The Saturday after the 2019 federal election, I attended a meeting of the Melbourne chapter of Extinction Rebellion. I had seen the group’s curiously striking hourglass symbol pasted on street-lights and stencilled on bike paths, and I – like many others at the meeting – was searching for a way to stave off the despair caused by the re-election of a party of fossil fuel fanatics. A few hours later, I was left equivocal about the promise offered by ‘XR’, but impressed by what I had seen.
The day was led by Jane Morton, a semi-retired psychologist and author of climate change messaging booklet ‘Don’t mention the emergency?’. Consistent with her background, Morton’s talk was organised around how the depressingly familiar science and scale of the climate crisis has (or hasn’t) been presented in public discourse. According to Morton, a combination of “don’t mention the war” mentality amongst climate scientists – who believed that disclosing the full urgency of the situation was to be avoided for fear of overwhelming the populace – and successful efforts by the world’s powerbrokers to ignore, undermine and obfuscate the climate crisis created the confusion and ignorance characteristic of the general public’s perceptions of the climate emergency. The necessary way forward, Morton said, is to acknowledge that the end of the world is nigh, to awaken people’s fear and anger through clear and engaging messaging, and mobilise this newly fearful and angry public into action.
The most important thing, for Morton, is to bring about a “psychological shift” into emergency mode. This shift will bring people together to fight the not-so-metaphorical bushfire bearing down on the village, and prompt governments to redirect economies into greener territory. Interestingly, Morton acknowledged that XR avoids talking about the ‘solutions’ (renewables, changing agricultural practices, etc.) because “it’s solutions that divide: that’s where we get into the arguments”. All that XR says is that we need to get to zero emissions, ASAP; it’s up to the people to work out how. My scepticism ratcheted up a few notches at this point: it’s difficult to have much respect for a movement that explicitly avoids providing outcomes because it’s too hard. However, there is clearly still work to be done persuading governments to admit the scale of the climate crisis, and there are a lot of scientists and businesses out there with plans & knowledge ready for the moment governments accede to the necessity of taking action.
So, how do we bring about this psychological shift? This is where XR, and its disruptive, peaceful rebellion, comes in. Create enough civil disobedience, the argument goes, and governments will have to take notice.
Extinction Rebellion grew out of activist collective ‘Rising Up!’, where Roger Hallam and the other future founders of XR cut their teeth organising acts of civil disobedience, and developed many of the tactics and strategies core to XR today. Extinction Rebellion burst onto the scene in late 2018, with a series of the visually striking and unapologetically disruptive actions the movement is now known for: disrobing and supergluing their naked bodies on to the public gallery of the UK parliament during Brexit negotiations is my personal favourite for obvious reasons (bums), but they’ve also washed Downing St with the “Blood of our Children”, shut down London for 11 days, and chapters around the world staged “die-ins” in April 2019. The London disruption is recognised as having played a key part in the UK government’s declaration of a climate emergency – the first such declaration by a national government. Exciting stuff.
And the movement is growing in Australia. Morton spoke excitedly about how the burgeoning Melbourne group recently held their biggest action yet in late May: a rally in which ‘thousands’ marched through the CBD before laying down ‘dead’ to evoke the Earth’s imminent 6th mass extinction, and how around 200 XR protestors in Queensland staged a ‘die-in’ at the state museum’s dinosaur exhibition.
Morton finished her talk with a call to arms to ‘join the rebellion’, foreshadowing more discussion of how to get involved in XR in the planning session after the morning coffee break.
I was left hesitantly hopeful: it was the first time I’d seen climate change discussed in a way where its alarming scale wasn’t minimised, but it was framed as though we could do something real about it, something beyond the greens-voting, bike-riding, composting and keepcupping many of us already do, despite suspecting all this is about as useful as rearranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic. My despondent millennial heart was warmed by the promise of a radical movement organised around the principles of inclusiveness, care and resilience, rather than the holier-than-thou and self-flagellating mentalities I’d witnessed in other socio-political spaces. And I have to admit the ingenious use of the language of ‘rebellion’ – complete with a highly stylised symbol of resistance – definitely tapped into that part of me that’s always wanted to be Princess Leia.
And yet, hesitation persisted, mainly stemming from my background as a lawyer.
Although Morton didn’t emphasise it in her talk, one of the main strategies – even goals – of XR is to get protestors arrested. Notably, Roger Hallam has stated that ‘1 million people on the street = 5000 people arrested = 500 in jail’: the idea being that the more members of a social movement arrested, the more impact it will have. Regardless of whether this rather unscientific equation holds water, treating getting arrested as an exciting political tactic rather than as taking a grave risk is frankly misleading. No matter who you are, getting arrested is likely to be a stressful and costly affair, as Stansted 15 protestor Ben Smoke wrote in the Guardian. And, if you’re convicted, the consequences – penalties ranging from hefty fines to imprisonment, a criminal record and, if you’re living in Australia on a visa, possible deportation on ‘character grounds’ – are extremely serious for all but the most privileged. Meanwhile, asking people of colour to risk arrest in Australia, where racially discriminatory policing persists, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people all-too-regularly die in police custody, is not only irresponsible but also potentially exclusionary. As stated by minority environmental groups coalition, The Wretched of the Earth, in an open letter to XR:
“Many of us live with the risk of arrest and criminalization. We have to carefully weigh the costs that can be inflicted on us and our communities by a state that is driven to target those who are racialised ahead of those who are white. The … primary tactic of being arrested, is a valid one – but it needs to be underlined by an ongoing analysis of privilege as well as the reality of police and state violence.”
Melbourne’s XR branch does seem to be aware of some of these issues, and actively working to address them. The group held a First Nations solidarity and group reflection shortly after the meeting I attended, and during the planning session after Morton’s talk, many roles beyond frontline protesting were discussed – and, crucially, framed as equally important. It was undeniably empowering to witness a movement drawing people together to fight a problem that feels crushingly huge to the individual. For the first time in a long time, it felt as though there might be some hope for a communal, effective mobilisation around the climate crisis. I hope XR can achieve its goals – of course I do, I would rather we not become extinct – but I also hope it finds ways to put the inclusivity in its principles into practice.