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29 December 2019updated 25 Jun 2021 5:16am

X is for Extinction Rebellion: the insurgent climate movement that went mainstream

By Hettie O'Brien

When Extinction Rebellion (XR) blockaded central London in April 2018, the movement seemed to have come from nowhere. Protesters assembled a fuschia boat in the centre of Oxford Circus and organised yoga sessions on Waterloo Bridge. Makeshift kitchens supplied porridge and vegan curry donated by Hare Krishnas. As XR activists staged outdoor sit-ins, pedestrians glimpsed what a car-free city might look like. After the protests, the Extinction logo – a powerful graphic reminiscent of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) symbol that spawned a thousand imitations – became ubiquitous, appearing on street furniture and lamp posts across the capital. 

Alongside the Youth Strike for Climate movement, XR’s colourful, intransigent “rebellions” captured a feeling that crystallised towards the end of this decade. During the 2010s, the “Anthropocene” entered the vernacular – no longer a word used by scientists, but a phrase that captured the irreversible and frightening direction of environmental travel. Ours was the decade in which plastic was sedimented in the fossil record, microbeads were identified in the bloodstreams of fish and the International Panel on Climate Change forecast the apocalyptic effects of allowing global temperatures to rise by more than 1.5C.

Since XR and the Youth Strike for Climate emerged a year ago, they have put climate change at the front of public consciousness and had real-world effects: parliament has met two of XR’s central demands, declaring a climate emergency in May 2019 and pledging to hold citizens’ assemblies in early 2020. Some 1,100 XR activists were arrested in 2019 alone. 

Mainstream environmentalism has long been criticised for being too technocratic, too middle-class and too white. Many of the large environmental charities grew out of conservation, leading them to focus more on lovable species and beautiful landscapes than on the realities of people living in the shadow of chemical plantations and industrialisation. Though XR takes the route of extra-parliamentary direct action, it has inherited many of these criticisms.

When I interviewed XR activists earlier this year, some worried that the movement’s lack of diversity would deter would-be converts to the cause. Activists were dragged off the roof of a tube train by commuters at Canning Town in October after delaying the service. In an open letter to XR, the grassroots environmental group Wretched of the Earth pointed out that many people of colour already live with the risk of arrest and criminalisation – a fact to which XR appeared tone deaf when it published a guide erroneously stating that “most prison officers are black and do not wish to give you a hard time”. 

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Yet the movement remains a radical departure from the exhortations to individual action that defined the last decade: take the stairs, change your lightbulbs, buy local. These business-friendly climate commands were epitomised by the KeepCup, the ubiquitous plastic receptacle invented in 2009 that negates the need for disposable coffee cups. Individualised green actions are similar to the notion of “nudging” that is prevalent in behavioural economics: both suggest that individual consumer choices ought to be the central focus of ethical activity, and that in nudging consumers towards better choices, government (or the private sector) can incrementally improve society without significantly altering its underlying principles or intervening in the free market. The effect is to transfer responsibility to individuals, replacing democratic checks on corporate power with personal anxieties about one’s own moral compass. Though living ethically may help one feel good, it’s mass movements like XR and the Youth Strike for Climate that have the greatest likelihood of averting climate breakdown. 

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