The evolution of Extinction Rebellion

I’m putting together my reading list for next year’s LSE course on activism and this week’s Guardian long read on Extinction Rebellion is going to be on it, even though it’s a bit UK-centric. It brilliantly pulls together a number of features of the rise of new social movements. Here are some extracts, but as ever, better to read the whole (5,000 word) thing:

The visionary leader: ‘[In 2017] the air pollution campaign, Stop Killing Londoners, had yet to gain traction with politicians or the media, but Roger Hallam didn’t seem too concerned. He explained that it was partly being used to “road-test” civil disobedience tactics. “Within a year or so we will have thousands of people on the streets, blocking large parts of central London for days on end,” he said. “Hundreds will be arrested and the government will be forced to sit down and tell the truth about the climate emergency.”

First Followers: ‘Over the coming months, Gail Bradbrook and Hallam continued their conversations, along with a loose grouping of like-minded people, who eventually formed Rising Up, a network of activists committed to peaceful civil disobedience. It wasn’t until April 2018 that, in Bradbrook’s home on a hillside overlooking the Cotswold town of Stroud, the idea of Extinction Rebellion was born. At the “Stroud meeting”, as it has become known, a core group of about 15 long-time campaigners, activists and academics decided that after years of small-scale political campaigns, about everything from fracking to migrant rights, they were, in Bradbrook’s words, “ready to go for the ‘big one’”.’

Not part of the article, but any excuse to repost this…..

Branding: ‘Agreeing on a name for the new group turned into a 25-step process that went on for weeks. When “Extinction Rebellion” was first suggested, “there was quite a bit of disquiet, because some people thought it was too harsh”. But eventually it won.’

Repetition of Core Message: ‘XR’s goals were boiled down to three demands of the government: to tell the truth about the climate and ecological emergency; to halt biodiversity loss and commit to net zero emissions by 2025; and to follow the lead of a citizen’s assembly. A presentation titled Heading for Extinction and What to Do About It was developed, and quickly became known as “the talk”.’

Take-off precedes strategy: ‘The [April 2019] protests turned XR into a movement of global significance, with scores of XR groups springing up in cities around the world, as well as in towns and cities across the UK. By the end, XR’s representatives were sitting down for talks with senior politicians and ministers in the UK. Supporters and funders – many of whom had been sceptical before April – showered praise and money on the new movement, and in the weeks that followed, the UK parliament and scores of councils around the country declared a climate emergency. XR had changed the conversation around the crisis. Now it had a big question to answer: what next?

The movement grows, but sprawls: ‘People do not formally join XR, and there is no central membership list. Local groups can plan and carry out their own actions as long as they follow XR’s 10 core principles and values, including a commitment to non-violence and focusing on systemic problems rather than “blaming and shaming” individuals.

XR Protest. Credit: Phillip Halling

Although XR’s structure aims, as its website says, to build a “participatory, decentralised and inclusive” movement, some complain that it allows those with the loudest voices – often white, middle-class men – to dominate. Others complain of endless meetings, labyrinthine decision-making processes, and the sprawling network of WhatsApp groups the organisation has spawned.’

Tensions between insider and outsider tactics: ‘the months after the April rebellion were dominated by internal wrangling. On one side were Hallam and his backers, who were pushing for an escalation in provocative direct action to keep the momentum going. They believed that a relatively small group of people, prepared to keep escalating their disruptive, peaceful, direct action could bring about systemic change quickly. On the other side were people who argued the good will and moral high ground achieved in April should be used to build a broader movement, within the UK and internationally.’

The difficult second album: ‘it proved impossible to recreate the surprise and novelty that defined the earlier protests. Although XR held more sites in October 2019 and said it had more people arrested – 1,837, compared with 1,138 in April – the protests failed to catch the public’s imagination in the same way. Actions that would have been headline news just six months earlier – such as hundreds of breastfeeding mothers closing down Google HQ – were now seen as par for the course by the media.’

Difficult relationship to formal politics: ‘The [December 2019] UK general election was another flashpoint within XR. The Labour party offered a raft of policies to rapidly decarbonise the economy and invest in sustainable, well-paid, unionised jobs: its so-called green industrial revolution. For many people concerned about the climate crisis, this was a cause worth rallying behind. But during the election campaign, XR – to the dismay of both Labour party activists and some inside the movement – did not mobilise behind Labour’s climate offer, preferring instead to target all three main parties with hunger strikes and people dressed in bee costumes under the slogan “Bee-yond politics”.

Pollution Environmental Responsibility Toxic Eco

The clash came down to two competing ideas about XR’s ultimate purpose. For some, it was a vehicle to transform the political landscape, making it possible for existing institutions to put forward radical environmental policies. For others, the existing structures were incapable of overseeing the transition needed, and had to be overhauled and replaced.’

The charismatic founder leaves: ‘In a sign that perhaps a more consensual approach was gaining the upper hand in XR, the group announced that Hallam – whom Bradbrook had previously described as XR’s “biggest asset and worst liability” – no longer had a formal role with the group. In a statement posted to Facebook on 28 July, Hallam stated that he would be devoting himself to a “new direct action organisation/anti-political party”, Beyond Politics.’

Fascinating – what else should I be recommending on XR?

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5 Responses to “The evolution of Extinction Rebellion”
  1. Building on the exclusionary/racial dynamics within XR that the article mentions, FYI, Tejas Rawal spoke about ‘Whiteness in Social Movements: A Research Endeavour’ focusing on extinction rebellion at a 3 hour symposium on Dismantling Hegemonies and Anti-Blackness in Higher Education. The video is here: Tejas starts speaking about this topic about an hour into the video.

  2. Duncan Green

    From Peter Baker:
    Dear Duncan,
    I tried to post some XR links under your blog but for some reason it was not accepted, so I send some here:

    10 thoughts from an Extinction Rebellion newbie
    Some Thoughts on Extinction Rebellion – and the Future of the Climate Movement
    Austerity has boosted the British state’s ability to counter Extinction Rebellion’s disruption tactics – here’s how
    ‘So You’ve Declared a Climate Emergency, Now What?’ Event Review
    Why I Say that this Civilisation is Finished
    Prediction by Extinction Rebellion’s Roger Hallam that climate change will kill 6 billion people by 2100 is unsupported
    How Extinction Rebellion put the world on red alert
    How Extinction Rebellion evolved its tactics for its London protests
    ‘I gave up a six-figure salary to join Extinction Rebellion’,year%20when%20he%20suddenly%20snapped.
    Six Ways the Police ‘Abused their Power’ During the Extinction Rebellion Protests
    The police response to Extinction Rebellion was sadly not an aberration
    Exclusive: Police Chief urged Priti Patel to use Extinction Rebellion ‘opportunity’ to curb protest rights
    The economics of extinction: a reason for rebellion
    This Is Not A Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook: Review

    Finally, a fairly riveting interview with Hallam himself:
    Hope to see you on the streets soon!

  3. XR achie ed more than mosg of us expected, but only the virus has made any dent in destruction of the ecosphere. I can see two reasons. But I am (self-diagnosed) as Asperger’s, so what looks plain to me is invisible tomost others, even those terrifies of eco-breakdown.
    However,the two reasons are climate denial, modelled on the successful ‘smoking does not cause cancer’ campaign, but the other reason is that the measures necessary to save the ecosphere will be elctorally unpopular unless individuals feel secure.
    This is why I suggest a basic income, a dangerous idea because unless firmly tied to eco-footprint taxes, it will try to boost growth, the last thing the Earth can cope with jusgt now

  4. Pete

    Sadly you may be able to write an obituary for XR soon enough as it is attacked by progressives who want to use its power to focus on their favourite concerns like racism or the police (both worthy of attention, of course). A loud and probably large number of XR supporters want to change everything to a socialist utopia first, without giving a coherent timetable that fits with tackling climate change. They reject the idea that capitalism can actually be used to get stuff done quite effectively, if correctly incentivised by politicians and the public.

    The media and even organisations like Oxfam, seem to be basically ignoring the current XR Autumn rebellion in the UK- except for the right wing media who are happy to criticise, of course.

    Actually tackling climate change by reducing CO2 emissions etc appears to dominated by groups like “Business Green” and others who are working within the current system to get on with it.