Has Extinction Rebellion got the right tactics?

All agree we need to take action for climate change, but some environmentalists find the Extinction Rebellion’s tactics difficult to get behind. Environmental campaigners Chay Harwood and Marc Hudson provide the arguments for and against them.

Extinction Rebellion
A protester reads a mock-up newspaper as they block the road during an Extinction Rebellion demonstration at Bank, in the City of London on 14 October 2019. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Arguing YES is Chay Harwood, who joined Extinction Rebellion in November 2018 while in the final year of his criminology degree. He is most concerned about how the climate emergency will perpetuate social injustice and affect the most vulnerable people across the world.

Making the case for NO is Marc Hudson. Marc has been an aid worker, a physiotherapist, an environmental activist and is now a researcher. He edits Manchester Climate Monthly and co-founded Climate Emergency Manchester in the UK.​

CHAY: Our tactics are controversial. Our weapon of choice is disruption and it is not something we deploy lightly. People may be surprised to hear that I find protesting an extremely uncomfortable and anxiety-ridden experience. I hate inconveniencing people and causing undue stress to those just trying to go about their daily lives. I am also very aware that the people we affect may be from underprivileged backgrounds. This is something that I have always been vocal about within Extinction Rebellion (XR). I am always the first to raise concerns around highly disruptive actions.

However, we are now at a critical stage in this battle. The Amazon rainforest is on track to being damaged beyond repair within the next decade (according to generous predictions). People are dying right now in the Global South as a result of the freedoms we enjoy here in the Global North. These regions are being stripped of their natural resources, creating a knock-on effect for those who rely on them for survival. Peaceful activists and indigenous people are being killed by state operators, protecting corporations that have a vested interest in the fossil-fuel and monoculture industries. I say that while our tactics disrupt business-as-usual for a few hours, this is child’s play in comparison with the destruction being endured by our earth and Majority World peoples.

MARC: Protest without disruption is not protest. So, blocking bridges, gluing yourself to things, all that is entirely normal – though we might come back to the wisdom of the tube train action!1 We have the freedoms we enjoy now because of protest, disruption and organizing by previous generations of citizens. Nothing I say here is meant to demean the passion, intelligence, concern or courage of XR activists – but I am unconvinced of its long-term efficacy.

You say that the situation is now desperate and that resisters are being murdered by the state and corporations. But the rhetoric of urgency on environment and climate has been with us, intermittently, since the early 1970s (check out The Limits to Growth and Blueprint for Survival). We have been here before, many times. And this brings me to my questions:

What about the people who can’t afford these intense periods of activity – financially, practically, emotionally? Don’t you worry that a hierarchy of ‘availability for arrest’ will make ‘recruitment’ more difficult?

What is XR doing to make it more likely that people are able to sustain their activism for years, not months, and make it easier for others to be ‘peripherally involved’, week in, month out? What do you think an ‘average’ BME [Black Minority Ethnic] person thinks about the flowers being sent to Brixton police station?2 Wasn’t that an own goal? And don’t you worry that XR’s rhetoric of ‘no blame’ means the fossil-fuel incumbents can continue to get away with trashing the planet?

‘No blame’ and ‘no shame’ does not mean ‘no accountability’ – it means recognizing that we are all victims of the system that has led to this emergency 

CHAY: We have been here many times before and there have been many movements that have done great work, that Extinction Rebellion recognizes as paving the way for our movement. The issue is that we are now at a point where we will face environmental, societal and economic collapse within the next 20 years.

I was raised in a single-parent family, on benefits. I am also of mixed ethnicity so I understand the difficulties attached to protesting. There are many ways that you can be part of the movement without being arrestable – which I never have been – or present at all protests.

We have many working groups: media, spokespeople, art, outreach, lobbying, wellbeing, logistics, finance and more. Affinity groups choose what kinds of actions they take, in accordance with what people are comfortable doing.

Regarding attitudes to arrest and policing – this does need to change and the only way we can do it is through education. I am part of a team that is creating a resource pack, to be rolled out nationwide, aimed at educating members on social inequality in our society, and it will, of course, pertain to policing, arrests and social injustice. Regeneration is important but what will sustain us is our innate survival instinct. This is ‘do or die’.

‘No blame’ and ‘no shame’ does not mean ‘no accountability’ – it means recognizing that we are all victims of the system of corruption, greed and ignorance that has led to this emergency.

MARC: I would be interested, then, in what specific things Extinction Rebellion believes it is doing differently to previous (failed) movement-building efforts around climate change. Because if I close my eyes and listen, much of the rhetoric is identical to Climate Camp 2006 – though not the ‘police are our friends’ stuff, and this was before we knew just how many undercovers were around. We had many different working groups too, and said we were building a ‘do or die’ movement.

For me, the emotional dynamics around a Big Upcoming Event at which people will exhaust themselves, make friends, feel transformed, while others are unable to be involved, is identical, and a recipe for long-term defeat. That might be ameliorated by friendship links, of course, but not everyone has those networks or the self-confidence to persist in what can be alienating and scary. These tend to be two- or three-year cycles, and then the organizations implode, and the momentum is gone like a fist when you open your palm.

We will know how XR turns out by about 2021. It isn’t written in stone, but I reiterate my first question – besides urgency and need, what is it that makes you think XR’s model of activism, very similar to Climate Camp’s, means the outcome will be different this time around?

CHAY: Our tactics are very varied. You may only hear about the roadblocks, but our protests use art, music and symbolism to draw people in and speak across a range of media. We have had a huge number of artists, musicians and celebrities openly support the cause and use their influence and reach to represent us.

What distinguishes us is how we have marketed ourselves and pooled people’s skills to enable a global reach. In just one year, we have scaled up to over 70 countries worldwide. We’re popping up all over the place – Lebanon, Ghana, New Zealand [Aotearoa], America and Australia to name but a few countries.

Whether we achieve our aims depends on how we proceed. Much is still uncertain but we must continue to engage with a wide range of communities and empower people from all pockets of society to rebel against the toxic system that we have all fallen victim to. We must choose who we target wisely and make sure that we always hit our targets. There is a chance that we may not be successful but we will fight until the bitter end for our planet and all that live on it.

These tend to BE two- or three-year cycles, and then the organizations implode, and the momentum is gone like a fist when you open your palm

MARC: Climate Camp, which ran from 2006-10, also used ‘art, music and symbolism to draw people in and speak to people across a range of media’ – though Facebook and Twitter were not around, and smartphones had not taken off. It also talked about building movements and had international allies doing camps in many countries. It wasn’t particularly diverse, perhaps for similar reasons to XR, which may also be prey to what social-movement scholars have dubbed ‘biographical availability’ – most people are students or retired.

Granted, XR’s actions are on a vastly larger scale than Climate Camp’s. That might be because it was helped by social media, the very hot summer of 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stark 1.5 degrees report, David Attenborough and the Greta Thunberg effect.

But the emotional dynamics seem unchanged to me – a hardcore of ‘heroic types’, and a worried but unempowered wider community that can never see themselves doing yoga in a prison cell, come to one meeting, feel alienated and don’t come back.

Previous cycles of climate protest tended to last three years or so. I’ve not heard anything that makes me think XR is going to be immune to this pattern. In about 18 months, it will be very clear if your optimistic view, or my pessimistic one, is correct. But I am sure that we can both agree that, by 2021, the world needs to be much further along a socially and ecologically just transition than it is now.

1 Resulting in a clash between commuters and XR protesters who climbed on top of an electric mass public transport underground train.

2 A London neighbourhood with a history of police racism against the local community.