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.

The Flaws in Extinction Rebellion’s Strategy

[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.

There’s no time for half-measures, climate breakdown is already here

[Image description: a large fire in a forest]

In politics, a middle ground is often seen by many as an acceptable compromise – instead of doing nothing, or everything asked for, let’s do half of what’s asked for. Politicians have been applying this principle to things for decades, and many of them seem to have decided this is an option with the climate crisis, as with other things. Let me be very clear: it is not. There is no time for a middle ground option, and unless radical action is taken now the effects will be irreversible.

When activist groups like Extinction Rebellion demand challenging targets such as net-zero emissions by 2025, they do not do so out of some malicious desire to destroy the economy, they do so because it is the only option to prevent a catastrophe. And climate activists such as myself understand what a difficult thing we are asking for. We know it is going to be incredibly difficult, but we also know that this is necessary to prevent some much, much worse disasters than an economic crisis.

Making the current covid-19 pandemic political is unwise, but we need to admit something that environmental campaigners have been saying for years – climate breakdown makes pandemics more likely. Human destruction of the natural habitats of other species leads to extinction of said species, and so viruses that presently use such species as hosts are more likely to jump to other species, including humans. And novel viruses such as this coronavirus strain can cause pandemics.

We are already seeing the effects of climate breakdown: this is not about the future, this is happening right now. California is the obvious recent example, with wildfires becoming worse and worse every year leading to the destruction of communities and loss of life. Examples from the Global South are even more stark, but receive less media attention due to the relative economic status of such nations compared with the economic giant of the US. Looking back at pre-covid times, Australian wildfires were also a sign.

There are smaller visible examples too, that do not seem as obvious as effects of climate change but nevertheless prove that nowhere will be immune. If one googles the average temperature of Glasgow, where I live, data from 1985 to 2015 indicates that summers should have an average temperature of 15 Celsius in the hottest month (July). Now, anyone who has been to Glasgow in the last couple of summers would laugh at this – the average temperature is obviously much higher.

Wildfires, flooding, yearly heatwaves – these are all related to climate change. It is no longer something that will happen in the future, climate change deniers can no longer say it is a hypothetical. Climate breakdown is here, it is not going away, and now all we can do is try to mitigate the worst of it. But to do that, we need to act now and aim for targets that seem difficult but are necessary. It’s time to put pressure on politicians, because without the political will we won’t be able to move forward – and we really, really need to.