A Softer Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion's Shift Towards Peaceful Protest?

Extinction Rebellion (XR) self-describes as ‘an international movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience to halt mass extinction’. Their mission is to raise awareness and catalyse action to combat this threat, which is caused by climate change.

What is climate change?

Climate change refers to long-term shifts in the planet’s weather patterns and average temperatures. According to scientific consensus, current patterns, with global temperatures rising faster than at any point in recorded history, are almost entirely caused by human actions, specifically, their release of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere through activities including deforestation and industrialization.

The result has been a 2°C temperature rise since 1880 which, it is predicted, will lead to extreme weather, melting ice, and rising sea levels, the impacts of which we are already seeing today. There is reason to believe that XR’s rhetoric of ‘mass extinction’ is not just doom-mongering but backed up by scientific evidence. Dr Luke Kemp, a climate scientist, argued that ‘there are many reasons to believe climate change could become catastrophic,’. He cites the indirect consequences, such as conflicts and new disease outbreaks, as being the greatest potential threats to human society. XR’s cause is clearly justified but it has faced criticism for it’s methods.

‘There are many reasons to believe climate change could become catastrophic.’

Criticism of Extinction Rebellion?

Extinction Rebellion has long been renowned for its disruptive methods for getting its message across, including blocking roads, throwing paint, and smashing windows. Just last year, in 2022, Extinction Rebellion (XR) protestors superglued themselves around the Speaker’s chair in the House of Commons and padlocked themselves to the railings outside. XR has also previously encouraged supporters to get arrested, with 680 arrested in the 2019 climate protests.

Although XR describes these actions as ‘peaceful civil disobedience’ designed to raise awareness, opponents have argued that such disorderly methods are detrimental to the cause, since they alienate the British population. For example, YouGov found in 2021 that XR’s popularity among the British public was low, with just 19% of the public saying they approve of the group.

‘The Big One’:

The recent protests, also known as ‘the Big One’, which took place in Parliament Square in London, between the 21st and the 24th of April, represent a significant departure from previous XR demonstrations. There were four days of peaceful activism, comprised of family-friendly rallies and marches, a reportedly ‘good-natured’ crowd sporting fancy dress including the distinctive red robes of XR protestors and masks depicting the new King and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, as well as music and speaker events featuring names such as Chris Packham, the well-known naturalist, who addressed the crowd in a speech that warned that ‘the planet is in crisis’.

The demonstrators also took part in a ‘die-in’ in London on Saturday, which involved lying on the pavement at the Mall, to physically symbolise what will happen to humans if nothing is done about climate change. Following concerns that previous protests were alienating potential supporters by being too disruptive, XR ensured ‘the Big One’ was as accessible as possible by attempting to not block London’s streets or bridges, and even entering discussions with the organizers of the TCS London Marathon, which happened to coincide with the climate protests, to reduce any disruption caused.

How successful was ‘the Big One’?

The result was a marked success for Extinction Rebellion, with XR organisers estimating that the total number of people who attended over the four days is over 60,000, making it the biggest joint environmental protest in the UK after the 2019 climate strike. The protest was also more inclusive than previous ones, with many activists attending with their children to inspire the next generation to join their ranks, and the action involving a wide range of groups, including Extinction Rebellion, Friends of the Earth, and Greenpeace, as well as the Christian climate coalition, marking a strategic alliance between the major climate change protest groups.

The biggest joint environmental protest in the UK since 2019.

The change comes as XR declared a new strategy of mass movement in January of this year, announcing that it would ‘temporarily shift away from public disruption’ as a tactic to highlight its cause, instead concentrating on more peaceful activities that are commonly associated with political parties. This implies that XR has re-evaluated its strategy in light of criticism as well as increasingly draconian protest legislation by the UK government.

Although XR achieved staggering success in terms of numbers in attendance, it, unfortunately, failed to achieve its purported aims, with Ministers failing to respond to their demands by the Monday afternoon deadline. The protests were designed to push the government into negotiations with XR by 5pm on Monday the 24th of April.

XR listed its demands as follows: that the government would agree to stop new fossil fuel projects, including halting the more than 100 new oil exploration licenses being offered to companies this year, create ‘emergency citizens assemblies’ to tackle the climate crisis, and commit to reducing carbon emissions to net zero by 2025. If the government failed to meet their demands, XR threatened to build an ‘unprecedented coalition’ and ‘step up campaigning in the weeks and months ahead’.

Continued radicalism in the climate movement?

However, although the event marked a shift from XR’s more radical tactics, radical actions in pursuit of climate action continue to be pursued by organizations such as ‘Just Stop Oil’. This is highlighted by recent events in October 2022, when two men from the organization scaled a bridge on Dartford Crossing, each earning around 3 years of jail time for their actions.

Although some organizations seem to be carrying the flag of more radical protest methods in XR’s stead, the marked success XR enjoyed during the Earth Day weekend, despite their failure to get the government to comply, seems to suggest that changing their tune would be valuable for the organization’s future, and, indeed, the future of the climate change movement itself.

Changing their tune would be valuable for the organization’s future, and, indeed, the future of the climate change movement itself.

The question is, will they stick to their new strategy, or will they revert back to their old ways?

Photo by Bhuwan Bansal on Unsplash

Image description: a group of Extinction Rebellion protestors