Why Extinction Rebellion Might Succeed -- and in Many Ways, Already Has

Why Extinction Rebellion Might Succeed — and in Many Ways, Already Has

Extinction Rebellion, also known as XR, is a U.K.-based international social movement founded in 2018 focused on addressing the climate and biodiversity crises. XR has three demands of governments: 1) Tell the truth about these crises; 2) reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025; and 3) create a democratic citizens’ assembly of randomly selected and demographically representative citizens to hear expert testimonies and direct an emergency-level effort to reduce carbon emission and protect biodiversity.

XR’s strategy to get their demands met entails disrupting “business as usual.” In the U.K., this has involved occupying major sites in London for up to two weeks. In November 2018, over 6,000 activists shut down five major bridges in London, and in April 2019, activists occupied five major London sites, resulting in over 1,100 arrests. On October 7, 2019, a large rebellion in London as well as smaller protests disrupted more than 60 cities across the globe. Over 1,000 activists were arrested in London during the first four days of the October rebellion.

Is XR just another passing environmental movement that will ultimately fail in bringing about a meaningful response? Maybe not. In addition to being part of an unprecedented, large (growing) and sustained effort demanding climate action (including the Sunrise Movement and Fridays for Future, the latter led by Greta Thunberg), there are good reasons why XR in particular has a better chance of success when compared to other environmental movements. While the future is uncertain, there are reasons to believe XR might succeed.

XR Is Based on Science

The XR movement is based on climate science, which shows we are in more trouble than we previously thought. Even since the release of the 2018 “IPCC 1.5 degree Special Report,” more scientific reports have indicated that Arctic ice is melting faster than expected, oceans are warming more quickly than we thought and we could be reaching critical tipping points sooner than anticipated. XR takes this science seriously and recognizes the human impacts associated with the science. Co-founders Roger Hallam and Gail Bradbrook continually point out that if we do not act, there will be massive migration, famine and loss of human life. Interpreting and responding to this science, XR acknowledges that we face a real threat and a moral imperative to act now.

XR draws from social science to inform their strategies. The co-founders immersed themselves in social movement research to determine what kind of movement would be most likely to succeed. According to the historical data analyzed by Harvard Professor Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, nonviolent movements have been four times larger and twice as successful as violent movements. XR leaders also studied how to organize a successful social movement drawing from the work of Gene Sharp, Mark and Paul Engler (momentum-driven organizing), and Carlos Saavedra of the Ayni Institute. In other words, the co-founders did extensive research before designing and initiating the movement.

In addition, XR has a well-organized training system for activists. There are a number of different trainings, but most important for all participants is their nonviolent direct-action training, as well as their nonviolent culture de-escalation training about how to talk to possibly hostile critics. These trainings are also based on science and psychology. XR tries to make sure their activists understand their principles and strategies before jumping into the action.

XR Focuses on a Universal Cause to Increase Participation

XR co-founder Roger Hallam argues that it was an utter catastrophe that climate change was cast as a liberal or left-wing issue, because it is a universal issue of survival. XR attempts to reclaim the universality of the climate and biodiversity crises. They emphasize that both crises represent existential threats. Before launching their first actions, XR founders traveled across the U.K. giving a talk titled, “Heading for Extinction,” which lays out the scientific realities of these crises and the possibilities for using civil disobedience to avoid a catastrophic future. Their talk is designed to be universal so that youth, parents, grandparents, businessmen, hippies, liberals and conservatives are all motivated to act.

XR’s goals are deliberately broad to include a range of political and economic identities in the movement. Hallam explains that most Western environmental movements have involved people with very similar identities — typically white, middle-class liberals. To avoid being an identity-limited movement, XR aims to be “beyond politics” and is not aligned with any political party. In addition, XR does not support any policies, only the three (deliberately general) demands. While acknowledging the current system is broken and needs to be transformed, XR avoids an official position on what the next system should look like, and instead supports democratic processes for these decisions. This attempt to be universal is strategic in order to maximize public involvement in XR, as increasing participation is key to getting their demands met.

While some criticize XR’s strategy to avoid politics and policies, arguing that it overlooks important questions regarding who gets to decide, XR maintains their broad demands and the use of a citizens’ assembly to make the decision-making process deeply democratic. XR doesn’t officially support specific positions, but they remain inclusive of those who support policies that align with their goals. Time will tell if their “beyond politics” strategy will remain important for increasing participation, or if eventually those who are attached to specific policy ideas, like a Green New Deal, will prefer to work on policy directly rather than the creation of a citizens’ assembly.

Moreover, XR eschews judgement that results in exclusivity through their principle to “avoid blaming and shaming.” XR acknowledges that we all live in a society that points us towards decisions that make us part of the problem. But XR also acknowledges that these crises are caused by the system and those running the system, not by the individuals in it. XR’s focus is not on individuals deciding to be vegan or to not drive a car. This won’t solve the climate crisis when 71 percent of emissions can be traced to 100 companies. The real solutions involve system change and everyone can be involved in demanding this change regardless of their personal choices. While critics call XR activists hypocrites for eating certain foods, driving or flying, their goal it to change the system, not the individual choices shaped by the system. XR’s focus on not blaming or shaming reduces inner conflict and serves to increase more diverse participation.

XR Maximizes Action

While most XR local groups are in the U.K., there are now at least 485 groups now in 72 countries. In addition to large-scale efforts as seen in London, local XR groups are frequently organizing their own actions. These can include local protests, bike rides, die-ins, beach art or a march of the “Red Brigade.” Decision-making in XR is largely decentralized, allowing local groups to organize independently and without approval from “headquarters” in London; however, some decisions (like the October 2019 rebellion) continue to be coordinated centrally. Initiating an action in XR does not depend on consensus or a majority vote. As stated on the XR FAQs page: “Our experience is that this clogs things up and can hold back effective action.” While some people criticize this decision-making process, it does allow for more actions to occur quickly. As time is running out to address these existential crises, time for deliberation is also running out.

Anyone can act in the name of XR as long as they follow their stated principles and values. In this way, their structure is self-organizing and allows for a range of actions to move forward their agenda. Of particular importance is that actions are all nonviolent, inclusive and based on the shared vision of protecting future generations. While the decision-making process is action-oriented, XR does have systems of feedback for reflection, learning and planning. When actions don’t go as planned or have unintended negative consequences, XR strategists and activists have acknowledged these consequences and apologized for their actions.

XR Fosters a Regenerative Culture

One of XR’s principles is to foster a “regenerative culture,” which applies to individuals and communities. Individual activists are encouraged to prioritize health and well-being, taking time to take care of themselves after actions and even during actions. XR encampments during rebellions have health and well-being hubs where activists can do yoga, meditate, get a massage or participate in other therapeutic experiences. If activists need to take a break from XR, as participation can dominate one’s life, there is a supportive culture of not shaming those who need to take a step back.

Part of regenerative culture is also allowing for emotional expressions including grief and fear. An increasing number of articles have documented the rise of “climate grief,” or the realization that things will never be the same, we are already losing so much and that much more will be lost in the future. XR acknowledges these losses and has support groups for sharing grief. Associated with grief is also a fear of the future. Many XR activists have felt grief, fear and helplessness in the face of our existential crises. XR helps activists to process these feelings and channel them into action.

XR also makes deliberate space for joy in its organizing and actions. Activists describe the rebellion encampments as “festival-like” with music, singing, dancing, art and food. Online videos show how XR activists shutting down a bridge or street can mean turning it into a dance party, yoga session, or celebration of life and unity. While activism is often draining, this celebratory atmosphere makes it more enjoyable and restorative, sustaining participation in XR.

In addition, fostering regenerative culture means developing communities that are resilient and able to adapt. XR groups aim to build connection and support at the community level in ways that increase their capacity to adapt to future environmental change. Emissions reduction and adaptation are not mutually exclusive. For XR, strong community bonds and support are required for both. XR supports self-provisioning and other skills that will be necessary for adaptation. While many XR activists once felt alone, afraid, and powerless about the climate and biodiversity crises, now many report a stronger sense of community and feel more empowered to change the system and more confident about adapting to the changes ahead.

Fostering a regenerative culture also redefines success and helps to counter defeatist views that can undermine a social movement. Creating a regenerative culture is a goal that will continue whether or not XR’s three demands are met. When asked if they believe their movement will succeed, many XR activists explain they have no expected outcome of success. Whether they win or lose in terms of their demands, they act because it is the right thing to do today. Through a collective moral imperative, XR activists are building community and resilience that will help to sustain participation into the future. By all accounts, XR is not going away anytime soon.

XR Is Difficult to Co-opt

There is a long history of environmental movements being co-opted by other interests. This includes corporations claiming they are participating in positive change when their actions suggest otherwise (e.g., “green-washing”). In addition, politicians may support ideas, like a climate emergency declaration, but then water down or fail to implement policies for action. Because XR is demanding system change in general and a democratic decision-making process through a citizens’ assembly, their mission is more difficult for corporate or political interests to co-opt. This doesn’t mean there won’t be attempts to co-opt XR goals, but because of what their goals are, there seems to be less room for co-optation to occur. This may become more important as XR comes closer to getting their demands met and powerful interest groups take notice.

XR Is Building a Movement of Movements

Any successful social movement needs to be large and have a unifying mission. XR strategists realize the importance of building alliances with all of those who are oppressed or exploited in the current system. They are creating a “movement of movements” where those active in other related causes join forces with XR to bring about social change. This includes animal rights and human rights groups and activists focused on race, gender, labor, justice, immigration, and those fighting oppression and exploitation in general. XR is also working with groups in the Global South, through their international solidarity network, to include perspectives that broaden the scope of the movement. XR leader Farhana Yamin writes that “ending domination over Nature goes hand in hand with tackling all forms of domination and hierarchy” including “minority world over majority world.” With each rebellion, XR participation continues to increase globally.

In addition to these efforts, XR remains open to collaboration and coordination with other movements demanding climate action. The September 20 and 27 global climate strikes this year involved between 6.6 and 7.6 million participants in 185 different countries. This included Fridays for Future activists as well the Sunrise Movement, XR and other groups like 350.org. This level of cooperation, if continued and expanded, will further increase the chances that XR and others will succeed in pressuring world leaders to address the climate and biodiversity crises. Time is running out, but participation in activism continues to grow. The future is indeed uncertain, but these groups now have unprecedented momentum for change.

Towards Success?

Based on the analysis of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, XR founders believe that when 3.5 percent of the population participates in civil disobedience, the government will cave to their demands. Chenoweth and Stephan looked at social movements between 1900 and 2006 and found that no movements had failed after reaching the involvement of over 3.5 percent of the population in a peak event. While some XR strategists believe in the “3.5 percent rule,” others suggest the data is based on movements that were generally focused on people who want to “enter into a system” (e.g., civil rights, women’s rights) rather than “change the whole system,” which effective climate action will require. Therefore, even more participation may be needed.

While their numbers grow after each rebellion, XR is still far from 3.5 percent of the U.K. population, which is about 2.3 million people. In the U.S., 3.5 percent of the population is about 11 million people. While exact numbers of XR supporters are unknown, there were reportedly around 30,000 XR activists in London on October 11, 2019. There are also nearly 350,000 followers on Facebook. In addition, XR now has an abundance of specific groups based on location (local groups), but also groups with shared identities and interests.

As of October 15, the London rebellion has resulted in over 1,400 arrests. The London police have banned all XR protests, yet activists continue to gather in new locations, and are challenging the legality of the ban. As with all movements, XR is not perfect and will continue to face setbacks and criticism. Despite its imperfections, XR continues to bring widespread attention to our environmental crises, increasing dialogue and the demand for action – bringing about a “climate culture change.” As the movement continues and increasingly coordinates with other groups, governments may begin to respond.

At this moment, these attributes of XR are increasing the chances that the movement will be effective and successful. However, ideas of success in XR go beyond their three demands. If success includes increasing awareness and creating a regenerative culture with a stronger sense of community, solidarity and resilience, in many ways, XR has already succeeded.