Demands, Principles & Values

[Image Description: humans holding up signs spelling out “bail out the planet”]

Extinction Rebellion’s strategy has numerous flaws that I have detailed before in this post. Yet not all of the issues can be solved by a change in strategy; many of these flaws are embedded in the very founding documents of the movement. XR’s Three Demands, alongside their 10 Principles and Values are deserving of scrutiny, both in their context and their execution (or lack thereof).

Let’s look at the Three Demands. Tell the Truth (declare a climate emergency), Act Now (net-zero emissions by 2025) and Beyond Politics (create a climate citizen’s assembly) The latter demand is not to be confused with the briefly-existing political party of the same name started by Roger Hallam, which was named after the demand and has since rebranded as Burning Pink. There are no huge issues with the first, and I would argue that it has – for the most part – already been achieved.

The second is not offensive in its content, but merely somewhat unfeasible in the current political climate. There is nothing wrong with a group which aims to paint itself as radical pushing for something unobtainable, however. Pushing farther than you expect people to move shifts the window, it’s a basic negotiating technique. It can even be argued that despite how soon this target is, it is needed. That’s a debate for another time and place. The third demand, however?

A climate Citizens’ Assembly, chosen by sortition, is an XR demand that has managed to gain a lot of traction and has spread throughout the climate movement since 2018. Some countries have even began holding such Assemblies, such as Scotland (although it is non-binding). Yet, will Citizens’ Assemblies actually change anything? I’d argue no, there is no guarantee that such bodies will end up backing the radical climate action XR wants.

XR has a slogan used in contexts of promoting these Assemblies, “trust the people”. Internal training on facilitating People’s Assemblies is given this as a title. The belief is that a random sortition-chosen group can be trusted to do the right thing when presented with evidence. However, I would argue that this is a very naïve view. There is ample evidence that many of ‘the people’ often hold racist, misogynistic, ableist, homophobic, transphobic or otherwise bigoted views. Trust them? Sure, if you’re a cishet abled white male, maybe then you can trust them. Otherwise, this idea sounds concerning.

Sortition is itself a controversial method of choosing people to sit on a political decision-making body. It is a method best known for choosing juries, but Citizens’ Assemblies have existed before this. XR has come under criticism for wanting to replace democracy with sortition, where only the people randomly chosen have their say. This is a fair criticism in the context of this demand, but it is unlikely many people actually want to end democracy for good. I won’t pretend there aren’t some, though.

XR has three demands, and ten principles and values that people acting in their name are expected to abide by. Most of the principles seem decent at first glance, but deserve deeper scrutiny. Take Principle 2, “we set our mission on what is necessary”. Part of this principle on the XR UK website is “to mobilise 3.5% of the population to achieve system change”. This figure is based on research into non-violent civil disobedience carried out by a number of people, including Srdja Popovic whose work I’m familiar with.

The research, however, studies revolutions targeting the overthrow of dictatorial regimes. Aiming to change how we view climate change, and the actions needed to prevent a catastrophic breakdown is an entirely different scenario. It’s like using polling data from Wales to predict the results of an election in Scotland; no matter how good the research is, and how valid it is within its context, it proves nothing about other contexts.

There is nothing wrong with Principle 5 as stated, “we value reflecting and learning”, but its inclusion shines a light on the hypocrisy of some in the movement. Despite many, many, many reflection sessions which concluded Roger Hallam has caused harm, XR continues to promote his events. Hallam, who is one of the founders of XR, admitted making anti-Semitic statements for ‘shock value’ and in the words of and XR member from the North of England, “immediately divides any room he sets foot into” (quote from a 2020 zoom call).

Principle 6 sounds excellent, “we welcome everyone and every part of everyone”. This means that no matter how many intersecting identities someone has, they should be welcome. However, in practice, there are two issues with this: one, it is rarely carried out in practice, particularly towards disabled people. There is a history of bad blood between the environmental and the disability communities that XR has failed completely to tackle. Second, ‘everyone’ includes bigots. Do you really want to welcome them?

The eighth of the ten principles & values on the list is “we avoid blaming and shaming”. My initial interpretation of this is that XR avoids blaming any individual humans for their actions because it is the system and mega-corporations that are most responsible for climate change. However, there are alternative interpretations that blaming any individual business, or any political party, is against this principle. This makes it rather difficult to push for any kind of change.

Extinction Rebellion did good work in getting the climate firmly on people’s minds and near the top of the agenda. The first demand has easily been the most successful for the movement, which focuses largely on the media attention garnered by mass arrests and roadblocks. But its founding principles contain flaws that stop the movement from growing further or making more progress. If XR wants to continue pushing for climate action, and wants to be effective, they need to revise and re-evaluate these documents.

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