By Hugh Richards, 9 March 2019
Climate change is a ‘planetary emergency’ threatening ‘the extinction of many species and the lives of many of the human species,’ especially those in ‘what we presume to call the less-developed nations of the world’ but also ‘the young and yet unborn of all nations’. These were phrases I jotted down from a speech given by the then NASA climate scientist James Hansen to a ‘Stop Climate Chaos’ demonstration in Coventry (HQ of the energy company EON) in March 2009.
That was ten years ago, and now the climate emergency is even more acute and there is much wider recognition that the world is in the midst of a mass extinction event, caused not by geological processes or an asteroid impact, but by human activity.
Nothing remotely proportionate is being done at the global scale to limit the damage to come, and there is no sign of that changing in the next few crucial years.
So something as disruptive as Extinction Rebellion (XR) seeks to be is sorely needed. But can XR, as a leaderless organisation, bring about the transformation of public attitudes it seeks, both in the UK and internationally, using civil disobedience linked to a set of demands?
Some XR supporters have told me that the demands as written are not really important. One suggested that the demand for the UK to reach zero carbon emissions by 2025 might be ‘a rhetorical flourish’. But could such an impossible demand be used by politicians and corporations as an excuse not to engage with the seriousness and urgency of the crisis, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has described it?
Another XR demand is for Government to tell people ‘the truth’ about climate change. But the XR recruiting presentation I attended gave much weight to a statement attributed to Professor Jem Bendell (which he may or may not have written or said) that climate change could cause global societal collapse within the next three years. After the presentation, another XR supporter explained to me that they need to get across the urgency of the crisis to people. Indeed, David Drew MP, who was also there for the presentation, commented that for many people struggling to get by, just ten or twelve years in the future ‘seems a lifetime away’. But if XR is saying it is pushing for ‘what the science demands’ and for ‘telling the truth’, why does it seem to be knowingly presenting a ‘truth’ that is not well supported by science?
These are intended as questions from a ‘critical friend’ of XR. In fact I have participated in one XR action which I felt comfortable with – a procession through Gloucester for a mock funeral of ‘our future’ and of species being driven to extinction. It was non-confrontational and only briefly disruptive of traffic, very effectively engaged people’s attention and got the climate crisis top billing on BBC Points West, with Sarah Lunnon making her points well.
My fear for XR is that they will use the tool of non-violent civil disobedience but fail to catalyse real change, and that no other movement will arise fast enough to try such tactics again before it really is too late. Some XR supporters evidently think it is already too late, and perhaps see their actions as defiance in the face of defeat. This for me contributes to a sense of confusion about whether the whole movement is really about seeking transformational change or an expression of rage (and perhaps guilt) at the failure to deal with this crisis much, much sooner.
My guess is that those who started XR and formulated its demands did not foresee it becoming an international movement. Perhaps that explains the limited, UK, focus of its demands. However, I think there has been a failure, in the past decade at least, on the part of activist groups and governments alike, to take seriously the global scale of both climate change and biodiversity loss. On climate change, XR groups world-wide could demand an international treaty limiting the extraction of fossil fuels, for example. But when I try to engage XR supporters on this global dimension, I tend to encounter defeatism or even hostility about the potential role of the United Nations or other international institutions.
Finally there is the question of XR’s recruitment presentations. The one I experienced was similar to Gail Bradbrook’s presentation that can be seen on the XR website. It included invitations to experience feelings of grief, which are supposed to lead to courage to act, to become an ‘up-stander’ and to sign up to get involved. To me, this was overtly appealing to emotions, but to some vulnerable people this might not be so obvious, and, given that the presentation I experienced included encouragement to break the law and perhaps go to prison, safeguarding concerns could potentially arise. Such concerns would almost certainly arise if such a presentation were given to under-18s. XR will need to be careful about how it engages with the school climate strikes movement, which might possibly turn out to be an even more powerful catalyst for change than XR itself.
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