Anyone who cares about the planet cannot fail to have been impressed by Extinction Rebellion (XR) which erupted onto the scene a few years ago with a series of bold, audacious and courageous actions, Rob Marsden writes.
Starting with the simultaneous blocking of five bridges over the Thames in November 2018 and leading to actions in 2019 first of a week and then two weeks in duration which brought large parts of central London to a halt.
These acts of mass civil disobedience and disruption of ‘business as usual’ were designed to bring governments to the negotiating table. They led, as intended, to mass arrests of brave and committed activists.
Since then, XR has grown, achieving widespread recognition in the popular consciousness. Its hourglass symbol is as widely known as the CND symbol was for previous generations and through its support for the Fridays For the Future, school kids strikes, XR has bridged the gap to younger activists. Local groups have sprung up across Britain and the world.
The groups are diverse, they often have a core of activists and a much wider periphery of people who will support particular actions.
Beyond a hard core of those willing to be arrested, often older people and retirees, is a broad movement of younger workers, students and families.
Over the period of the pandemic local XR groups have met by Zoom and sometimes in person and have attended a variety of online seminars and training activities. They have also been honing their samba drumming skills!
Back in April, XR in the Midlands held mass family-friendly demonstrations, animal-costumed carnival parades, on consecutive Saturdays to highlight the loss of wildlife habitats and biodiversity. These took place in Chesterfield, Lincoln and Nottingham under the banner “Spring Into Action” and showed that the movement was coming out of the pandemic in reasonable shape.
Further evidence of the ‘bounce back’ of XR came from the sizeable turnout of XR, in the guise of a very large samba band which breathed life into a national People’s Assembly demonstration of which XR was a sponsor.
XR is now gearing up for two weeks of action in London from 23rd August through which it hopes to bring back into activity many of those involved pre-pandemic and gain momentum towards the COP26 mobilisations in November. I will cover this “Impossible Rebellion” in a follow up article when the dust settles…
As I write there has been a process of discussion underway in XR around re-framing its three demands and possibly adding a fourth.
XR originally built itself around three easily explained demands. The simplicity of this approach has both strengths and weaknesses, as is widely recognised within the movement itself.
“Tell the truth” XR demands governments tell the truth about the scale of the crisis and what needs to be done. And “declare a climate and ecological emergency”
XR has produced general education materials around climate change to promote the science, and challenge the deniers. There is general recognition that governments will have to be dragged kicking and screaming to be honest about climate change. A mass movement will be needed to force this onto the agenda.
Many national, regional and local governments have already passed resolutions declaring a climate emergency but all have failed to act with the required sense of urgency. There is a growing sense that we will need to force councils to come up with emergency plans and involve communities in drawing up and implementing these.
“Act now” XR argues for a drastic cut in carbon emissions and biodiversity loss by 2025. A clear target which says action has to start immediately and cannot be kicked further into the long grass. This, of course, is not something any current government is willing to contemplate.
“Go beyond politics” For XR politics largely means party-politics. In its place it argues for the creation of Citizen’s Assemblies randomly selected in a similar way to jury service.
The idea is that they will be fully representative, not beholden to political parties, lobbies or interest groups. They will listen to best science and agree on what is to be done.
I am not the first to identify a problem here, in that such an assembly is made up of isolated individuals. It is not self-organised and has no democratic mandate from the grassroots. As such it is prey to the hostile mass media and their framing of the possibilities, choices and alternatives. Having neither legislative nor executive powers the danger is that a Citizen’s Assembly would be merely a consultative body or focus group.
This, then, points to a need for an ongoing XR movement in parallel with any assemblies which are set up in order to prevent them being recuperated to serve the interests of fossil capitalism and provide a bit of greenwash.
So, yes to citizen’s assemblies but we might argue that they be delegate bodies built from the grassroots up. Local assemblies feeding into higher bodies with real powers to formulate and agree policy and oversee its implementation.
The assemblies should also contain representatives of workers in key industries and sectors. This cannot be left to the chance of a random ‘sortition’ method. This is important not just to manage the transition to zero carbon but to harness the skills, creativity and inventiveness of large numbers of people in key industries who have transferable skills for a zero carbon economy.
The experience of the Lucas Plan of the 1970 holds important lessons here with its pioneering work in workforce led planning for alternative production.
In line with the above three demands, XR claims not to want to raise political demands or offer specific solutions. This, again, could be seen as a weakness as it allows governments and industry to come up with partial solutions which leave the wealth and power of capitalism intact and which inevitably shift the burden onto working class people or to the global south.
There is, however, growing recognition of this in practice, within XR- and a detectable shift towards advocating solutions based on fairness and social justice and tackling wider issues. In part this was initially driven by the more radical XR Scotland which decoupled itself from XRUK.
It is arguable that there has been a shift in XR over last year or more from a position where slogans such as “system change not climate change” and the idea of reaching out to the Trade Unions were seen as too ‘political’ (and thus potentially alienating) to XR itself adopting more explicitly radical ideas. For example the ongoing XR sponsored ‘Money Rebellion’ targeting banks and financial institutions with the need to move from a so-called ‘commercial economy’ to a sustainable ‘social economy’. These were major themes of a Great North Gathering organised by XR North last year.
XR has also expressed the need to ‘decolonise’, recognising its own limitations in terms of limited ethnic minority representation, but also linking the debt of colonialism to the G7 countries and supporting restitution in the form of funding to build wealthier and more sustainable economies. This came at a time when XR supporters were reaching out to movements such as BLM and is to be greatly welcomed.
It is not at all uncommon now to see explicitly anti-capitalist slogans on XR actions “Kill capitalism before capitalism kills us” and there has long been cross-over between XR activists and other movements outside the environmental sphere such as Palestine Solidarity or Kill the Bill.
One interesting illustration earlier this year- when Palestine Action occupied the roof of the Elbit arms factory in Shenstone they were joined by Animal Rebellion– an animal rights offshoot of XR which campaigns primarily against environmentally destructive meat and dairy industries.
This is the context in which XR is undergoing a process of “Demand Evolution” ie updating and evolving the demands. This is a wide ranging internal discussion around clarifying and expanding on its existing demands and adding a fourth one.
The proposed fourth demand is as follows:
“Co-liberation and Justice
Reframe the climate emergency as an issue of justice, fairness and transformation, and build deep solidarity amongst all people: our Liberation depends upon the Liberation of all.”
As part of this process the initial 3 demands are under review. There is a proposal to change the third demand to “Upgrade democracy!” rather than “Go beyond politics!” and the supporting text reads: The Assemblies must be collaboratively designed and be sufficiently empowered to address the key issues of: extreme inequality, incentivisation of harm, missing environmental and human rights law, and the problematic concentration of power.
To me that signals some recognition of the limits of a randomly selected consultative assembly.
The Act Now proposal includes the following: Government must implement a green transformation away from unjust ‘business as usual’ to a regenerative and fairly redistributed economy and society. We need a just transition for all, especially those in the most affected industries. Transition towards net zero; stop fossil fuel use; radically reduce our collective resource and energy consumption; and halt biodiversity loss. Government must also use all possible influence to transform the unjust international arena skewed against poorer countries by the rich.
The question of climate reparations and assistance to the global south to complete its transition is also under discussion.
Whether or not these changes are passed, there is clearly widespread support for them at the grassroots level within XR and XR tends to work broadly within this framework already.
XR is a growing movement, deepening its understanding of the global crisis we face. As ecosocialists and anti-capitalists we should be part of this process. We should be active and constructive participants in XR actions at what ever level we are able, and also involved in the debates and discussions thrown up by the movement.
In part two of this article I hope to look at the ongoing “Impossible Rebellion” in central London and try to draw out some lessons.