[Image Description: purple boat with the words “the future you fear is already here” painted on the side in English and Gaelic, with a sail that reads “Act Now”]
Extinction Rebellion (XR) is an environmental campaign group that first formed in 2018 in the UK and has since spread across the globe. XR has gained much media attention, and has attracted a lot of controversy for both tactics used and comments made by certain founders of the movement. Since the formation of XR, the climate emergency has certainly gained much more attention, but has XR reached the limit of what it can achieve in its current form?
Extinction Rebellion conflates the definitions of “civil disobedience” and “direct action” which are not actually the same thing. Most direct action is also civil disobedience, but not all civil disobedience is direct action. Blocking roads in London is civil disobedience, as it is a form of protest involving law-breaking, but it is not actually direct action as it is not directly targeting what the group wants to change. Blocking the Sun from distribution, on the other hand, is indeed direct action.
The focus on ‘deliberate arrests’ is also a controversial tactic that reveals the privileged position of the founders who developed this strategy. It is far riskier to face arrest if you’re a person of colour, trans, disabled, an immigrant or poor. Deliberately obtaining a criminal record is something only one with an extreme amount of privilege can consider. There is a culture of encouraging arrests, and of viewing those who have been arrested as the ‘main’ part of the movement within XR, which excludes those who cannot or don’t want to do this.
Srdja Popovic’s Blueprint for Revolution, a handbook to non-violent revolution that was one of the inspirations for XR strategy, contains a chapter about the risk of arrest, the importance of reducing people’s fear of arrest and of making arrest seem ‘cool’ to encourage people to risk it. This was written in the context of Popovic’s Otpor! movement in Serbia to take down Slobodan Milošević, where anyone protesting faced the risk of arrest. What XR failed to grasp is the difference between “this may happen so you need to be prepared” to “let’s deliberately make this happen”.
Popovic and others whose writing inspired XR strategy also inspired the 3.5% figure. This is supposedly the percentage of a population that need to be mobilised in order to change a system. This research, once more, is based on the context of overthrowing (primarily Eastern European dictatorships). While the research which arrived at that figure may be perfectly valid in the context of overthrowing dictators, seeking climate action is a very different context, and XR cannot and should not assume radically changing the context won’t alter the figure.
Even if the 3.5% figure works in this context despite its difference from those which the research studied, XR cannot achieve this with their current organisational structure and their actions. For every new person joining XR, people are leaving as a result of badly-considered actions and comments that make the name Extinction Rebellion toxic to some people. Most of the people leaving are from marginalised communities who have felt unsupported and excluded from XR.
An often-quoted statement from XR is that “anyone is empowered to take action in our name, as long as they abide by our principles and values”. The group is, on paper at least, a decentralised organisation made up of small, autonomous groups who are self-organising and who can act of their own initiative. In practice, this sometimes works, and sometimes doesn’t, and there have certainly been top-down approaches to the creation of certain groups, such as in the XR US vs. XR America debacle.
There are obvious problems with this method of organisation. The principles and values are words, and words can be interpreted differently by different people. Therefore, immediately there is an issue whereby people could act under an XR banner that is extremely damaging to the cause, harmful to other people or to communities. We saw this in October 2019 with the controversial tube action in London. People are leaving XR because the structure will allow such scenarios to repeat indefinitely.
Extinction Rebellion appeared at a time when climate action was sorely needed, and their media-focused publicity stunts and deliberate arrests certainly drew attention and changed the narrative. But we’re moving to a stage where we need to discuss solutions & work with those in a position to make such changes, rather than gambling the future of the planet on the public perception of media stunts. XR’s strategy had its time, but that time is passed and we need something different now. It’s time they looked at that.