A change in tactics

1st June 2023

Extinction Rebellion has promised to step up protests and civil disobedience after a list of its demands for the UK government fell on deaf ears in April. Will this help or hinder the cause, asks Chris Seekings

More than 200 organisations, including trade unions, community groups and charities, took part in a weekend of climate demonstrations around Westminster in April, in what was billed as ‘The Big One’.

Led by Extinction Rebellion (XR), the protestors had a list of demands for the government, including ending all new fossil fuel licences, and doing more to take account of citizens’ concerns on climate, ecological and social emergencies.

Ministers had until 5pm on Monday 24 April to respond, or “face the consequences”. As expected, the clock ticked past the deadline with total silence from Westminster. In response, XR has promised to step up its efforts to force the government to “immediately tackle” the climate crisis and social injustice.

The next step

XR is now considering an “ecosystem of tactics” that includes everyone from first-time protesters, to “those willing to go to prison”. This is quite the turnaround, considering XR announced it had “quit”, and would “shift away from public disruption as a primary tactic” just five months ago. Protestors could also face a 12-month prison sentence for blocking roads, under new laws, and six months or unlimited fines for locking on to others, objects or buildings.

So is the U-turn a sign that all is not well among the activists, and that there is disagreement over the best way to build their movement? “We are a decentralised network of groups and individuals, and are empowered to act with a great deal of autonomy, provided we are working towards our key demands,” explains Etienne Stott MBE, a spokesperson for XR and London 2012 Olympic gold medallist. “We have local, regional and national structures that coordinate and link up, but there are bound to be disagreements.”

This level of freedom makes it difficult to predict what we can expect, but suggests a return to many of the tactics seen before the start of 2023 – but on a larger scale. Protestors blocking bridges, super-glueing themselves to roads, sit-ins and property damage are just a few examples of the “non-violent civil disobedience and direct action” that we can again look forward to over the coming months.

Stott adds: “I believe massive adoption of these tactics is probably the best hope we have of creating enough pressure on the powers whose inaction is condemning us all to a future of misery and suffering.”

An estimated 60,000 people took part in 'The Big One' demonstration

Do these tactics work?

It is not immediately apparent how super-glueing oneself to a prized Pablo Picasso painting – as two XR activists did in Melbourne last year – furthers XR’s stated aims to “avoid tipping points in the climate system, biodiversity loss, and the risk of social and ecological collapse”.

YouGov polling in the first quarter of this year found that 43% of UK citizens dislike the movement, with 16% liking XR, and 14% remaining neutral (73% had heard of them). Conversely, public opinion polls show that concerns around the climate crisis continue to rise.

Towards the end of last year, the market research firm found that 67% were worried about climate change and its effects, with 62% thinking it’s only possible to avert the worst impacts with a “drastic change” to the steps already being taken.

Although one poll found 43% of UK citizens dislike XR, public concerns about the climate crisis continue to rise

Time will tell

It’s hard to say whether XR and other activist groups can take credit for the huge public concern around the climate and environment. A study by Ben Kenward, senior lecturer in psychology at Oxford Brookes University, and Cameron Brick, then research associate at the University of Cambridge, found that perceptions around XR depended on the news source.

They said: “The rebellion apparently succeeded in strengthening general environmental attitudes but did not lead to major growth in collective mobilisation or improved environmental policy. If activism increases passive support, and leads only to limited further mobilisation, what is it that activism is achieving?”

It is certainly conceivable that XR has helped raised awareness of the climate crisis – particularly among younger people – and there are further achievements it can plausibly take some credit for. In 2019, shortly after XR’s first high-profile demonstrations, the UK government declared an environment and climate emergency, and then began running trials for a Citizens’ Assembly – one of XR’s key demands – although this has had limited success.

Activists also point to previous movements throughout history, which were unpopular at the time, but ultimately delivered positive change. “Disruption and civil disobedience have long been used as a tool for change when there are policies which are clearly wrong,” says Ben Tolhurst, director of Business Declares, which is a coalition of more than 300 business leaders that have committed to climate action. “The Suffragettes and civil rights movements were hugely unpopular at the time, but now people look back and say they were right, and I think the same thing will happen here.”

When looking at examples of successful activism throughout history, a study in 2010 led by Erik Johnson from Washington State University found that the most effective movements use both mainstream tactics – such as voting, lobbying and drafting legislation – and non-violent mobilisation tactics – such as protests, boycotts, civil disobedience, strikes, sit-ins and rallies.

The rebellious nature of XR makes it unlikely that we will ever see them involved in policymaking, for example. However, some would argue that they are a necessary cog in the greater climate action wheel. “We do need public protest, popular mobilisation, civil disobedience – basically, whatever it takes, because it’s all so urgent,” explains Jayati Ghosh, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Most of the mass media is presenting everything in a way that distorts or hides the reality and doesn’t allow people even to see the full extent of it.”

Scientists continue to raise alarm on climate crisis

The big picture

Although there will be many who disagree with the tactics deployed by activists – the targeting of a London tube train in 2018 was a particularly low point, which XR has since admitted was a mistake – it is understandable that people feel compelled to take action that some might find extreme.

Stott says: “We are talking about the end of our planet’s ability to support civilisation – an existential threat – and it’s not just me saying this, it is the UN and government scientists. I think, in hindsight, people will look back and think that the tactics were actually very polite and fairly mellow, when considering we are tackling an existential threat.”

Others argue that XR needs to be more strategic with its demonstrations, and not target places and organisations that are unrelated to the climate crisis. Tolhurst counters: “Targeting the perpetrators, such as the oil companies or banks, doesn’t seem to get much traction, but the ones that don’t appear logical get masses of airtime and millions of views, with every mainstream TV channel asking for interviews to talk about it.”

Demonstrators had separate interests, including public health, fuel poverty and nature destruction

A movement of movements

However, the peaceful nature of The Big One demonstration in April – and lack of disruption to the London Marathon taking place at the same time – may partially explain why it was successful in attracting so many people. An estimated 60,000 took part, many of whom were from groups with separate interests, including public health, fuel poverty and nature destruction. No arrests were made.

Stott describes XR as a “movement of movements” – it has also given rise to many other groups, such as Doctors for XR, Scientists for XR and Lawyers for XR – and sees such demonstrations as part of a huge recruitment drive. On his own reasons for joining, he says: “In my career as an elite athlete I have learned more and more about the wonderful potential of human beings. But there is this huge wall blocking that human potential, and unleashing disastrous effects, and so I had to try to help stop that.”

The fact is, many activists feel like they have no choice but to take the steps they do. It’s also hard to deny that XR has brought attention to the climate crisis, and whether or not you agree with all its tactics, the public’s concerns on the issue are growing.

Image credits: Andrea Domeniconi | Aurora Findhorn | Shutterstock

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