Extinction Rebellion – a Friendly Critique

By Hugh Richards, 9 March 2019

(Please note: posts on these blog pages are the personal views of the authors only and are not intended to represent any agreed or general view on the part of GlosCAN.org.)

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.

6 thoughts on “Extinction Rebellion – a Friendly Critique

  1. I very much agree with this. I do a lot of online research on incineration and air pollution, because I always want to back up anything I assert with independent evidence, preferably peer reviewed scientific papers. I was already very well aware of climate change all the way from “Limits to Growth” in 1972. However what I have turned up recently on things like Thermohaline Shutdown and previous mass extinctions both entirely backs up XR’s pessimism and was a surprise even to me. I fully accept that Gail includes some of this in her standard presentation, but I do think there is a case to be made more formally somehow to convince a lot more (forgive the phrase) “ordinary” people.
    Perhaps if you have suffered a life-threatening medical condition, as I have, you have a different attitude on life. But I really think the negativity and grief emphasis is not useful – anger perhaps, if backed up by strong facts and I respect that. Personally I see this as a huge challenge, maybe an impossible challenge, but I cannot but see it as a huge positive if we can see our way out of, or at least mitigate, one of the greatest challenges to certainly humanity and maybe to all higher life on earth.
    What I do NOT want to do is have personal differences with the XR people in Stroud who are friends, whom I respect, know and love. So can I suggest some form of working group on alternative ways to get through to people? We can see from what has happened, is happening, that there is world-wide potential buy-in.

  2. I too share, and to a lesser extent shared, concerns about XRs apparent lack of tangible helpful objectives. Getting government to declare a “climate emergency” which many XR activists say they’re punting for is a great start. I am personally also in favour of government instigating a means tested universal basic income to take the demand for being economically very active as a producer and consumer out of the system, therefore significantly less polluting economic activity. Very interesting read and thanks.

  3. Nick James’ reply 10th March 2019
    Dear Gloscan [Hugh],
    As an original and founding committee member of Gloscan, I quibbled about how to make the most effective response to your Blog piece (dated 8th March 2019) and I am still undecided – comment at the end of the Blog? Write this letter? Or unpick the document itself as a tutor might.
    Okay, in direct retort to the Blog, this is personal, political and directed particularly at you the author, although many of my points go well-beyond that. My reasoning is that your piece is scathing, journalistic and somehow emotionally charged and wrong-headed.
    You open by quoting James Hansen, which has some validity in itself. However, as the reader I wanted to know why you did this. To justify the Extinction Rebellion (XR) approach? To use a scientist’s words? To tie us more closely to this figure who takes us back to the 1980s, when climate change first became an international environmental problem, adding to the tens of others? As the reader, I wondered about the reasoning and context of your quoting here.
    In the next paragraph, you do offer some comment saying that it was ten years ago. You should nevertheless know and share with your readers that the relative appreciation of the problem or the emergency, which you call “acute” goes back to the IPCC’s AR1 (Assessment Report, 1990). The reference to a ‘sixth mass extinction’ was published in 2014 by Elizabeth Kolbert and this follows a long narrative of environmental publications including Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962. What I am arguing is that the momentum to recognise the problem/s has a long and deep history, both within and outside the climate change arena. In that paragraph, you follow ‘conventional wisdom’ and refer merely to “human activity”. There must come a time when people come to recognise that the innocuous reference to human activity per se is denying a critical examination of what that actually is. Without an honest recognition that the world economy is governed by modern industrial capitalism, then we are not probing nearly enough. Capitalism and all its vagaries is the principle underlying cause of climate change (Klein, 2015). Humans are perfectly capable of a change in direction, of responding, of addressing intra- as well as inter- generational equity. But not easily, with the capitalism enacting its sorcery over all of humanity.
    Your next one-sentence paragraph is disappointing because you don’t even any offer critical evaluation of the many efforts and actions including ‘international environmental agreements’ (IEAs). The Paris Accord, 2015 was by all accounts seen by many sectors as a positive, though not flawless, attempt to begin [or continue after Kyoto, 1997] some effective international environmental policy. Even within the slippery arena of international environmental law, there were some very optimistic sounds (see e.g. Boisson de Chazournes, 2016). You make no reference to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which to my mind is indicative of the extreme blindness within our Brexit-focused society. What about emerging movements like Agroecology (See CAWR, Coventry University), Divestment, the recent actions by Norway (EcoWatch, 2019) and many more optimistic approaches? My recommendation is that Gloscan takes a more open and critical approach to its analysis. You make no mention of the achievements by Greta Thumberg, e.g. the ¼ of a Trillion budget offer by Jean-Claude Juncker to address climate change (EcoWatch, 2019). This is not enough but it’s a valid commitment and change in direction within Europe.
    In the following paragraph, you propose that the “disruptive” and “leaderless” XR is “sorely needed”. Then you question the transformative capacity in terms of “public attitudes”. A Stroud based academic has written a relevant book Why Social Movements Matter. An Introduction (Cox, 2018). You really need to – and I am sure that you do – acknowledge that movements come and go, and sometimes take a vitality or immanence of their own. The use of bottom-up, people-centred, alternative approach to changing civil society has a long and deep history. Direct action, “civil disobedience”, protest and campaigning are all entangled and complex. Your suggestion that it all boils down to a “set of demands” is disingenuous. There are undoubtedly some complications and difficulties within XR. Tell me of any movement that does not? Tell me of any ideology or political discourse that does not have a counter-narrative? XR is disruptive [and “uncomfortable”], you are right. But that’s the point. The struggle to address climate change has effectively lost the battle, the argument, and the political impetus. The “discourse of denial” has the upper hand – it has won the argument – and combined with mass inequalities across the world and unstoppable deregulation and capitalist exploitation, we are facing an emergency for humanity of unprecedented scale (see Latour, 2018).
    Your next paragraph is a sloppy and loose attack around comments you have picked-up at a single XR meeting. You refer again to XR’s demands, and critique the “rhetorical flourish” when it comes to asking the UK to aim for zero carbon emissions by 2025. You argue that it is an “impossible demand” but don’t explain why. From my critical viewpoint of your analysis, I would suggest that is typical of the friendly, non-disruptive, middle-of-the-road, acquiescent organisations like Gloscan. You need therefore to be honest and accept that there are many people – including here in Stroud – that are non-too-pleased with the softly, softly gentile approach that Gloscan is taking. How many activists – including me – have moved away and lost interest in Gloscan and its approaches to addressing climate change? XR are deliberatively taking a radical stance, that’s exactly the point. It will not chime with all but as you admit, it’s getting the attention across the media, among academics, in geography departments and deeply so among the young people.
    Your next paragraph refers to telling the “truth”. The arbitrary reference to a Jem Bendell is not sufficiently explained, and you should know that discourse and counter-discourse develop a bounded set of understandings, concepts, arguments, theories and so on. It was really up to you to check and verify what Professor Bendell may or may not have said. You also need to explain to the reader three things. One, that Bendell is wrong. Two, that XR are wrong in adopting such a [false] truth. Three: that Gloscan have some knowledge of a better truth, which we should all know about. Yes, we do need to be cognisant of the urgency. Just as we should have been thirty years ago when IPCC and UNFCCC were being formed. You refer to this particular meeting without giving it a date or context. Yes, using David Drew’s comment is effective and our MP has his perspective, which is mindful of wider and long-term political struggles among the people of Stroud. All of us. As the reader of your blog article, I am unable to comment on the bad science, incorrect information or information not supported by science. It’s therefore your duty to share this with us, including your unpacking and interpretation and your honest evaluation of the particularities of the context wherein that occurred. We cannot simply go around making big critique from little passing moments like this. Your experience at one XR meeting was just one context. That’s surely not enough to make this major judgement upon the organisation.
    You then move on to propose yourself as a “critical friend” of XR. My direct suggestion to you is not to be loosely and vaguely critique XR as you do, perhaps unwittingly; but instead offer your progressive suggestions, which can be taken-on and adopted in future. It was good that you felt “comfortable” with the mock funeral, and the top-billing on the BBC Points West. That’s great but who knows. Just a coincidence? It’s not about being comfortable Hugh and Gloscan. You may miss the point there. No one is comfortable with climate change and the relative weakness of policy in an international context.
    You then attack the so-called “tool” of what you call “non-violent civil disobedience”. However, you are not appreciating the vast array of locally-led, people-centred, very creative ways of engaging. Some of it is arguably naff, some of it is dodgy, and some of it is amazing. Please, Hugh and Gloscan, try not to over-simplify or over-generalise the creative impetus that is behind this movement. Some XR supporters will, of course, think it’s too late. The “tipping-points” are close, we know that. Some (see Planetary Boundaries, 2009) have been well crossed. XR is a mix of feelings and bringing on board many people not previously politically active, young people, worried people and so on. Of course, there are many entanglements, contested viewpoints and confusions. Don’t tell me all discussions at Gloscan are supremely neat and clear. Surely not. Please note carefully the successes in terms of debate (Bolivia, IPCC, Greta Thumberg and so on)
    You make a loose guess about the unfolding narrative of XR since 2018, i.e. that they didn’t expect it to take off as it has. You know, or at least you ought to, that many movements come and go all the time. Think about the EJM (environmental justice movement), think about political ecology and many more, e.g. agroecology or ecosystem services. I do accept, nevertheless, that you make a very valid point on the United Nations and other actors on the governance at the global stage. However, here was exactly your opportunity to extend some explanation for the steps take, relative success, the constraints, what can be done as well as what should be done. Instead, you critique XR for its hostility to established institutions. Are you genuinely surprised? You’ve already described the movement as leaderless and therefore people-centred and alternative. Therein is your answer, a scepticism about the normal ways of governing international relations, the institutionalised practices and existing actors on the world’s stage.
    Your final paragraph is neither here nor there. XR have their approach/s and you cannot decide what this is based on a small handful of experiences here in Stroud. Yes, it is about emotion. You are wanting us to concentrate on objective, scientific facts, right? We can, and we do. The IPCC as you know is an epistemic community involved in persuasion, via discourse, focused on synthesis of many sciences, many facts; prediction based on many contested models; economic analysis based on valuing the future using discount rates. It’s all about contested values and knowledge Hugh. Embrace it.
    Dr Nicholas James, 10th March 2019
    References
    Boisson de Chazournes, L. (2016) ‘One Swallow Does Not a Summer Make, but Might the Paris Agreement on Climate Change a Better Future Create?’ European Journal of International Law, vol. 27, no. 2, pp. 253 -256.
    Bolivia (2010) Evo Morales, Climate Change, and the Paradoxes of a Social-Movement Presidency
    Carson, Rachel (1962) Silent Spring
    CAWR (Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience) https://www.coventry.ac.uk/research/areas-of-research/agroecology-water-resilience/ (Accessed 10th March 2019).
    Cox, Laurence (2018) Why Social Movements Matter: An Introduction, Rowman and Littlefield.
    EcoWatch (2019) Norway Set to Divest $1 Trillion Wealth Fund From Oil and Gas Exploration Companies, [online] https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/norway (Accessed on 10th March 2019).
    EcoWatch (Common Dreams)(2019) ‘Kicking Ass for Her Generation’: Applause for 16-Year-Old Greta Thunberg as EU Chief Pledges Billions to Curb Climate Threat EcoWatch [online] https://www.ecowatch.com/greta-thunberg-eu-pledge-climate-2629705430.html (Accessed 10 03 2019).
    Klein, Naomi (2015) This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Penguin.
    Kolbert, Elizabeth (2014) The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Henry Holt and Company.
    Latour, Bruno (2018) Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime. England: Polity
    Planetary Boundaries (2009): “This is a concept involving Earth system processes which contain environmental boundaries, proposed in 2009 by a group of Earth system and environmental scientists led by Johan Rockström from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Will Steffen from the Australian National University”.

  4. I share the view that we have to get through to people in the street as well as putting pressure on Government. 2009 was also the premiere showing in Leicester Square of the film “The Age of Stupid”. Its message is even more relevant today and Transition Cleeve are organising a repeat showing in Bishop’s Cleeve on 24th April. We are also talking to Cleeve School in the hope that they will make use of the film in some way

  5. Thank you for your thoughts. I have now attended 10 or so weekly XR meetings and taken part in one mock funeral in Stroud recently.
    To me the points on XR having clear messaging and of using emotive statement/comments in presentations is explainable because, lets face it, this organisation is only just ‘born’ and is finding its way using a fast in-flow of new voices within and outside of it.

    I think that using the emotive is a new and necessary way for people to encompass the very likely mass destruction of our every day lives regularity and possibly this will happen very soon.
    So that being so, there will be millions of British people wandering around hardly able to know what to think, let alone feel and that could be very dangerous on a large scale!
    So I make time for those who are more right brained and so are piloting the acceptance of an anticipated death. Such resilience might prove very useful!

    The concerns I read of about vulnerable people is one to address yes, however as we are now seeing media on youtube etc that shows children as young as 7 saying words in effect like ‘wake up adults and help to save us from CC’ then what exactly is being protected here? Think on how strongly your own defences are being used when proposing to ‘protect’ others and wanting more hard science.
    The latter comes far too slowly to be then considered, policies created, debated and brought into action through typical administrative processes.

    So an emergency has to be declared, the emotions of that immense change need to be worked through to enable the populace to stop blocking huge changes being made by denial and protecting their own ‘patch’ and the long expected dead being, that of traditions and other current / past days ‘norms’ need to be buried.

    New ways, new visions, new values to protect life in advance of harm need to be born and given every encouragement to grow strong on an international scale otherwise humans will fail.

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