Extinction Rebellion was formed in the UK in late 2018 and has already been involved in numerous disruptive direct action protests — thousands of people blockading the 5 main bridges over the River Thames in London, gluing themselves to the gates of Downing Street, blocking major roads with ‘swarming’ roadblocks (repeated 7 minute roadblocks) and even a sit-in at the UK headquarters of Greenpeace. They are spreading around the world.
Accepting that climate change threatens humans as well as other species with extinction, they aim to raise the stakes of government inaction and they have issued 3 demands: “1. That the Government must tell the truth about how deadly our situation is, it must reverse all policies not in alignment with that position and must work alongside the media to communicate the urgency for change including what individuals, communities and businesses need to do. 2. The Government must enact legally-binding policies to reduce carbon emissions in the UK to net zero by 2025 and take further action to remove the excess of atmospheric greenhouse gases. It must cooperate internationally so that the global economy runs on no more than half a planet’s worth of resources per year. 3. By necessity these demands require initiatives and mobilization of similar size and scope to those enacted in times of war. We do not however, trust our Government to make the bold, swift and long-term changes necessary to achieve this and we do not intend to hand further power to our politicians. Instead we demand a Citizens’ Assembly to oversee the changes, as we rise from the wreckage, creating a democracy fit for purpose.” It would be great to interview them, but instead here’s answers to questions they asked themselves in the FAQ on their website.
ARE THINGS REALLY THAT BAD?
Yes. We are facing an unprecedented global emergency, the planet is in crisis and we are in the midst of a mass extinction bigger and faster than the one that killed the dinosaurs. Scientists believe we have entered a period of abrupt climate breakdown. The Earth’s atmosphere is already over 1°C warmer than pre-industrial levels and the chance of staying below the 2°C limit set in the Paris Agreement is tiny. Projections show we are on course for 3 degrees of warming and probably much higher.
We and our children will face unimaginable horrors as a result of floods, wildfires, extreme weather, crop failures and the inevitable breakdown of society when the pressures are so great. We are unprepared for the danger our future holds.
The time for denial is over – we know the truth about climate change. It is time to act.
WHY DO YOU THINK YOU COULD SUCCEED?
There is no guarantee of anything. World leaders have failed to adequately confront the existential threats posed by climate and ecological breakdown, let alone the causes of the crises. Polite lobbying, marching, voting, consumer- and shareholder-activism, have all failed. We are now on the brink. If asking the establishment nicely doesn’t get them to act, then the only option left is civil disobedience, to disrupt the ordinary working of things, so that decision makers HAVE to take notice.
As Frederick Douglas put it,’ “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue ‘til they are resisted with either words or blows, or both.”
We are strictly and avowedly non-violent. But we can and will use our words and our bodies to disrupt the system that threatens us all.
That said, our aim was to always test out tactics, reflect on what works and then repurpose and adapt as circumstances change. Our goal has always been to build a mass movement. We have undertaken research and training to understand how things change. We are training coordinators on how to mass mobilise.
We know the task ahead is daunting and the likelihood of success may seem slim, but the stakes are so high, the risks of continuing down the ruinous path we are on so dire, with all Life hanging in the balance, that doing nothing, even doing only what we’ve done before, is unthinkable.
Ultimately, we are doing this because it is the right thing to do. Given the scale of the challenge, we remain unattached to outcomes. Meaning that although we hope we can save something of Life on Earth, we are motivated by action being the right thing to do, rather than taking action because we think it will work.
People are now waking up to the enormity of the crisis that we face. … People are not stupid. They are aware that these disasters are escalating in severity and frequency and that increasingly they are approaching our own shores, with thousands dying in the recent heatwave across Southern Europe. And they are rightly angry that our Government’s response to this is to approve ever more catastrophic projects to exploit ever less conventional sources of fossil fuels, such as fracking, causing earthquakes in Lancashire in grim portent of the much larger scale calamities to come. They demand a brighter future, in which we and our children are free to live in a world where we are in harmony with the rest of the living world around us, and not in conflict with it. There is a growing will to be rid of the corrupt power structures leading us ever deeper into the abyss and to forge the beautiful future that we all wish for our children and their children’s children. The time is ripe, right now, and we are confident that this is the beginning of the movement which will finally turn the tide.
YOUR CAMPAIGN SEEMS TO FOCUS ON MASS DISRUPTION. ARE YOU NOT SCARED ABOUT WHAT DAMAGE YOU MIGHT DO TO PEOPLE’S LIVES?
We have partially shut down Heathrow Airport on two occasions and carried out many road blocks. We are always concerned about causing inconvenience to people and it doesn’t feel good when you learn someone missed an important gathering like a funeral or a hospital appointment. We are doing it as we believe we have to look at the bigger picture of how many people are dying today and how dire our trajectory is (the extreme being that human extinction is a very real possibility). In the face of this we accept that we inevitably cause inconvenience to people. We sincerely apologise to them. We are firmly and collectively of the view that, given the dismal failure of world leaders to date, disruption is now necessary to get anything like commensurate change. If there was a better, less disruptive way of doing this we would do that instead! Many of us have faced arrest, fines, convictions for our actions; some of us have been on hunger strike and gone to jail. So we are willing to take the consequences of our actions and to make personal sacrifices in order to do them. Business as usual is simply no longer a viable option.
AREN’T YOU JUST GOING TO GET A LOT OF INEXPERIENCED PEOPLE ARRESTED, IN PRISON, AND WITH CRIMINAL RECORDS, SO THAT YOU HIT THE HEADLINES?
No, everybody taking part in non-violent civil disobedience in defense of the planet, whether experienced or not, understands the risks they are taking and the reasons why, of their own free and informed will, they are choosing to take them. We understand that this is an important element of movement building and disrupting everyday life / perceived normal reality, to create a national conversation on the climate and ecological crisis. As George Monbiot put it in his inspiring speech on 31st October 2018 at our Declaration of Rebellion against the UK Government on Parliament Square: “The only time that people know it is serious, is when people are prepared to sacrifice their liberty in defence of their beliefs”.
IS YOUR ORGANISATION HORIZONTAL? WHY NOT?
We are a decentralised organisation – anyone can do things in the name of Rising Up! / Extinction Rebellion if they agree with and adhere to our principles and values [ed: a 10-point list is on their website] – people don’t need anyone’s permission on that basis. We use holacracy as a decision making tool – people are empowered to get on with jobs without everyone agreeing on outputs. Good holacracy includes taking advice and feedback from at least two people and being responsible for outcomes. We have learned from previous movements and groups that consensus can really clog things up and drain energy so we wanted to try a different model to empower participation. Strategic decisions are made by the coordination team, those who are putting in the most time to make this thing happen. That said we are currently investigating ways to improve this.
DON’T YOU REALISE THAT IF PEOPLE GET ARRESTED WHO ARE BLACK THEY WILL GET FAR WORSE TREATMENT? AND AREN’T YOU TOO NICE ABOUT THE POLICE?
Yes, we are aware of the structural racism in our policing and legal system. We give people information about arrest and those of us who are white have acknowledged our privilege, in the likelihood that we will be treated differently / better than our colleagues of colour. People can take a variety of roles. We think it’s important for white people to use their privilege. People of colour (PoC) have been more at risk for generations in defence of the environment and their lands, both here in the UK and around the world. It is time to for white people to take this risk too so that PoCs, who are threatened by structural racism, don’t have to. The ecological crisis affects people of colour more than it does white people currently. Environmental activists of colour in other countries have been killed for defending their land. We also try to acknowledge the police as human beings and to be respectful during our protests, but this does not make us naive about what the police have done to activists and communities in the UK. Activists have been subjected to lies, assault, the spy cop trauma and worse.
AREN’T YOU ALIENATING A LOT OF THE PEOPLE THAT YOU SHOULD BE WORKING WITH?
Yes, we may be. There is far less awareness than we need in the public around just how bad a situation we are in, though there are signs that this is finally and rapidly improving. This goes to the very heart of the problem. And so, yes, people who do not understand, or who through denial reject the gravity of the situation being laid out by scientists, may find it easy to disagree with the actions and find us alienating.
The aim is not to alienate people, of course. The aim is to make these most critical and urgent issues of our time finally unignorable to decision makers. If they want less disruption, they must act.
Yes, this is an uncompromising stance to adopt, we accept that. We do because we have clear sight of the utterly uncompromising nature of the situation we are in.