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Raising the alarm: Why we should all support Extinction Rebellion

Theo Simon responds to Gabriel Carlyle's recent article.


Gabriel's Peace News piece, “Why I'm sceptical about the Extinction Rebellion initiative (and why I hope I'm wrong)”,  contained some really interesting and valuable insights for structuring political  campaigns, but I think it missed the point entirely about what the Extinction Rebellionrepresents.

This isn't a campaign, it's an alarm.  We’re not trying to build fire-safety awareness and improve the provision of emergency exits - we’re trying to evacuate a burning theatre.

Some of us, myself included, have perhaps been aware of the unfolding eco-crisis for so long that we’ve grown acclimatized to it. We’ve seen the window of opportunity that a growing green awareness has opened, but forgotten that it is a time-sensitive, closing window. With every hour that passes the opportunities for survival have been shrinking, and the corrective measures required have become more drastic.

Gabriel describes as “utopian” the demand that the Government enact ‘legally-binding policies to reduce carbon emissions in the UK to net zero by 2025’.  Of course the government is not yet ready to meet that demand!  But the people have to hear the demand, understand why it is necessary, and take whatever steps are then required to ensure the survival of their children, whether the government gives a lead or not.  Gabriel may need to catch up on some recent climate news. Time, tides, and rising temperatures linked to rising carbon emissions, are waiting for no one. It is only utopian now to believe that they might.

Speaking truth to power - and to the populace at large - means demanding that our existential crisis be acknowledged and placed at the centre of ALL policy-making.  This may feel unrealistic, but objectively it is the only course that makes sense, if any of us are intending to draw breath in ten years time. And I would argue it meets Gabriel's criteria for presenting achievable demands, because, once adopted, a host of intermediate demands like ending fracking, airport expansion etc flow inevitably from it.

Scepticism is natural and healthy for seasoned activists. But although we in the West have lived through a long period of relative equilibrium, history also teaches us that the unthinkable can become thinkable very rapidly in a crisis. If enough people can psychologically enter "emergency mode” then, at the same time as we grieve for the possibilities we have lost for good, the ground is cleared for embracing new possibilities. People whose interests our current order has pitted against each other may become united in a higher common cause, and achieve the inconceivable.

I think that growing frustration with what has become routine green messaging, eagerly co-opted by adaptive capitalist marketing, explains the astounding growth of support for XR’s civil disobedience plan amoung a whole layer of people like myself who have, like Gabriel, spent the last few decades attempting to transform society and save ourselves from future eco catastrophe.  The events of the past few months have brought home the awful reality that, despite our many individual “successes”, the future is now here, carbon emissions continue to rise, and the collapse of the global eco-system is reaching the point of no return. We’re relieved that someone has grasped the nettle and gone public with the unspoken truth we’ve all been feeling: Extinction is upon us - we will either now force a complete change of direction, or experience a fatal collision with physical reality within the next decade.

So this isn't about perfecting a well-honed campaign strategy with predictable outcomes, although the guys at the core of XR have made a good attempt. Uprisings are melting-pots,  people with experience or strategic insight should get involved and give as much input as they can. It's crucial that we do, as the more intelligence we pool together the better and quicker we will evolve.  But we are thinking on our feet now, as we try to mobilize for a last-ditch opportunity to prevent the extinction of our species and our fellow creatures.

It's all hands on deck time, and we needed someone with the bluntness and single-mindedness of a Roger Hallam to rally our attention and focus it.  I wish Gabriel had been at the same XR public meeting I went to. I was so impressed to see my peers, many of whom have never been frontline direct-action campaigners, signing up to take arrestable action. Whether that materialises is yet to be tested of course, as is the emerging movement’s ability to handle the aftermath, prevent burnout and disintegration, and retain commitment. (The amount of thinking that XR has devoted to the internal character of the movement, which Gabriel seems to find disproportionate, is actually in my eyes a sign of its maturity in this regard).

We have seen enough initiatives come and go to know that this particular ER identity, style, logo etc will inevitably pass quickly away into the rear view mirror, but the crisis we are responding to will only become more intense for the rest of our lives.  Whether ER peters out miserably, collapses in scandal, burns out a generation, provokes brutal state repression, or morphs into the extinction resistance movement which will help to save humanity, the reality of imminent societal collapse, famine, war and unnatural disaster will, I’m sorry to say, only become more imminent in the coming months.

There are no sidelines to stand on. Critical voices need to become the critical hands which shape our interventions. This is not an ism. It is ours, make of it what we will.

Image: Morcom fire alarm horn/strobe at 8555 16th Street in Silver Spring, Maryland. Image: Ben Schumin via Wikimedia Commons

Long-time activist Theo Simon has been involved in a wide range of political and environmental campaigns, including peaceful, direct-action events against fracking, nuclear power, climate change and social injustice. He is also the co-founder of the radical folk band Seize the Day.


I hope to join at least some Extinction Rebellion events. I'd like to add further cautions, though, that aren't in any way meant to reduce enthusiasm but might affect tactics as regards communication, prompted partly by the talk by Dr Gail Bradbrook on the XR website. I'm a layperson but familiar with some of the climate science (less of the general ecology), and also some of the debates in science communication. In brief, we need to reflect the science accurately but also make those dispassionate facts emotionally meaningful but expressing our own reactions and values we have in common with our audience, and present positive political and personal options that people can be inspired by and work towards. Climate Outreach's guidance warns that many people are turned off by pictures of demonstrations as well as pictures of polar bears, although this is social science research and a lot of it is uncertain and conditional.

One thing I'd caution against is expressing too much *confidence* that the climate situation is necessarily worse than in the IPCC reports (at least in WG1). The temptation to do this is because the risks are very much downplayed by mainstream media so the more worrying results surely must get a bigger reaction, right? Unfortunately they can lose people in technicalities and fear and may prompt a backlash by the dismissives/contrarians who manage to confuse people. Sticking to simple messages that the Earth energy budget is out of balance in a way that is understood by physicists for over a century, may be better than concentrating on recent developments. Yes, sea-level rise is tracking the upper end of the IPCC projections, and *may* accelerate dramatically as in James Hansen's paper about superstorms, and the IPCC summaries for policymakers are somewhat diluted by the government approval process. However, arguing that the physical reaction of the Earth system is more dramatic than generally accepted by consensus is in one way as bad as those few political figures describing themselves as 'lukewarmers' who claim illogically that climate sensitivity is at the lower end of of the IPCC 1.5-4.5 range. The whole point of a confidence interval is that it's hard to rule out anything within it (some scientists informally may say it's probably 3-3.5 °C, but even 1.5 presents a major challenge). Similarly, Hothouse Earth is presented by its authors as a possible chain of tipping points, an additional risk, well-founded but not certain. On the other hand, what we can truthfully say is that we are concerned with the worst cases (and 'tail risk') precisely because they will have the biggest impacts, even if there is also a chance that rich folk can insulate themselves against climate effects and species loss in the short-term. So there are nuances to how we suggest we face certain doom without action, when the action requires things like rebuilding a large proportion of housing in the UK. It's not the science, but translating it into policy where there are problems. The media still discuss the Paris targets without mentioning the 'necessity' for massive projects to suck CO₂ out of the air (CDR/DAC/BECCS), and how that could be achieved politically.

There are various attempted analogies for what is a situation unprecedented in history: climate scientists Andrew Dessler refers to a supertanker approaching icebergs; Michael Mann talks about walking into a minefield and needing to reverse course. I imagine it as a bit like a world in which we're not educating children: things may seem to be going OK for a generation or so, but in reality a huge organised effort is needed, and the more that is done, the better the result. Like extinction, global heating is basically irreversible.

Anyway, I hope the movement can recruit and empower in a sustainable way as well as take actions that make a difference. So XR as a cry of anguish is valid, but in my humble opinion it needs to achieve something too, if only a small win.

The People's Climate March in 2015 had an inspiring slogan: 'To change everything, we need everyone.'

It sometimes worries me that people who say they want radical social change end up working for something as simple as ecological survival. I expect Gabriel, Theo and the rest of us understand the climate emergency and the other 'planetary boundaries', and are frustrated that democratic politicians appear not to.

There was a Q&A in _New Scientist_ after the IPCC SR15 report. 'So can we limit warming to 1.5 °C? A: No.' I worry about not being able to retain the majority of the mangroves and baobabs, let alone the corals and Arctic. Grief is an appropriate reaction. Climate scientist Dr Kate Marvel wrote a very good article about how what we need is not hope, but courage. Meanwhile, I attended a local environmental meeting that cited SR15 but whose actions were more to do with stopping people paving over front gardens; and the UK government still has not published plans to meet the CCC's carbon budgets from 2022 onwards, which are themselves still based on 80% emission cuts by 2050, rather than the 100% by 2040 needed for Paris and climate justice. (So this is why a 2025 target looks utopian to me.)

Therefore I can see the attraction of Extinction Rebellion taking civil disobedience to the heart of government, if that's what they're doing, as well as the direct actions against fracking and airport expansion. There's an argument that just making noise even if the aims and milestones aren't clear is going to stir people from their complacency. I once tried to tackle a paid campaigner colleague (different cause) on exact strategy, and was rather surprised that the answer was to do whatever seems like it might help: a pluralist, unco-ordinated response, but in a way that fits with the 2015 slogan. We certainly want to arouse sympathy with just causes, and not alienate anyone.

I've not read George Lakey's 'How We Win', but I read his article on Scandinavia; then Gabriel cited the civil rights movement. As another example, Duncan Campbell's talk to Rebellious Media Conference explained how gay rights needed a careful three-pronged approach including behind-the-scenes work with amenable politicians and officials as well as a radical public campaign to achieve anything, and to swing the public mood. I think there are differences from the climate emergency though. A victory on a social issue stands for itself with human benefits, whereas getting a university or religious organisation to divest, or defeating a planning application is only a small part of a global need, and a long way from a plan to transform the economy in a systematic way. There need to be big visions and dreams of more than children playing together, and those should energise the more defined, 'intermediate' campaigns.

Occupy was perhaps about hope and courage, and did demonstrate certain techniques of discussion and small-scale organising, but I doubt it had any effect on the financial system. I think there could be clear top-level goals. Citizen's Climate Lobby is relatively mainstream, but its demands of a suitable price on carbon and border carbon adjustments is easily imagined, although easier to dismiss than to argue convincingly against. The fact that there is so much more that is needed to transform physical infrastructure, skills and employment is recognised by people with more expertise. 'Keep it in the ground' is also a good slogan, that in the face of talk of $300bn more investment into North Sea oil can be elaborated into more specific demands.