3 challenges for Extinction Rebellion

The Rebellion is strong! Can it now respond to key issues putting off many potential supporters?

Thank you Extinction Rebellion (XR) for putting ecological issues up the agenda in the nick of time. As the dust settles on the Autumn Rebellion this is a good opportunity to assess some of the tactics many supporters, and potential supporters, find problematic. Addressing these now could help ensure the best outcomes from future protests and to bring along more of the general public to achieve greater mobilisation for the radical change we need now.

Yes, this is an emergency and business-as-usual must be disrupted so that an ecological society can emerge. This disruption could be better focussed on the parts of the economy doing the most harm. This provides a clearer campaign narrative and embodies the principle of climate justice (that polluters should pay) and it is more effective than a scattergun approach claiming that everyone is culpable so everywhere should be interfered with at once.

Everyone is not equally culpable in this climate emergency and it is crucial to tackle the big polluters first.

Photo credit - Carmen Reichman

1. Sending its own people to prison

Can XR get where we need to go if too many supporters are arrested now on random and non strategic actions? The fight is long and there are real ecosystems to protect.

Dr Ashok Kumar, author of Monopsony Capitalism: Power & Production in the Twilight of the Sweatshop Age, is an experienced campaigner and activist. He is a TV pundit, spokesperson of the left and an influencer with a good online following. He reacted in dismay at some very strange XR materials circulating online encouraging people to vandalise government buildings and then voluntarily go to police stations to be arrested (see his tweet below). For many of us these kinds of tactics seem completely counterproductive and self defeating and based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how the legal system works.

He tweeted -\_stalin/status/1184917535818469378?s=20

He said to me subsequently -

“Disruption is fine. The history of struggle and revolution is the history of disruption. But the most efficacious tactic right now might be smart targeted disruption of heavy polluters and the state.”

It isn’t a sustainable rebellion if XR members are instructed to get nicked just for the sake of it. I am not sure that XR organisers understand that once you have been arrested and then released on bail - a second arrest will be treated much more seriously by prosecutors and could result in significant jail time - your ability to keep campaigning and creating change is thwarted.

(This is not a joke) XR “rebels” turning themselves in to Charring Cross Police Station, October 18th 2019

Encouraging supporters to take themselves to police stations to be arrested is beyond weird. It actually makes me wonder if the movement is infiltrated by fossil fuel agents. Activists should save their first arrest for something vital like actually protecting something ecologically real or disrupting a major polluter.

The logic of sending XR supporters to their arrests seems to be based upon the flawed idea that if enough people are arrested this will “fill the jails” and “congest the system” to such an extent that the establishment will surrender, let the prisoners go and rapidly enact decent climate policies. To describe this as naive is a major understatement - it fails to appreciate who holds the power and what they want to do with it. Boris Johnson and his government of frackers are dead set on following the US to an extreme neoliberal position of reduced regulation allowing their friends running the dirtiest corporations to maintain their positions of power and extreme wealth.

Photo credit - Carmen Reichman

The Tories have destroyed the renewables industry in this country and still force out-dated fossil fuel technology on the people. The new Home Secretary Priti Patel wants to copy the United States (prison rates in the US are the world's highest, at 724 people per 100,000) and ramp up the criminal justice system which will further harm the most vulnerable in society. These right wing maniacs are not going to see the light, change their policies and go easy on protesters. They are going to build more (privately run) prisons and relish the chance to fill them with “uncooperative crusties”.

If you are on bail for a first arrest and you go back to an XR protest and get nicked again - be warned - the judge could make an example of you and bang you up for years. When the HS2 diggers are closing in on the last of the UK’s ancient woodland we will need human bodies protecting the trees and at key moments like this rebels in prison may regret handing themselves in at the cop shop like dopey, hypnotised puppies.

Getting arrested should be an absolutely last resort for an activist. If you are in XR and you haven’t been arrested yet and you are determined to put yourself into the legal system why don’t you get into trouble doing something actually useful? Here are three suggestions:

  • If your energy company burns fossil fuels switch to a green provider. Crucially - do not pay your final bill(s) to the fossil fuel company. If lots of us do this we take money back from the dirty polluting companies driving the worst of climate change. We can cause an administrative nightmare for a dirty corporations not civil servants.
  • Ancient woodland is under threat all across the UK - not least because of HS2 plans. Head to a protector camp and protect the trees. Get arrested protecting an actual ecosystem not just walking into a London police station like a goon and handing yourself in like you expect a badge or something.
  • Occupy the HQ of the big polluters - like BP or Shell in London. Take the fight to the corporations causing the most harm. Find the home address of the CEO and super glue your head through their letter box. This will have much more impact the spraying chalk on a government department occupied by disenfranchised civil servants who lost the will to live three years ago when the Brexit shit show (thanks again Tories) turned their working lives into farce.

An extinction rebel is mobbed after blocking the tube - a major tactical error

2. Interfering with low carbon mass transit

The planet isn't being killed by regular people. The planet is being killed by the CEOs of corporations who are preposterously rich. They fly in private jets, amass grotesque wealth in tax havens, distort democracy to put in place unfair government policies that protect and increase their wealth and carry out their various perverted fantasies with (almost) total impunity. They have names and addresses.

We need to blockade the daily activities of the monstrous elite killing the planet - not people trying to move around the city on the tube - the cheapest and most sustainable mode of transport. There are so many legitimate targets for XR why blockade tubes and make the rebellion unpopular and hard to understand? These kinds of floored tactics don’t just weaken the rebellion - they generate a backlash against all of us working on environmental issues. XR needs better decision making processes and to stop these aberrations happening again.

Tackle the big polluters first!

An iconic direct action image we can all get behind

Campaigning 101 is to create a David versus Goliath narrative. There is an evil giant in the land. We must send heroes to save the day - think how iconic and powerful are the Greenpeace images of their activists getting between a whale and a Norwegian whaling boat in a dingy. This is what people support - a brave underdog fighting for good. Our targets need to be clearly defined and understandable. With limited resources XR cannot disrupt the entire economy at once so obviously it makes sense to disrupt the biggest polluters first. Randomly disrupting everywhere just pisses people off.

3. Failing to effectively make the case that an ecological future will improve everybody’s lives

The economic engine killing nature also degrades the human experience by binding our lives inside the grotesque, neoliberal, capitalist machine. XR wants to stop the Sixth Mass Extinction and climate change. This requires the people of Earth to rise up and take power back from the oligarchs that own the companies causing the harm. The global economy needs to be disrupted and forever changed. What are we going to turn it into? A sustainable economy is one in which humanity can thrive happily inside an abundant biosphere.

We can all live better lives in an economy that better serves people and the planet.

Fundamental to the green movement is the understanding that infinite (conventional) economic growth is not possible on a finite planet. The process of taking control of the economy and rationally directing it to more positive outcomes for society will shift institutions away from concentrating wealth for the elite and back towards delivering public services to the masses.

Slowing down the economy is the crucial next step in preserving the biosphere. A first straightforward way of doing this is transitioning to a 4 day working week and then a 3 day working week. At the same time workers need to be paid more and receive free healthcare and education. This is achieved by heavily taxing polluters. These are potentially very popular policies so why not place them front and central in XR communications?

A perennial criticism of the green movement is that it is too white and middle class. Only the privileged can do yoga on a bridge in central London during the working week. This may be true but crucially many of the economic changes required to achieve sustainability will benefit working people as well. It is the richest 1% that create the most pollution by a factor of thousands. This elite also own and control the corporations that spearhead the destruction of nature. Wealth and power redistribution are fundamental in the shift to societies that do not erode the future.

It is cute repeatedly blockading the centre of London but it is vague. We have to blockade the headquarters of the world’s biggest polluters and shut down their operations once and for all. The crucial next step isn't citizen’s assemblies. We don’t need to rewrite the bible. Decades of work has already established the policies we need to turn the situation around and a new generation of politicians are running on these tickets. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, Caroline Lucas and others are very clear on what policies need to be in place to rescue civilisation. Our best chance of getting the Tories out is for the green movement to connect meaningfully with the left and tackle neoliberalism head on.

Of course, there are many excellent policies on the table to create a new green world that can be discussed at length. There are also two policy routes that urgently need actioning immediately. We don’t need citizens assemblies for this - we just need to make it happen.

Firstly, all subsidies to fossil fuel companies (and heavily polluting industries) need to end now. This has to be a laser tight focus of all our campaigning. The UK taxes its citizens and gives £10.5bn of this money to fossil fuel corporations. This criminal insanity is the rusty spoon carving out the beating heart of our planet. The richest, most polluting corporations grow ever fatter on resources we urgently need to protect the future for our children. Everyday these policies remain in place the noose tightens around our necks.

Do we need citizen's assemblies? Or just to vote the right people in?

Secondly, The Green New Deal describes the massive investment in sustainable infrastructure we urgently need to create an ecological future. We can take the subsidy currently given to fossil fuel companies and combine this with a heavy tax on polluters (a carbon tax) and use this to (for example) -

  • Put solar panels on every available roof
  • Plant billions of trees
  • Pay farmers to restore ecological systems
  • Retrofit all homes to be energy efficient
  • Provide quality ecological education to all citizens

Executed the right way, The Green New Deal can provide people with well paid, meaningful work and prosperity for generations. In contrast, the dying fossil fuel economy offers death, destruction and mayhem and the only jobs will be burying the starving hordes as they trudge bewildered out of our dying cities.

Environmental campaigns can be reframed to focus on the opportunities inherent in creating a new sustainable world.

Ensuring better lives for all people has to underpin the transition to sustainable societies or no one is going to go for it. Extensive research demonstrates that people will people be happier and healthier and have more opportunities to thrive in the post industrial, ecological society. We have to win over the general population’s hearts and minds and help them understand that curtailing The Sixth Mass Extinction Event and effectively responding to climate change will create a much better world for everyone.