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Does Extinction Rebellion have a class problem?

Critics of the environmental movement like to argue that it's made up of "crusties" who can afford to get arrested, but this is a lazy stereotype.

Carefully stacked crates of organic pulses were the only sign that something unusual had happened at Smithfield Market on Monday evening. Overnight, activists from Animal Rebellion – an offshoot of the environmental movement, Extinction Rebellion – had transformed the market where London’s butchers have arrived early each morning for almost eight centuries into a maze of tents and hastily erected stalls, selling organic fruit and vegetables. Butchers and bone collectors looked on in bemusement.

By Tuesday morning, the stalls had been cleared away and the activists dispersed. “I think they felt as if we were attacking them,” Amit, an organiser for Animal Rebellion, said of the reaction. “[The workers] obviously didn’t like our presence, and probably felt like we were attacking their livelihood… but we just feel that things have got to change in order to make a better future for everybody.” 

A predictable wave of responses from some in the media decried the activists as middle-class hippies, but Smithfield was targeted in order to make an urgent point; livestock farming contributes 14.5 per cent of global emissions. And the reactions from the market's workers were varied. In an interview with the Times one of the traders, Steven Hall, praised the protesters: “I’ve got two kids myself, and I want the world to be safe for them in the future. Most of us here agree that things need to change”.

Others were more irate. A bone collector known as Perry told a London radio station: “we haven’t caused the problems around the world with whatever they’re talking about. It’s not caused by us working people, it’s caused by governments.

“You give us an alternative,” he went on, “we’ll come and do it… [but] this is not an alternative. This is just putting people out of work.”

These remarks capture a tension of which activists within Extinction Rebellion (XR) are increasingly wary. Since the 1980s, mainstream environmentalism has been criticised for being too white, too middle-class, too concerned with beautiful scenery and photogenic species, and too apathetic to the reality that environmental harm follows existing lines of poverty and race. In the US, for example, people of colour live with 66 per cent more air pollution, while the respiratory diseases and other ailments caused by coal mining are visited almost entirely upon the working class.

The risk of perceived elitism is that it provokes a populist backlash. As the interest in green parties and politics rises across Europe, populists have campaigned against environmental legislation. Protesters such as the gilets jaunes in France have recast environmentalism as a movement for the elite – a thing that is done to working people, rather than with them. While XR's members recognise that everyone has a stake in averting climate catastrophe, some of them worry the movement’s image and tactics could alienate potential travellers to the cause. 

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Since Extinction Rebellion burst onto the scene alongside the Youth Strike for Climate movement a year ago, its colourful "rebellions" have done more to put climate change at the front of public consciousness than environmental campaigns of previous decades. In response to its actions, parliament declared a climate emergency in May this year, and has pledged to hold citizens' assemblies. But many have pointed out that XR’s strategy of courting arrests (at the time of writing, 1,000 activists have been arrested during the October rebellion) has a very different meaning to people outside a largely white, middle-class enclave. 

In an open letter to Extinction Rebellion, Wretched of the Earth, a grassroots environmental group with a focus on BAME and indigenous people, pointed out that “many of us live with the risk of arrest and criminalisation”. And some of the movement's literature has not helped; a guide, previously published on XR’s website, erroneously stated that “most prison officers are black and do not wish to give you a hard time” (according to figures from the 2011 census, 93 per cent of prison officers are white).

Of course, criticising XR can feel like rearranging the deckchairs on a ship that is not only sinking, but on fire. All the same, activists from within the movement say its lack of diversity could hamper its efforts in the longer term – and that will have implications for everyone. 

On a cloudy Tuesday afternoon, hundreds of people milled around Trafalgar Square, waving XR flags, playing instruments and eating vegan curry donated by the local Hare Krishnas. Some attendees sat in a meditation ring on the roundabout; others joined in a dance workshop set to jungle music. A man wearing a bottle-green velvet ensemble teetered on stilts while playing the violin.

The activists I spoke with all agreed that courting arrest wasn’t possible for everyone, and that people's experience of the justice system is shaped by their skin colour and social class. “The main strategy of arrests is not something that’s appropriate for everybody, and people who don’t have a particular kind of white, middle-class privilege can’t risk getting arrested,” said James*, a member of a dance troupe involved in the rebellion. As we spoke, a handful of people dressed as giant origami birds floated through the crowd behind. 

“The police aren’t necessarily who you think they are… sometimes they’re very brutal, and some people can’t be arrested,” said Mandy, a former solicitor who joined XR in October and is now one of the movement’s drummers. “I hope that doesn’t put people off.”

Kofi Mawuli Klu, an XR activist from Brixton who arrived in the UK as a Ghanaian political refugee, co-ordinates XR’s internationalist solidarity network, which collaborates with activist groups in the global south. He got involved with XR in November last year, and tells me its lack of diversity is an ongoing problem. “We’ve persisted, unlike others who stand outside the movement to criticise it," he says, "and we have managed to… open up Extinction Rebellion more to people from non-white, non-middle-class backgrounds – but it’s been difficult”. 

The challenges, as Klu sees them, are twofold. “Racialised and black and migrant communities... cannot afford to get arrested.” At the same time, the movement’s emphasis on protesting in city centres risks alienating people in other areas. He says it's important that the movement concentrates on “funding activities that reach out into black, racially marginalised and working-class communities – to people who don’t have the middle-class privilege of risking arrest”. 

Davinder, a co-founder of Stoke-on-Trent’s XR group, which was formed in April 2019, agrees that one of the largest problems to recruiting working-class activists has been the movement’s lack of diversity. 

“It’s a definite obstacle... if we continue to only get people from a certain social background, then people from... outside will come in, and even if there’s nothing explicit going on, they’ll feel unwelcome,” he says. At the same time, he worries that a lack of diversity “allows people to dismiss us as just a bunch of hippies who don’t need to be taken seriously”.

“People need to appreciate within the movement that in order to grow and carry out the changes we want to see, Extinction Rebellion has to spread beyond the normal social groups – we need to be setting up events in council estates, small towns,” he adds.  

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Across Europe, attitudes towards environmental issues are split along similar lines to immigration – between big cities, with Friday for Future marches and extensive public transport, and small towns where an old diesel vehicle can be a lifeline when you don’t have a functioning bus service. Roger Hallam, one of the co-founders of XR, appears to think the political forces that shaped Britain’s Leave-voting areas could be converted into environmental rebellion. Before he was arrested for attempting to fly a drone close to Heathrow Airport, Hallam spent months over the summer promoting Extinction Rebellion in Leave-voting towns and cities, including Scunthorpe, Bradford, Sunderland and Swansea.  

Meanwhile, proponents of a global Green New Deal, a radical plan for a dramatic increase in green energy investment and a new programme of green jobs, hope to cut across class divides by offering something for everyone. The idea has been gaining momentum in Europe and the US, and takes inspiration from the "environmental justice" movement that arose in the US during the 1980s, when working-class ethnic minority activists protested against unequal environmental protections. A version of the Green New Deal proposal was recently folded into Labour Party policy (Labour for a Green New Deal, the pressure group behind the party's adoption of the proposal, will join Extinction Rebellion protests later this week). 

Its exponents hope environmental jobs and public investment will provide alternatives in places that historically relied upon carbon-intensive industry, such as the UK’s former mining towns, and that the Green New Deal’s global slant – versions of the proposal include climate reparations to the global south – encompasses communities beyond Europe that are already suffering from food insecurity, hurricanes and rising sea levels. 

Back in London, Klu tells me that “At the end of the day we’re in there fighting, because we recognise the responsibility we have towards the rest of the world.

“We can be critical of XR,” he adds, “without losing sight of the important contributions it is making.” 

Though the effects of environmental breakdown are today being felt most acutely in the global south, they will soon be visited upon everyone – making XR's purpose all the more urgent.

*Names have been changed

Hettie O'Brien is the New Statesman’s online editor.