Is XR Shooting Itself in the Foot?

Extinction Rebellion (XR) has three clear demands of the UK government; declare a climate emergency, reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2025 and create and lead a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice. 

These demands are unambiguously pitched at the government, but the strategy and methods adopted to influence change are deliberately disrupting the lives of ordinary people. This creates a significant flaw in the system. There is a real danger of not only losing public support for a just and critical cause, through the adoption of tactics of disruption and inconvenience, but also letting the government off the hook, by focusing on methods rather than the issue.

XR uses a form of non-violent protest called civil disobedience. Civil disobedience has been used for centuries from Thoreau in 1849 to the suffragettes and the civil rights movement. It is the act of rebelling against an issue that is believed to be unjust. Large-scale disruption is effective as it creates a lose-lose situation for the government. If the government allows the civil disobedience to continue, then it undermines the power of the government, law and order. If the government inflicts force, this further enrages people and encourages more civil disobedience. It is thus forcing the government to make changes.

The group’s tactics of civil disobedience, through large-scale disruption, are seen by many as an effective means of putting pressure on the government as evidenced through the vast publicity garnered for their marches and protests. Most notably, XR have protested around Oxford Street and Westminster in London, as well as across the UK, including Leeds. 

The recent protests on the London Underground, which turned violent and angered passengers, certainly made headlines. These disruption tactics have two specific weaknesses. 

Firstly, by targeting local transport systems and daily lives, protestors are focusing on areas which have lesser environmental impact than the alternatives. Thus, missing the overall message that the movement is trying to get across. Moreover, the movement is not targeting the ‘right’ or most influential people. Instead of targeting government officials, members of oil companies or those contributing the most to climate change, they are targeting normal society, those with limited environmental contributions and little power individually to make a change. 

Secondly, by disrupting the lives of ordinary people, XR is treading a very fine line between raising public awareness and losing public support. Controversial actions that only seem to make life difficult for working people severely undermine the cause.

Furthermore, to ensure high levels of public support (which is necessary in the fight to influence the government) XR must recognise and acknowledge that the ability to fight for a social movement is a position of privilege. Taking part in a political or social movement cannot be taken for granted. It may mean missing work or not being able to work an extra shift, and for many, this is not an option. It is naïve to assume that everyone is in the same privileged position. So, as acknowledged, stopping the tube from running during the London tube protest, stopped people from getting to work and supporting their families. 

XR emphasises that the movement is to save the lives of the next generation, but they must acknowledge the privilege that comes with that. For a large portion of the population, the main focus is putting meals on the table, this week and the next. For this, people should not be made to feel guilty. In addition, there is a correlation between income and positive contribution to greenhouse gases – another reason to switch efforts to those where the impact is most significant. The XR movement is fighting a just and noble cause, but they must not expect everyone to join in. Acknowledging those who are not in a position to think as far into the future would enhance their cause.

What changes can be made? As our politics change, so should our political response. Over time the role of civil disobedience has evolved, principally as the general population has gained greater influence over the government. It is easier to get the government’s attention without such drastic protests. The primary focus to effect change should be establishing open lines of robust, regular, communication between the movement and the government as well as utilising civil marches outside parliament, petition, use of local MPs and adopting panels of experts. Additionally, the protest should be targeted at those who have the most power and effect, such as oil companies. Furthermore, alliances should be established with those who support the movement but are unable to take part in direct action.

 Extinction Rebellion are privileged in their ability to fight for future generations. Their method of attack should include rather than alienate, and they must adopt progressive political responses rather than more outdated means of disruption.

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