If climate change is a necessary conversation, is Extinction Rebellion an indication that the situation now is so grave that it is beyond conversation?'
A decade-long climate silence has been well and truly broken this year. Lips have been loosened by a whoosh of activity. We can speak about it now that the youth is looking everyone in the eye with demands with which they can’t argue. Though the mesh of multispecies webs in which we are embroiled in shredding, we can speak about it because we do not only feel despair.
The wonderful community initiatives, well-intentioned consumer choices, and regular demonstrations, that have trundled on in full knowledge that they were not in any way meeting the scale of the issue gave way to outright rebellion last autumn. Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future decreed (as many have done before them) that getting arrested, or skipping school, isn't the end of the world. The end of the world is the end of the world. System Change Not Climate Change has been chanted by successive generations of campaigners and graffiti'd on city walls, but finally thousands are showing up to be the pieces that jam the cogs of the system.
For many, the anxiety building inside - with each devastating episode of extreme weather, with each record broken, with each memory stirred of how many butterflies there used to be - suddenly found an outlet, a channel where it could become fierce commitment. Fear and hopelessness suddenly underwent that perfect metamorphosis and became a rallying cry: we are going to fight for our collective home.
Of course, while climate change has not dominated news bulletins and permeated every conversation in the years since the disastrous UN Copenhagen summit in 2009, the climate justice movement has been breathing under the surface. It has been nourishing connections, building an eloquent, intersectional analysis that attends to the complexity of climate change. It is an issue steeped in a history of colonialism, classism and other structures of oppression. The movement has been quietly spreading, like mycelium under the woods, it has been developing pathways such as Just Transition: recognising that to move forwards we need to fundamentally transform the power relations that led to this crisis. This is not going to be solved by the UN. It is not just about the science of emissions or the ethics of consumption. It goes deeper than that.
Something strange has happened.
The Rebellion that erupted in Autumn 2018, and is dictating terms to Westminster again this week, seems only indirectly to be the fruiting bodies of this mycelium network. Extinction Rebellion has not tried to grab at the root of climate change, they have left the complexity aside and chosen a different strategy.
This is an emergency. The time is now. The next twelve years are critical for the future of this planet. Here is a way to get involved. The barriers were low, the invitation was clear, and people took to the streets willing to be arrested. An exhilarating demonstration of collective power; a multitude of humans all retracting their consent for the current lethal machinations of this system. Communal kitchens are being established, people's assemblies commencing: the territory of resistance is shifting.
However, the discourse of climate justice that situates climate change as a symptom of a greater disease has been largely left aside. A critique of capitalism is conspicuously absent, as is a clear acknowledgement of racial and class privilege in the face of state institutions such as the police and prisons. Herein lies the conundrum. At this juncture in our earthly history, when we have a matter of years to change course, some have argued that 'This is the fight of our lives and we have to do it right.' To assert our collective power against climate violence without understanding the structures that led us here and addressing the oppression inherent in the movement is not good enough - will not be good enough. Climate change is an imperative to change - but we have to take the opportunity to change fundamentally, rather than just respond to this crisis. This means centring the experience and knowledge of those who have been most oppressed in this capitalist system; to learn from 'the vast intergenerational knowledge of unity with nature' in indigenous communities; to ensure people with power are truly accountable to those who are living with the consequences of their actions. These arguments were put forward by Wretched of the Earth, a grassroots collective of Indigenous, black, brown, and diaspora groups, in an open letter (signed by dozens of other groups) to Extinction Rebellion following the spring protests.
The commitment to do it right: to acknowledge structural oppression, to reflect on personal privilege and how it manifests as power over others, has become a strong element in social movements. The intention is to challenge oppression as much as possible: in organising, in relating to each other, in imagining the path for the future. It is, however, not easy to do it right. There are many ways to do it wrong. Individuals, communities, and cultures have been powerfully shaped by the capitalist, patriarchal, racist system, and unravelling these structures is an amorphous, confusing challenge. At the Reclaim the Power protest camp in the summer, which sought to bring together movements for climate justice and migrant justice, it was clear that good intentions are not necessarily enough. As a movement of predominantly white and middle class people we still have a lot of work to do to make the spaces in which we organise feel accessible, relevant, and comfortable for everyone.
To return to the conundrum, is it better to simplify the message and make it easy for people to get involved or better to keep working towards improving how the movement operates, but perhaps fail to assert collective power? Arguably, the reason that Extinction Rebellion has successfully mobilised so many is that it didn't ask people to get it right. Yet, this is also the reason why it has alienated so many - particularly those who are not white and middle-class.
Right now, proud Extinction Rebels and people who are willing to work with them are disrupting London again. For some this is an exciting time to stand up for what they believe in. For others, it will be a frustrating and alienating experience as they repeatedly witness manifestations of class and racial privilege and do not hear acknowledgement that people of colour who first endured the violence of colonialism, and globally are much more on the front line of climate violence, are not being empowered in this struggle. It's messy. Mobilising in this way is surely an education of many sorts and I hope it can be a rich and loving education in privilege and power too. The motivation behind participants of Extinction Rebellion and those who critique them is the same: to be a force for good in the world. We are not going to get it right, but we can keep trying.
And we must! Climate change is an inherently difficult issue to mobilise people around. And it needs more of us than the thousands who are already committed. When humans make judgements and decisions, the role of feeling – immediate, emotional responses – is hugely important for shaping any cognitive analysis. It is difficult to feel the danger of ecological collapse in day to day life, especially if there are more pressing issues such as violence, hunger, or homelessness in your life. When we do touch on the realities of climate change, the impossibility of responding adequately can provoke guilt, sadness, and apathy. These emotions tend to stimulate avoidance of the issue, we are likely to focus on things over which we can have more control.
Extinction Rebellion has achieved something massive in engaging enough people that action begins to seem proportionate to the issue, there is a sense of exerting control. While the strategy of simplifying the message has proved successful in getting people out into the streets, the movement will surely be stronger the more it speaks clearly about justice. Action speaks louder than words, certainly. But to sustain this action, to expand the movement, to ensure everyone is empowered in this struggle, conversations are fundamental threads.