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Beyond Politics? The Aims and Limits of Extinction Rebellion

Who are the activists of Extinction Rebellion, and how has their particular set of tactics come to set the limits for climate activism?

Graeme Hayes25 January 2021

Beyond Politics? The Aims and Limits of Extinction Rebellion

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One of the New York Times’ best books of 2020 was Lydia Millet’s caustic climate allegory A Children’s Bible. The novel centres on a group of parents – passive, feckless, hedonistic, driven only by ‘the shelter of wealth’ – and their militant and increasingly collectivist children, as a sudden extreme weather event brings revelation. Towards the end of the novel, one of the parents acknowledges that they have let their children down. ‘But what could we have done, really?’, she asks. Rafe, one of the teenagers, responds simply: ‘Fight. Did you ever fight?’.

Millet’s book contains many familiar elements of climate fiction: generational conflict; inevitable social collapse; future possibility nonetheless, from behind the wall. Reading it alongside How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire, Andreas Malm’s account of what he terms the new (or third) wave of climate activism as encapsulated by Fridays for the Future and Extinction Rebellion (XR), is instructive. Malm rejects the idea that political action to stop catastrophic climate change is doomed to failure, reserving his sharpest criticism, in the final section of the book, for fatalists like Roy Scranton and Jonathan Franzen; faced with a corporate and political ruling class who will always and only be driven by the ‘endless accumulation of capital’, he argues that ‘resistance is the path to survival in all weathers’.

What form this resistance should take is another question. Malm’s solution is straightforward: sabotage, from local and everyday targets (Malm is particularly focused on making city streets inhospitable to SUVs) to large scale acts of destruction. ‘Damage and destroy new CO2-emitting devices. Put them out of commission, pick them apart, demolish them, burn them, blow them up. Let the capitalists who keep on investing in the fire know that their properties will be trashed’, he proposes. Civil disobedience is a tactic, he argues, that should only be used alongside other tactics, and only as and when it works effectively. Instead, the climate movement has become transfixed by non-violence, fetishizing it as the only available means of resistance, and in so doing, wilfully misreading the history of democratic and liberationist politics. To put it in terms of Rafe’s question, Malm’s concern is not: Why do we not fight? Fighting is necessary, a given. He tells us rather that ‘we have to learn to fight all over again’.

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Climate activism and political change

In the late summer of 2019, I was part of a group of researchers observing the court hearings of XR activists over consecutive Fridays at the City of London Magistrates Court. The activists we observed were some of the thousand or so ‘rebels’ arrested by police for taking radical action at the first really big Extinction Rebellion gathering, in central London in April 2019. The vast majority had been charged with a section 14 public order offence – in everyday language, for occupying the public highway and failing to disperse when told to by police; in movement language, for engaging in non-violent direct action, or climate disobedience. Just under two-thirds of the 144 activists whose hearings we observed pleaded guilty at this first opportunity; all those pleading guilty were able to make short speeches to the court, outlining their motivations, the reasons for their action.

Two things are striking about this series of events. First, despite XR’s claims that their goal was to create a political crisis by jamming up the criminal justice process, there didn’t seem to be much of an organisational plan at work: defendants didn’t really know what to do or how to do it. This was surprising, because pleading not guilty would have tied up scarce police and court time, whilst the potential costs to themselves of doing so would have been low, relatively speaking. Second, in the short speeches they gave, many defendants justified their actions in moral terms (often as their duty to their children and grandchildren), but also in consequentialist terms.

A key demand of XR was that governments recognise the urgency of the climate crisis by declaring a climate emergency. Many defendants told the court that their participation in the disobedience actions was the result of a loss of faith in politics, parliament, or the environmental movement to produce effective change, before XR came along. For one activist, a woman in her late 30s, ‘The actions of Extinction Rebellion forced the climate crisis to the forefront of the political agenda’; another, a woman in her early 40s, claimed ‘Extinction Rebellion got people in the media, both national and international, talking. As a tactic it worked.’ Within weeks of XR’s London action, the Scottish and UK Parliaments had declared a climate emergency, and by the end of July 2019, more than half the UK’s 408 principal local authorities had followed suit.

As Malm points out, declarations are of course easier to make than the type of systemic action that responding to the climate crisis requires. At the end of last year, the UK government produced an ‘ambitious climate plan’ which, on closer inspection, turned out to be nothing of the sort. Rather, it consisted of a series of technological Hail Marys and small amounts of public investment in the private sector, wrapped in high-flown rhetoric. Unable to imagine a future which might look different from the present, it continued to promote the familiar neoliberal growth model whilst doing nothing to address social and economic inequalities, and pushing fantasies of offsetting instead of urgent structural decarbonisation.

The weakness of this plan does not invalidate the justifications put forward by the activists in court. It should also be obvious that XR has created a wide sense of public agency around climate action; through their occupation of public space, XR’s activists resist the invisibilisation of climate action resulting from policies reliant on targets and markets, and on technologies that are hidden offshore, under the bonnet, or in the basement. But the plan’s weakness does raise important questions of strategy. Though international, XR’s actions have been strongest in the UK; the UK is widely known as a leading, ‘climate progressive’ state (that this description remains justifiable tells us much about the inadequacy of climate action from OECD states in general, and of the systemic nature of climate change as a characteristic of late capitalist societies in particular). If the key argument for non-violent civil disobedience is a consequentialist one – that this type of non-violent, citizen-oriented, depoliticised activism produces identifiable, measurable, material results – then doesn’t the inadequacy of the UK government’s climate plan tell us that a change of strategy is necessary?

A new strategy?

For Malm, this means it is time to move on from non-violence. As he discusses, Extinction Rebellion’s insistence that the goal should be to mobilise 3.5% of the population in non-violent action is a counter-productive reading of flawed research. Flawed because as Nafeez Ahmed has pointed out, the source (Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan’s book Why Civil Resistance Works) can only argue for the superiority of non-violent tactics by flattening multiple methods of resistance into a single category, eliding vital distinctions, ignoring violent acts, and denying the messiness of reality along the way. Counter-productive because the adoption of this inappropriate target – inappropriate because Chenoweth and Stephan’s analysis concerns regime change in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian states, and says little to nothing about liberal democracies – has led Extinction Rebellion to divert precious resources towards a target that is both scarcely achievable and illusory. It is illusory because human nature is not linear, and politics is not subject to universal rules like physics; the emphasis on the 3.5% target suggests that mass mobilisation need only to reach this to produce change, substituting for the long and difficult and political processes of sustainable movement-building.

As Ahmed underlines, the 3.5% rule can at best only be meaningful when concerned with collective resistance to highly repressive regimes, and where it mobilises communities who are themselves directly affected by that repression. This is perhaps also a reason to step back from Malm’s claims that political violence may be the way forward. It’s noticeable that each of the examples of actually blowing up a pipeline that Malm cites in How to Blow Up a Pipeline concerns exactly this type of community: in apartheid South Africa, in Palestine, in Nigeria, in Egypt, in Yemen, political liberation movements have carried out extensive acts of sabotage on fuel supply infrastructures. Malm tells us this shows us it’s ‘technically possible for people outside the state to destroy the kind of property that destroys the planet’; the question is ‘why these things don’t happen – or rather, why they happen for all sorts of reasons good and bad, but not for the climate’. 

The trap here is similar to the one that Extinction Rebellion’s reading of Chenoweth and Stephan falls into. That a given tactic is effective and appropriate when used in a liberation struggle in an authoritarian context does not mean it will be effective and appropriate for the climate movement in a liberal democracy. Perhaps one reason that climate movements in western European countries have infrequently resorted to acts of large-scale sabotage, and never sought to blow up pipelines, is that they do not typically mobilise communities who are themselves already directly and materially affected by climate change.

Our survey of Extinction Rebellion’s activists suggest that the people mobilised by the group are predominantly highly educated and middle class (if not necessarily rich). Many activists that we observed in court, particularly older activists, said in their statement that they were motivated by their duty and a sense of justice to their children and their grandchildren. This form of justice – intergenerational justice – is a central component of environmental political thought (the idea that we should leave the planet in no worse state than we inherited it). But in rich countries, intergenerational justice can also be a locking in of privilege, where our children and grandchildren are simply future versions of ourselves and the resources we currently enjoy. Its centrality to the current wave of climate activism, in both XR and particularly Fridays for the Future, has enabled the mobilisation of (literally) millions of activists, many for the first time. But it also points to a weakness.

In September 2019, I stood on the steps of Manchester’s Central Library, listening to the city’s Mayor, Andy Burnham, telling the crowd of schoolchildren that ‘our generation has let your generation down’. This type of reasoning is many things – worthy, constructive, honest, and in this case, relatively well received by an otherwise sceptical audience. It is also familiar to the frustration with political inaction that underpins Millet’s biblical narrative.

But it is not itself a politics. And neither does it point to the forging of the type of strong collective identity, located in material struggle and mutual recognition, that can sustain the type of high risk actions that Malm advocates. In asking why the climate movement has not yet moved to more radical and confrontational tactics, it might first be worth asking how it can more effectively build the type of collective political constituency that would be able to generate and support more radical action, or foreground the questions of justice that might bind it together.

Malm’s advocacy, of course, is not just about sabotage: it is also about developing a diversity of tactics. XR’s championing of a single, media-oriented, avowedly depoliticised model of action has been much more effective than many would have imagined, but in the context of the aggressive resumption of business as usual, its efficacy appears to be wearing thin. Tactical diversity is surely a way forward. But so is the repoliticisation of climate activism; our survey showed that despite XR’s attempts to address a middle England audience, those actually mobilised clearly already identified as left-wing. Mass mobilisation is spectacular (and, pandemic allowing, COP26 in Glasgow at the end of this year will surely provide a focus for this). But painstaking movement building – a political process, involving the understanding of climate justice as something which does not just affect future generations and the world’s most vulnerable states (which it does), but directly affects marginalised, working class and minority communities in the UK now, and which calls for a publicly transformative and redistributive politics – is surely also paramount.

It’s tempting to end with a statement that, sooner or later, things have to change. A reading of the climate politics of the last thirty years suggests the opposite, however; and as a genre, climate fiction like Millet’s relies on the continued absence of collective political agency, telling us that it is ultimately only the weather that will bring social change. Malm refuses this despairing view, and is right to do so. Collective, political, system-challenging action remains the best hope for achieving this necessary transformation.


Graeme Hayes is Reader in Political Sociology and Head of Department of Sociology and Policy at Aston University. His research focuses primarily on environmental social movements, civil disobedience, and the criminal trials of activists for their participation in non-violent direct action. He is co-author of Breaking Laws: Violence and Civil Disobedience in Protest (Amsterdam University Press, 2019), Editor of the journal Environmental Politics, and a Fellow of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity.


This article is part of the January Verso Roundtable on How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire. You can find the rest of the series here

How to Blow Up a Pipeline by Andreas Malm is one of our January and February Book Club reads: a carefully curated selection of books that we think are essential and necessary reading. All our Book Club memberships are 50% off for the first 3 months. Find out more here.

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