Unpacking Extinction Rebellion — Part IV: The Way Forward

Kim Hill
Kim Hill
Nov 5 · 12 min read
Image: Roseanne de Lange

Part I, Part II, Part III

As we’ve seen from the first three parts of this series, the current goals and tactics of Extinction Rebellion and the climate movement are leading us in the wrong direction. An entirely different strategy is needed if we are to have any hope of building an effective movement to end corporate control and the industries destroying the planet and all who live here.

More effective solutions

A movement that is serious about extinction and climate change needs to address the root problems: capitalism, the industrial system, a culture that sees life as a resource to be exploited, and the infrastructure that holds it all together. It needs to have clear goals, that can’t be diluted or used to manipulate and misdirect the movement. It needs to take action immediately, not in several years’ time. And it needs to target the weak points in the system, where it can have the most impact for the least effort.

The misdirection of Extinction Rebellion has come about because most urban dwellers have only an abstract idea of nature, as they don’t depend on it directly for their food, water and shelter. Their relationship with nature is mediated by the economic system, which provides for their needs by stealing resources from elsewhere and selling them on for profit. The rebels are led to believe that the extractive economy is necessary for survival, and that new industries and investments offer benefits to humans and wild nature. So city folks are more than willing to take to the streets to defend the very system that is crushing the life out of us all. It’s a form of collective Stockholm syndrome, on a global scale.

Effective solutions require rebels to have a direct relationship with the natural world. To defend nature requires love, which is a constant, reciprocal relationship, which means listening, observing, giving and receiving, and being in communion on a daily basis.

To be effective, rebels need to identify not as a citizen, consumer or worker, demanding action from business and government, but as a living being, interdependent with all life. To identify with the living world is to see the entire planet as an extension of the self, so action taken to defend nature is an act of self-defence.

Demanding that governments and corporations change will only lead (and has already led) to changes that give them more power. The entire social and legal structure that puts them in a position of power needs to be dismantled. This violent arrangement is not deserving of the respect of polite demands and peaceful protest.

Being effective requires a healthy mistrust of anyone offering technological or market-based solutions, and requires asking a whole lot of uncomfortable questions. The capture of this rebellion has depended on the lack of questioning (and probably more to the point, lack of answers) as to what net-zero emissions actually means, what the rebellion aims to achieve, and what the proposed solutions really entail. Always respond to any proposal with ‘what does this mean in practice? and who benefits from this?’

The burning of fossil fuels needs to stop. Not because it is releasing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, but because it is powering an industrial economy that is wiping out all life. The impacts of industrialism cannot be offset, decarbonised, decoupled from economic growth, exported to the third world, or made sustainable. Fossil fuels power mining, agriculture, shipping, aviation, road and rail transport, land clearing, manufacturing, plastics, the electricity grid, and imperialist wars. Dismantling the infrastructure of oil and gas would drastically reduce the impacts of these industries. Some possible approaches to achieve this are offered by Stop Fossil Fuels, which “researches and disseminates strategies and tactics to halt fossil fuel combustion as fast as possible.”

The goal needs to be not to Make Your Voice Heard, or cause a temporary, symbolic disruption to industrial activity, but to permanently shut down the industries that are causing harm. A single drone attack on a Saudi oil processing facility this September reduced Saudi Arabia’s oil production by 50%, an action which has had more impact on the fossil fuel industry than the environmental movement ever has. No-one was harmed. The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), by sabotaging fossil fuel infrastructure in Nigeria, have been able to reduce the country’s oil production by half. Ruby Montoya and Jessica Reznicek, in burning holes in the Dakota Access Pipeline, were 1000 times more efficient in terms of material impact on oil production than the entire #NoDAPL campaign. And to demonstrate that government and business will never be on board with efforts that genuinely reduce fossil fuel extraction, they are facing more than 100 years in prison, despite harming no-one.

Principles for effective action

Be on the side of the living. The biosphere, endangered species, indigenous cultures and the third world don’t need development, investment, technology, corporate ambition and sustainable infrastructure. They don’t need business opportunities and economic growth. They need all these things to stop. Those on the side of industry advocate for sustainability, aiming to sustain the destructive system for as long as possible, and have brought environmentalists across to their side. The industrial system is a war on people and planet, and taking the side of the living means being willing to fight in defence of life, and oppose efforts to sustain industry and growth.

Learn from history. The rebellion has become disconnected from the struggles of the past, which has limited its tactics to civil disobedience, cutting off the possibilities of using tactics that have been successful in historical campaigns for justice. The book Full Spectrum Resistance offers lessons from movements of the past, and principles and strategies that can be applied to current struggles for social and ecological justice.

Ancient wisdom offers ways to live in harmony with the natural world. Learning about the traditional cultures of your ancestry, as well as those of the land where you live, can provide guidance towards rebuilding a genuinely sustainable land-based culture, and strategies for land and community defence.

Drop the attachment to nonviolence. The culture of industrial capitalism is based on systemic violence. To adhere to individual nonviolence in this context is to be complicit in the ongoing violence of imperialism, patriarchy, and resource extraction. The primary goal of an effective environmental movement needs to be to stop the violence.

Nonviolence is a tactic that is only available to the privileged, those who are not personally experiencing the effects of ecocide. Those who are directly under attack from destructive industries don’t have that option, and need to defend themselves and their land with weapons. Solidarity means being willing to fight alongside them, to follow their leadership and support their tactics.

Adults need to take the lead. The targeting of young people by the corporate-led climate movement has been deliberate. It is easier to manipulate their fears, and they can be convinced that the campaigning tactics used in the past have been ineffective, and that the new way of campaigning is better. This creates a separation between the generations, and interferes with any learning about historical movements. It also presents adults as incapable of taking action themselves, requiring young people to take responsibility for guiding them.

This is not the way to build a healthy culture of resistance. Adults need to take responsibility, and create a world that nurtures the next generation. Teaching young people about all the world’s problems and expecting them to take it all on is morally awful, and also repeating this same tactic for generations is clearly not going to work, if everyone just keeps passing their problems down the line. Children need to enjoy their childhood in a healthy culture. Young people are of course welcome to get involved in resistance work, and their energy and new ideas are essential, but they shouldn’t be made to feel it is their responsibility to guide adults.

Get political. Creating meaningful change requires a solid foundation of understanding of how political power works, and how change happens. By adhering to a principle of being non-political, XR shuts down any discussion of the politics influencing the movement, and prevents rebels from engaging in any political change. Rebels who engage in political discussion or advocate for political goals or strategies get excluded, which of course serves the interests of those who are manipulating the rebellion for their own political goals. Goals that no-one is allowed to talk about, because that would be political. See how this works? Only people with limited awareness of politics can realistically comply with the principle of remaining non-political, and these are the people who are most easily led into supporting goals that oppose their interests.

Set clear goals. Having vague goals that can appeal to a wide range of people is useful if the only purpose of the movement is to appeal to a wide range of people, but those who actually want to get things done need to be specific on what they want to get done. The goals need to be clear so that they can’t be used to redirect the movement, and there needs to be a realistic strategy for how they will be achieved.

You don’t have to include everyone. The principle of inclusion is promoted by the corporate campaigners because it prevents any real change. When all political views are included, there is no possibility of forming shared goals or effective strategies. Serious activism requires people who are dedicated and willing to take risks for the cause, and should only include people who have integrity and can take on the responsibilities. Everyone is of course welcome to support and contribute, but including people who are not fully committed will only hold back those who are.

Being included in the climate movement has set back indigenous struggles, as indigenous people are expected to set aside their own causes to focus on the goals of climate action, which are often in opposition to their interests. Rather than aiming to include indigenous people, third world movements, and other marginalised groups, predominantly white movements would do well to instead offer support and solidarity to autonomous struggles, to avoid co-opting or reinforcing existing power dynamics. A principle of inclusion is embraced by the white middle-class people leading the rebellion as it makes them feel good about their identity as inclusive people, but this comes at the expense of those being included. Inclusion of marginalised people in white-led capitalist movements is colonisation. White people need to position themselves as the back-up rather than the centre.

It should go without saying that the inclusion of corporations, the World Economic Forum, banks, and the military and police force that exist to defend them, is a barrier to forming a movement that can dismantle these institutions. When ‘we’re all in this together’, those who are being exploited by capitalism are required to align themselves with those who are profiting from their exploitation. This arrangement only serves the interests of those in power, and perpetuates the system. XR claims that “we live in a toxic system, but no one individual is to blame”, which renders invisible the industries and structures of power that created the toxic system, and refuses to acknowledge that there are individuals who benefit from keeping it in place. Which leaves ordinary people identifying with the destructive economic system and blaming themselves, rather than collectively detoxifying by eradicating the entire capitalist economy.

Noticeably absent from all this performative inclusivity are the billions of living beings under threat of extinction, those whose interests XR claims to represent, yet whose names and needs for defence I’ve never heard mentioned in any of the rebellion’s discussions.

Abandon climate as an issue to rally around. Climate change is an effect of capitalism and the industrial system, and only one of many. It is not a separate issue that can be addressed on its own. Effective action needs to address the root causes. The climate issue has been thoroughly obfuscated by those who seek to benefit from manipulating the discussion. Studying and debating climate change is distracting us from taking action to address the underlying structural causes of ecological collapse.

Organise, not mobilise. XR’s strategy is predominantly based on mobilising — getting large numbers of people to come together in mass actions as individuals, rather than organising collectively on creating change on issues that directly affect them in their own neighbourhoods. The majority of rebels are simply part of a crowd at an action, rather than participating in political education, developing personal agency and leadership skills, and engaging with the wider community. Mobilising has some value as a tactic, but needs to be just one part of a broader strategy, and is unlikely to be effective on its own. Focusing exclusively on mobilising reinforces power structures and doesn’t lead to the necessary social changes.

Engage in decisive rather than symbolic actions. Standing in the street holding a banner and shouting slogans at no-one is not going to change the world. XR’s strategy of civil disobedience by blocking traffic has the effect of disrupting the lives of ordinary people on their way to work to earn a living. Effective action needs to target not working people, but the corporations and industries that are causing environmental and social devastation. Capitalism is already making people’s lives difficult enough without the rebels’ contribution. Making people aware of the issues doesn’t lead to change in itself. Decisive action means directly targeting the physical infrastructure of the industrial system, and undermining the legal and social structures that sanction it.

Create the future. Stopping the destructive system and creating a better world starts with believing that things can get better, and collectively we have the power to make that happen. Grieving the future is not going to get us there. Grieve for what has been lost, sure, but getting stuck in negativity about the future can create a global nocebo effect: if enough people genuinely believe we’re all going to die, then that’s probably what will happen. We don’t have to stay trapped in a culture of violence, isolation, suburbia, employment, junk food, debt, electricity, toxicity, traffic jams, social media and antidepressants. We can envision and create a world without these things, where humans live in healthy communities within their natural environments, not separate and imposed over top of them.

The way forward

Many people involved in XR are seeing the cracks in the green façade. There are some in the rebellion who support the goals of economic growth and the fourth industrial revolution, and don’t care about the natural world. But there are many more who care deeply, and are willing to take direct action and risk their own lives in defence of the greater web of life.

Every rebel needs to make a choice: are you on the side of the industrial economy, or on the side of the living planet? Because you can’t have both, and if you choose the economy, you’re taking away the future of every living being (including yourself), and that’s really not very nice. And there’s no room for half measures. More than 90% of the world’s rainforests have been lost to deforestation. Over 300 tons of topsoil are lost every minute. Corporations dump five million gallons of toxins into the ocean every day. One species goes extinct every 15 minutes. More than 90% of large fish in the oceans are gone, and there is 10 times as much plastic as phytoplankton in the oceans. There’s definitely no space here for economy-saving Climate Action.

The movement is already huge, and momentum is building. The economy is failing, and on the brink of collapse. An organised, committed, strategic movement that targets the critical nodes of the economic system has the potential to take it down completely.

We have millions of years of evolution on our side. Our ancestors have fought off predators and forces that could have destroyed them, and survived long enough to reproduce. Every person reading this has this heritage. We can fight for our lives and survive this. We’ve been doing it for millions of years, and with a collective act of self-defence, we can keep on for millions more.

Be guided by the courage of your wild heart, not the fears of your domesticated mind. Ask the wild creatures what they would do if they had your resources. And listen. Then act. Always, always, speak and act on behalf of those who can’t. Those who would take down all the structures that stand in the way of life.

No expectations that the government or business will save us. No demands. No compromise. No shiny illusions of net-zero, carbon-neutral, future-proofing, renewable, climate-friendly bullshit. No green capitalism, clean growth, decarbonised economies or whatever other meaningless marketing slogans corporations use to sell fake protests.

An effective movement to reverse the trend of ongoing extractivism that’s leading us toward total extinction won’t be dependent on governments and businesses taking action in response to street protests. It will require communities to work together to take down the infrastructure of the extractive industries in their own neighbourhoods, and rebuild a culture based on living in harmony with the land that sustains us. It requires an allegiance to the living world, not to the system of laws and proper channels that exist to protect those who benefit from extraction, exploitation and extinction.

The path to a better world won’t come from a fear of atmospheric gases, and demands for investment in infrastructure and industry. It needs to come out of a place of love for the natural world, and from ancient wisdom. It will come from listening to the land where you live, and taking action to defend it. Let the Earth and those who maintain relationships with their land be our teachers and guides.

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