Rebellions aren’t easy: some observations on XR

Douglas Rogers
Apr 28, 2020 · 8 min read
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A People’s Assembly at Marble Arch, April 2019; credit: Sarah Cresswell

It feels like XR is in a difficult time. It’s not a feeling that’s easy to pin down, but this writer hears it in local groups, in UK Support teams, and from interested friends: a sense that we might have lost momentum, or direction, or some other intangible thing.

Not everyone might share this feeling; and plenty of rebels will understandably be focussed on the pandemic, and the challenging and tragic consequences it has brought. But for those still thinking of XR, this writer would like to try and help illuminate our general situation.

Waiting is hard

Most obviously, Covid-19 has swept aside all prior plans, rebellions included. This is, of course, frustrating to rebels and threatens to throw a spanner in our ‘momentum-driven’ organising.

It also poses further hardships: XR UK’s finances have been largely based around donations during large-scale rebellions. The May Rebellion’s postponement has meant some pretty serious belt-tightening for the UK teams.

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Google searches for ‘Extinction Rebellion’, since October 2018

This longer lull feels even less comfortable because our last wave of action ended controversially. Sure, we don’t need to be loved by all to meet our goals; but After doing so much in October — with the high court ultimately finding the Met on the wrong side of the law — many of us will have found it difficult to spend so many months with questions from relatives or friends defined by Canning Town. Whatever this action’s flaws or merits there’s no question it was widely opposed within the movement, and caused a lot of pain by happening all the same.

Our only major coverage since October has been digging up a Cambridge lawn: less difficult to defend, and undeniably the sort of boundary-pushing that we made our name by doing.

But we also made our name by combining such disruption with a positive enactment of a better world. ; this translated to a swell of positivity in politics and media that lasted months. It’s not that this idea was overlooked in Canning Town or in Cambridge — in both cases there were beautiful encampments down the road — but somehow the brighter message was left out of focus.

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Many lives were changed in the making of this scene. Waterloo Bridge, April 2019

Underpinning many of these ups and downs, however, are some bigger themes.

Scaling is notoriously hard for every kind of organisation. And as we’ve gone from hundreds to hundreds of thousands in just a year, we’ve come to face some real tensions that we owe it to ourselves to openly confront.

Consensus is hard

As we first saw with the questions over Heathrow Pause, and have often re-discovered since, .

While our general ‘post-consensus’ model — that anything complying with our principles and values can be an XR action — has been essential to our versatility and growth, there are also limits to this model. A familiar example is that ‘non-violence’ is somewhat open to interpretation. The suitability of tactics such as grounding planes with drones, breaking windows, and even blocking roads has been debated at length in our movement.

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The first of several ‘splinter’ groups

With hundreds of thousands of rebels involved, our movement’s views are much more diverse than they once were.

This diversity of views applies not just to tactics, but to strategy. Our original ‘agnostic’ stance on veganism, for example, has variously been praised, questioned or unheard-of by new rebels. Among our influx of new rebels in and after April came some more committed vegans, who eventually formed the separate-but-affiliated Animal Rebellion.

Perhaps even more complicated is XR’s position on social justice. Initially, we aimed to go ‘beyond politics’, following the logic that left/right divisions must be set aside for us to properly respond to the Emergency. Now, some number of our members passionately feel that there can be no climate justice without social justice, and that XR UK should follow XR US in adopting a fourth demand around climate justice.

These are difficult, evocative questions. When the movement was a handful of people in a room, it was certainly much easier to broach them. Having achieved some of the growth we need, it’s now much harder to address these and any other tensions that arise.

Scaled systems are hard

Another topic of debate is what systems should be in place to have debates and make decisions.

How should our strategy be made? How can we maintain participatory, decentralising practices while still remaining agile and cohesive? What does ‘mitigating for power’ actually look like, and who has the power to do it? Are we always ‘post-consensus’, and, if not, what are the exceptions? How should our resources be allocated?

Thankfully, we do have some wonderful people working on these questions, mostly under the umbrella of the Self-Organising Systems team. But anybody organising in XR shares some part of the challenge: from building local groups to national teams, taking feedback to the UK level or addressing a conflict, it’s down to us to make our empowerment-led ways of working a reality.

The many questions raised above can’t really be ignored or circumvented: attempts to do so are positions in themselves. If the proponents of a boundary-pushing action go ahead and do it, they may well be affirming the reality of post-consensus; but this freedom often comes at the expense of alienating other rebels.

: even writing observations such as these could cause some upset, but not everyone can be consulted all the time.

And with so many rebels deeply invested in XR, any decision can mean many meetings involving many people.

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The organisational map of XR. That’s a lot of stakeholders.

Just as in so many local groups, this lack of process information has predictable results: informal power structures vaguely informed by our principles but rooted in ‘do-ocracy’. This may work in the short term but, over the course of a year and a half, it has taken its toll on rebels, and led to a heap of burnout, power-mitigation and (you guessed it) scaling problems.

We need change

Most of us joined XR looking to use what creativity and courage we have to change minds and ultimately save lives. Many of us will have been inspired by the impossible new world we saw in April, and which lives on across XR in smaller ways.

If we don’t take the time to collectively assess and discuss our performance, and to address the many tensions mostly left to grow unchecked, we won’t become the force for change we need to be.

The demands of these accumulated tensions have been exhausting for core organisers, and have no doubt caused frustrations for the wider lifeblood of our movement. Many of our ablest roadblock veterans are finding themselves embroiled in processes and meetings. Whether it’s funding, advice, strategic direction, or actions, the UK Support team mostly hasn’t had as much support to give as anyone, inside it or outside it, would have liked.

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Rebel organisers spent their lives on Zoom way before it was cool

Our reduced agility has surely also been frustrating for the even greater number that supports XR but don’t (yet!) consider themselves involved. Our sympathisers, be they press or public, politicians or police, will understandably not find it easy to support us when it’s not so crystal clear what XR represents.

We will be the change

For all that such a laundry-list of tensions might seem daunting, this writer thinks that facing them head-on can actually be a kind of comfort.

We’ve achieved an unbelievable amount in very little time: we’ve demonstrated to the world that direct action works, that our fundamental message has the power to inspire as much as frighten.

The challenges we face are normal, and they’re highly tractable. Impressive work is going on already (work this writer might, feedback permitting, seek to describe another time). This is just the next step in a journey that — were it to end tomorrow — will be featured in the history books, and looked to as a source of hope and learning for the change-makers that follow us.

Though aviation’s out of fashion, this will be an international journey — there’s already more rebellion beyond the UK than within it. Other branches will encounter other versions of the challenges that face us now: if we can meet them, we could be a crucial source of inspiration and support to what is now a fully global movement.

And for all the bumps ahead, it looks unlikely that our journey will be ending soon. Whether with a different name or strategy or shape, the world will not stop needing us or something like us. We aren’t in a rebellion because it’s fun, or because we think it’s guaranteed to work, but because it’s right.

So if you’ve drifted slightly from XR, or been distracted by the very much distracting recent times, remember it’s okay. A cycle of action, regeneration and reflection is a part of our core values. In these times of change, XR itself is changing.

However long it is before the streets, refineries and planes are moving again as they were, and business as usual continues with its existential threat — we’ll be different, but we’ll be there.

If you’d like to discuss the ideas in this piece, please join our discussion here.

If you want to be kept in the loop, you can sign up to the XR newsletter or sign up to Inside XR UK, our organisers’ newsletter.

This piece was brought to you by the Rebel Writers. Anyone from anywhere can join them here, or read their guide for more information.

In case you’re still reading these italics: the writer really believes that confronting and discussing themes like the above is crucial to the future of XR — so if you’re on any groups that might be healthy places to continue this debate, please consider sharing this article!

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Douglas Rogers

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