Extinction Rebellion – what next?


The Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement burst onto the scene in 2019 capturing media attention by its bold strategy of disruption and civil disobedience. The closure of Westminster Bridge and the protests in Parliament Square in London in April were followed by lower visibility protests in other towns and cities across the country, including Rye, as reported in Rye News.

The reactions of the authorities and of the public as represented by commuters and travellers inconvenienced by the protests were initially for the most part good-humoured and sympathetic. This attitude changed however when Heathrow airport was threatened with closure by drones flying overhead. The fact that this action was not carried out revealed much about the campaign’s policies and leadership (more of this below).

Environmental protest in London

It is instructive to trace XR’s antecedents, coming from the same stable as CND, (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) and more recently Occupy Wall Street (and London) and Rising Up.

Each sprang from a conscientious challenge to the existing order, seeking by force of numbers to change the socio-political climate. Each attracted a liberal-minded and articulate following in which the white middle classes were predominant. Each campaign had a clearly defined objective; CND opposed the possession and development of nuclear weapons which threaten the lives of future generations. The international Occupy protest was aimed at the increasing globalisation of business, fuelled by aggressive forms of capitalism which paid little or no heed to concepts of equality and the just society. XR’s raison d’etre is to raise awareness of global warming and force parliaments to take action.

The United Nations has sponsored international conferences on climate issues and notably the Paris Accord in 2015. This was followed by others held in various capital cities of the western world. Despite superficial consensus there has been a deep-seated disagreement on how to implement meaningful measures.

The latest conference held in December 2019 in Madrid attracted 27,000 delegates and was the 25th in the series. Climate activist Greta Thunberg crossed the Atlantic by sail in time to make an appearance, whilst outside the conference hall a huge protest march took place through the heart of the Spanish capital. The net result however was yet another failure to make progress in setting carbon emission targets, with a disconnect between wealthy and developing nations. The next conference to be held in Glasgow in November 2020 bodes no better.

This failure to achieve consensus demonstrates that governments cannot be trusted to implement the necessary initiatives unless compelled by their own populace to do so. XR’s core demand is for government to “Tell the Truth” by declaring a climate and ecological emergency. By staging high-profile street demonstrations, they aim to bring populist pressure to bear, leading to the setting up of a citizens’ assembly tasked with holding government to account. Reaching a net zero carbon emission target by 2025 may seem politically impossible, but that is the scientifically estimated tipping-point beyond which no counter-measure will be of use.

Ideas how to make the environment better

Ian Bray is one of the XR founders. Interviewed recently by Rebecca Hardy for the Quaker Friend magazine, he described how research into historical protest movements, coupled with modern communications technology, had informed the shape and direction of the current campaign. Its choice of tactics had an experimental quality, where outcomes could be tested and evaluated. It was important that all actions were consistent with the intellectual and ethical vision on which the movement was based.

There are basic tenets such as “revolutions are not made by comfortable people”, so provoking discomfort is not only legitimate but essential; success is counted if 150 people get arrested at a demonstration; the support of only three per cent of the population is sufficient to achieve political control. There is a fine balance between building numbers of supporters and alienating the general public and this needs constant review and tactical adaptation. In judging discomfort, it is important to remember that people are dying right now in the world because of climate change.

So how effective will the XR Rebellion be? Will it succeed in reaching out to wider sections of the community, sufficient to achieve its necessary critical mass? Can it influence international opinion such that COP 26 at Glasgow reaches a worldwide consensus?

Or do we look to more pragmatic solutions guided by market principles that place economic sanctions on the wealth creators. Hit them in the pocket and they will soon respond! The US has been one of the greatest foot-draggers in this whole climate debate, but just possibly it might now be in the vanguard. A new initiative called the Citizens’ Climate Lobby is promoting a bill in the United States House of Representatives known as The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act of 2019 (H.R. 763). If passed this will introduce a tax on carbon at the point of extraction. The imposition of the tax will use market-driven competition to develop clean energy technologies to reduce emissions, with the revenue recycled back to households on a per capita basis. Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, writing in the Daily Telegraph on December 26 considers that “the price signal of such legislation would transform behaviour”. The weekly publication Nature Climate Change recently carried an article indicating that “a tax as low as $20 would greatly mitigate global deforestation and $50 would clinch it.”

Meanwhile, the president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen is promoting a carbon border tax to combat the failings of the carbon trading scheme. Evans-Pritchard concludes that “countries may protest and retaliate but will face a stark choice: either to price carbon out of their economies or to find themselves isolated in a shrinking polluters’ bloc; all trade access will become conditional on good greenhouse behaviour”

It is my opinion that market forces are better backed to be the saviour of the planet and not any change of heart in the political elite as a result of populist uprising.

Nevertheless, in raising awareness of the need for change in our lifestyles, the XR Rebellion and other comings together of people-power play an important role in the cultural and spiritual health of our nation and indeed the whole of our civilisation.

Image Credits: Extinction Rebellion , Heidi Foster .

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  1. Thank you Kenneth for a carefully considered article. I’m speaking for myself here, rather than XR – although I am a member.

    It’s interesting that you mention the 3% figure – this has been challenged, as the research that led to it was based on protest action in different situations and also not in Western democracies. Furthermore, the strategy of mass arrests has also been criticised, partly for excluding those who can’t risk arrest but also because it primarily makes life difficult for the police, who have no influence over government policy on climate change. I don’t intend to detract from the courage of those who’ve been prepared to give up their freedom for an important cause – their sacrifice has made a difference, but the next stage needs to be different.

    What would be more interesting in future would be for direct action to take a new two-pronged approach.

    First, any disruptive non-violent action could be focused on the cause of the problem (eg fossil fuel companies, mining companies, the banks that fund them and the media that doesn’t tell the truth about them), rather than simply making a scene in a public place. This would alienate fewer people, and have a direct impact on those endangering our lives by destroying the ecosystem. Arrests would still happen, but as a side effect rather than a goal.

    Second, groups could also take positive direct action, using mutual aid to help those most at risk of poverty and oppression (whether here or overseas), who are also the people who will bear the brunt of climate change impacts and (if we’re not careful) the hardships resulting from adapting to climate change and trying to limit how bad it gets.

    These ideas are being actively discussed in Rye and other places in the UK and around the world, though it remains to be seen whether this makes any difference to the central XR UK strategy in the near term.

    Regarding your comment on markets, I’m reminded of the definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over, but expecting a different result. Capitalism and free markets got us into this mess, and while I acknowledge they have achieved great gains for some people, I think they’re intrinsically incapable of solving the problems we now face.

    What is clear is that social justice needs to be considered alongside action on climate change – only by addressing all the damaging effects of our current socio-economic model will we achieve a transition to an equitable and sustainable society.

  2. I am grateful to Kenneth Bird for writing this detailed and balanced assessment of XR. Indeed, it is true that XR has not always got it right over the last year. However the way I see it, what matters most is that the message remains the same: that human activity is causing irreversible climate change and species extinction.
    I do not understand why the author believes market forces are better backed to be the saviour of the planet. Already in 1896 the Nobel prize winner Svante Arrhenius described the greenhouse effect. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in late 1988, after a variety of factors had pushed the greenhouse effect into the spotlight: this was headline news then. If market forces are able to solve the problems, why has this not happened after 32 years? Already by 2014, more than half of all industrial emissions of carbon dioxide since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution were released since 1988. We are now 2020, and the global greenhouse gas emissions still continue to rise, despite everything we know to be true.
    To quote Albert Einstein, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” Is it not now time to accept that the so-called ‘free market’ experiment is failing us dismally?
    I am hopeful that this discussion will be continued and expanded on throughout the year – it affects all of us.

  3. You only need to look at the housing crisis in this country to see that free markets do not solve social ills if it is more profitable to maintain the status quo.


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