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I was wrong about Extinction Rebellion. This is why.

extinction rebellion
Cyclists lay down as they take part in the Extinction Rebellion protest at the Tate Modern in London, Britain April 27, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Last December, I was invited by New Internationalist to contribute to ‘Extinction Rebellion – in or out?’, a round-up of views on the then nascent climate movement. I was sceptical about the ability of a movement like Extinction Rebellion to bring about the change that is urgently required to deal with climate breakdown. I argued that environmentalists should engage with the Labour movement – the Labour Party and trade unions together – not take direct action. Politics, not protest should be our focus.

After the last couple of weeks, I have had the joyful experience of my assessment being wrong. It’s now clear that XR’s tactics haven’t replicated those of previous environmental movements. Through innovative application of non-violent tactics, they managed to achieve a feat that I imagine every environmental activist group of the past could only have dreamed: shutting down significant areas of central London for over a week and fundamentally shifting the terms of debate over climate breakdown through (positive) media coverage.

The significance of this achievement must not be understated. Furthermore, and crucially, XR ended the action on its own terms – not smashed by police power (à la Occupy) but strategically ‘withdrawing’, no doubt to return.

Extinction Rebellion’s masterstroke has been the way it used language. By focussing on terms such as ‘extinction’, ‘climate emergency’ and ‘earth systems breakdown’ and the demand of ‘telling the truth’, they have zoned in upon and overturned one of the key blockages to dealing with the crisis: consciousness of its urgency.

Eco-socialism, not green capitalism

Powerful interests – fossil fuel companies and their allies on the Right – have spent the last 30 years sowing confusion and doubt on this issue. Framing around ‘climate change’ underplays the cataclysmic severity of what is happening. In this context, the injunction to tell the truth has been revelatory.

That’s not to say that we can do without an electoral strategy. Blocking bridges and creating a heightened sense of crisis will not be enough: to combat climate breakdown, a far broader political struggle is required. Those powerful interests must be taken on and defeated.

Here I maintain my belief in the centrality of the Corbyn project and the Labour movement to this task. At root, climate breakdown is the product of capitalism: a system that demands continuous growth; that requires sacrifice zones of the natural world; that enriches those who hold wealth at the expense of those who work.

As George Monbiot argued, facing down climate change requires facing down capitalism. The Labour movement under its socialist leadership has the analysis to grasp this and the policies to address it and is, therefore, central to this struggle.

No more ‘business as usual’

Additionally, only Labour in power, running a government not beholden to fossil fuel lobbyists and corporate power, will deliver the urgent economic policy that is required to cut emissions by 50 per cent by 2030. The Conservatives have 10 years of failure on this issue, not only through inaction but also in undoing much of the good work that the last Labour government did. In wake of XR there are clear signs that the Labour movement is shifting: from announcements from the party leadership, union leaders and grassroots Labour campaigns for a Green New Deal. XR has created a space for political possibility.

Labour also has a massive role to play in building upon the work of XR and others, and so far it has played this well. Frontbench endorsement of the protests, a high-profile meeting with Greta Thunberg, and the announcement that Corbyn will seek to make Parliament the first in the world to declare a climate emergency; the role of the party in strengthening the climate movement is crucial. Note the response of Labour’s London mayor Sadiq Khan to the protests – a call to let London return to ‘business as usual’.

This is a clear sign that a different leader of the party would not have acted to endorse and build upon the energy of XR. It is a vindication to all those within Labour who have fought these last four years to defend and extend the socialist leadership of the party.

In summary then, it is clear that over the last two weeks XR has succeeded through its innovative tactics, in shifting the Overton Window. It has successfully created a sense of emergency, and it has reframed the climate crisis around the truth: that the situation is urgent.

Yet the socialist and Labour movement has in this last week shown the crucial role it too will play, from endorsing the protests to winning power and developing economic policy and political frameworks to force action. Moving forward, these two movements need one another. When I wrote for this publication last year, I was sceptical. My predictions of failure have been proven incorrect – and I couldn’t be happier.

Isaac Rose is chair of the Manchester branch of Momentum, a group within Labour formed to support Jeremy Corbyns leadership and push for socialist policies and the democratization of the party.


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