Ever since its inception in May 2018, Extinction Rebellion has taken the world by storm. Their extravagant protests have forcefully placed the spotlight on the imminent “ecological collapse” and “mass extinction” we face, which world leaders have desperately attempted to sweep under the rug. Although historically, this inaction has partly been due to the mute reaction of the public towards climate change, viewed as an issue for the future, not the present. In the lead up to the 2017 election, YouGov polls stated that only 8% of the public considered the environment as one of their top three issues. However, in the run up to the December election, 25% of Brits believe that the environment is a highly salient issue, placed in their top three concerns. This can almost certainly be attributed to the impact Extinction Rebellion has had, changing the politics of climate change from being merely a formality that was spoken about by bureaucrats to appease activists, towards an uncontrollable uprising that has invigorated the wider public to enforce real change.
Extinction Rebellion’s initial protests outlined their aim to use “non-violent civil disobedience” to spark outrage and stem away from the traditional, ineffective systems of redress of grievances. On October 31st 2018, in one of their first protests, over 1000 XR campaigners blocked roads around the Houses of Parliament, locking themselves together and bringing London to a temporary standstill. Whilst this may be seen as a tame attempt in bringing attention towards the climate crisis when viewed in an isolated form, the continued widespread disruption serves as a hallmark to the success of the group. Less than a month later, the protestors struck again with an army of 6000 on what was dubbed as “Rebellion Day”, blocking 5 landmark bridges in London – with the Guardian highlighting it as “one of the biggest acts of peaceful civil disobedience in the UK in decades”. The explosive growth may have surprised many politicians and activists alike but is simply down to its disorganised and chaotic nature. Its decentralised nature, the lack of formal hierarchy, the promotion of grassroots campaigning and the formation of protests in short time periods culminates into a perfect storm of unforeseen disorder, which underlines the premise of XR.
Its decentralised nature, the lack of formal hierarchy, the promotion of grassroots campaigning and the formation of protests in short time periods culminates into a perfect storm of unforeseen disorder, which underlines the premise of XR.
Arguably the catalyst for change was the continuous 10-day protests held in April 2019, which was reflected both in the UK and across the world. In the UK, activists glued themselves to trains, staged “die-ins” outside the London Stock Exchange and the Treasury, and aimed to sever the traditional institutions who they felt have ignored their key demands. Over 1000 people were detained at the protests, cementing it as one of the biggest civil disobedience events in British history, eclipsing that of the anti-nuclear protests at Upper Heyford in 1982 and Thatcher’s poll tax riots in 1990. Another two-week series of actions in October 2019, dubbed as the “International Rebellion”, took place in over 60 cities worldwide, further cementing their global and domestic influence. It seems this overwhelming pressure has prompted politicians into action, with Parliament declaring a “climate change emergency”, less than a week after the end of the spring protests – which met XR’s first demand to “tell the truth”. Their second demand to “act now” hasn’t been met in its entirety – with Labour vaguely committing to “reaching net zero by 2030” and the Conservatives remaining rigid to their 2050 target, a far cry away from the group’s radical 2025 ambitions. However, there has been a fundamental shift in public opinion, and acts as the predominant reason for their success. The vast support for the pressure group during the April protests, despite its disruptive activities, is the underlying reason for its success.
Without this public furore, politicians are more than content to stick to short term electioneering tactics, rather than implement long lasting climate policies. Celebrity endorsements don’t hurt either, ranging from Benedict Cumberbatch to Steve Coogan to Mel B, garnering over 100 signatories in an open letter to the media for their support towards Extinction Rebellion, despite allegations of hypocrisy due to their high-carbon lifestyles. Donations tend to be a prerequisite for a pressure group’s success, whether it is either an insider or outsider group. Extinction Rebellion is no exception, receiving over £2.5m in the past 12 months, dispelling the notion that outsider groups fail to garner significant donations due to their unorthodox methods of campaigning. It seems that Extinction Rebellion has redefined the description of a successful pressure group, mixing a variety of factors that previously were unavailable to a group without any access points within government.
However, the successes of Extinction Rebellion have begun to wane in recent months, particularly over the debacle at Shadwell Station and Canning Town in October. Extinction Rebellion protestors climbed onto trains, causing widespread delays and were forcefully dragged down by members of the public. This stunt alienated ordinary commuters and created internal divisions within XR, being described as a “huge own goal” by one XR spokesperson. YouGov’s findings that 54% of the public opposed the October protests only further highlights the debate has inadvertently turned into a class war, with activists ignoring the substantial impact they are having on minority communities. Protests should target the issue, not the people, yet Extinction Rebellion has failed to understand this fundamental difference. Damning reports of XR costing the Met Police £37m as of October 2019 – over double the amount spent on reducing violent crime in London – surely further divides public opinion, with police funding already severely strained. The need for balancing the right to democratic protest and disruption is one that XR must consider, ensuring that they focus on the institutions at the heart of the environmental problem rather than the general population. Extinction Rebellion must also address their lack of diversity, being labelled as a “white middle-class ghetto” and criticised by other environmental organisations for not being inclusive of ethnic minorities. Their mass-arrest strategy, whilst effective at gaining attention to their cause, is one that exacerbates this issue, with Metropolitan police statistics showing that nine in 10 of the 1,100 activists arrested in the group’s April protests in London were white. Inclusivity and diversity are vital to progressing the climate cause, as not appealing to the communities hit hardest by environmental degradation only halts further progress.
Extinction Rebellion must also address their lack of diversity, being labelled as a “white middle-class ghetto” and criticised by other environmental organisations for not being inclusive of ethnic minorities.
Despite concerns that Extinction Rebellion has aroused, the chaos they have caused has undoubtedly changed the climate debate for the better. Would such accelerated progress have been seen without drastic civil disobedience measures that they have employed? The emphasis on peaceful protest must be maintained for XR to have a tangible impact, although the Suffragettes proved that violence can work to get their voices heard. More must be done to ensure that the general public are not simply collateral damage and are part of the wider conversation to bring about drastic change to the current inaction by governments across the world. Whether failures in democracy justifies non-violent breaches in law is up to personal opinion, but Extinction Rebellion certainly believe it’s the only way forward.
The public are split over whether they are a catalyst for change or an excuse for chaos. Maybe a better description is the amalgamation of both, with Extinction Rebellion using chaos to be a catalyst for change.