Extinction Rebellion is a decentralised, global movement that calls for non-violent, disruptive civil disobedience — a rebellion, to save our land, and ultimately ourselves, from the collapse of our biosphere.
The first duty of a government is to protect its citizens. A government that cannot do that, loses legitimacy. We are facing a climate emergency that threatens not just our prosperity, but our health and eventually all of our lives. Every action has a reaction, and as our governments have not been able to respond to the gravity of this moment, so Extinction Rebellion (or XR) has formed to hold them to account.
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, where I first encountered 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, but 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.
First up, Extinction Rebellion is only focused on the End, not the specific Means. Maybe you think we need nuclear power, or we need to go vegan, maybe you want to overthrow capitalism, or just adjust our economic incentives. To avoid splintering and squabble, Extinction Rebellion chooses not to tell people what to do. We’re just saying, something has to be done.
I’ll spare you our full ten principles (you can find them HERE), but to me the stand-out ones would be:
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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 back (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.
Knowingly or not, the 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.
1. 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, the inundation of our coastal cities, 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, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change.
2. 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 keep heating to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial limits. 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 entire length of World War II which changed human history. The World Bank, IMF, United Nations, the Manhattan Project and the Marshall Plan were all created within six years, and fascism defeated too. We already have the technology to base our transport and electricity systems almost entirely on renewables, and new breakthroughs are made every month. We lack only the will.
3. 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’s not perfect. Power lies in the control of information, and the decision of a random group can be heavily influenced by who controls the process. There are also questions of how we break down the ‘Big Question’ of the collapse of our planet into bite-sized ones we can put to discussions. Nonetheless, it is unarguable that traditional politics have manifestly failed for thirty years. Rather than coming together over protecting our beautiful planet, we have turned environmentalism into another front in the culture wars. In Australia, an entire generation of leaders have been torn down over the impossibility finding consensus on climate change. Politics is stuck, and something needs to change.
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, just as XR seeks to. And if you prefer your politics post-industrial, Ireland has used citizens’ assemblies to successfully break the deadlock same-sex marriage and abortion, they are used regularly in China at the local level, and they are being discussed as a way of defusing tensions over Brexit.
Some XR activists I have spoken with believe that if ‘good people’ are given the ‘right information’, they will come up with a plan entirely in line with Extinction Rebellion’s stated goals. That is unlikely to say the least, but democracy is about compromise. We’re never all going to agree on the plan. We just need to have one.
COMMON CONCERNS ABOUT XR:
1. 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, just as others have the right to ignore us.
2. Everyone is out to get arrested
Not true. I certainly don’t want to be arrested, and may not be brave enough to be. 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. Furthermore, police often don’t want to arrest you either. Protestors are usually given multiple warnings before the cuffs come out.
Just as an army needs engineers, quartermasters, drivers and cooks, Extinction Rebellion can only 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.
3. 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.
4. Extinction Rebellion will not get mass support
I hear this after every mass action — that protest puts off the quiet majority. That may be true, but it is irrelevant. We have waited thirty years for consensus on climate change, and not reached it. XR does not seek consensus, we seek to mobilise 3.5% of the population (875,000 in Australia) 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.
5. Extinction Rebellion is just privileged white people
Fair. It is true that XR currently skews heavily 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 reach out to 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. You can contact us on Facebook or at our website, or even me directly. There is no formal leadership structure.
We all have different beliefs, and different approaches. We argue and complain and argue over whose logo gets pride of place, as Progressives have done since time immemorial. But we all want the same thing — a sustainable society that we can pass onto our descendants.
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’ve waited so long that the only choice we have left now is which way do we fall? Do we break apart, or do we build together?
Faced with the enormity of this moment, people are scared. Almost all contemporary politics grows from anxiety in a world where traditional categories of belonging have fallen away, and the pillars of our prosperity are crumbling. Denial, anger and fear grow out of a sense of powerlessness. Extinction Rebellion seeks to flip that dynamic by offering people purpose, belonging, action. We have entered a new geological era: the Anthropocene. If the power of mankind 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 triggered the collapse of an unjust system.
In an era of complexity and ambiguity, stopping the collapse 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.
A few months ago, a few hundred peaceful protestors held the London square of Marble Arch against the might of the State 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.