London, April 2019. Police have confined supporters of the environmentalist movement Extinction Rebellion (XR) at Marble Arch after more than a week of protests. The activists decide to disperse, but a mural remains at the site: a young girl with a spade has just planted a sapling; she is holding a plant label with the XR logo, an hourglass in a circle. The piece, which has all the distinguishing features of a Banksy, borrows a line from Raoul Vaneigem’s The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967): ‘From this moment despair ends and tactics begin.’
Brussels, September 2019. The first day of the worldwide climate strikes. There are 15,000 demonstrators in the Belgian capital: Grandparents for Climate, Students for Climate, Youth for Climate, trade unions and young socialists; concerned Christians; staff from the Belgian cleaning product company Ecover (‘The people against dirty’) in canary-yellow pullovers. Thoroughbred anti-capitalists dressed head to toe in black are a small, dissident presence, their gas masks and open umbrellas a nod to protesters in Hong Kong. They sing facetious limericks, mocking environmentalists for their failure to identify capitalism as the real enemy. XR Belgium arrives with a raucous fanfare. ‘Extinction!’ an ecstatic teenager shouts through a loudhailer outside the central railway station, as Grandparents for Climate adjust their hearing devices. ‘Rebellion!’ a group of a dozen activists responds before folding into the crowd.
Dover, a few days later. A young police officer is visibly dismayed as she arrests an XR activist in her eighties for refusing to move from a roundabout. Other protesters applaud as their elderly comrade is helped into the police van. Walking back to Dover Priory Station in the sunshine, I encounter a group of men from Britain First. One of them hands me a leaflet puffing their anti-migrant vigils on the coast.
Brighton, the Labour Party Conference, 22 September. XR has constructed a lightvessel on wheels, about the size of a bus. In large white letters on the red hull: ‘Sound the Alarm. Climate Emergency.’ It makes its stately way along the front from Hove towards the conference centre, with an entourage of noisy activists, many on bicycles, sounding their bells. It’s equipped with an onboard PA system: at intervals a foghorn blasts and a recording delivers XR’s apocalyptic version of the shipping forecast: ‘Viking, North Utsire, severe gales, summer heatwaves … moderate or poor, becoming desperate soon.’
Trafalgar Square, 7 October 10.30 p.m. A heavy downpour has let up. A young activist – an economist who works in a government department he asks me not to name – is reminding his sodden comrades to observe a boundary the police have just enforced with a row of vans; in the headlights mist rises off the tarmac. Protesters are calm, if a little uneasy, but the government economist is cheerful; his fears, he says, are focused on the future, ten years, twenty down the line. He casts withering doubt on the government’s plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It’s starting to rain again and the protesters are returning to their tents.
In the six months since their big event last autumn, we haven’t heard much from XR, and whatever they were planning for the early summer has been postponed indefinitely by the onset of Covid-19. The virus may have changed the game, but not the preoccupations of environmentalists. To many, it presages the difficulties that climate change has in store for us; it will bring us to our senses, they hope, and force us into a massive salvage operation that protects our habitat and ourselves. There are encouraging signs. Governments – most of them at least – are now acting with urgency on scientific advice, as they seldom have when confronted by the science on climate change. A shift in the way we think about the state, already underway before the UK election in December, has been accelerated by the crisis: less a blundering, intrusive monster than an organiser and provider, facilitating large transfers of cash to people whose livelihoods have ceased to exist. But as economies and treasuries emerge from the pandemic on their knees, it isn’t clear what method of resuscitation the government of the day will be able to pursue. The call for massive infrastructural investment – a green new deal? – will be louder than ever. But we may be forced back instead on the technologies we already know, deferring our zero carbon targets, or merely ignoring them, leaving fossil fuel consumption at the centre of the story. Either way, environmentalists will have their work cut out.
As things stand, the goals of the Paris Agreement in 2015 look elusive: limiting the average global temperature increase to 1.5ºC above pre-industrial levels between now and the end of the century is a tall order. (Last year we stood at 1.1ºC.) Even staying ‘well below two degrees’ will be difficult. The UN Environment Programme’s annual Emissions Gap Report, which measures actual greenhouse gas emissions, current and projected, against the levels necessary to meet the Paris targets, warned last year that they would have to fall by 7.6 per cent per annum by 2030 to get the signatories on track. At the moment, we are heading for a rise of 3.2ºC. Before the coronavirus outbreak, ExxonMobil predicted that worldwide demand for oil and gas was set to rise by 13 per cent by 2030. In its global energy projection for 2040, three-quarters of the world’s energy will be obtained from oil, gas and coal. Globally, coal-fired energy generation appears to be falling, but in India, China and the US – the world’s biggest coal producers (and consumers), there are still generous state subsidies for coal power. Britain has only become ‘cleaner’ by outsourcing manufacture and devolving emissions to other parts of the world, such as China, where they’re expected to peak before 2030. The UK continues to invest in overseas fossil fuel opportunities: earlier this year, the government pledged about £1.8 billion for new gas and petroleum projects in Africa.
In Greta Thunberg’s opinion, influential adults – heads of state, ministers for energy and environment, and the managers of fossil fuel companies – are ‘not mature enough to tell it like it is’. But avoiding a nuclear exchange during the Cold War was simple compared to negotiating climate change. Between them, oil, gas and coal providers, governments, armies on a permanent war footing, pension funds, health services, even individual consumers have devastating emissions capabilities and all find reasons not to relinquish them. The Covid-19 pandemic complicates the situation further.
At the same time, Thunberg’s narrow identification of the enemy raises interesting questions. One is whether there is any point reducing our own carbon footprint – as she and her followers do – unless, like them, we call loudly and often for comprehensive change. Another, closely linked, is whether taking people to task for their lifestyle choices – how often they fly, for instance, or eat meat – does more harm than good at a time when highly visible protesters, among them frequent flyers and omnivores, have struck a welcome note of urgency in the climate discussion, though as cities fall silent Covid-19 has dealt a blow to that energetic presence. A third: how many protesters would it take to speed up the pace at which states and world bodies move to meet the challenges we are facing?
The answer to the last question, according to XR, is not that many. They take the view that if a handful of the population can bring business as usual to a halt, preferably in capital cities, and stop people getting to the shops, but also to work, we will be forced to rethink our habits and governments will be obliged to look climate change in the face. Their key strategy is maximum disruption based on non-violent civil disobedience. Many committed activists – known as ‘arrestables’ – are willing to live with a criminal record after closing a bridge or shutting down a stretch of Oxford Street, as they did in 2019. Both Gail Bradbrook and Roger Hallam, two of the movement’s founding activists, have been exemplary arrestables. Arrests, they argue, are the necessary price for refusing a police order to move, and if enough people are detained, police stations and magistrates’ courts, perhaps even prisons, may eventually come under stress; sympathisers will flock to the movement. XR actions, one member told me, aim to simulate the disruptions to our lives and services that we can expect as the climate emergency deepens. Thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, take part in their protests. Like other environmentalist movements, XR projects optimism of the will and pessimism of the intellect in equal measure. At their larger gatherings, ecstatic ‘ecological grief’ is indistinguishable from no-nonsense activism as the rank and file enact the apocalypse, and chanters and drummers rehearse the ceremonial music that could hold it at bay.
XR’s model has been replicated in dozens of countries, but by far their most successful campaigns have been waged in the UK, where the movement originated in 2018. At XR events, or ‘rebellions’ as they’re known, protesters glue themselves down in corporate spaces; ‘swarm’ on traffic to cause brisk stoppages (seven minutes is the rule); lock themselves together – often in pairs, sometimes groups of three or more – on roads, bridges, pavements, to form human obstacles to drivers and pedestrians. Some fasten themselves with D-locks to little siege engines – teepees, stacks of plywood boxes – ferried in for the occasion and rapidly assembled like flatpacks. They have marshalled crowds of up to thirty thousand supporters at large events in London and won support from celebrities, among them Rowan Williams, Emma Thompson, Grayson Perry, Noam Chomsky, David Byrne, David King (the former chief scientific adviser to the government) and Thunberg.
Less well known is their following among lawyers, farmers (including livestock farmers), medics (last year the Lancet called for doctors to take part in the protests) and even a handful of former police. But in a report on XR for the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange, whose funding sources are a jealously guarded secret, Richard Walton, the retired head of counter-terrorism at the Metropolitan Police, accused XR of trying to break up ‘democracy and the British state’. In January, City of London police put XR on a list of groups said to have extremist ideologies; they were later removed, but XR’s lawyers have been kept busy trying to ensure that other police forces aren’t peddling the same model to their officers.
XR announced its existence in October 2018 on the back of a warning from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that the world had 12 years to draw down greenhouse gas emissions and keep humans and other species from the worst effects of climate change. A thousand supporters, including Thunberg, gathered in Parliament Square. Among XR’s founders and early followers were people who had played a part in the Occupy movement. Unlike Occupy, which favoured declarations and lists of grievances, XR had three demands and addressed them to government: it should ‘tell the truth’ by admitting to a ‘climate and ecological emergency’; it should ‘act now’ to bring carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 and halt the decline in biodiversity; it should create a citizens’ assembly to advise government on how to reach the 2025 target. Managing a ‘just transition’ away from carbon – rebuilding livelihoods for workers in declining sectors of the economy, for instance – would be the objective; spreading the pain of the transition fairly, at home and in the Global South, would be the utopian principle.
XR in Britain enjoyed its biggest success with an 11-day rebellion in London in spring 2019. Tens of thousands took part in this prolonged disruption. A large pink boat was wheeled to the junction of Oxford Street and Regent Street; activists glued themselves to the hull, as they did to the London Stock Exchange and the Treasury; Waterloo Bridge was blocked. By the end of the April rebellion, more than 1130 arrests had taken place. Rowdy, eclectic, inventive, playful and prophetic by turns, XR took the government and the public by surprise. At the end of the month an XR delegation met Michael Gove, the environment secretary at the time, and in May Parliament voted to declare a ‘climate change emergency’. But it was government, not Parliament, to which XR had addressed its first demand and as far as they’re concerned, it has yet to be met. Their second was more ambitious: very few scientists, UN officials or UK civil servants believe that 2025 is a realistic date for achieving net-zero emissions in an advanced economy. Britain’s target date is 2050. But XR argued – and many activists still do – that a radically innovative target would widen the Overton window, opening a conversation among the public and politicians that was once unthinkable.
XR’s enthusiasm for a citizens’ assembly drew on precedents in Ireland and Canada. Last year France was added to the list, when Emmanuel Macron set up a citizens’ convention for ‘ecological transition’. In November, six House of Commons select committees issued invitations to thirty thousand people to take part in ‘Climate Assembly UK’; 110 respondents were selected at random and the first session opened in Birmingham in January. But no one in XR thinks that the assembly meets their third demand. For one thing, it sticks to the government’s 2050 target. For another, nothing it has to say, when it does, will be binding on the government. And citizens’ assemblies are notoriously slow to deliver their findings. The fourth session, scheduled for mid March, was cancelled because of the virus.
Non-violent disruption is more controversial than the three demands, though not among XR activists: XR provides training in how to go about it. But the public is divided. During the April rebellion and again in October, XR brought parts of London to a standstill. Police dispositions were stretched and the movement was accused of diverting resources from more pressing duties. Police themselves are keen to make sure this objection keeps doing the rounds. XR’s disobedience is both festive and melancholic: plenty of singing, drumming and dancing; lots of hugging and grieving; witty environmentalist slogans; innovative agitprop design that has transformed the face of environmental protest (some of it acquired by the V&A); street yoga; wholesome outdoor activities (camping, vegan cookouts) repurposed for the inner city, all these activities inscribed under the sign of ecological catastrophe, the cloud of foreboding that lowers above XR’s cheerful rebels as they glue themselves to this and that or flatten themselves in lakes of fake oil, like helpless seabirds after a tanker spill, or a pool of fake blood, like the victims of a Mafia shootout.
XR aims at what it calls a ‘holacratic’, decentralised structure, though it does have a national nerve centre consisting of more than two hundred activists, most of whom are paid a volunteer living allowance to orchestrate high-impact interventions such as the two rebellions in London last year. They are assigned to dedicated ‘circles’, among them media, legal support, finance and ‘actions’ (for nationwide events of varying scales). In addition to these circles, there are now hundreds of local groups (anyone anywhere may start a local group), and others that identify not by geography but by profession or confession (XR Teachers, for instance, or XR Muslims). There are also small-scale ‘affinity groups’ whose members support one another during larger actions. A ‘national’ action requires co-ordination among a wide range of groups, above all the influential ‘circles’ in the nerve centre, but on the whole, actions by local groups or affinity groups do not. To that extent, the organisation appears non-hierarchical; on a good day, you could even think of it as ‘flat’. All kinds of local initiative are possible and some are controversial. Last February I watched XR Youth in Cambridge dig up the lawn in front of Trinity College, which is equivocating over its fossil fuel portfolio. (‘Move along please, just digging for oil’ was the protesters’ response to curious and indignant passersby.) I was in the middle of a WhatsApp exchange with Tobias Garnett, formerly the co-ordinator of XR’s legal strategy team (and a Trinity alumnus). ‘I guess part of the point,’ he messaged me from London a little ambivalently, ‘is to connect distant and abstract destruction to tangible things that you care about.’
XR’s taste for disruption has puzzled parts of the left in Britain, who waver between condescension and grudging admiration for its ability to bring thousands of people out in London for longer than a few hours. ‘It has to go on day after day,’ Hallam has written. ‘We all know A to B marches get us nowhere.’ But XR has also caught Menshevik green culture by the seat of its respectable pants, and forced it to think not just about the quality of what gets consumed but the sheer volume of consumption, ‘green’ or otherwise. There is a lot about ‘less’ in XR’s thinking and the lifestyle minimalism of its core following. At the same time, doctrinal spats between frequent fliers and people who refuse to fly, vegans and advocates of the locally sourced sausage, are discouraged. Travel and food, one member in Brighton told me during the protest at the Labour Party Conference, are subjects that she and her group in Sussex avoid. The climate and environmental crisis is too pressing, in their view, for personal habits to divide the ranks, which include people who would like to do more – or rather, less – on lifestyle issues but can’t: no saints, in other words, no sinners.
The crucible of this hybrid movement was Stroud in the Cotswolds – population 33,000 – which has a lively contingent of alternative and hippie residents, and a pea-green town council where more than a dozen activists came together in 2018 to imagine a broad-based radical movement that would focus on the ‘climate and ecological emergency’. XR was prefigured by two overlapping projects for a new activism. Compassionate Revolution – ‘birthed in the Occupy movement’, according to its website – came into being (again in Stroud) in 2015. It was followed in 2017 by Rising Up!, which put flesh on the bare bones of CR’s statement of principle with a draft manifesto. The small group of activists at the heart of these start-ups became the motor force behind XR. The Rising Up! manifesto is impeccably green: it calls for ecocide to be recognised as an international crime, for a ‘great transition’ away from fossil fuel economies to zero carbon, for regenerative agriculture, reforestation across the globe and a green new deal. But all these points sit side by side with calls for capital controls, financial re-regulation, an end to private finance initiatives and a citizen’s income (i.e. a universal basic income, which Covid-19 may yet bring about); more public construction projects, increased public ownership and support for co-operatives and employee-owned businesses. XR’s demands have none of the left-leaning, co-operativist aspirations of Rising Up!: they have cast a wide net, hoping to recruit followers without straightforward affiliations on the left. Nonetheless, several of XR’s founders and thousands of members share those aspirations. It’s rare to come across anyone in the thick of XR – the activists themselves as opposed to celebrity supporters – who thinks of capitalism as an ally in the struggle to create the ‘better, more beautiful world’ imagined by Rising Up!
Rising Up! did not come out of the blue. One of its recent ancestors was Earth First!, a groupuscule founded thirty years ago for ‘radical action and social justice’ in defence of natural habitats and biodiversity. In the early 1990s Earth First! was involved in major road protests around Newbury (the bypass), Twyford Down (the M3) and the M11. Hundreds of people joined the camps ‘day after day’, as the women of Greenham Common had. In 1995, Londoners in Earth First! began a campaign to ‘reclaim the streets’. Inveighing against exhaust fumes in the capital, they argued in one of their fliers that however unbreathable the air had become, ‘the pollution of capitalism [was] much more insidious.’ The group’s US precursor, ‘neither organised nor revolutionary’ in its own words, had seen its mission in far narrower terms. American Earth Firsters, whose movement dates from the late 1970s, were more like secretive commandos. They drove nails into trees to slow up logging and published a field guide to ‘ecotage’ (environmentalist sabotage), also known as ‘monkey-wrenching’. In the words of one Earth First! figurehead, their derring-do actions were undertaken in the ‘self-defence of the wild’, an intriguing syllogism. There was no plan by Earth Firsters in the US to ‘overthrow any social, political or economic system’.
Earth First! in Britain came to the conclusion that the Americans were a bunch of rednecks, obsessed by cloak-and-dagger actions in the name of ‘the wild’ and dominated by larger-than-life, charismatic figures. The English variant preferred anonymity, and democratic participation in direct actions. It was in no hurry to dissociate environmentalism from ‘social, political or economic’ issues. Similar direct action groups emerged in the UK a few years later. Among them were Camps for Climate Action, Climate Rush and Plane Stupid (opposed to airport expansions and later, to migrant deportations). At least one member of Plane Stupid was involved in the creation of Rising Up! But it’s the ambient continuity of these low-key environmental struggles in Britain’s political landscape, rather than the fine details of the family tree, that enabled XR’s noisy arrival on the scene in 2018. I may be wrong to identify that combination of pastoral dissent and patient collectivist protest as a particular English tradition, but similar movements in republican cultures – France for instance – are often single-issue struggles over local land use, and vulnerable to summary repression. Diggers, Levellers, tree-huggers and other non-violent defenders of the commons have had short shrift from regicides and republics. A small contingent of French XR had barely sat down on a bridge in Paris to hold up the traffic last summer when police doused them with pepper spray at point-blank range and packed them off to hospital.
Ifirst saw XR in action as a tiny, innocuous group on the climate march in Brussels in September. A few days later I caught up with a local group in Dover. ‘No food on a dying planet’ was the slogan for the Dover initiative: if you thought a no-deal Brexit might be bad, they argued, wait till food chains come under environmental stress. XR had set up camp near the Eastern Docks on a stretch of the promenade. There were dozens of hay bales and improvised stalls where participants could get their faces painted or grab some breakfast. The cooks were running hotplates on solar energy from a row of PV panels and an inverter in a wooden crate. ‘We’re not just hippies,’ a man who looked like a hippie explained as he kept an eye on the PV rig. With the smell of food came music: the sound systems, powered from the same source, were playing 1970s hits: ‘Slave Driver’ by the Wailers, the Clash’s version of ‘I Fought the Law’. Someone read a collage poem which began with the opening lines of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’.
The police and organisers were on cordial terms, liaising as they always do about proposed actions and timings, although it was clear that the participants, a hundred or more, were being filmed for police records. Further out of town along the A20 a group of people glued themselves to a stretch of dual carriageway and later, nearer the port, another group crossed a police cordon. Ten people were arrested; a few were elderly, including John Lynes, a legendary arrestable in his nineties. Behind the police cordon, where most demonstrators remained, four or five people in flowing red shifts appeared, walking at a painfully slow pace along the tarmac, gesturing mysteriously ahead of them, stopping mid-stride then gesturing again, in a silent enactment of grief or foreboding, possibly both; no placards, no slogans. Following behind were twenty XR activists, doing their best to imitate the gestures of the robed figures. One had a spooked whippet on a leash. The hum of diesel engines ticking over was the only sound: dozens of articulated trucks were backed up on the main road, across from the promenade. I’d heard that these enigmatic ‘spirits’, or ‘red brigades’, were a regular feature of XR’s larger outings and I’ve seen them since in greater numbers, drawing media attention, keeping the peace and on one occasion gliding like a curtain of chiffon between edgy police in London and protesters who refused to retreat. In Dover they simply struck me as comic.
So did Tiago Gambogi, their master of ceremonies, but that was partly his intention. Gambogi, a Brazilian theatre director and dancer, was dressed as a clown, rouged arms protruding from an undersized pinstripe jacket and an orange hard hat adorned with plastic vegetables. After the performance he explained that his little cast were playing the parts of the dead, summoned to alert the living to the ecological emergency. ‘We don’t need words anymore, isn’t it?’ he said. Gambogi was talkative, all the same. It turned out that he’d been an environmental activist in Brazil before marrying an English partner and settling in Margate. In 2012 he had joined human rights workers and indigenous militants in northern Brazil to oppose the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam: he and his comrades took a canoe along miles of river and carried it overland on a gruelling trek to the offices of the Belo Monte project where they presented it in ceremonial protest. The dam, acclaimed as a low carbon energy miracle, went into operation a few years later. Since then methane release, from the build and now from rotting vegetation in the reservoir, has stirred up controversy; local livelihoods, which depend on the river, are under pressure. Perhaps Gambogi and his Kentish apparitions weren’t so absurd after all.
The founders of XR have what they call a ‘theory of change’ – a blueprint for escalating disruption that will force government to accede to their demands. Supporters may or may not subscribe to it, and many do not. But all must abide by certain principles, above all non-violence. The three original demands are enshrined in XR’s thinking, although unlike non-violence, their merits and disadvantages are open to discussion. Trust in science is paramount, and there are many scientists in XR, including an advisory team which keeps the movement up to date – and up to scratch – on climate and environmental research. The science contingent co-exists – and overlaps – with several faith-based strands that go well beyond Quakerism and the radical fringes of Anglican Christianity. Among them are Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, atrophying strains of Marxism, and animism. ‘Spirituality’ is a word you often hear from XR members, and it has many inflections. For Rupert Read, who teaches philosophy at UEA and is a spokesperson for XR, ‘spiritual’ is shorthand for changes in human subjectivity that will enable a ‘massive shift of consciousness’ towards a ‘networked view’ of our place in rich ecologies alongside other ‘sentient beings’. For Bradbrook, a user of natural hallucinogens and a molecular biophysicist by training, it has to do with an appreciation of ‘sacred’ life-forms. (When I suggested that she was a pantheist, she doubled down and announced that she was a pagan.) The first step towards spirituality, she argues, is ‘humility’, which she wants to see entrenched in activism itself. ‘A grasping sense that you can fix something is unhealthy,’ she told me: XR must realise that it is not ‘some super on-it movement that got it right’.
Some find the perfect synthesis of ‘spirituality’ and political activism in Gandhi. ‘He’s my hero since teenage days,’ Chittranjan Dubey, an XR India founder, told me. ‘Roger gets Gandhi completely,’ he said of Hallam. Dubey, who works with XR UK’s modest South Asia liaison operation, ascribes Gandhi’s resonance in Britain to the colonial past. In Munich, where Dubey has tried to organise hunger strikes, few see their relevance. ‘And they don’t in France,’ he added. Hallam dropped out of a degree at the LSE in the mid-1980s and launched into a solo course in Gandhi studies. Peace activism had become an obsession. Many years later, after completing an MA at Swansea, he embarked on a PhD at King’s College London, where he started a fight over the university’s fossil fuel investments; he ended up on hunger strike and within weeks the university agreed to divest millions from fossil fuel companies and signed up to ‘carbon neutrality’ – i.e. net zero carbon – by 2025 (the deadline in XR’s second demand). Hallam dismisses claims that XR, predominantly a white movement, has hijacked an anti-colonial hero from the Global South. He invokes Gandhi’s correspondence with Tolstoy and his admiration for Thoreau to argue that ‘satyagraha’ – Gandhi’s theory of tenacity – is not the sole property of non-whites. He makes a similar argument about Martin Luther King: the Civil Rights model in the US is also dear to XR’s founders.
Other sources of inspiration include Saul Alinksy, the Chicago-based community activist and author of Rules for Radicals (1971), Mark and Paul Engler (This Is an Uprising, 2016) and Srdja Popovic, the Serbian advocate of ‘laughtivism’ (Blueprint for Revolution, 2015): XR insists that its interventions should both be fun and poke fun. Gene Sharp, the author of The Politics of Non-Violent Action and From Dictatorship to Democracy, is a central figure. The main object of Sharp’s inquiry is popular consent, and how regimes hang on to it or squander it. His inventory of models for non-violent action runs from American resistance to the Stamp Act in the 1760s to the Arab Spring (he died in 2018). ‘The maintenance of non-violent discipline in face of repression is not an act of naivety,’ Sharp wrote in The Politics of Non-Violent Action. Quite the opposite: it’s a smart approach which puts the adversary, usually a state and its security forces, in a delicate position: they can concede ground against their will or opt for repression, lose the consent of the undecided and swell the opposition’s ranks. Another possibility, according to Sharp, is that regimes are simply steamrollered out of office in the fray.
Some in XR – and Hallam in particular – derive their belief that small numbers can effect dramatic change from an eccentric piece of research published in 2011 by the political scientist Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, a US State Department planner, now at the US Institute of Peace. Their data set for Why Civil Resistance Works includes more than three hundred conflicts from 1900 to 2006, violent and non-violent (there are striking anomalies in their classification: the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, for example, is counted as ‘non-violent’, despite the history of the ANC’s armed wing). They conclude that non-violence is the more effective way to force political change, in part because, when the crunch comes, security forces defect in larger numbers to a non-violent opposition than they would to an armed movement. Crucially, they believe that it only takes 3.5 per cent of a population – sometimes less – to mount a non-violent protest and achieve success.
In XR’s short lifetime, many activists have been transfixed by the 3.5 per cent figure, which suggests that civil disobedience – breaking the law en masse – can change everything. But XR turnouts have yet to surpass the tens of thousands, and 3.5 per cent of the British population (not including children) is closer to two million. As early as the April rebellion there was reticence in some XR quarters about thresholds and targets. Bradbrook told me she was wary of too much ‘attachment to outcomes’: XR exists to embody and enact a set of values; it is, in her effortless tautology, ‘a holding to what this thing is’, not an exercise in ‘results ethics’. Rupert Read wondered what the point was in ‘getting your 3.5 per cent and pissing off 50 per cent of the population’? He was referring to a handful of actions that have been deeply unpopular with the public, notably the XR splinter group Heathrow Pause brandishing drones at the airport last September, and a disruption at Canning Town tube station last October, organised by a Christian affinity group, which made hundreds of shift workers – using virtuous, low-emissions transport – late for work.
To disrupt an economy – indeed, a way of life – you need activists who are prepared to be arrested. Arrest is sometimes a contentious subject and XR has come under fire for suggesting, as Hallam has, that prison isn’t such a bad experience. Eda Seyhan, a lawyer and civil liberties campaigner, delivered a blistering attack shortly after the April rebellion, proposing that XR should be less sanguine about detention. Prison ‘is not a yoga retreat’, she wrote, and certainly not for racial minorities. But sooner or later at XR meetings, especially before a national event, discussion turns to arrests. At one session I attended last year, some sixty or seventy activists were asked to indicate their willingness to be arrested by moving to a particular part of the hall: if they couldn’t risk being arrested (foreign nationals certainly can’t), they were to go to one end; if they felt up to it, they were to go to the other; the undecided were to stand somewhere in the middle. Arrestables and non-arrestables were more or less evenly divided, with the remainder milling in between.
As with all XR gatherings, this voluntary triage took place without overt or insidious pressure on the participants. One of the big surprises about XR is the absence of competitive speaking, will to dominance, ostentatious knowledge of chapter and verse or expressions of righteous zeal. Members express approval and uncertainty with a strange semaphore, which I first saw at an induction meeting in Hackney: fingers flutter at head height if they like what someone is saying, or lower and slower, at waist height, if they’re not sure. ‘Disagree’ is signalled at knee height, and isn’t always obvious. XR’s studiously non-confrontational rules are part of its orthodoxy of ‘welcoming’: anyone can enlist without being vetted (XR gatherings have their share of undercover police), or passing a test on climate science. This culture of solicitousness, part of what XR refers to as ‘regeneration’, is intended to minimise conflict, burnout and alienation. Arrestables are watched over by XR observers as the police take them away, greeted by XR contingents when they are released from custody, and finally accompanied through their plea hearings by a ‘court support team’, while the XR legal circle confers with chambers. Most cases involve a breach of Section 14 of the Public Order Act (1986), which gives police discretion to determine the place and duration of a public assembly. The great majority charged under Section 14 are members of local groups from across the country who come to London for the rebellions. Smaller numbers – many of them volunteers in the national circles – have been charged with criminal damage or aggravated trespass (for instance spraying the Treasury and the Brazilian embassy with fake blood).
Hearings and trials are an opportunity for XR activists to spell out their motivations or invoke scientific evidence for the climate and ecological emergency. Occasionally defendants win outright sympathy from the bench. Last year a defendant who had spraypainted the headquarters of Cambridgeshire County Council was found not guilty on the grounds that she had acted ‘to protect land and homes under threat from climate change’. In January a judge commended the canoeist Etienne Stott, an Olympic gold medal winner, who pleaded not guilty to a breach of Section 14 during the April rebellion, for ‘commitment to his cause’: Stott, he said, could see ‘the four horsemen of the apocalypse riding towards us because of a failure to address environmental breakdown and climate change’. More recently another judge told three XR defendants: ‘It is with a really heavy heart that I have to convict you.’ They were found guilty and freed on conditional discharge. ‘This is going to be my last Extinction Rebellion trial for a little while,’ the judge went on. ‘I think they only allow us to do so many of these before our sympathies start to overwhelm us.’
His remarks are scarcely surprising, given the bravura of defendants’ mitigation pleas. Elinor Milne of XR Jews quoted Leviticus: ‘Lo ta’amod al dam reyecha’ (‘Don’t stand idly by, when others are harmed or endangered’). ‘The consequences of the climate crisis are falling most heavily on those who have done the least to cause it,’ she said. ‘The injustice is breathtaking. But those of us living in rich countries will not be exempt.’ Hundreds of statements from defendants are now on record. Some are more theatrical than Milne’s: ‘Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars, and they are lining up now to write rebellion across the skies … This is a rebellion for the young people and for the grandmothers. This is for the turtle and the salamander, the dugong and the dove.’ Often, at big demonstrations or reading transcripts of plea hearings, I was troubled by XR’s theatricality and their feverish display of affect. You should bear in mind, an insider warned me, that the people who wind up in court are not always the most extravagant activists, and that thousands of non-mediagenic demonstrators have turned out for large events without costumes or routines. She described this understated following – arrestables and non-arrestables alike – as ‘the beating heart of the movement’.
October was an exuberant affair, but XR was quickly restricted to Trafalgar Square; conditions were cold and wet. Then the police imposed a blanket ban on the entire proceedings. The figure for arrests in October, around 1850, was far higher than in April. Until that point it hardly mattered that the police and the courts were coping with the numbers, which cast doubt on XR’s theory of change, or whether XR’s reading list – every luminary from Gandhi to Popovic – was really a coherent guide to civil disobedience in a highly capitalised consumer democracy like Britain. XR had flowered with a magnificent confidence and a bit of good fortune: the weather had been kind to the April rebellion. Along with Thunberg and David Attenborough, it had forced us to look our precariousness in the face. Who cared whether XR’s theories were halfway sound or simply up the creek, if they had brought the movement this far? Getting numbers out and persuading them to stay put: these were the hallmarks of XR’s success, and plenty of activists I met as the October rebellion was policed off the streets were wondering what was supposed to happen next. There was talk about a change in tactics and strategy. Was mass disruption still the way to go, or had it run its course? Roger Hallam, the architect of XR’s theory of change, was sure to have a view.
Adirt road off the A476 led to Hallam’s place in West Wales, about half an hour from Carmarthen. It was November; the track to the cluster of rundown barns and farmworkers’ cottages was a mudbath. A police van approached from the opposite direction, bouncing from one rut to the next. They must have been keeping an eye on Hallam. He had been arrested in possession of a toy drone outside Heathrow Airport in September, breached bail, done six weeks in Wormwood Scrubs and been confined to base by the courts: until his next hearing he had to check in at the local police station every day. He was living and working in a kind of indoor treehouse improvised beneath the roof of a barn. His eyrie was messy but spartan, vaguely convivial; he had wifi and a desktop computer; a couple of XR comrades shared the space.
It quickly became clear that Hallam still favoured a strategy of crisis and disruption: XR should keep performing simulations of the thing it wished to avert. Whatever lay in store for the movement, he said, XR would have to maintain a conspicuous presence on the streets, or what he called ‘the analogue element’, as opposed to digital activism: actual people doing real things in three-dimensional space. ‘Social media is like heroin,’ he said. ‘Fantastic, but it does you in.’ Then there was the question of leadership. Hallam had followed the progress of the gilets jaunes in France. He and his fellow founders, he said, were ‘non-spontaneous’, ‘more like the Bolsheviks in our methods’, and focused on outcomes. (In XR, Hallam and Bradbrook are often seen as creative opposites.) All the same, he paid lip service to XR’s holacratic structure. ‘Our model tries to replicate systems in nature,’ he told me. He wasn’t the first to stress the autonomous character of local and affinity groups.
But ‘flat’ was good only up to a point. Hallam was exasperated by ‘dogmatic horizontalism’ and the danger of ‘structurelessness … a complete disaster in my opinion’. ‘Someone has to decide where and when a rebellion will take place, but who? I understand about egotistical leaders and the various downsides of leadership, but the other game in town is no one knows what the fuck’s going on.’ Before his divestment campaign at KCL, Hallam mentored a rent strike by students in UCL’s halls of residence (concessions followed); in 2019 he offered his services to striking Deliveroo drivers (again, concessions followed). XR wouldn’t have the presence it does without him: apart from anything else, he’s a brilliant events manager for a burgeoning counter-culture.
Hallam’s forecasts hadn’t changed since the October rebellion. ‘Given the objective extremity of what we’re facing,’ he said, ‘we’re looking at mass death. For ever. But transform society and you’re in the survival ballpark.’ He likes to speak as a lone figure surveying a world of torment from his rocky promontory. ‘Let’s be frank about what [environmental] “catastrophe” actually means,’ he writes in Common Sense for the 21st Century. ‘We are looking at the slow and agonising suffering and death of billions of people.’ Not long after we met he would spin this dire forecast in an interview with Die Zeit, describing the Holocaust as ‘just another fuckery in human history’. XR Israel, XR Germany, XR Jews in the UK and other chapters, some of them furious with Hallam, dutifully rallied round to contain the damage. There were calls for his expulsion.
Hallam’s favourite tense, the future apocalyptic, is used by other thinkers in and around XR. Jem Bendell, a scholar specialising in sustainability management, wrote in a 2018 paper on ‘Deep Adaptation’: ‘When I [speak of] starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war, I mean in your own life. With the power down, soon you wouldn’t have water coming out of your tap. You will depend on your neighbours for food and some warmth. You will become malnourished.’ ‘This industrial-growthist civilisation will not achieve the Paris climate accord goals,’ Read said in a conversation with the Australian environmentalist Samuel Alexander. ‘And that means that we will most likely see three to four degrees of global overheat at a minimum, and that is not compatible with civilisation as we know it.’ These scribes of the rebellion accept that the ‘climate tragedy’ – to use Bendell’s phrase – is well underway; they lament the casualties suffered in the Global South; but they also foresee far larger numbers to come.
There are three points to note here. First, the idea that we could reverse out of the climate emergency is fantastic, and so XR’s intellectuals and fellow-travellers can only speak honestly about mitigating its worst effects and adapting to a hostile environment: ‘mitigation’ and ‘adaptation’ are the movement’s two watchwords. Part of the answer for Hallam lies in technology, particularly the creation of public domain ‘transition labs’, where scientists and engineers would work together on new developments in infrastructure and goods that lower fossil fuel dependency and increase our chances of adapting with minimal losses. For Bendell it means the rediscovery of ‘attitudes and approaches to life and organisation that our hydrocarbon-fuelled system eroded’. For Bradbrook, it’s about creating ‘a non-narcissistic, non-consumerist culture’, exploring sustainable sources of food, energy and medicine in local communities – not just Stroud – and ‘trusting to learn what happens when things fuck up … because it’s coming.’
Second, the movement’s thinkers are focused centrally on the fate of human beings. The choice of ‘extinction’ in XR’s name refers to rapid species depletion in the Anthropocene – and to Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction (2014) – but the recurring terms in its lexicon are ‘civilisation’, ‘society’, ‘community’, ‘culture’, ‘equality’, ‘politics’ and ‘change’. All XR intellectuals, including Kate Raworth, the author of Doughnut Economics (2017), look forward to ‘economic transformation’. Even so, this humanist perspective is qualified by the notion of respect for other species: it is no longer the story of homo sapiens at the centre of the universe, and if ‘justice’ and ‘equality’ refer primarily to human societies, the turtle and the salamander are also eligible. But there are no fantasies about ‘saving the planet’: it will persist as a robust, self-regulating system, with or without us. ‘Society, society!’ Hallam said in an exasperated tone as the rain slammed down on the hills of Carmarthenshire and our interview turned into a conversation. ‘It’s like nature is the slave next door, it’s been fixing your dinner since 1750 and now the slave’s going to come in and stab you.’ You could take those for the words of a disgruntled misanthrope who can scarcely wait for his predictions to come true, but I heard them as a call to redefine our relationship with the fragile life systems we depend on.
Third, these fears for civilisation give rise to a more immediate anxiety about the breakdown of the social order, as they do in the writings of the French ‘collapsologues’ Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens, the co-authors of Comment tout peut s’effondrer (2015).On both sides of the Channel, the possibility that social chaos is just around the corner stirs the imagination. XR is not alone in this. An internal J.P. Morgan report on climate change leaked in February envisages precisely these difficulties, although for the moment mostly in developing countries. For XR the vision is one of food shortages and dysfunctional hospitals, even in prosperous economies; a foundering grid, a stuttering public transport system, unsafe water; dangerous glitches in micro-managed systems (Read is against nuclear power on the grounds that the levels of disorder he foresees will increase the chances of an accident); perfunctory violence against unauthorised migrants and refugees. As social arrangements unravel, repression follows, attended by the triumph of eco-fascism, which captures environmentalism for its own ideological ends and enacts its sanitary passions – purity and triage – on Britain’s borders and the streets of its cities, or even Europe’s: one of Marine Le Pen’s ambitions, announced last year, is to turn the continent into ‘the world’s leading ecological civilisation’.
Extinction Rebellion went into hibernation after October. At a local level, actions kept the movement ticking over as followers waited for word of the next large-scale rebellion. In the meantime there was much to think about, criticisms especially, which had hung in the air since last April. The movement stood accused of being too middle class (the same objections were voiced about the surge in the Labour Party’s membership after 2015). Not all of XR’s founders have the middle-class profile that its critics deplore: Bradbrook’s father was a mining electrician in the West Yorkshire colliery of South Elmsall before it was closed in the 1990s; Hallam slid away from his ABC1 background into manual work, including a long spell as a market gardener (he blamed climate change when his organic project went under). All the same XR was worried by low levels of support in non-middle-class communities and embarrassed by the autonomous Canning Town tube action, which it had been powerless to stop and which had mostly affected working-class and BME commuters. (Some defended this fiasco, imagining that high-earning City cadres were being targeted, but the timing was wrong by an hour: it was the underpaid, early-hours commuters who were hit.)
XR was also accused of being insensitive to British minorities and compromised by colonial attitudes towards the Global South. An open letter published last year by Wretched of the Earth, a small internationalist ‘grassroots collective’, and signed by a handful of militant groups including BP or not BP and Black Lives Matter UK, took the movement to task, from ‘a place of love and solidarity’, arguing that it had marginalised ‘our history of struggle, dignity, victory and resilience’ and failed to identify ‘the root causes of climate crisis: capitalism, extractivism, racism, sexism, classism, ableism and other systems of oppression – the climate movement must reflect the complex realities of everyone’s lives in their narrative.’ (The only offences missing here are against the turtle and the salamander, but this is not a trivial omission: many XR activists, including Bradbrook, came to their advocacy for social justice via animal rights.) In a demoralised ‘love letter’ to XR published last year, Sam Knights, a brilliant, burned-out activist, wrote: ‘I don’t wanna be part of your revolution if it ain’t intersectional.’ It was mostly homo sapiens jostling at his intersection. The investigative journalist Nafeez Ahmed was far harsher on XR in his online journal Insurge Intelligence: ‘XR’s current scattergun disruption strategy has been devised in a silo without consultation with and engagement from London’s communities … Diversity is not one of those nice but minor progressive issues that can be dealt with after we prevent extinction. It is a critical precondition for XR growing and sustaining its capability to mobilise the masses.’
There have been claims that XR is insensitive not just towards BME communities in general but to non-white activists inside the movement. Late last year an ‘internal letter’ circulated by ‘22 people of colour’ complained that ‘our voices are not being heard or included … We are often misquoted [and rarely] asked to engage on issues that strategically and tactically directly affect us.’ Mothiur Rahman, an XR activist (and a practising Sufi), told me that ‘if the arrestables are white, and mostly they are, they get lionised as white saviours … white is a huge problem.’ ‘Mostly’ seems like an understatement, even if the Met’s ethnicity breakdown from the April rebellion suggests that the proportion of people arrested who identified as ‘white British’ was smaller than it is in the population as a whole. XR was ‘a learning organism’, Rahman said, in its ‘second growth stage’; it would take these accusations seriously and adapt. Or mitigate, I found myself thinking: surely XR was a victim of its own success, dreamed up by a small group of white people in Gloucestershire, and now expected to ‘mobilise the masses’. That was asking a lot.
Despite these accusations, the movement has always stressed the vulnerability of the Global South and attracted one or two high-profile supporters of colour, including Farhana Yamin, a British climate change lawyer, who put the case for net zero emissions by mid-century at the Paris conference in 2015 and advised the Marshall Islands – threatened by rising sea levels – on their case against the misappropriation of the climate by high greenhouse gas emitters. Last year she glued herself to the forecourt of Shell’s London headquarters. She was part of the delegation that met with Gove. She later parted company with XR over its target date for carbon neutrality in the UK, which she argued was unrealistic. Another is the Indian anti-globalisation activist Vandana Shiva, who wrote the foreword to XR’s ‘handbook’ anthology This Is Not a Drill (Penguin, 2019). Still, plenty of members see a stark diversity deficit. So do critics on the outside. Unlike Hallam, who has stuck to a colour-blind position, Bradbrook is painfully aware of the contradictions. ‘Someone grabs the microphone at a camp,’ she told me, ‘and starts praising the police for their restraint, and I’m looking at a black activist next to me and wondering: “How’s this landing for you?” It’s complicated. How are we to handle this with elegance?’
Last year, before the two big rebellions, XR created an international solidarity network – XRISN – ‘with the aim of supporting activists on the frontlines of the global climate and ecological crisis’. Yamin was an enthusiast for tangible links between the movement in the UK and activists in parts of the world where climate change is already costing lives: she named a number of groups in Africa and Asia. But XR’s presence in the Global South – or the ‘majority world’, as XR prefers to call it – is precarious. Chittranjan Dubey is demoralised by his uphill struggle in India. ‘Ninety-five per cent of XR India are elite, upper-middle-class supporters and the numbers are tiny.’ The solution, he said, was for XR to throw its weight behind well-established local environmentalist groups, as Yamin had proposed. ‘Indigenous people,’ he pointed out, ‘have always fought ecological destruction in India.’
Kofi Klu, the joint co-ordinator of XRISN, believes that a significant skirmish was won by ‘majority world’ members of XR when it decided to set up the network. They were no longer parachuting their brand into places where environmentalists were already active on the ground, often at great risk, and imagining they knew better. The network, by contrast, consists of secretariats designed to support existing movements. ‘The majority world,’ Klu suggested, ‘is the greatest site of mass resistance to extractivist activities, destructive agribusiness, mining and deforestation. These are the people who can cause serious disruption, at the point of exploitation.’ On its own, he argued, XR UK ‘cannot disrupt anything meaningful’. One member in London told me: ‘In many places, environmental protectors get killed before they’ve disrupted anything, just for existing. Being beaten up, jailed without trial or murdered is not something even our bravest arrestables are up for. We certainly have nothing to teach.’
There is now a trickle of revenue from XR UK to Africa, Latin America and Asia to subsidise these modest secretariats, but money is in short supply. XR’s crowd-funding campaign last autumn raised around £800,000 and the movement has been kept ticking over by generous sums from philanthropists, celebrities and others, among them Aileen Getty’s Climate Emergency Fund, Greenpeace and Radiohead. The costs of office rental in London and high expenditures on the two big rebellions so far, including food and amenities for tens of thousands of activists, have left it a hand-to-mouth operation with little to spare for ‘the majority world’. Funds are low and living allowances for key volunteers are under pressure.
In February XR announced its strategy for 2020: one million people ‘in active support’ of the movement by the end of the year. Everywhere you turn, someone is proposing a target: 3.5 per cent of the population; a maximum rise of 1.5ºC, net-zero carbon by 2025, or 2030, or why not 2050? The Marshall Islands must be delighted that the Church of England and Sky TV have pledged to go carbon neutral by 2030. At the heart of XR’s 2020 programme was a ‘rolling rebellion’ in London and the provinces; it would target ‘toxic systems of government, media and finance’. A few weeks later Covid-19 tore up the diary. It’s difficult to say how much large-scale disruption in public spaces would have taken place alongside these more focused actions. Some in XR, still wedded to non-violent civil disobedience, hoped that disruption to the general public could be minimised in favour of more incisive actions, in the Square Mile for instance, at Westminster, or pharaonic media and big oil buildings: the point now, one of them told me, was to think ‘smarter’.
But change has proved difficult. Complaints persist among XR members about the ideal of leaderlessness, which concentrates power by default at the invisible apex of a movement that isn’t as flat as it likes to think. At the top, as they see it, are the charismatic figureheads, above all Hallam and Bradbrook. If our conversation in November is anything to go by, Hallam is keen to hang on to this arrangement and build out his model of widespread, generic disruption. But where are the mechanisms for XR’s loyal followers who wish to inflect the doctrine and what would a change in tactics look like? XR’s summer rebellion might have given us some answers, but the coronavirus lockdown has left that question hanging. It has also forced XR off the streets, nudging them into quarantined, digital activism, which Hallam never trusted in the first place.
In the last five years environmentalists across the Global North, from the Standing Rock movement in the US to Ende Gelände (‘Enough is enough’) in Germany, have faced off against oil, gas and coal, staging lengthy protests at pipeline trenches and open cast mines in the bleak testimonial hinterlands of our fossil-fuel dependency. But it was Thunberg and XR who brought out demonstrators in our cities. Now, suddenly we are all grudging activists, whether on the frontline as carers, or stuck at home, staging a worldwide stay-away protest against Covid-19, as prisons and refugee camps round the world experience a fatal quarantine within the quarantine. Among environmentalists – but they are not the only ones – signs and wonders attend the spread of the disease. For some, it is hard to tell ‘dark times’ from ‘end times’, immediate dismay from brooding apprehension, the salutary model from the larger emergency they envisage further down the road. Others point out that the air in the big conurbations is breathable and the skies are bare of contrails; they are heartened by evidence of kindness, courage, generosity, even though they grasp that it isn’t reason and sound environmental policy that have brought us to this point, but sickness and calamity.