Extinction Rebellion is a decentralised, global movement which calls for non-violent, disruptive civil disobedience – a rebellion - to save our land, and ultimately ourselves, from the collapse of our biosphere.
You may have seen XR activists feigning symbolic death in a shopping centre, or marching in the streets, under the banner of the XR logo – the hourglass in a circle. The circle is the planet which holds us all, the hourglass shows we are running out of time.
Extinction Rebellion began in London only seven months ago as a small circle of activists meeting in a decaying Whitechapel church. Now there are hundreds of thousands of rebels planning actions across a hundred countries. It is built around ten principles and three demands, and while sound a bit Maoist or Moses depending on your cultural touchstone, their importance is that they delineate the sentiment that so many millions of us hold – that it is time to say NO to a system that was built on the exploitation of millions, and will soon kill us all.
Extinction Rebellion is an inclusive movement which unites all who understand we are facing a climate emergency.
I’ll spare you our full ten principles, but to me the stand-out ones are:
- We avoid blaming and shaming
Nobody wakes up wanting to choke the atmosphere or acidify the oceans. Some of us are more guilty than others, but we live in a toxic system that drives us through perverse incentives. Every person on Earth is in this together.
- We are based on autonomy and decentralisation
There is no Rebel Primarch stroking a cat in front of a bank of monitors. Everyone I have met in Extinction Rebellion just showed up and pitched in. You want to get involved, but don’t know anybody else local? Start your own chapter. You’ll be amazed at how many people will join you.
- We are a non-violent network
Decentralised doesn’t mean there are no rules. Non-violence is the absolute red-line for acting under the Extinction Rebellion banner. If you don’t want to protest peacefully, you are not welcome in the movement.
Violent protest is the quickest way to lose support among the public; it gives the authorities a legitimate reason to use violence in return (and trust me, they’re better at it than you); and most of all, it doesn’t work. In the last century, non-violent mass movements have toppled governments, extended human rights and ended colonial rule. Violent insurgencies have spurred repression and suffering.
Consciously or not, Extinction Rebellion activists are following in the footsteps of the Occupy movement of 2011. One lesson we can take from Occupy is that a vague program makes it easy for people to dismiss your message. To avoid that, Extinction Rebellion activists have coalesced behind three specific demands.
- Tell the Truth
We are destroying the natural basis for our society, and driving our planet to destruction. We face the imminent extinction of a million species and, ultimately, the failure of our food supply.
We can’t change until we accept the need for change. We demand that Government tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, and work with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change.
- Act as if the truth is real – Halt biodiversity loss and become carbon neutral by 2025
This may sound absurd, but this radical action is the only way we can meet the global challenge of the Paris Accord to stay within 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures. And as we are seeing now, even that is dangerous.
David Attenborough has said, “if we have not taken dramatic action within the next decade, we could face irreversible damage to the natural world and the collapse of our societies.” We are radical because these are radical times.
Six years? It’s not long. On the other hand, it is the same amount of time as World War II lasted. The World Bank, IMF, United Nations, the Manhattan Project and the Marshall Plan were all created within six years. We already have the technology to base our transport and electricity systems almost entirely on renewables, and new breakthroughs are made every month. If we want to, there is a way.
- Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.
Extinction Rebellion’s final demand is to put the questions of our environment to an assembly of random citizens. This is called ‘sortition’, and the way it works is simple: small groups are chosen from the electoral roll, as in a jury, and asked to deliberate on questions facing the nation. The assembled citizens are given all the facts and figures they need, can question experts, and learn about critical thinking, all under independent oversight. At the end of the process, the citizens vote on a recommendation to their government. The conclusions of these assemblies would have immense moral force, but would ultimately be ratified by Parliament. Voters would retain the final say.
It sounds radical, but people are often surprised to hear that citizen’s assemblies have been successfully used for millennia, from ancient Athens to Renaissance Venice. The 18th century political philosopher Montesquieu described ‘suffrage by lot’ as natural to democracy, and praised it as a method which ‘animates each citizen’. In other words, it makes us active members of our democracy. If you prefer your politics post-industrial, Ireland has used citizens’ assemblies to successfully break the deadlock same-sex marriage and abortion; citizens’ assemblies are used regularly in China at the local level; and they are being discussed as a way of defusing tensions over Brexit.
Common Concerns About XR
- Extinction Rebellion is anti-democratic
It is a myth that democracy is an act only exercised once every three years. Protest, satire, discussion, strikes and assemblies have always been fundamental to our democracy. We all have the legal and moral right to protest.
- Everyone is out to get arrested
Not true.. Only some XR activists put themselves on the front-line, and only after taking a training course and considering the potential personal costs to them.
Extinction Rebellion has diverse tactics, and peaceful protest culminating in arrest is only one. We function with a support network of artists, comforters and organisers. Arguably the most important people in XR are the beautiful souls who show up with chocolate and hugs at 2am when ‘the arrestables’ are released from custody.
- Extinction Rebellion are fanatics
Do we have fanatics in our ranks? Sure, we don’t screen applicants. But by and large we are ordinary people who have been radicalised by our circumstances. If I had to describe the median XR activist I have met, it would be a middle-aged, female, school teacher.
- Extinction Rebellion will not get mass support
XR seeks to mobilise 3.5% of the population (875,000 in Australia), which has been shown to be enough to force systemic change. We are the sand in the cogs of the machine. In London, the actions of only a few thousand protestors drew the attention of the world, and convinced the British parliament to unanimously declare a climate emergency.
- Extinction Rebellion is just privileged white people
Fair. It is true that XR currently skews heavily towards white and middle-class, or in other words – privileged. To people like me who have privilege, I say ‘let’s take advantage of it’. Police do not like tear-gassing people who look like their children and grandmothers. If our privilege means we can stand up to entrenched interests with less fear of violence, then we have a duty to do so. Many with less systemic-privilege, and more fraught relations to power, are bravely committing to climate justice regardless of the increased risk of retaliation which they face. It is our responsibility to join them.
Could we widen our representation? Absolutely, and we are trying. Which leads me to..
Building a Coalition
There are hundreds of thousands of XR activists across the world. In Australia alone, 53,000 people are following the Facebook page.
But we are just one group. We need to work with others to build a broader environmental coalition, and I’m hoping this year we can do that. Extinction Rebellion doesn’t have all the answers, we’re new and excited like puppies, and we’re willing to take criticism from our elders. We have already joined forces productively with School Strikers, and if anybody else from any other group wants to reach out, please do! You can contact us on Facebook or at our website, or even me directly. There is no formal leadership structure.
The Rebellion Wants You
The Big Lie of our moment is that things can stay the same. They can’t stay the same. It is physically impossible, and it is morally impossible. We have entered a new geological era: the Anthropocene. If the power of humankind can reshape the planet, then we are powerful enough to reshape our political and economic systems too.
On the one hand, sitting in an intersection in the name of the environment is absurd. On the other, it is the most powerful action one can take, because it marks the moment that we, as a species, are saying ‘No More’. Sitting is powerful. Not for nothing do we celebrate Rosa Parks, whose refusal to rise from her seat helped trigger the collapse of an unjust system.
In an era of complexity and ambiguity, stopping the destruction of our environment and the extinction of our fellow species is the most clear-cut moral imperative we face. Let’s be clear, the few people who are still seeking to undermine climate action will be remembered by future generations as monsters, doomed to mockery on their version of Horrible Histories. The people who stand against them will be remembered as heroes.
How often do you get the chance to be a hero? Most people like to think of themselves as good people. Most people like to think that they would have stood with the Suffragette Movement in 1913 and the American Civil Rights movement in 1955. That is why, as a historian, Extinction Rebellion thrills me. This is our moment, and our chance to be the people we wish we could be.
Six weeks ago, a few hundred peaceful protestors held the London square of Marble Arch for two weeks. After they voted to dissolve their blockade, a Banksy mural sprang up at the site overnight. It depicted a child, a seedling, the Extinction Rebellion symbol, and the phrase:
“From this moment, despair ends and tactics begin.”
I am 33 years old, and have spent a quarter century in despair. Now, at last, I have hope. Climate protests are the fulcrum on which our societies are going to be made fairer, cleaner and happier. We are building up to a massive, global, wave of protests in September which could change the world.
Interested? Get in touch.