Everyone has an opinion on Extinction Rebellion
XR is huge – it’s attracted thousands of supporters, mostly in the UK but also across the world. It’s well organised, grabbing media headlines for the protests and climate change itself, and causing major disruption – while public reactions are mixed there is also significant support. At the same time, it’s getting major heat from the activist community for it’s lack of systemic / intersectional analysis, tactics of aiming for arrest, lack of diversity and simplistic narrative.
My heart goes out to all those involved in XR, and I’d like to express love and solidarity to those taking action to tackle the climate crisis. This is urgently needed. But since the ‘rebellion’ started towards the end of 2018, it’s been a bit of a marmite issue – people either love it or they hate it. I’d also like to express love and solidarity to those who feel passionately about climate justice and don’t feel they can engage in activism under the Extinction Rebellion banner.
I’ve read lots of heartfelt takes on both sides and I wanted to write something that tries to strike a balance. So I asked friends and colleagues to share their stories and opinions to contribute to this blog – thanks so much to everyone who got in touch. I take a long hard look at its achievements and criticisms to ask: What can we learn from Extinction Rebellion? And how can we build on its momentum?
This is a long read!
I was overwhelmed with helpful input. Although far from exhaustive of all I could say this is my longest blog so far. You might like to bookmark it for when you have some time, skim the headings or skip straight to the bottom for six things we can learn…
What is Extinction Rebellion?
This is how it describes itself: Extinction Rebellion (XR) is an international movement that uses nonviolent civil disobedience to achieve radical change in order to minimise the risk of human extinction and ecological collapse
You can read more on XR’s demands, values and organising principles here. But essentially its a group started by a few activists that has now grown so much they have a core of paid staff, steering groups for various functions (like well-being, media and arrestee support), autonomous local groups and affinity groups within these taking action together – you can see more on XR’s structure here. It’s a hybrid of a social movement and an organised campaign group.
What does XR want and how does it hope to achieve it?
XR encourages its activists to take (illegal) non violent direct action, and intentionally get arrested, to draw attention to the climate crisis. Top of its demands is for the Government to ‘tell the truth’ and declare a climate emergency, backing this up with action to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025.
As I write this it’s day 4 of the #InternationalRebellion – 25 countries have participated, and there are over 100 active groups spread across the UK. Where I live, in London, occupations of Oxford Circus (with the pink boat pictured above), Waterloo Bridge and Marble Arch are held for the fourth day running – much of the traffic flowing through central London has been diverted and streets are empty of cars. It’s had a huge amount of media coverage in print and broadcast. 400+ people have been arrested. Whatever else you think about it, XR is certainly shaking up business as usual and attracting attention like nothing I think I’ve ever seen…
How did Extinction Rebellion build so much support?
XR started by touring the country, giving talks in village halls and at universities. They spoke to people about the climate crisis and the urgent need for action. One of the founders spoke about his Phd studies in effective social movements and advocated escalating disruption through civil disobedience, citing Erica Chenoweth’s research that found non-violent movements always succeed if they can mobilise the support of 3.5% of the population. At the end of these talks, people were asked to sign up to XR and say whether or not they would be willing to be arrested. In this way, XR slowly built its base, waiting until it had a critical mass of people on board to start taking action with call outs from the centre, but organising autonomously by local groups.
The approach also borrowed from Momentum training theory (I’m referring to the US based movement training organisation – not to be confused with the UK’s Corbyn supporting Momentum). As they state on their website:
Mass trainings support movements to make sure new participants know the basic information (the movement’s basic story, strategy, and structure) and skills they need to act on behalf of the movement with both autonomy and unity.
This approach centres the importance of mass trainings, transmitting a clear movement DNA (in XR’s case it’s demands and strategy around aiming for mass arrest). The idea is then to cause mass disruption creating ‘moments of the whirlwind’ which in turn build popular support – if absorbed into the organisation the cycle can then repeat.
Creating moments of the whirlwind – An old Momentum diagram from a training I attended showing the strategy:
Graham Jones, author of ‘Shock Doctrine of the Left’ unpacks the momentum model a bit more in this blog. We’re obviously in the middle of an XR created ‘moment of the whirlwind’ right now – and it’s clear this model really works, at least in terms of building and absorbing mass support in it’s first 6 months of public action.
Another example of a group making recent international headlines with this approach is the Sunrise Movement behind the Green New Deal in the US. I’ve done some research on their work recently and that’s enough for a whole other blog! But if you’re curious now watch this webinar on their strategy and theory of change.
The ‘get arrested’ model
One big critique has been the model advocating people aim to get arrested en masse. The criticisms I have heard break down like this:
It’s essentially an ask that only people with a lot of privilege in the current system can get involved with
- This makes the core strategy inaccessible to anyone that in the current system is already likely to be at the sharp end of state violence, like people of colour; and also anyone who is vulnerable to the state, such as migrants.
- Additionally, disabled people, those with mental health problems etc can’t engage – even worse, police are currently targeting disabled people attending protests with attempts to remove their disability benefits.
- XR’s messaging has painted those getting arrested as heroes and centred their actions while often making calls in press releases saying things like ‘it is the duty of everyone to rebel’ which marginalise those that don’t have the privilege of those involved and getting arrested.
- The white people getting arrested could use this as an opportunity to draw attention to their privilege and talk about climate justice, the severe impacts of climate change already being felt in the global south and standing in solidarity – but on the whole they haven’t.
Communicating to police can be dangerous
- XR have decided to communicate plans fully to police, and tweeted a protester who had been arrested stating he’d been very relaxed and happy to chat, going against the advice of giving a ‘no comment’ interview.
- Activists who have experienced police spying, violence and repression of their movements over years have called this irresponsible because in their experience communicating with police puts other activists at risk.
- Many activists question the tactic of trying to get police to join the rebellion, when they have seen the role of police as defending the state and preventing protests.
Arrests take away energy from the movement
- Those who have been arrested and have experience of huge energy being taken away from the movements they are part of to fight lengthy court cases, like Ben Smoke from the Stansted 15, call for caution in aiming for arrest.
Getting arrested is traumatic
- I’ve also heard lots of concerns about the trauma of being arrested & going through the courts not being taken seriously or well prepared for, and that arrestee support has been often thin on the ground.
Now I know that XR do have lots of roles for those not willing to get arrested, and people involved in their actions in these roles have told me they feel well valued and appreciated, but these roles aren’t centred in their DNA or communications. I’ve also been told that there have been some solid efforts to welcome disabled activists, with XR offering a changing places toilet with a hoist at one of their first demos.
I’ve heard lots is being done to support the well being of those in arrest-able positions, from speaking with a well-being coordinator I have a great deal of respect for. But as they explained, with mass arrests currently sending people all over London, uncertainty around when people will be released, and the call outs for arrestee support relying on volunteers, its been hard to make sure people greet everyone coming out.
Is the ‘get arrested’ model working?
I think at this point it’s hard to say. There’s certainly not been any evidence of police quitting and joining the rebellion so far – although I have seen film of police dancing with protesters at Oxford Circus (which reminds me of my time in the clown army way back in 2005). I know this has happened in peaceful revolutions during the overthrow of governments, so there is some strategic precedent, but this is a very different context.
In any case, the police don’t seem to be able to deal with this protest – cells are overflowing and four days in central London is hugely disrupted. Retailers on Oxford Street say the protests are costing them millions as shoppers stay away. I’ve never seen disruptive protests continue for so long on this scale. And they’re getting huge quantities of news coverage – both of the protests and the climate crisis, across broadcast and print.
But there are questions around the messaging and people being centred in this news coverage… which brings me onto climate justice.
This is another huge area of criticism which I think breaks down into two main strands:
1) Lack of outreach and diversity of core and grassroots engagement
The central organising team is not hugely diverse, being mostly white and middle class, and grassroots groups beyond those that are majority white and middle class have not been deeply engaged. I have heard it said that XR did try to engage people of colour in their organising but that they were not able to get the groups they engaged with to support them. I can only speculate on reasons for this, but from my work in the climate movement I suspect that this may have been because XR went out for support with a plan they’d already made rather then seeking genuine collaboration from the start (as I’ve seen this happen a lot).
XR has also come under fire for reaching out to activists literally saying they need the support of people of colour because they want to appear more diverse – and people understandably react badly to this kind of obvious tokenising of their support.
As already explored above, the ‘get arrested’ plan isn’t in any way appealing to migrants and people of colour. This means actions and media coverage show XR as being pretty overwhelmingly white and middle class, which further limits the appeal.
Speakers made it clear this was inclusive, and that people from the global south are most at risk from climate collapse. But it was noticeable that no active effort had been made to reach out to the most prominent BME, LGBT, or working class activist groups. As a result the crowd was nowhere near as big as it could have been.
(In fact there was a huge antifascist march taking place in central London at the same time. It’s an absolute shame the two didn’t link up)
2) Lack of calls for climate justice, and systemic analysis of the route causes of climate change, in the central messaging
While XR is currently holding workshops on de-colonisation at it’s occupations, and talking about climate justice / impacts already being felt in the global south which have been caused by the global north, these things aren’t baked into the central messaging and therefore the group’s DNA.
For example, the demand to ‘tell the truth’ focuses on the future and how bad things are going to be all over the world. Activists talk about the need to act for the sake of their children and grandchildren. This sidelines impacts being felt now by those in the global south. They could have also centred the need for climate justice in their primary demand, but XR haven’t.
The recent horrific flooding in Mozambique, for example, has not been mentioned often. This is a humanitarian emergency happening now, caused by climate change. 1.85 million people are currently in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, 70k people have been displaced from their homes and 600 people have died.
Activists argue that we don’t just need action on climate change – we need climate justice.
The pollution causing climate change is a result of the global capitalist economic system, which was built on the legacy of colonialism. Children in British schools are not taught about the horrors perpetuated by the British empire and this is a horrible canker sitting at the heart of British culture. There is a mindset of domination behind the causes of the climate crisis that has roots in the domination of colonialism- treating people and the natural world as resources.
Unless we unpack this it’s hard to see how we can move forwards and change the system fully in the way that is needed to address climate change. While XR does talk around these things and mention capitalism and system change, they’re not at the heart of their communications. Some say that yes, all this is true but they’re starting the discussion, while others argue that the discussion is starting the wrong way and that as well as the problem XR should be communicating the deep roots of its cause.
XR’s ‘Declaration of Rebellion’ quotes philosopher John Locke who was also a slave trader – despite calls from climate justice activists that this is the wrong person to frame a climate movement it remains on the website.
Something I’ve seen levelled both from activists and from the public at large is the question of the strategy behind what is disrupted. By taking aim at hubs of public transport, causing London buses to be diverted for days and also briefly disrupting the Docklands Light Railway, people argue that this is impacting on ordinary people and pushing them to use alternatives to public transport which emit more C02.
Blocking roads is also causing serious problems for disabled people getting about the city, who are unable to use the tube (as it’s access is so bad) and are therefore reliant on getting taxis. Although Shell’s HQ was also occupied, as is Parliament Square, on the whole London disruption has been more concentrated around public areas than decision makers or fossil fuel companies.
The argument XR counters with is that climate change will cause much more disruption and that their aim is more important than individual inconvenience. While all this is certainly true, it’s pretty polarising of public opinion and unpopular with many, even some people who say they are concerned about climate change.
In an email I received with talking tips in from XR to help activists explain the strategy, they suggest things like:
- I’m doing this because I love my [name of family member], and I will do whatever it takes to protect her/him/them. If you have a better idea then I will do it.
- I love London and I love Londoners, I’ve called this city home for [X] years and London is facing some really difficult things, I don’t know what else to do.
This suggests that close to the heart of the strategy is simply the need to take some urgent action, channeling the grief and desperation about what we’re facing. Lots of people are feeling this and I think that’s a huge part of the appeal of XR.
Climate anxiety and grief
Anyone who has looked into the full horror of the climate crisis we’re facing knows things are bad. When the IPCC report was published last year it gave us 12 years to cut C02 emissions by half globally to prevent unstoppable runaway climate change (through feedback loops that will start when the world heats up). If we don’t do this, it means sea level rise, millions displaced, famine, death and mass extinctions.
The horror of this has impacted action on climate change; while change seems very urgent, most interventions don’t seem adequate to the challenge. Extinction Rebellion has, for many, offered space to express their grief with others, to celebrate the joy and wonder of the natural world and to channel their feelings into action in its defense which feels meaningful. Being arrested is in some ways cathartic – people feel they’re putting themselves on the line and doing something.
One friend described the movement as people expressing solidarity with the natural world. Another told me about the centrality of creating a friendly, inclusive culture in the protests, prefiguring the world they want to create, and prioritising connection and celebration to be able to also hold their collective grief. I think having created a space for people to collectively grieve and stand in solidarity with nature is powerful and important, and it’s been missing from the climate movement.
Although they may be getting less attention, XR have been employing some pretty creative tactics in their communications. They seem to be behind the coordination of ‘Culture Declares Emergency‘ getting arts institutions from the Globe to the Royal Court Theatre to join and take actions writing letters to the earth. They’re collaborating to bring nightingale song to London, to appreciate it’s beauty and grieve it’s threat of extinction.
Some of the roadblocks have told beautifully framed stories, from one made entirely of solar panels (disrupting fossil fuel transport with sustainable energy) to the pink boat in Oxford Circus (comically hinting at the cost of rising sea levels). They also have an excellent logo – stylising an hour glass, communicating that time is running out means it is meaningful while being distinctive. It’s easy for anyone to reproduce and I think honestly just looks good.
Impacts so far
In terms of their demands, the problem of climate change is getting a great deal of attention in a way I haven’t seen for a long time. So some in the media are stepping up to ‘tell the truth’ (but climate justice isn’t central to these stories). 27 councils, and the Labour Party, have declared a climate emergency – Greenpeace has picked up the call for the Government to declare this.
Actions continue around the world; major sites in central London are held the fourth day running and I’ve just heard XR plan to move to take Vauxhall Bridge this afternoon. This morning, Extinction Rebellion’s daily update email said:
We’re apparently blowing up on social media: our membership has been growing by 3,000 a day, our Facebook at some points by 1,000 an hour.
Scanning comments from Londoners on Twitter, while some are annoyed, it seems most people support the need for action on climate change and are enjoying car free streets (although some are a bit bemused by the actions). National polling shows 36% support while 52% oppose; at the same time there have been some nice stories coming out about people changing their minds having heard facts about the urgency to act.
My top 6 lessons to takeaway from XR:
1. The momentum model of organising is very powerful
If you develop a compelling core DNA of your movement (with messaging, strategy, tactics and structure), then spend a long time engaging people in this through trainings and talks, you can build a significant base. Then if that base self organises to all take disruptive civil disobedience at once, you can attract media attention, recruit more people and repeat the cycle. The Sunrise Movement have just done this in the US pushing a Green New Deal, and XR is doing it in the UK and to some extent around the world.
2. It’s hard to add intersectionality and diversity after your movements DNA is fixed
If you want your movement to be diverse and to tackle structural injustices, you need diverse voices involved in shaping it, and diverse thought needs to be given to crafting messaging, strategy and demands right from the beginning. This doesn’t mean messaging needs to be 100% ‘woke’ and use lots of long words like de-colonisation. But if these concepts don’t inform the way you strategise and craft simple messages it will be very hard to add them on or get them to stick later.
3. Civil disobedience doesn’t have to be illegal
Non violent direct action can be very powerful but people can be engaged in mass civil disobedience, and escalate this, in less challenging ways. Movements putting out wider calls beyond arrest-able actions are more inclusive and easier for people with less privilege to engage in – and this means they could potentially attract greater support.
4. It’s only human to make mistakes but it’s good to be humble & acknowledge them
I know many people of colour and climate justice activists have said they’ve repeatedly tried to engage with XR around their critiques and that they don’t feel these have been taken on board at all. I’ve been called out myself – it’s horrible, but it’s helped me learn and grow. It’s also inevitable – I just can’t understand the oppressions others have faced when I haven’t faced them myself, so some things I won’t understand until I’m pulled up on them. I think it’s good for activists and movements to say sorry, we made a mistake, we apologise – and then to try and take the critique on board and change tack.
5. We must dream big
The problems facing us are huge. Our solutions need to be huge. Our actions need to be big and commensurate with the problems. Signing a petition online isn’t going to be enough. People are crying out for deep activism that acknowledges the problems we’re facing. Lots of the power of XR and the youth climate strikes comes from acknowledging the severity of the problems we’re facing and demanding change that will really solve them, rather than starting from thinking about what is winnable. The first thing we need to do is believe big changes can happen, then we need to convince others and make them happen.
6. There’s a huge amount of energy for deeply engaged escalating action on climate change right now
With Extinction Rebellion and the Youth Climate strikes, there’s so much energy. But people want to be deeply engaged in meaningful action. The existing climate movement needs to step up to the challenge, but this won’t be enough. We also need movements for social and environmental justice to come together, acknowledge all their overlaps and collaborate. We need fresh thinking, new projects and radical ideas. Where big organisations don’t feel they can take radical action that is needed, they should support (or seed if they don’t already exist) those who can.
A few final words
Extinction Rebellion have achieved engagement and disruption on a huge scale, and they are influencing the debate. Whatever critiques people have of that, it’s something other activists haven’t managed on that scale in a long time. So lets try to learn from them and build on their achievements.
Maybe the model could also be used to organise around climate justice? Development and environmental organisations, or trusts and foundations, might want to think about offering money and support to activists with the energy to start this…