Tuesday Dec 10

Extinction Rebellion: An Inevitable Movement and Our Best Chance of Avoiding Mass Suffering and Death

I spent four years at a non-profit working on climate change policy, including working with the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), the UN body whose job it is to rally the world to reduce emissions. I started the job with conviction and enthusiasm and ended it with the belief that we had chosen to walk off the cliff as a species.

Firstly, some background. The UNFCCC was set up in 1990 to reach a legal agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Instead, more emissions have been pumped into the atmosphere in the 30 years since 1990 than in all of human history before then. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is at a 3 million year high. It’s hard to think of a better description of failure.

In the lead up to the Paris agreement, all of the focus was on ‘mobilizing’ private capital to accelerate the clean energy transition. There was little talk of the need to leave fossil fuels in the ground, far less discussion about retiring existing fossil fuel infrastructure before the end of its economic life - a prerequisite for staying below 1.5°C and not consigning island nations to their deaths. (As an aside, the idea that an energy transition is underway is perhaps the foundational lie of climate policy progress. The global economy is still more than 80% powered by fossil fuels, the same proportion as in the mid-1980s). This failure of the UN process to confront the drivers of the crisis was revealed in the final document: there wasn’t one reference to fossil fuels. The voluntary pledges made by countries are not going to save us, even if they are achieved. These pledges take the planet to 3°C of heating – many scientists think 2°C will start an irreversible chain reaction. There’s good reason to think this: the geologic record shows Earth has never stabilized at 2°C above pre-Industrial temperatures. Once we hit 2°C it’s likely we’ll go higher – much higher.

And what of those private investors the UN is leaning on to save us from destruction? At a pre-Paris meeting in New York, the CEO of one of the world’s largest pension funds told me he’d bought a “bug-out” ranch in South America and was planning to flee when the shit hits the fan.

To say I was pessimistic is an understatement. Of course, there were (and are) many dedicated people and groups doing excellent work, but none, it seemed to me, was capable of galvanizing the systems shift necessary in the incredibly short amount of time we have left. Then I heard about a group planning to declare rebellion against the British government for its criminal inaction on the climate crisis, and I knew instantly they were speaking the right language. The protection of elite interests, profit and capital over the habitability of the planet made Extinction Rebellion inevitable. The conditions were there, they just needed an outlet. Last November we closed five bridges into central London, then five months later shut down parts of central London, forcing a political and media response. Now Extinction Rebellion is a global movement, primed, in October, to coordinate the largest act of non-violent civil resistance in modern times.

How has XR achieved this? Others will have their own analysis, but it seems to me there are four primary factors behind its success.

Firstly, XR’s roots are in the fertile ground of failure. The failure of conventional campaigning, of NGOs, of policy makers, of activists, of the left. This is an uncomfortable fact, for me as much as anyone. Many of us want a reformist approach to work because the alternative – system change – is overwhelming. Yes, the acquisition of politics by the fossil fuel industrial complex, the complicity of the corporate media, and free market capitalism are all to blame. And, it is true that the elite class has not failed on its own terms – huge amounts of power and money have been accrued through so-called “failure.” But this doesn’t change the fact that they are winning and humanity, as broadly conceived, is losing. And no amount of organizing to date has managed to make a dent in the overall direction of travel towards oblivion.

Secondly, XR is a loosely coordinated, volunteer-run ‘holocracy.’ There are centrally-provided materials including an introductory talk and direct-action training scripts. Lines of communication are open. But instructions don’t flow from the center. As long as you abide by the nonviolent dictum, there’s freedom to organize, to hold events and talks and to take direct action in a way local groups find most effective. This has generated a strong sense of ownership and identity.

Thirdly, XR’s civil resistance model is a return to an older framing of civic duty that demands we respond to a crisis situation with a commensurate level of sacrifice. Much has been made of XR’s focus on arrests – and there are valid criticisms of this tactic I address later – but there’s a solid logic behind taking sacrificial actions. Putting your body in front of traffic, breaking the law, getting arrested, is a signal to the wider public that you really believe the crisis is as serious as you say it is.

It is also a stark rejection of the consumer-lifestyle approach to climate action that has disempowered so many people.

Fourthly, XR has three demands that are specific enough to measure outcomes against, but broad enough to appeal to lots of people. The first is that governments and the media tell the truth about the climate and ecological emergency; the second is zero emissions by 2025; the third is the creation of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice. XR’s actions have seen progress made on the first demand (parliament and local authority declarations of climate emergency, more media coverage and heightened public concern) and as a result we are moving the conversation about a deadline to end emissions closer to the second demand. The grassroots Labour Party Green New Deal program for example demands a zero-carbon economy by 2030. On the third, a randomly selected group of ordinary people in the form of a Citizens’ Assembly taking over the role of the executive is both a revolutionary demand and of its moment, as parliamentary politics fails before our eyes. The sense that existing political institutions are unable to respond to this crisis – any crisis – is palpable and growing. A Citizens’ Assembly comprised of people that haven’t been bought by fossil fuel money, aren’t answering to capital, and aren’t making careerist calculations, sits well within the current context.

What of the criticisms? As someone from a working-class background who works five days a week to pay rent, I understand those who think environmental activism is a lifestyle choice for the privileged. Organizing against what might be seen as ‘non-imminent’ threats to well-being – as opposed to, for example, being evicted from your home – is often seen as an indulgence. It is a tension I know other working-class activists in XR feel. XR must guard against the kind of organizing that channels influence to those with the resources to free up their time, which in turn tends towards cliques and an unrepresentative concentration of decision-making power. And unrepresentative outcomes. XR has tools it uses to avoid this – online resources, digital communication methods and work-hour friendly meeting and action times – but we must keep working on ways to include excluded voices or we will fail.

XR has pissed people off by claiming other activists have failed, and this is the one true movement. Of course, we can’t measure success or failure by atmospheric CO2 alone. Important battles have been won in the last thirty years: fossil fuel projects have been stopped, trillions in fossil fuel investments have been diverted from pension funds, and too many people in the global south have died on the front-line defending their home and Earth. To brand all of this as failure is callous and untrue. At the same time, it is a fact that our ultimate success as a species will be completely dependent on what happens to atmospheric CO2 levels. We can win lots of battles but lose the war. The speed at which we bring about social and economic transformation is now what matters. XR has generated a new sense of urgency about the transformative change needed, but we won’t win without working alongside other environmental and social justice movements.

Another criticism of XR’s approach is that disruption doesn’t work. The argument goes that you can’t annoy ordinary people and expect to them to join your cause. There’s truth here. We must recognize that those most reliant on a high-emissions economy are the poorest and most vulnerable, while those most responsible for creating our reliance on a high-emissions economy are the richest. This is the critical divide we must do better at focusing on. If we end up making the former feel like the target, we miss the opportunity to frame the debate around the latter, where it needs to be.

There are strong arguments, however, in defense of general disruption. First, it draws people into the civic sphere. They may disagree with you, but they can’t ignore you. And once the space for engagement has been created, minds can, and do, change. Our sign-ups consistently spike after disruptive actions – actions are the tool that have substantially built the movement. The second is that when people put their bodies on the line it can connect more deeply on an emotional level, drawing latent support into the open.

So to the arrests. Some argue that by focusing on arrests XR exposes its inherent privilege as a movement. Yes, it does. There are many people who don’t have the luxury of being arrested, especially people of color, people from oppressed communities, and people who simply can’t gamble with losing their job (most of us). Focusing on the “heroes” who have been arrested also threatens to minimize the 90% who can’t be arrested but without whom this movement couldn’t work. The focus on arrests has put people off from joining XR. This criticism has not fallen on deaf ears and a lot of thinking has gone into striking a better balance. That said, XR is a civil disobedience movement. Strategically, arrests are central to XR’s theory of change. The conversation on climate has changed dramatically in the last nine months in no small part to the arrests. Arrests provide opportunities for moments of drama in court, ongoing media coverage, and the clogging up of the legal system – all of which builds pressure on authorities and increases their dilemma as they consider a response.

Finally, a Citizens’ Assembly is politically naïve and blind to the realities of power, some have argued. I have sympathy with this position. Power won’t just surrender itself voluntarily whilst simultaneously dismantling its own institutions. In times of crisis however, events go non-linear and systems fail. This is as true for politics as it is for the climate. The failure of our politics to respond to the existential threat of climate breakdown has created revolutionary conditions. When those conditions are realized, it’s a good idea to have a plan for the power vacuum that results.

Extinction Rebellion is trying something new. We don’t claim to have all the answers. One thing though is certain: we must cooperate with other movements while respecting differing solutions and methodologies. We must become a movement of movements to upend the system sending us to our deaths. We must do it quickly. The alternative – rejecting cooperation because one group doesn’t meet a standard of purity for another group – will mean the end of organized society and final victory for the forces of injustice, greed and death.

Nathan Williams is a Cambridge, England-based campaigner for Extinction Rebellion.


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