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Learn about Extinction Rebellion

Updated: Jan 18, 2019

The “Overton” window!

This Christmas I learned something new! Thanks to a new pressure group –Extinction Rebellion or XR I learned about the “Overton window”. It's not a totally new idea. G K Chesterton, one of my heroes and a very wise and witty man, first remarked on what he called the “fence”. The “fence” was the metaphorical boundary between what topics, options or questions were open for discussion and what topics were not. In today's world the prevalence and significance of our many news media makes this “fence” even more important. When pundits, reporters and politicians are commenting in the media on policy options they are only able to consider the possibilities that fall within the “Overton window”. Options that fall outside the “window” are simply too radical to write or talk about.

We can illustrate this in the current thinking about climate change. If – and it is a big IF – we were on a war footing then we would clearly be talking about radical policy options such as -

Massive reduction in car use – ration fuel and/or mileage

More public transport and use of bicycles/horses – ban cars from cities

Massive reduction in permitted power of cars ? 20KW limit

Insist that cars are made from carbon fibre with a minimum life of 25 years

Ration the use of centrally generated electric power – it's less than 30 percent efficient

Make it a crime to put organic waste into bins for landfill (10 millions tons goes now)

Make use of biodigesters compulsory to eliminate methane from waste in landfill

Use this methane gas to replace fossil fuel power

Make using centrally generated electricity for heating (water or central heating) illegal

Make installation of solar water heating compulsory

Use more wood for central heating – use more renewables – tidal power not wind!!

Phase out centrally generated electricity in favour of more efficient local generation

Make use of electricity for air conditioning illegal

Plant more trees – all citizens required to plant and protect 250 trees during their lifetime

Ban all electric cars (except in city centres) until electricity comes from renewables

It does not take much thought to see that all these options will actually be needed if we are to bring net carbon dioxide emissions down to zero. This could certainly be done if we were on a “war footing” but, right now, most are “outside the Overton window”. At present the average household has a (disposable) car that produces about 5 tons of CO2 each year and producing the steel car itself produces about another 30 tons of CO2. Heating our homes with centrally generated electricity produces another 3 or 4 tons for each household.

Anyone can see that it is going to be impossible to achieve significant reductions simply by using taxation and/or the price mechanism. But it seems that policies such as rationing and the criminalisation of “bad” activities are only acceptable during times of war.

Right now there is no prospect of our modern politicians having the skill or wisdom to implement even a single one of these “more radical” options. This has been demonstrated by Macron's riots in France! Neither our politicians, our corporations or our public have reached a point where they would accept such limitations on the lifestyles they are used to. Indeed their mindsets are so locked into the delights of the fossil fuel era that radical policy options are not open for discussion. The only effective policy options still lie outside the “Overton window”.

So the question is – how do we move the “Overton window” to make discussion of such radical options possible? This is a necessary first step if any government is to have a real prospect of introducing effective policies for carbon reduction. Moving the “Overton window” is a challenge for “cultural engineering”. Extinction Rebellion believe that history shows that the only way to move the “Overton window” is by non-violent direction action. The aim is to cause justifiable disruption on a sufficient scale to require multiple arrests. Only in this way can the seriousness of the current policy failures be brought into more realistic debate.

NOTE Even moving the Overton Window may be a waste of time unless we change the way we chose our governments. Campaigning for “Sortition” (choosing our representatives by lot) is a secondary aim of XR. This would bring democracy back to the original Greek system.

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