Extinction Rebellion Has a Politics Problem

On why it isn’t possible to find an apolitical solution to a political problem…

This past Sunday, I woke up to an email announcing that the rebellion was about to begin. “Fellow rebels!” the message began, informing me that in just a few hours Extinction Rebellion activists from around the globe would mobilize in their latest international demonstration. In London, protesters were called to gather in Trafalgar Square, outside the Houses of Parliament, and on the Mall adjacent to Buckingham Palace. “We are doing this together, bound by love, for the sake of our home planet—what a fucking honour,” the email read, before signing off with “love and rage, the XR London team.” The colorful images used to illustrate both the email and the various Facebook event pages linked to it bore the kind of iconography that those familiar with XR (Extinction Rebellion) would recognize: Their signature blend of the whimsical and the grim. One included an elegant red illustration of one of the many butterfly species predicted to go extinct as global insect populations collapse. In another, the undulating petals of a lily—likewise imperiled as pollinators are pushed to extinction—were arranged to resemble hellish flames. The last featured perhaps the most iconic of Extinction Rebellion’s army of symbols: the fleshless smile of a skeleton and a menacing series of hourglasses reminding the viewer of the ever-dwindling time left to tackle the climate disaster that is already unfolding around us.

I attended four of the five XR London occupation sites when the group staged their massive week-long demonstration last April, closing bridges, blocking roads, bolting ships down in the middle of major intersections, supergluing bodies to trains, and generally attempting to do everything in its power to force a willfully leaden-footed government toward action on the ecological crisis. On Waterloo Bridge—which had been transformed by protesters into a kind of makeshift garden fitted with a stage, a kitchen, and a wooden skating halfpipe—I’d practiced going limp and jelly-limbed in the case of arrest as part of an XR initiation training. It was at this event, as the instructor was taking us through the group’s core tenets, that the discomfort I’d had with one of the movement’s principles came to a head. 

“Beyond Politics” is a slogan at the center of Extinction Rebellion organizing: You can see it on posters, on flyers, on candy-colored flags. In this vein, one of the goals XR is agitating for is for the creation of an autonomous citizen’s assembly to shape climate policy. But there is another, broader aspect to this “beyond politics” stance as well. Seeking to distance itself from the failures of the “traditional environmental movement”—with its marches and its hippie vibes and its decades-long record of sounding the climate change alarm to no avail—XR presents itself as a movement not of professional protesters but of the people, of everyone. Parents can bring their children; workers can plug in their laptops at one of their solar-powered mobile office spaces and carry on spreadsheeting. As part of this bid to garner support from as varied a section of the population as possible, Extinction Rebellion avoids taking a stance on political issues beyond the environment. Although it’s the fastest-growing climate movement in the world—and one that has attracted endorsements from high-profile figures like Emma Thompson, Philip Pullman, Noam Chomsky, and Greta Thunberg—Extinction Rebellion makes no specific policy demands. Its goal of carbon neutrality by 2025 comes without prescriptions for how to get there, or proscriptions for how not to. Its plan to use citizens’ assemblies to cut through partisan deadlock and lead decision-making around ecological justice does not include a blueprint for what changes these assemblies need to make, or by what means.

Readers of mainstream media reporting on Extinction Rebellion might be forgiven for not realizing the movement’s policy of non-alliance. Frantic conservative commentary has variously—and contradictorily—labeled XR “socialist propaganda,” “an extremist anarchist group,” and a movement with an “increasingly Marxist tinge.” Even media outlets that aren’t on the right have fallen into this trap. Sam Knight wrote in the New Yorker that “it’s true that the founders of Extinction Rebellion have an extreme, anti-capitalist vision of what they want society to look like” before unironically following it up with this quote from founder Gail Bradbrook as “proof” of her radical utopian vision: “I want to live in a beautiful, nature-filled world.” Such mischaracterizations of the movement probably say more about their authors’ lack of understanding of the left—and the limitations of their vision of the possible—than they do about XR itself.

It is certainly true that individual protesters have used the media attention around XR to broadcast leftist politics. A group of activists in Paris displayed banners reading “Burn capitalism not petrol” at an occupied mall last weekend, and prominent XR supporter George Monbiot has used his platform as a Guardian columnist to express his conviction that rejecting capitalism is necessary to solve the climate crisis. Movement leadership also has a record of political engagement with progressive causes (Bradbrook is an Occupy alum, for instance). But the movement as a whole has so far proven steadfastly and strategically unwilling to wed itself to a specific politics. More to the point, they actively discourage talking about such matters. In a YouTube video entitled “XR’s Position on Brexit and a General Election,” group representative Ronan Harrington cautions XR demonstrators against coming down one way or another on divisive issues, either when engaging with the press or when speaking with friends and family members still on the fence about taking part. “[There’s] the risk of being pulled into a messy, polarized debate that alienates large chunks of the population,” Harrington explains, citing XR’s goal of mobilizing 3.5 percent of the populace in organized civil disobedience. “If we come down for one side, we lose them, and they shut down…. If asked about Brexit, we recommend speaking to the outrage people feel at our failed politics.”

Harrington’s message indicates XR’s belief that political discourse is not a means of shifting opinions (a way, for instance, of changing the percentage of people who might feel alienated by a certain topic) but fundamentally a problem to be sidestepped. Yet on Waterloo Bridge last spring, as I and other trainees sat on a ring of hay bales and listened to a rundown of what XR stood for, this refusal to engage with politics struck me as the possible downfall of the movement. After all, here we all were, listening to a discussion about environmental destruction without any inquiry into the economic engines that drive it. If I turned my neck just a little to the left, I could see the Gherkin, the Cheesegrater, and the Walkie Talkie—some of the iconic towers marking out the skyline of the City’s financial hub—winking in the last rays of the sunset. Against this backdrop, it seemed profoundly absurd not to bring up the doomed venture of infinite growth on a planet of ever-diminishing resources, or the way that the need to cut costs and remain competitive will always incentivize corporations to flout environmental concerns in their product designs, or the many other ways in which capitalism leads to environmental destruction. And yet we were instructed to think of XR as being “beyond politics.”

I do not think it is possible to find an apolitical solution to a political problem. More to the point, I do not believe that our current economic system is compatible with continued life on this planet. It is unrealistic and irresponsible to pretend that a proposed climate solution which keeps capitalism intact is any kind of solution at all. Put another way: There is no true green politics that is not a left politics.

Rather than allowing the group to remain gracefully above the fray of contemporary political clashes, XR’s unwillingness to openly take an anti-capitalist stance erodes the credibility of its position because such silence lends tacit support to the carbon-belching powers that be. At a certain point, the apolitical becomes indistinguishable from the reactionary. Such a failure on the part of XR to articulate a systemic critique of capitalism when their environmental commitments seemed to beg for it was at the root of my discomfort with the group’s adoption of the moniker “rebels” (just as some Hillary Clinton voters’ self-serious assertion that they are part of “the Resistance” just because they’ve made a few Cheeto jokes on Facebook has always struck me as ridiculous).

What’s more, whether its leaders realize it or not, there is a great deal about Extinction Rebellion as it exists now that is already explicitly political in one sense or another. The group notably focuses on strategic activist arrests, which the founders believe are far more effective at garnering public attention than the protests themselves. At last spring’s week-long London demonstrations, over 1,000 people were arrested for taking part in peaceful demonstrations. XR demonstrators as a general rule do not have an antagonistic relationship with the police, and arrests are often accompanied by music from those who remain behind. But isn’t the ability to face arrest without fear, to watch police officers approaching without trepidation, the product of political realities? It’s for precisely these reasons that XR has been criticized as a largely white movement (which it is): The risks associated with the type of police interactions that are the group’s stock-in-trade are far higher for minorities. The XR protesters who win attention for the movement by putting themselves at risk of arrest are able to do so because of existing racial and social hierarchies—hierarchies that are inherently political in nature.

A further, less openly advertised aspect of XR’s embrace of the “beyond politics” principle is that it bans the creation of community groups organized explicitly around political identity. Community groups—small gatherings of “rebels” who meet regularly—are a key part of XR organizing, especially in the protest off-season. Many are based on geography, but others are based on affinities: There’s a group for Quakers, a group for Baroque musicians, and a group for people who want to make skeletons out of newspaper. Not long ago, a friend of mine affiliated with the London-based group Left Culture Club attempted to start an XR socialist subgroup and quickly incurred the ire of the central XR media team. In a phone call, he was told that such a move would contravene XR’s stated “beyond politics” stance but also make it more difficult to accomplish their strategic goals, which, the spokesperson argued, require the cooperation of big business. Yet in an official email encouraging people to join affinity groups, XR’s list of approved spin-offs included XR Police and XR Landlords. The fact that the group fails to see that these two positions are themselves inherently and inextricably political bespeaks the degree to which theoretical attempts at apolitical stances will invariably, in practice, favor those already in power.

Another reason why this supposedly apolitical position is deeply worrying is because of the increasing prominence of ecofascism, whose adherents embrace both aspects of the green movement and militant xenophobia. Since Extinction Rebellion’s founding, the perpetrators of two major mass shootings—one at a WalMart in El Paso, the other at a mosque in Christchurch—have left behind manifestos that root their xenophobia in ecological concerns. Whether they frame nature conservation in explicitly nationalistic terms, or latch onto overpopulation as an excuse for curbing nonwhite populations, or argue that climate change needs to be halted because of the waves of migration from the global south that will inevitably result, ecofascists are a growing presence within white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups in the United States and elsewhere. To be clear, XR has in no way endorsed these kinds of far-right beliefs. But in the absence of taking any strong stance in the opposite direction, the movement leaves room for these kinds of reactionary forces to gather strength from the mass appeal of XR’s galvanizing pro-green message, its media attention, and its organizing systems. If Extinction Rebellion is truly committed to the principle of ecological justice, it cannot accept a future—or a present—in which environmental refugees from the global south are violently refused entry from the former colonial power whose unchecked CO2 production has birthed the very disasters driving these people from their homes in the first place (something that’s already happening along the southern border of the United States as Central American migrants fleeing drought-induced famine come up against the American border machine). Creating an ecologically just future requires vocal opposition to and rectification of the environmental injustices of the past and present.

There simply is no such thing as “beyond politics.” XR itself does not currently behave in a manner congruent with its stated “beyond politics,” and a climate movement that does not advocate radical economic and political change cannot possibly hope to grapple with the magnitude of the crisis that is now bearing down upon us. I don’t doubt that there are many—even a majority—of XR affiliates who align themselves with the left and who profess more radical beliefs than the organization itself. But the fact that such a major force in climate discourse today can stay mum about the relationship between capitalism and climate destruction smacks of denialism of another kind. XR has an unprecedented platform—and with that comes the responsibility to use it.

All the same, I think there is a lot that is utopian about XR. Its embrace of non-hierarchical structure and inclusive decision-making, which seems to take cues from anarchist ideas about organizing, gives a sense of empowerment to anyone who would like to get involved. XR’s street blockades bring an unfamiliar tranquility to streets normally full of cars and exhaust. And beyond the papier-mâché skeletons and the banners proclaiming the dire consequences of inaction on the climate emergency, XR’s encampments are microcosms of what a more egalitarian and ecologically just world could look like. Last spring, I was taken by the openness and generosity of so many of the people I encountered at the London protests: a mother and child who donated pillows from their house so that those chained to the encampment’s structures could be comfortable, musicians who sang and played late into the night to lift the spirits of the demonstrators, and above all the thousands and thousands of people who gave their time, their energies, and their bodies in the service of the greater good. An explicit endorsement of leftism wouldn’t bring about a radical change in the culture of the organization—rather, it would bring its stated principles in line with its spirit.

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