By Elly Savva Coyle
With rising exposure due to their shutdown of London in April, disruption of cities in June, high-profile celebrity endorsements and plans for more mass acts of civil disobedience across the year – Extinction Rebellion (XR) have suddenly become a household name. However, there has been somewhat of a divided response to the movement from the political world, the media and amongst the general public.
How Did The Movement Begin?
Extinction Rebellion was co-founded by Roger Hallam and Dr Gail Bradbrook in 2018 in response to IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) warnings that there are only 12 years to change our current path towards a catastrophic climate crisis. Academic research, discussions and mass engagement have culminated to create a non-hierarchical mass-movement that centres around the love and preservation of our planet. On October 31st 2018 in the UK, a protest on Parliament Square in London assembled and the XR movement was born. The support was completely under-estimated, as only a few hundred people were expected but around 1500 turned up to the Capital on the day. Fast-forward to July 2019 and the movement is rapidly developing; there are now around 130 local organisations in the UK and many more are forming in dozens of countries across the world in places such as India, France, Colombia and New Zealand.
What Are Their Methods?
XR’s website states that it is “an international movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience in an attempt to halt mass extinction and minimize the risk of social collapse”. This method of civil disobedience takes action further than public protest, as a prime objective of many protestors is breaking the law and facing arrest, albeit in a strictly peaceful and non-aggressive way. They take influence from other historical non-violent mobilisations, such as the struggle for civil rights and the fight to end apartheid. This time, it is a mobilisation to prevent ecological collapse and the mass extinction of species, a crisis that the IPCC and the UN Secretary General has warned us we are hurtling towards full-throttle.
Their protests have taken a wide variety of forms, from ‘die-in’s’ and ‘funeral marches’ to represent the death of species, to the interruption of day-to-day life through mass disruptions such as blocking off roads, bridges and stopping public transport. Their most recent wave of rebellion was the ‘Summer Uprising’ that took place from the 15th-20th July in Leeds, Glasgow, London, Bristol, and here in Cardiff. On the first day of the action, activists parked a boat painted with the message ‘The Sixth Mass Extinction Is Here’ outside Cardiff Castle and blocked the road, causing heavy disruption to the city centre and delays to public transport. Protesters dressed in yellow to represent the dead canary used by coal miners as a signal of danger. Nearby in Bristol, the lifelong activist Billy Bragg and celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall spoke to the youth delegation of activists on College Green, as a pink boat with the message ‘TELL THE TRUTH’ blockaded Bristol Bridge.
What Are Their Demands?
In the UK, XR makes three clear demands. The first is about telling the truth; for the government to declare a climate and ecological emergency and work with other institutions to communicate the necessity for radical change. The second is to act immediately; to prevent biodiversity loss and reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 (rather than the current 2050 target which activists warn will be too late). The third demand is to go beyond our current limitations of politics by creating a Citizens’ Assembly to tackle the climate crisis.
Whilst the first two demands are explicitly related to the necessities of combatting the climate crisis, the third demand represents a slightly different aspect to XR – a more revolutionary side that hopes to adapt our politics to fit a new era, with different ideas about how politics can work. When I spoke to Izzy, an XR youth media and messaging coordinator, she talked about how the movement wants the voices of the people to be heard. On the topic of our current political system she explained: “I don’t believe that this is a true democracy, I think we can do a lot better and that’s what we’re fighting for”.
XR argue that our current political system of representative democracy (in which elected representatives make decisions on our behalf) is failing to act to prevent the climate crisis. Citizens’ assemblies embody a different form of democracy to the type we are familiar with in the UK – as they are a form of deliberative democracy, which involves regular members of the public making decisions rather than elected political figures. Through a process called ‘sortition’ which works much like the selection for jury service, individuals that represent the range of demographics in our society advise the government on how to tackle the climate crisis. The idea behind this is that individuals will be free from bias, media scrutiny, loyalty to a political party and the lobbying powers of powerful corporations. Therefore, Citizens’ Assembly members should have the ability to make decisions based solely on their own viewpoints, rather than the restricted options that politicians have.
Why Are They Doing All This?
The reality of the climate crisis is that we are running out of time. XR’s methods aren’t perfect, but they are acknowledging this and taking it on board. XR works like a living organism, with a strategy that is evolving and shifting on a daily basis. They are a grassroots operation that is open to adapting and making changes, working with others to progress onwards. On the subject of responding to those who criticize the movement, Izzy wanted to say:
“…I’m really sorry if this ruins your day, but if you have any better ideas about how this can be done then please come and join us because we are all about listening. We’re more than ready to listen & learn from your ideas and that’s the beauty of listening to the people and having a democracy. We don’t know what we’re doing, we have researched it and this has been done before and it has worked, but we’ve never been in this situation before… Climate breakdown & ecological collapse is a new thing for humanity… I want people to know that we are doing it for you, no matter how much it annoys you…”
In response to criticisms of people treating it as a ‘party’, XR have made it explicitly clear that no alcohol or drugs should be consumed at their actions – so as to ensure the sincerity of their protest. Following comments after the April action about the movement lacking an awareness of the race and class inequalities in society due to their objective to get many activists arrested, XR have re-designed their approach. On a sign-up form for the Summer Uprising action, participants were asked if there were any elements of their identity that would affect their treatment at the hands of the police. The form also stated the organisation’s acknowledgement of the inequities that are present in modern society, such as the existence of institutional racism which significantly affects the experiences of people of colour. Activists such as Izzy acknowledge the privilege that they possess in being able to risk the prospect of getting arrested. However, there are numerous ways that people can get involved in the movement without having to make this sacrifice that is not possible for many. Another activist I spoke to, Rose from the XR Frome group, also emphasized the support that is given to those who face arrest – from training days, to a buddy scheme, to mental health support.
Why Is XR Disrupting My Life?
XR don’t want to work against people, they are working for the benefit of the future of society and they are still figuring out how to do this in the best way. Their methods aren’t perfect, but they aren’t pretending to be. It is easy to feel frustrated with disruptive action that interrupts day-to-day life, and angry about the pain for some who have faced more serious personal consequences as a result of the protests. Personally, when I first became aware of the XR movement I felt uncomfortable with it. I disagreed with targeting regular people trying to get to work and using public transport. I feared that their radical methods might alienate people and turn them away from a cause I would otherwise support. I felt that environmental movements should focus on targeting multinational corporations and the oil companies who are profiting from exploiting our planet. However, as Rose pointed out to me when we spoke, XR’s course of action has to include targeting everybody’s lives and not just large corporations, as the fact is that it is everybody’s responsibility to change. It is human behaviour that has caused this mess, so a mass change in human behaviour is what will help to get us out of it.
The point that Extinction Rebellion are making is that if we don’t act quickly and drastically, everybody’s lives are going to be disrupted in a much more significant way than any protest ever could. Now is a crucial point in history, as we are facing an unprecedented climate breakdown and ecological collapse at a scale that has never been seen before. We are simply running out of time. Civil disobedience isn’t a preferable activity – it isn’t what people want to be doing, it isn’t a party and it certainly isn’t for fun. The XR activists are sacrificing themselves because of their love for humanity and the planet. If you feel critical of the way this is happening at the moment, join in with the movement and work with them rather than against them, as it is your future that they are fighting for too.