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What the Left Can Learn from Extinction Rebellion

There are plenty of criticisms to be made of XR, but how can the wider left build on the movement's successes?

by Chris Saltmarsh
01 May 2019, 10:44am

Extinction Rebellion activists. Photo: Jake Lewis

Over 1,000 Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists were arrested during the latest big action. Having now retreated, after disrupting London’s roads and bridges during the first phase of their rebellion, online debate still rages about their choice of targets, tactics and relationship to the police.

Around XR’s launch in November, I questioned the effectiveness of a strategy based on mass arrests and disrupting London's commuters. Others criticise XR's political vapidity: beyond an ambitious decarbonisation target of 2025, the movement’s demands don’t go further than asking the government to "tell the truth" and institute a Citizens' Assembly to figure out the rest.

That said, XR has undoubtedly achieved an impressive amount in around six months of existence.

With an effective national speaker tour of public meetings featuring a presentation and clear call to action, they rapidly mobilised 6,000 people for their first day of action, shutting down major London bridges in November. Thousands more turned out in London for April’s wave of action and protests in between. Crucial to XR’s story has been its success in activating people brand new to environmentalism. Many activists young and old are taking their first plunge into arrestable direct action in the name of climate justice – and a bigger movement is surely a better one.

XR can claim to have pushed climate change to the top of the news agenda as the mainstream press and broadcast media cover their actions regularly. They continue to receive prominent coverage by the BBC, the Guardian and Sky News, as well as receiving welcome derision in the Daily Mail and the Sun. Climate change may already have been moving up editorial agendas in preceding months, but XR have undoubtedly filled and expanded that mainstream space on their own terms.

There are now calls for discussion on how the successes of the movement – namely the scale and form that it took – could be replicated by those with more coherent politics. Before considering how wider movements could replicate XR’s impressive mobilising, there is a deeper question to answer: Is it actually possible for a group with more substantive ideological politics and more specific demands to repeat what XR has done?

XR has mobilised so many so quickly under the vaguest of unifying principles: there is a climate emergency. It is going to be bad. It is urgent. Governments need to act. Who could disagree? XR’s lack of a substantial political analysis of the root causes of the ecological crisis is precisely the reason they have been able to get so many people on the streets so quickly.

With no explicit ideological story of climate breakdown's causes and solutions, people spanning the political spectrum have felt comfortable in XR. XR has shown that very many people can join a cause demanding something be done about climate change – and with the something unclear, that there is little for potential participants to disagree with to the extent that they refuse to join.

The contradiction born out of this is important. Proposing specific policies would inevitably fragment a coalition held together only by a shared belief in the scale of the crisis and the urgency of the need to act. On the other hand, without strong demands, XR is politically toothless and little more than enhanced awareness raising.

The lesson for those with radical climate politics is not that we should abandon a transformational vision in order to mobilise en masse. Nor is it that we should abandon mass mobilisations in rigid defence of our political analysis. XR’s model of going to where people are – local meetings in community centres and town halls – to proactively make the case for their assessment of the crisis has served them well in turning out big numbers.

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Extinction Rebellion activists. Photo: Jake Lewis

It is undoubtedly a larger task to build a common sense around anti-capitalist solutions to climate breakdown. We have a generation of deeply embedded assumptions about how the economy should work to undo, but XR’s initial mobilising model offers a strong starting point.

Large, rapid mobilisations like XR – or Occupy before it – are alone not the key to winning these solutions. However, XR has shown that mobilisation in those styles can engage and activate people. Our job is to bring them into a broader based movement. As well as an entry-point for new activists, an XR-style movement can effectively display the power of the environmental movement. We just shouldn’t confuse these tactics with effectively exerting power.

There is a budding renaissance of left-climate organising that could fruitfully complement a movement in the vein of XR. Labour for a Green New Deal have taken on the task of agitating for a transformative programme wedding climate and economic justice within the Labour Party. Momentum have joined People & Planet in targeting Barclays, demanding the bank stops funding fossil fuels globally.

Joining with these movements and others to come could provide a broad political framework for XR supporters to get behind without necessarily selling their souls to partisan politics. The youth strikes are a recent example of street mobilisations adopting the Green New Deal as an overarching demand. The Green New Deal is broad enough in scope to hold together the politically diverse spectrum of XR support while focusing energy on a propositional vision for the future. Investment in public services, green jobs, renewables and handing power to the people. Who could disagree?

While street actions raise the profile of the Green New Deal through the media, and pile public pressure on the government to acknowledge it, other wings of the movement could build power and organise through Labour, trade unions and communities to build it from the grassroots. As this organising builds support through the institutions to defund and dismantle the fossil fuel industry, XR-style actions should refocus efforts away from generalised disruption and towards prioritising targeting banks and companies responsible for the environmental crisis.

Whatever you think of XR, and regardless of its prospects for reform, we must all take this moment as an incentive to leap into the climate movement. This could be agitating to change XR by getting involved. More productive, though, would be organising through our political parties, unions, workplaces, faith groups, schools and universities, demanding a future of prosperity for all, underwritten by environmental stability.

Chris Saltmarsh is co-founder of Labour for a Green New Deal.

@Chris_Saltmarsh