In the space of a single year, the environmental social movement that goes under the name Extinction Rebellion (XR) has gone from being an idea in the minds of a small group of academics and activists, to being a global phenomenon capable of bringing capital cities to a standstill. Its distinctive iconography is widely recognised and its use of language is stimulating new ways of working for civil society. Love it or hate it, XR has brought climate change, and the lack of political action to address it, to the fore and inspired many people to take action for the first time.
XR launched in October 2018 with a joint letter to The Guardian newspaper in the UK signed by 100 senior academics calling for the government “to take robust and emergency action in respect of the worsening ecological crisis”. They supported Extinction Rebellion’s (XR) initial demands that government tell the hard truth to its citizens about climate change, noted that the world is going into ecological ‘overshoot‘ ever earlier in the year, and called for a Citizens’ Assembly work with scientists to urgently develop a credible plan for rapid total decarbonisation of the economy. XR also called for the government to act immediately to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.
XR expected a few hundred people to turn up when it issued a Declaration of Rebellion at its launch, but over one thousand took part in the first on-street citizen’s assembly in Parliament Square. By the end of the first day, people had voted to follow the now familiar tactic of non-violent direct action and glue or lock themselves onto an immovable object. Several were arrested and the “do-it-together” grassroots environmental movement was born to the blend of headlines, controversy and visual impact that has swirled around it ever since.
Throughout the winter of 2019, local XR groups began to spring up across the UK and dotted around the world, recruiting people using social media, organising training, generating artworks, and self organising in preparation for London-based actions. The focus on capital cities is an explicit part of their model for achieving change, based on the study of previous, successful non-violent campaigns for change. Several UK local councils declared climate emergencies in response to local XR actions, and the movement’s momentum grew. At the same time, youth climate protests inspired by the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg added to the momentum (and were often confused with it). The surprise of the school strike movement, and its moral authority, to a great extent changed public opinion in a way which created the space for Extinction Rebellion, allowing it to be seen in a more open minded way by observers than might otherwise have been the case. When XR launched 11 days of action in London in April 2019, thousands of people took part in protests, sit-ins, road blocks, glue-ons and dramatic performances, and over 1,100 people were arrested in what were mainly good-natured protests.
On 7 October 2019 the second mass protest began, with a planned 2 weeks of non-violent direct action under the heading “International Rebellion” aiming to disrupt government and encourage them to adopt XR’s demands. This time, protests took place in over 60 countries and the policing of the protests in places was less tolerant than before. From 14 October, the police in London banned XR protests, although the ban was widely ignored. Meanwhile, XR supporters complained of a lack of reporting of the issues and a focus only on shocking individual protest actions. Protest movements are often synonymous with confrontation and anger, but XR advocates a “regenerative culture” that looks to love, respect and cooperation for inspiration, which has directly engaged police and other authority figures rather than aggressively confronting them. Some critics have criticised a perceived lack of ethnic diversity in XR, its middle class nature and its willingness to inconvenience innocent bystanders, with one isolated incident of disruption to London underground services drawing particular attention. Others have raised concerns about whether adequate legal training has been provided, particularly for younger activists risking arrest. Ironically, the commitment to engage positively, has also led to some complaints that XR has an uncritical attitude towards cooperation with the police. At the time of writing this, XR members have returned home to regroup, and as start of their stated method, to learn from their mistakes and successes, respond to these criticisms and challenges, and plan next steps.
XR has shown how ideas and actions can be focused and yet flexible enough to spread globally at great speed. It’s three headline demands to – tell the truth, act now, and use citizens assemblies to decide what to do – have enabled its easy replication. Despite starting in the UK, the movement has spread quickly and effectively internationally, using strong visual iconography that works across cultures and languages. By the start of the October 2019 protests, over 400 XR international activists had been arrested for protesting since 31 October 2018 . High profile examples include blockading the New York Times, German protesters chaining themselves to Angela Merkel’s Chancellery in Berlin, and in Paris the police controversially using pepper spray to clear activists blocking a bridge over the Seine. During October, we saw XR actions from all continents across some 35 countries. XR says it has rebels in 156 nations, although some of these are tiny groups or individuals. Despite criticism in places like the UK for being overly white, middle class make-up, globally it appears flexible enough to work for different cultures. In New Zealand, for example, Maori protesters continue to honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi – the agreement between Māori chiefs and the crown signed in 1840 – and draw on the Māori concept of kaitiakitanga, the idea of guardianship and conservation of the natural world. And new, widely representative groups are forming continually. In countries where protest is more dangerous or impossible, XR protesters stick to small-scale events and social media.
XR’s homemade, DIY attitude to encourage people to take action unilaterally guided by some unifying principles also means that relatively small groups of people can take action and get noticed. The movement’s founders are social scientists who are interested in how change happens. Drawing on the work of academics Erica Chenoweth and Adria Lawrence,they maintain that just 3.5% of the population need to be mobilised in active support of an issue for it to gain political traction, and also that non-violent protest is far more effective than other forms. Anyone can start a group, provided they sign up to the principles, use the logo appropriately (it must not be used to raise money) and follow the organisational layout of other groups. There is a strong leaning towards individual responsibility for action, collaborative decision-making, and a regenerative culture that aims to care and support activists, rather than berating those who cannot give their all. Meetings encourage listening more than talking so that quiet people are also heard, and a set of hand signals instead of noisy activities like cheering or clapping. Once active, any group has access to high quality artwork and a huge social media following without having to build it themselves.
Climate change is now recognised by the world’s scientists as real and being caused by human activity, The Paris Agreement, which entered in force on 4 November 2016, aims to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. It even hopes to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius. To achieve this, it must strengthen the ability of countries to deal with the impacts of climate change. 187 of the 197 countries have so far ratified this Agreement. However, current estimates of our rate of decarbonisation globally show that we are unlikely to hit the targets. And few if any countries have realistic plans to adapt their economies to this scenario. For example, the UK Committee on Climate Change’s 2019 annual report to Parliament found that action to curb greenhouse gas emissions was lagging behind what is needed to meet the country’s legally-binding emissions targets, which themselves have been criticised as inadequate. Since June 2018, the UK government had implemented only 1 of 25 critical policies needed to get emissions reductions back on track.
Extinction Rebellion was co-founded by a group of people tired of passively listening to terrifying predictions of climate emergency, while business as usual prevailed. They wanted a positive way to enable people to exercise their agency. Gail Bradbrook, a former biophysicist, and Roger Hallam, a former organic farmer with a postgraduate degree in the theories of social change, came together with others who had backgrounds in environmental law and finance to work out how they could inspire mass direct action. Their inspirations include the US civil rights movement, suffragettes and Mahatma Gandhi and the result was Extinction Rebellion; bringing together the need to face up to the extinction of humanity with the active idea of making change by rebelling against the status quo.
Globally, XR has successfully tapped into growing alarm at the limited window to keep warming below 1.5 degrees, as emphasised by the IPCC Special Report on 1.5 degrees published in late 2018 and the lack of corresponding action, This has been combined with a strong sense that existing repertoires of protest were not working in mobilising action at the speed and scale required.
In terms of the UK, where it first started, the rise of XR has come at a time when national politics in the UK is at its most divisive, frustrating, and where key policies on energy and infrastructure have been seen to push against needed climate action. The stop-start, binary process of Brexit has prevented action on other important policymaking, including crucially combating climate change. The timescale of any possible progress looks painfully slow against the relentless speed of climate change. However, its international appeal shows that XR has tapped into similar feelings elsewhere. Perhaps this is more about reinvigorating democracy to respond to current needs. For example, XR uses participatory democracy processes such as People’s Assemblies, where communities can consider issues and take decisions to model how these might work in wider society.
The timing of Extinction Rebellion’s appearance also seems to coincide with a societal awareness of intergenerational tension and conflict of interests. Older environmentalists who have been campaigning for decades and feel that their actions have failed to have any impact on government policy decisions have joined actively with much younger people inspired by Greta Thunberg’s School Strike. The movement seems to have galvanised those who feel they have nothing left to lose and are willing to get arrested for the cause. Many people joined their children and grandchildren in protesting – particularly because of the focus on non-violence and that fact that XR sites are all drug-free, including alcohol. XR have also used the niche-nature of today’s world to attract people from different areas of the community: XR famers, XR lawyers etc.
Extinction Rebellion knows how to use design and creative actions to attract attention and to communicate their aims. The XR logo is a circle containing an egg timer, reminiscent of the peace and anti-nuclear symbols and bringing attention to the urgency of climate change. They also use a colour palette that is simple, bright but varied, enabling people to make their own banners and stickers. The theatricality and strong use of visual effects plays a major part in XR’s ability to gain coverage of their actions. The haunting, silent Red Brigade, who process through XR actions reminding us all of the threat to life and the pink boat plonked down in Oxford Circus on London’s busiest shopping street, are two typical examples that have already become iconic. The UK’s top design museum, the V&A even acquired some early XR signs, fonts and symbols to record their use of groundbreaking imagery.
It will be interesting now to see what changes in policy, behaviour, attitude and practice happen as a result of XR and its activists. The movement has injected new energy into the environmental movement and modeled several new ways of working. XR rebels in communities across the country will be trying between protests to influence their local authorities to speed up their climate action plans and to consider more participative democratic processes. Will they be able to see these move into practice outside civil society? And will state actors clamp down harder or respond with the possibility of change?