Extinction Rebellion just dropped its new strategy. The key message: 'we need to take to the streets to challenge power'
The threat of climate breakdown has never felt more acute, more immediate or more real. Temperature records are being consistently broken, there are unprecedented floods and fatalities. During these events Extinction Rebellion UK (XR) has raised awareness, given hope and directed mass actions on the streets involving hundreds of thousands of people from across the UK.
The climate campaign network yesterday released a new strategy which includes a callout for a mass mobilisation in London for the 22 April this year, for the first time calling for an immediate, direct and broad policy response by the UK Government away from fossil fuels, and acknowledging more clearly that climate justice is social justice.
The strategy represents a significant shift from the launch programme as described by Dr Gail Bradbrook on The Ecologist online in October 2018 when “hundreds” of people had seen the first XR call out and the hope was “a few thousand arrests in a short space of time could cause a political crisis”.
The new strategy arrives in the first month of 2022 which also happens to be the 50th anniversary of the publication of A Blueprint for Survival, authored by the editorial team of The Ecologist, which sold 600,000 copies. Blueprint was among the first publications to recognise the scale of the environmental crisis baked into industrial (read, capitalist) society and to prescribe huge social changes in response. The new XR “blueprint” is the same work-in-progress.
The most important shift in the new strategy is the inclusion of a new and expanded “immediate demand” on the UK government to “end the fossil fuel economy”. XR is now demanding that there should be no further investments in fossil fuels; the government should stop issuing licences for fossil fuel extraction and more than £16 billion in annual fossil fuel subsidies should be ended.
This is a much welcome and extremely important new demand. The activists who attend the upcoming April rebellion have a clearly defined ask, and one that does not have a direct negative impact on the general public. Indeed, if the £16 billion in proposed cuts in free money given to the major fossil fuels corporations were immediately redirected to ameliorating the cost of living crisis - insulating and solar-panelling homes, reducing energy bills, making food banks a public service - it could have enormous, tangible benefits.
The newly expanded fossil fuel demand is clear and simple. Stop investment, licence and subsidies.
There is also a perceptual shift away from one of the major signals from XR - that the protest network was “beyond politics”. This phrase does not appear in the new strategy. There is a clearer recognition that climate breakdown is the product of social inequality and injustice, and that a successful mass movement must include the demand for social justice - including anti-racism.
This progression is the result of the hard work of thousands of activists on the ground who could see that Extinction Rebellion offered a real opportunity to make climate breakdown central to national debate - and even effect real policy change. These people took seriously the promise of XR to be democratic, that “we welcome everyone and every part of everyone” and that the “sociocracy” organisational structure should respond to change. The new strategy suggests these promises have been kept.
But XR has also been forced to adapt because the terrain on which it hopes to make change, and where the blowback and government resistance would obviously come - was always political. How do you mobilise the public - act as a polity - without doing politics? The new strategy speaks specifically to the “draconianism and racism” of our “age”. The examples given are the policies of the current Conservative government.
“The revised Human Rights Bill, the Nationality and Borders Bill, the Police Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill, the reduction of Foreign Aid, the Covert Human Intelligence Bill, and much more. These are all attacks not only on civil rights and democracy, but on our common belief in decency and humanity.”
Moreover, XR is now talking explicitly about power in our society. The new strategy states that “real democracy and people power” is “missing entirely” today - even though these are necessary as a “bulwark…against power easily grabbed and used opportunistically by vested interests.” And XR is now clear about what power is, and who has it. It names the media, corporates and finance and the government.
This is contrasted with the power of the public. “XR is not interested in supporting concentration of power, not by markets, corporations or the state. We will only recognise a balance of power. And true balance means all people are empowered to participate and are represented equally.”
The combination of an immediate demand to end the support of the deadly fossil fuel industry and a clearer analysis of power in society suggest a significant change in XR. The Citizens’ Assembly was one of three demands of XR at launch, and the species differentia of the new organisation. It was seen as the only method of radically transforming energy policy without “seizing power”.
The Citizens’ Assembly is a very appealing proposition. Members of the public would be chosen almost at random - through sortition - and then given clear information about climate science, the risk of climate breakdown, its implications and the possible solutions. They would then decide which policies the government should implement, and continued XR rebellions on the streets would ensure that the government took that advice.
The problem with this “theory of change” is that however quaint and gentle it might sound, it was in reality a programme of shifting power away from Parliament - or more precisely, from the major monopoly corporations that continue to spew greenhouse gases and pollution precisely because Parliament no longer has power - to the people, or its selected representatives. This was not something BP and Shell would allow, never mind Boris Johnson or Sir Tony Radakin.
The other problem was the long causal chain involved in the Citizens’ Assembly change theory. First mobilise millions of activists; second force the government to hold the assembly; third trust civil servants to design a fair system and mobilise again if they don’t; select the members of the public; ensure they are immune from influence - money, intimidation even; ensure they have the “correct” information about the climate science; either provide policy or ask lay people to formulate their own; force the government to adopt the policy; fight the corporations in the courts when they say the new policy is unlawful, contravenes international treaties…and so on ad infinitum.
The newly published XR strategy retains the claim that “Citizens’ Assemblies are the tool we need to establish the policies for climate and ecological justice.” However, it does feel that his methodology has been demoted. Indeed, as a method rather than an outcome it should never have been included as a strategic demand.
The newly expanded fossil fuel demand is clear and simple. Stop investment, licence and subsidies. This is hugely ambitious and will obviously be met with fierce resistance from the fossil fuel industries. And the gas, oil and coal industries have held significant influence in Britain for hundreds of years. (By way of example, see how Lord Ridley comes from a long line of coal barons, sits in the House of Lords, and works among the various think tanks like the named GWPF that influence government policy on energy).
But at least the public can see the raw injustice and stupidity of these fossil fuel subsidies, as the new strategy makes clear. “The UK is one of the worst of the OECD-member nations, calculating that it gave on average £16 billion a year to support fossil fuels in 2017–19. That’s £43,835,616 per day – over £300 million a week – taken from our tax…”
The relatively short life of Extinction Rebellion has seen some momentous changes in its terrain. This of course includes the covid pandemic. But equally important has been the explosion of the Black Lives Matter, mostly in the US but with significant echoes in the UK, as a civil disobedience movement demanding social justice.
Racism has long been a shame of environmentalism - lurking in fears about population growth in Africa and calls to build a security-immigration state as climate drives migration. This has caused tension within XR and the new strategy gives hope that on this issue, as well, the climate network is on the right side of history.
This is addressed directly in the “growth” section of the strategy, under the title “internationalist solidarity and anti-racism”. The document states: “We recognise that being in XR as a rebel of colour, a minority demographic or a non-UK resident takes greater courage. We thank you for staying with us and know we have to stand together better.
“As the UK Government becomes increasingly oppressive and we sleep-walk into authoritarianism, we recognise a need to strengthen our bonds across communities more than ever. For those living in the UK from diaspora communities, in contact with families and friends on the frontline in the Global South, thanks for your commitment, we see you and we love you.”
I have to confess to remaining uncomfortable with the use of the terms “we” and “us” and “you”. This still sounds like a white middle class membership making overtures to an Other it wants to include but does not fully understand. This may be the reality of XR still. Nonetheless the statement “we are part of a global rebellion” and recommendation that rebels “commit to making sure the message of your action is internationalist” is welcome.
As is this: “We recognise that there are communities in active resistance in many different ways across the globe, including shutting down ecocidal projects and building planetary repairs. We hold our UK Government to account for its role in destruction and exploitation globally and will not be bystanders. People in the UK are conditioned and dragged into being accomplices in ecocide, because it is done in your name, with your taxes - so stand up, say you won’t allow it, get active!”
The strategy also speaks to signs of stress within XR. The founding hypothesis and promise of the protest network - that “just a tiny percent of the population in active support of a rebellion would probably see an end to this destructive political system” - has been fully tested, at great cost to the environmental movements, and to the individuals who put their lives on this line. But it has not worked. Not so far.
It is extremely heartening that the XR strategy recognises some inherent weaknesses of its work to date. The strategy promises to simplify the structure of the organisation, to transfer power and responsibility from the founders, incumbent members to the new, and make it easier for new activists to participate.
It states: “Throughout our networks 2022 is the year that those of us who have been here for some time become mentors. To achieve the growth we need to build good relationships and share the responsibilities as much as possible.” It also addresses the tricky issue of money. “We will review spending from the last few years in order to assess the spend and the impacts and this will help the team to go forwards from here.”
The strategy is a restatement of many of the core values, and methodologies of the movement. XR remains staunchly non-violent and committed to transparency and accountability. “As the climate and ecological crises escalate in 2022, and we face increased state repression, we ask that all rebels continue to take responsibility.
"Much of our power in nonviolence comes from our openness, that we show respect, and are honest.” XR remains a force of direct action mobilisation, retains the “key performance indicator” of 3.5 percent of the population taking action, and continues to ask activists to risk imprisonment.
Action remains front and centre of the XR “blueprint”. The strategy calls for a realignment, a regrouping of all the activists it has inspired. There is a call out to “sister organisations” to strategically support the major rebellions, so that the movement has impact as a totality and is not scattered and diffused among separating parts. There is also practical advice for building the national events, rejuvenating local affinity groups, setting up new community initiatives.
The proof of the strategy will come in April. XR has taken some heavy losses. Thousands of people have been arrested, charged, and many have served prison sentences. Who knows how many have been given suspended sentences and would be locked up for even attending an XR street protest. If hundreds of thousands again descend on London, XR will remain the primary force for change in the climate landscape. If too few come, hope for many activists may perish.
And this does bring me to one of the biggest questions posed by the strategy. Can XR style mass mobilisation actually work? In a recent article I talked about the three contrasting methods of advocacy, mobilisation and organisation - each in turn demanding more resources, more public engagement. Satish Kumar discusses the same question of organisation for The Ecologist. XR was borne out of frustration with the charity sector’s reliance on advocacy, sometimes peppered with popular mobilisations such as petitions. XR is pure mobilisation.
But we may discover that, as Jane McAlevey argues in her book No Shortcuts, what is really needed is organisation: organisation in our communities with permanent institutions and in workplaces through unions.
Indeed, it might only be the “holy trinity” of organisation spiked with mass mobilisations and negotiating through advocacy that works - and is a better descriptor of the civil rights movements that inspired XR in the first place.
Those who have read this far will clearly have a significant interest in the future of XR, and should read the strategy in full and attend one of the many national and local events taking place as part of the rollout. I want to end simply by quoting the final lines of the strategy, a document that can and does speak for itself.
“Although the situation is terrifying, love is the strongest motivator and ultimately the source of all our work. This year we will recommit to hold each other, and to be our best courageous and resilient selves, with ferocious love of these lands in our hearts.”