As of this morning, the Extinction Rebellion (XR) has started two weeks of climate change protests, after the warm-up act of spraying the Treasury with fake blood last week. According to its website, Extinction Rebellion is “an international movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience in an attempt to halt mass extinction and minimise the risk of social collapse.” In practice, this means a lot of blocked roads, arrests, installations and big crowds.
You guys know I love a protest. You guys know that I think climate change is urgent, important and real. So of course, I want to be supportive of all climate change activism. I see people on the Internet raging against Greta Thunberg and I know which side of that debate I want to fall on. You always get generally progressive people who start raising their eyebrows at moves they think are too radical, that ask them to confront the ways in which they live their lives. While I don’t pretend that confronting the contradictions between your beliefs and actions is easy, I do want to be able do it (she says, occasionally overrun by eco-guilt). I don’t want to be someone who shies away from speaking out for what I think is right because it makes me do some introspection. I want to embrace the mess of progress in all its imperfection. Therefore, it feels weird to criticise activism for causes I support, as I feel like I should be championing any efforts to advance progressive movements even if I disagree with some of the details. Extinction Rebellion is making a statement, getting people talking and injecting some life into a movement that has tended to be stale. It is also only trying to raise awareness of our species’ precarious future and inspire our governments to do something, both of which are meaningful aims.
But just because the intentions are good doesn’t mean the execution isn’t without problems, and doesn’t mean that those problems shouldn’t be discussed. XR has long been accused of having a race problem, including micro aggressions, exclusivity and a lack of self-awareness of the vastly more severe implications of arrest for people of colour. The climate change movement needs intersectional justice at its centre, as it is marginalised communities that have suffered and will continue to suffer the most as the planet degrades. Also, any modern progressive movement should be hyper-aware of all the ways in which environmental activism has often been hostile to people of colour, and the fact that XR has got this far before starting to address some of these ideas is telling of who is running this movement and where their focus lies.
In May, after the first wave of major XR protests, grassroots environmental collective Wretched of the Earth published an open letter to XR, signed by a long list of other social justice organisations, praising the Rebellion for their passion and work but urging them to be more thoughtful, more intersectional and more self-aware as they continue their activism. The letter highlighted the central role that racism, colonialism and imperialism have played in bringing about the climate crisis and therefore the central role these ideas must play in the fight against global warming if we are to make any kind of just or meaningful transition. I agree with these criticisms and do not want to uncritically support an environmental movement, however impactful, that does not view the climate crisis through a deeply intersectional lens. The letter also feels almost… patronising in its tone, as if XR is climate activism for kids, who are doing their best and have almost put the pieces together correctly, but need a little help seeing the big picture. When I saw videos from yesterday of people getting married on Westminster Bridge during the protest, it felt a little like Burning Man: Climate Change edition, where the protestors were clearly having a good time and enjoying how special they were (if I was to be mean about it), as if being able to spend weeks out of work occupying bridges and shrugging off the implications of an arrest record is an indication of anything other than extreme privilege.
That’s other thing for an onlooker; I don’t really understand the mass arrest strategy. I know arrest as a tool of protest has a long history, but in this case, it seems less sympathetic to douse a public building in fake blood and then cry “injustice!” when you are arrested for doing something so obviously illegal. Being arrested for merely protesting peacefully is one thing but pulling stunts that, rightly or wrongly, clearly violate the law and then having to deal with the consequences of that doesn’t seem particularly noble. Is the idea that people will become outraged at the establishment for arresting peaceful protestors and then feel compelled to rise up against them? I don’t understand.
The lack of clarity around the mass arrest strategy is intensified by XR’s lack of policy recommendations. After all these arrests, what then? What do you want? Currently, the Rebellion’s three demands are:
- Tell the Truth: Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change.
- Act Now: Government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.
- Beyond Politics: Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.
I mean, it’s not exactly ground-breaking stuff, right? After weeks of mass civil disobedience, hundreds of arrests and massive publicity, XR are basically saying: we’ll leave you to figure out the details, Gov. This makes the Rebellion seem even more immature, self-centred and ineffective at driving real structural change, as they clearly have little interest in working with our most powerful institutions to figure out a path to a greener future. Obviously, the government should bear the brunt of the responsibility for funding research and green innovations, but for a prominent environmental group to have no opinions – or knowledge? – on the mechanics of transitioning to a greener, cleaner future does not inspire confidence.
So yeah, I’m conflicted. I want to support environmental activism and people who are driving the conversations we need to be having about climate change. But I also want to support people who have a nuanced understanding of the forces that created the climate crisis and the different ways people might be affected by this movement. I also do have higher expectations for a group this major when it comes to figuring out what comes next. As always, I can only keep reading, thinking and talking, but for now, XR has a way to go to get many of us onside. As the open letter said: “The fight for climate justice is the fight of our lives, and we need to do it right.” While I believe that XR are trying, I can’t say I feel like what they are doing is quite right for an issue this complex.