Extinction Rebellion may enrage commuters, but it doesn't rely on majority support

Treating XR as just another campaign group trying to sway public opinion misses the point spectacularly.

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The disruption of London tube services at Canning Town on Thursday morning by a small faction of Extinction Rebellion (XR) supporters did not go down well. Early morning commuters were enraged; some threw buns, others grappled with and pulled protesters off the top of tube carriages and fights erupted on the platform. 

Online, commentators suggested the move would undermine the goodwill that XR protests have enjoyed so far. Others went further. In a tweet that has since been deleted,Tom Kibasi, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, said it was good to see “working class Londoners… standing up” for themselves. Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood tweeted that "Extinction Rebellion undermines its noble cause with such disruptive and illegal stunts."

The majority of the Extinction Rebellion movement urged against targeting the tubes. In a recent poll on public messaging platform Telegram, 74 per cent opposed the action under any circumstances. Many expressed their frustration at those who had gone ahead anyway.

It was, in hindsight, an ill-conceived idea – one that backfired spectacularly. But the crescendo of criticism surrounding the action at Canning Town betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of what XR understands its role to be.

One of the weakest arguments, and one that was deployed against XR's previous attempts to disrupt London’s transport network, is that public transport is a bad target because it is environmentally friendly. Disrupting trains could push people to use their cars, both on the day itself and in the longer term, contributing to greater CO2 emissions.

But Extinction Rebellion have been very clear that individual actions – whether switching to public transport, avoiding flying or going vegan – are a wholly inadequate response to the scale of the climate crisis. Only a complete restructuring of our economy away from fossil fuels, they argue, will deliver the zero emissions society required to prevent our planet growing catastrophically warmer.

A superficially more compelling argument is that by seriously inconveniencing commuters – many of whom will be in low-wage, insecure jobs – XR will alienate members of the public and prevent it from building widespread support.

But again, Extinction Rebellion has been clear that its primary goal is not to secure majority support for taking the necessary action to tackle climate change.

There is good reason for this. Decades of campaigning have not thrust climate change to the forefront of political consciousness. People care about the environment and are worried about a warming planet, but not enough for most to make it the deciding factor in which way they vote.

Instead, XR’s goal is to cause enough disruption to the economy and the functioning of society that governments are forced to do what is needed to make a dent in global warming. If the cost of their protests and direct action outweighs the investment needed to turn us into a zero-carbon economy, the economic arguments should succeed where the existential and moral ones haven’t.

As Buzzfeed put it when the movement last attempted to shut down London: “This approach certainly pisses a lot of people off at times, but the goal is not to win majority support, but to get a large enough minority who would make the cost of doing nothing on climate change higher than taking action to address it.”

XR’s strategy is based on studies of past instances where direct action has brought about real change, including the Civil Rights movement in the US. One of their influences, Harvard professor Erica Chenoweth, conducted research that suggested mobilising just 3.5 per cent of the population can be enough for a movement to succeed. Creating a minority of committed radicals is seen as a surer route to forcing the actions needed on climate change than a sympathetic and concerned, but distracted and apathetic, majority.

Although these arguments against XR's tactics were made before the actions at Canning Town, they have become more widespread in response to the angry scenes of commuters clashing with protesters.

None of this is to say that XR should be carrying out protests that do more to undermine public support than to disrupt the economy. That so many of the group (many of whom are willing to be arrested) thought the tube network was a poor target shows they are aware some actions do more harm than good. The decentralised, horizontal structure of XR is vital to its ability to continue staging direct action in the face of widespread arrests, but also means it will be very hard to stop similarly unhelpful activity in the future.

But treating Extinction Rebellion as just another campaign group trying to sway public opinion misses the point spectacularly.

XR has looked at decades of efforts to persuade governments, corporations and individuals to take the action necessary to avoid catastrophe, and seen them fail miserably. They believe that they are engaged in a literal rebellion designed to save humanity from itself.

That is going to mean pissing a lot of people off. Going by recent history, their approach may be the only option left.

Jasper Jackson is the New Statesmans digital editor. He was formerly assistant editor of Media Guardian, and editor of TheMediaBriefing.