This is a question I was asked recently, at a rudimentary catch up with a family member who had inquired about my area of study. I explained my interest in environmental policy and environmental anthropology and would have been happy to leave the conversation there. Usually, when I describe my area of study, I am met with a vague nod or a casual “That’s interesting”, before the listener sidesteps into a topic easier to address.

I don’t blame most people for this decision because although many of us express an interest in the well-being of the environment, it’s often not a primary consideration in our already hectic lives.

However, in this instance, there was a motive behind the question. A day prior, on the way to work, this family member had been blocked on the M25 going towards London. The culprit? An environmental activist group called Insulate Britain.

It was an example of another environmental protest, certainly not the first, using civil disobedience to promote their ideas. The demands of this group were two-fold. The first, as the name suggests, was for the insulation of social housing in the UK. The second demand was for the government to offer low-energy and carbon retrofitting of British homes.

Not long before this, there had been another protest, this time by Extinction Rebellion, which had blocked traffic in the tower bridge area of London. A fact which only seemed to add to the aggravation of commuters who no doubt also considered this question: Are environmental protests like these actually helping the environment?

The question isn’t easy to answer off hand. What is the standard by which we can determine the impact of a protest? The ultimate outcomes, such as lowering emission or addressing biodiversity losses, are achieved through the implementation of policy much before we see any real changes.

So, if we are to address the question of an effective environmental protest, we need to look at the motivation behind these policy changes. We can view this in two ways, as policy implementation happens on two levels; the impetus can be internal pressure or external pressure on the government. It may come in the form of public sentiment, and we also have the policy-makers themselves who present these changes.

Studies have shown that protest can be a legitimate tool for policy advocacy. There are many examples in history such as, protests for civil rights, gender equality and human rights, all of which have proven successful.

However, a recent 2020 study found that extreme protest action can be counterproductive to gaining public support. This might also be evidenced in a 2019 poll which showed 34% of Brits interviewed were not in favour of the Extinction Rebellion’s tactics. Moreover, if you have been following UK national news, you can see that Insulate Britain has also come under considerable fire for their tactics.

Yet in spite of this fact, we do see that, at the level of policymakers, there are intense national and internal policy changes being made right now. In the UK, for example, the most ambitious climate change target yet was announced earlier this year, a commitment which would see a reduction of emissions by 78% by the year 2035 (compared with 1990’s). If successful, this would go three quarters of the way towards the 2050 zero emissions goal set out in the Paris agreement in 2016.

However, the question remains whether this is a result of protest or other types of environmental advocacy. Interestingly, the announcement mentions that one of the tools used to cement this decision came from a cost-benefits analysis, which stated, “That costs of action on climate change are outweighed by the significant benefits – reducing polluting emissions, as well as bringing fuel savings, improvements to air quality and enhancing biodiversity”.

In fact, this mentality can be seen in a number of policy making decisions. If we look at the mechanisms that policy is implemented through, we can identify a recurring pattern. Most relevant in the UK is the 25 years environmental plan designed to see the UK out of Brexit and help to establish its own set of environmental legislation. This plan, which is really going to be the foundation of British environmental policy in future, utilizes an ecosystem as a service approach, in which farmers will be compensated for environmentally beneficial uses or practices on their land.

Within this approach, ecological resources are paid for according to presumed value. Though a cost-benefit analysis is just one example, what we see in ecosystems services is essentially giving a price to our ecological losses and gains. At the heart of it, how does the environment help us as humans?

The debate about whether ecology should be superimposed by economic limitations is beyond the scope of this article. Though, if you look at environmental frameworks used by the UN, EEA and local governments all over the world, we can say with some authority that ecosystem services may be one of the most significant influences for policymakers.

Enshrined in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the talks in Doha (2012) and Cancun (2010), climate change frameworks revolve significantly around the human benefits of addressing environmental concerns. This is because environmental losses considerably affect a community's resilience against disaster and make economies vulnerable to instability.

These conventions are the policy frameworks which constitute the premise for much of our current environmental laws in the UK and beyond. And to greater or lesser degrees, these footholds operationalise the view that ecological benefit is intrinsically human benefit.

So what does this have to do with environmental protest - particularly the kind referenced in this article? Well, if the primary consideration of policymakers comes down to economic i.e. cost/ benefit, then are these types of protests creating more cost or benefit?

On the face of it, utilization of police to manage protesters, delays in traffic and prevention of work, don’t seem to create much benefit. Of course the argument will be that these protests raise social awareness but to what end? If policy makers are influenced first and foremost by the equitable use of the environment, surely the argument must follow that we should be targeting our efforts on the anthropocentric value of the ecosystem. Whether this is a fact we necessarily agree with or not, if it how decisions are being made, wouldn’t our efforts be better spent in this pursuit?

The bottom line is that the action has to be equitable in the amount it costs. Since studies have been unable to conclusively trace the exact effect of these protests, I won’t make any assertions as to their having no benefit. In fact, I don’t want to suggest that at all. Protests can and have led to social change.

I simply suggest that if you want change, you have to speak the language of the people who can make those changes.

Thus to answer the question, are environmental protests helping the environment? Yes, but are they the most effective tool we have in our arsenal? Probably not.