Does It Matter if Extinction Rebellion Sucks?

Richard D. Bartlett
Oct 17 · 4 min read

This is not just a clickbait headline, it’s a genuine question. Today my social media feeds are full of stories and opinions about how XR sucks. I’m seriously wondering if that could actually be good news for shifting the climate emergency agenda.

On Sunday morning I walked through Trafalgar Square, half way thru the 2-week “Autumn Rebellion”. After a week of protesting in the rain, the camp was looking small and soggy. At that point I thought the London chapter was unlikely to make it through to the end of the second week. Tired activists, sopping wet gear, sustained police pressure, and a public reception that was underwhelming at best; I doubted people would have the stamina to keep up the action.

Then on Monday night, the Met Police banned all XR protests and assemblies, across all of London. Next minute: Trafalgar Square is full again! Amnesty International, celebrities, MPs and all sorts of other people chimed in to say “regardless of what you think about XR, there’s no place for a ban like this in a democratic country.” By Wednesday, I’m seeing photos like this in my social media feeds: thousands of people, all in little groups of 10 practicing direct democracy, affirming that they wouldn’t be silenced by Police overreach or BBC silence or Government inaction.

Photo by Phoebe Tickell

I suspect if the Police had done nothing, the London Rebellion could have fizzled, but instead they added a bunch of fuel to the fire and fanned the flames. That made me think: maybe this is not a battle for approval, it’s a battle for attention.

So now it’s Thursday. The social media feeds are blowing up again because of a staggeringly stupid action. You can see the video here: an XR activist wearing a suit jacket, perched up on a train to disrupt the transport system in London’s East End, kicking one of the locals in the head. As they say in media land, the “optics” are terrible: someone who looks middle class, physically up high on a train, attacking someone down low, in a working class part of town. It looks like some elite wanker assaulting someone who is just trying to get the morning train to work.

So now half of Twitter has come out to say this is obviously the most counterproductive thing a climate activist could do. It proves that XR are completely out of touch with working class people, it’s nonsensical to block public transport and force people to take more polluting transit options, etc etc. Then you have the committed XR people chiming in to say there’d been internal debates ahead of the action, and a supermajority of people said it is a stupid idea, but it’s a decentralised movement so it happened anyway.

It’s big drama! I’m sure all the XR comms people are in emergency mode right now trying to work out how they respond. There are people in newsrooms all around the world shaping their particular perspectives on this spectacular clusterfuck. I’m writing this blog post, and you’re reading it. What I means is, there’s a tonne of energy and attention going to Extinction Rebellion right now.

And I’m sat here wondering, does it matter if the attention is positive or negative? It’s all energy. Could this absurd moment actually be aiding the objectives of the movement? It’s a serious question, I don’t know! Let me explain my thinking:

I believe George Lakoff’s ideas about framing are crucially important in contemporary politics. Essentially he says, negating a frame reinforces the frame. That is, it doesn’t matter if you say “X is bad”, you’re reminding people of X, which is a narrative frame encoded with all kinds of values from a particular worldview. If you give that worldview airtime, you help it to grow. That’s why, instinctively, a lot of people know there’s some value to not re-sharing any of Trump’s nonsense. It’s like my Mum used to tell me when I was upset about my little brother: don’t pay him any attention, you’ll just encourage him. Don’t feed the trolls.

In this case, tonnes of people are paying attention to “Extinction Rebellion”. Zillions of tweets per minute are telling us how badly XR sucks. While they’re criticising though, they’re reinforcing the frame. In my brain, when someone says “Extinction Rebellion” I hear two things:

  • Extinction! we’re killing species at an unbelievable pace. Human extinction is a genuine risk. This is an emergency!
  • Rebellion! disruptive nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience moves the dial on issues where democratic institutions have failed.

Frankly I don’t know if the XR movement will continue much longer. Social movements are always temporary, I don’t know when this one will expire. I don’t expect a specific social movement to deliver the democratic upgrade we need for a survivable 21st Century.

But what XR has already achieved is enormous: everybody is talking about extinction, and everyone is talking about rebellion.

Here’s a view from Google’s data, look at worldwide interest in the term “climate emergency”. That spike starts on April 15th of this year; that was the first major XR action where they locked down 4 intersections in London.

Google Trends data on climate emergency

I’m sure when we see the next round of opinion polls, there won’t be a lot of people approving of XR. But the frame is here now, it has our attention, and it’s not going anywhere: there’s a mass extinction underway, and people will rebel until they believe there’s a sane response.

 by the author.

Richard D. Bartlett

Written by

I write about working together (http://richdecibels.com). Loomio cofounder (http://loomio.org). Enspiral member (http://enspiral.com).

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