses should “make a declaration that we face a climate emergency and organise a session at a full board meeting to consider the case for urgent action.” It proposes to take the protest movement ‘in-house’ at companies, asking supporters to “encourage the senior management teams of which we are part to do likewise.” Within 100 days it aims to convene a meeting of XR activists and experts with business leaders and influencers.
Talking to RI, Seb Beloe said: “We were happy to sign the letter after some internal discussion. XR is quite controversial, it’s fair to say. There are people who believe that being camped in the middle of Oxford Circus (a road in the middle of London) for five days is tantamount to treason and should be met with the full force of law, and there are those who think it’s a good thing. From our perspective as a business, there is certainly a frisson of nervousness about aligning ourselves with this initiative. We’re careful we aren’t endorsing what is essentially an illegal activity, and we
wouldn’t want to do that. Nonetheless we are very sympathetic to what they are highlighting. Zero net carbon by 2025, in our professional view, is not attainable, but that kind of target as a way of stimulating the right response from the economy we think is appropriate. We’re not fully aligned with all of their messages, but we’re totally sympathetic to the way they’re raising the profile of this issue, which we do think is very much an emergency. It’s important that the business and investment voice is heard on this side of the argument, because it’s so traditionally assumed that business and investment are on the other side of the argument and opposed to this kind of thing, but that’s simply not the case. So having a business voice saying, actually, what these protesters are pointing towards is really important, even if we don’t specifically endorse their tactics.”
Beloe said he hopes the outcomes of the XR protests will be similar to what occurred after the Paris Agreement where businesses could sign up and support the agenda: “This isn’t just words, we’re going to be involved in an event that brings businesses together to speak about what we can do more practically.”We don’t need to re-run the problem here: the science is clear.
Resolution of the issue is global, political, economic, long-term, difficult and prey to deeply-embedded interests, both financial and personal.
It’s hard not to feel awkward about the sight of Greta Thunberg, a 16-year old addressing parliaments around the world on the issue of fighting climate change: there is a disturbing message in that. We are being terrifyingly let down by our representatives who are enabling business-as-usual to imperil our environment, destroy its biodiversity and threaten our future existence.
We need public protest, consumer protest, business protest and political change.
One of the RI team who has been involved with XR has praised its grassroots activism, its connectivity, it’s joie de vivre. It is growing fast. RI wholeheartedly back its aims. As a responsible investment sector we should be energised by its smart, gutsy protest. In turn, we should lend our support to help XR get ready for the hard work ahead of turning demonstration into the changing of an economic system.

With reporting by Ella Milburn