New environmental group Extinction Rebellion launched on 31 October with an impressive mobilisation of over 1,000 people in Parliament Square. In the days since, they’ve dropped a huge banner, spray-painted government buildings and blocked main roads and five London bridges, resulting in numerous arrests and media attention – and there’s more to come. They want the government to declare a climate emergency and instigate a WW2-scale mobilisation to achieve net-zero carbon by 2025. Their strategy is to get as many people as possible arrested for non-violent ‘civil disobedience’ highlighting the sixth mass extinction.
With just 12 years to avoid irreversibly catastrophic climate breakdown, the willingness of so many to take radical action is refreshing and inspiring. I share their belief we can build a sustainable and victorious climate movement together – but there are five reasons I can’t be involved.
1. Mass arrests, mass burnout.
The anti-fracking movement has shown that police repression, arrest and sometimes criminal charges can often be severely damaging for activists’ mental health, often leading to burnout, and take up a significant amount of time, energy and money for the whole organising community.
Arrestable direct actions can be necessary and incredibly effective as part of a wider strategy, but they should be deployed with greater care and resources. A movement dependent on mass arrests without robust welfare systems and a huge pool of dispensable human resources is setting itself up to dwindle away as participants burn out.
2. Strategic limitations.
It’s unclear that civil disobedience and mass arrests alone can act as leverage for the government to act on a climate crisis they have immediate economic interests in maintaining. As shown with anti-fracking protests in Lancashire, the state has no qualms about relentlessly arresting peaceful protesters while deploying its power to impose profitable fossil fuel infrastructure on communities that don’t want it.
Extinction Rebellion argue that those arrests will shift the ‘Overton window’ around ecological breakdown, inspiring popular sympathy. Unfortunately, the forces of fossil capital and their government representatives act irrespective of public opinion. They value social license to operate, but don’t depend on it.
The strategy of manufacturing state repression to mobilise popular support is doomed. State repression can get the public onside, but the repression must be genuine. People aren’t stupid. If arrests are for spray-painting or blocking roads, these both justify arrest within our current framework and are not especially productive (and at worst embarrassing) in the struggle for climate justice. Take anti-fracking actions blockading Cuadrilla’s site, for example – protestors put themselves in clearly arrestable positions, but as part of directly effective action to disrupt fracking. The public aren’t generally outraged at the arrests themselves, but by associated police violence and disproportionate sentencing.
3. Cherry-picking history.
Underlying Extinction Rebellion’s theory of change is a cherry-picked reading of history. They appeal to ‘tried and tested’ techniques of civil disobedience, but limit their history to decontextualized icons and their sacrificial moments. For them, reproducing moments of grand martyrdom will somehow catalyse necessary climate action. But how?
A true reading of the histories of people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks show that these individuals were significant but only partial players in huge social movements exercising a rich diversity of tactics. Parks’ famous intervention may have been orchestrated, but these tactics alone could never have been enough.
Extinction Rebellion should also understand the relatively limited scope of these historical inspirations’ achievements. The civil disobediences they appeal to have won monumental rights and changed political regimes, but never went so far as to transform the capitalist economic relations that continue to both impoverish the protagonists of these histories and cause climate breakdown.
4. Lack of political analysis.
Extinction Rebellion’s lack of political analysis is clear in their assertion that the government and environmental organisations have failed on climate change. The government has not failed on its own terms. It consistently fulfils its primary role: protecting the interests of fossil capital. Understanding this is essential to forming successful demands. It’s true that many ‘Big Green’ NGOs have serious limitations, but flattening all ‘environmental organisations’ as failures curbs our ability to learn from the climate movement’s recent history.
Framing climate breakdown as a moral issue rather than as political, Extinction Rebellion seek to universalise their movement. But they ignore the power relations which structure the crisis. If politics is about who uses power, when and for what ends, the story of climate change is a deeply political one where a political and economic minority inflict the injustices of climate breakdown on a systematically disempowered and dispossessed global majority.
Capitalism-colonialism-patriarchy is the nexus organising our global economy and underwriting climate breakdown. If our movements only make demands within the current paradigm rather than seeking to fundamentally transform our economy, we cannot decarbonise it sufficiently.
Getting a small proportion of the population arrested does not build socialism as capitalism burns. Winning solutions to climate breakdown will come from mass movements building popular power through trade unions, the Labour party and deep community organising.
5. Vague demands.
Highlighting Extinction Rebellion’s apolitical approach is important because moralising climate breakdown produces only vague demands. George Monbiot argues in his defense of Extinction Rebellion on Novara FM that we need a much bigger aim operating on a deeper level than policy, rejecting intermediate aims as compromising with future livelihoods.
Their ambition is clear with the demand for “legally binding policy measures to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025.” But without a programme of demands detailing the specifics of those measures, they throw the ball into the government’s court and risk them adopting sticking plaster false solutions incommensurate with the scale and urgency of the crisis.
Monbiot says beyond policy we need a story evoking emotion and possibility. For him, it’s ‘the commons’. For me, the story of climate justice must be the possibilities of socialism against the chaos of barbaric capitalism, informing an ambitious policy program to practically decarbonise the global economy.
Nationalise and liquidate the fossil fuel industry; force banks to exclude fossil fuels and finance zero-carbon infrastructure projects; mass investment in zero-carbon infrastructure to decarbonise industry, transport and agriculture. These aren’t demands for government to concede. We must build and win power to implement them ourselves.