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Extinction Rebellion: One Year On

As their one-year anniversary approaches, Felicity Graham reviews the successes and failures of Extinction Rebellion.

Just over one year ago, on 31stOctober 2018, 1,000 activists gathered in Parliament Square in London to declare a rebellion against climate breakdown. Their aims were clear; occupying the road in front of the Houses of Parliament, it was obvious that they intended to relentlessly pressure the government into institutional change. Their three central demands were simple and universally comprehensible: ‘Tell the Truth’ by declaring a climate emergency, ‘Act Now’ by drastically cutting our greenhouse gas emissions, and go ‘Beyond Politics’ by creating a Citizens’ Assembly on climate justice.

Next week will see the one-year anniversary of Extinction Rebellion. Over the past two weeks, the rebel group’s international protests have seen heightened media coverage – which should have acted as a force for good, highlighting the issues that activists are going to extreme lengths to draw attention to. Yet, alongside Boris and his disengaged government, the media no longer appear to be supporting the continued efforts of Extinction Rebellion. So, after a year of scrambled protests, thousands of arrests, and a notable feature at Glastonbury Festival, what has this international rebel group truly achieved?

Last year, I sincerely hoped that by this point Extinction Rebellion would have brought about revolutionary, global change, and that they would have passed extensive legislation through parliament on the back of the incredible upsurge of activist energy being generated. As a zealous climate optimist, I couldn’t help but revel at the thought of an awareness group taking climate change so seriously that their members would risk incarceration. I signed up to Oxford’s XR. 

However, I have been somewhat dismayed. Whilst their hourglass logo declares the immediacy of the climate issue, it would be a challenge to argue that, after a year of protests, they have achieved anything at all.

Following the Declaration of Rebellion outside of Parliament and a mock funeral for the planet in the same location, the rebellion spread across the UK, as protests begun in Manchester, Sheffield and Edinburgh. At this point, only the most vehement environmentalists were involved, and it seemed to the public that only those willing to end up in a police cell could possibly take part.

After a fairly unproductive Christmas, XR took to the streets once again in January 2019. The most notable protest took place in Edinburgh, at the Scottish Parliament’s debating chamber in Holyrood, in which hundreds of new rebels appeared and the Scottish cohort rapidly expanded. Following this success, XR forcibly brought new topics into the climate conversation; their roadblocks during London Fashion Week conveyed a new emphasis on the environmental impacts of ‘fast fashion’, and the British Fashion Council were called to declare a climate emergency. Since then, the fashion industry has played a key role in the climate conversation, with retailers such as H&M and Guess getting involved in significant garment regeneration schemes.

Having faced a barren winter of little achievement, I anticipated that spring might bring Extinction Rebellion a breath of fresh air. Sadly, T.S. Eliot was not wrong in saying that April is the cruellest month; XR were to bitterly witness their first notable defeat. Their first demand, ‘Tell the Truth’, was to be entirely ignored in the House of Commons. When the urgent question of whether to declare a climate emergency was offered up by Labour, energy minister Claire Perry profusely rejected this notion, commenting that she “did not know what it would entail.” Such ignorance of the climate crisis appears to have plagued the Tory government, and those in a position of understanding consistently refuse to advertise any possible resolutions.

A week later, the hotly anticipated meeting of the Committee on Climate Change took place. XR hoped the Committee would agree to their second demand: zero emissions by 2025. Yet, once again, the activists’ voices were not heard. The committee made very few alterations to the agreement made in 2008, which legislated that the UK must meet net-zero emissions by 2050. Whilst Diane Abbott took to a megaphone to declare her support for the 2025 target, this incident made it very clear that Extinction Rebellion were not being taken as seriously as they’d hoped. Their third demand, that the government should create a citizen’s assembly, seemed entirely out of the question.

Fast-forward to July 2019, and sweltering temperatures of around 38 degrees Celsius were making the climate crisis a more tangible catastrophe for the British public. During an unprecedented heatwave, hundreds died of dehydration and hyperventilation across Europe, hinting at the horrifying nature of summers to come. It appeared as though, for many, seeing was indeed the only route to believing, as thousands of new XR protesters appeared across cities from Leeds to Bristol. This all followed a momentous march at Glastonbury, during which XR joined forces with Greenpeace and thousands of festival-goers to re-create the iconic XR hourglass symbol.

Whilst Glastonbury, the ‘David Attenborough Effect’, and school strikes across the globe brought the climate conversation back to the forefront of British politics momentarily, such positive discourse was not to last. September brought the country back to the ‘business as usual’ approach, and the majority of XR protesters would be found back in the workplace, struggling to determine what action to take next. 

Bad decisions followed. This October, the protests were once more turned up a notch, when 1800 litres of fake blood were sprayed on the front of the Treasury in London, and activists held banners that read ‘STOP FUNDING CLIMATE DEATH.’ Those activists holding the fire hose completely misjudged its pressure, with the hose leaping out of their control and covering the activists and the street in refulgent red liquid, rather than the intended target. This farcical event began to show the cracks in Extinction Rebellion’s so-called unified plan.

As the anniversary of this controversial rebel group fast approaches, I struggle with the fact that, as a member myself, I now seem to be viewing XR through an increasingly negative lens. Yet, the events of the last two weeks have divulged the reality of Extinction Rebellion. 

After the incident at Canning Town station in East London, in which two campaigners sat themselves on top of a Jubilee Line train and caused havoc for innocent commuters, Extinction Rebellion are running the risk of losing public support. This was not a rebellion directed against the government; this was a rebellion which appeared to attack ordinary people, carrying out their everyday lives. One commuter shouted, “I need to get to work – I have to feed my kids.” For me, this quote says it all. Extinction Rebellion is a middle-class movement, and only those who are fortunate enough to have the time on their hands to protest are able to do so. For the rest of us, regardless of whether we support XR’s demands or not, we have bills to pay. 

During this event, it appeared XR had forgotten the nature of their cause. All three of their central demands are directed against the government, beginning with the statement “the government must.” During their initial protests last October, XR made it very clear that their focus would be on institutional as opposed to individual action. So why did the Canning Town station incident occur?

It seems the answer lies in the growth of the rebel group over the last year. During the most recent international protests, which finished just last weekend, around 30,000 rebels attended to show their support. The original rebel group, however, consisted of only 100 members. These original founders were exclusively academics, unified in their cause and in concurrence of opinion regarding the most effective way forward. A year on, Extinction Rebellion’s demographic is of a much broader spectrum, to the point that complete unification is no longer possible.

I was shocked by the embarrassed tone of an email sent to all members after the Canning Town Station event, outlining the fact that Extinction Rebellion did not endorse these particular protests. This email appeared to me a weak plea to prevent any more bad press, and for a minute I was ashamed to be a part of a group so disunified. If XR do not understand and cohere to their demands themselves, how can the government possibly take them seriously? It seems the rebel group are out of their own control.

In climate discourse, it is noticeable that the so-called ‘Greta effect’ is having a much more meaningful impact on the global approach to the climate crisis. Putting aside the bullish criticisms of Piers Morgan, Greta Thunberg’s emotive speech at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York received more publicity than any single XR protest, and its bravery demonstrated a young leader much more capable to deliver action than either of the Extinction Rebellion founders.

Whilst Greta bases her argument on proven science, Roger Hallam, the co-founder of XR alongside Gail Bradbrook, has been regularly criticised for exaggerating the apocalyptic narrative of climate change. Alex Randall, of the charitable Climate and Migration Coalition, stated that he “doesn’t think that its Hallam’s inaccurate doom-mongering that has brought people out onto the streets for XR…rather, XR has provided a platform for people who are worried.” 

It seems probable that it is Greta, a fresh, youthful face within the climate conversation, who is the driving force behind Extinction Rebellion’s recent expansion, alongside the growth of other organisations such as YouthStrike4Climate. As a single figurehead, rather than a broad movement, Greta’s messaging is arguably more consistent than Extinction Rebellion’s.

Indeed, it seems that the faces representing XR currently do not support its true cause. Earlier this month, Stanley Johnson announced that he would be joining Extinction Rebellion at an event in Trafalgar Square. This occurred days after Stanley’s son, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, described XR protesters as “uncooperative crusties.” Stanley Johnson should not be the face of Extinction Rebellion; during his time as a Tory MP in Parliament, Johnson had years to encourage serious institutional change, and failed to do so. Furthermore, it seems like Stanley is using Extinction Rebellion as another political playground on which the Johnson family feud can be played out.When addressed by journalists, Johnson even laughed at the dispute between him and his son. Yet, if they are to be unified in their demands, Extinction Rebellion should be no laughing matter.

Not all of Boris Johnson’s criticisms of XR are entirely unjustified. Johnson encouraged the protesters to give up their “hemp-smelling bivouacs,” in agreement with recent criticisms that a number of XR rebels are attempting to relive the Summer of Love. After joining XR rebels at a festival over the summer, I know exactly what Johnson is getting at. If XR protesters aren’t middle to upper class zealots, they are youthful, fun-loving teenagers, who often don’t quite understand what their role within Extinction Rebellion entails. Another significant aspect of criticism against XR is their lack of ethnic diversity, which has led to numerous recent anti-XR protests across the UK. To move forward, the rebel group must seriously consider these issues.

Yet, Extinction Rebellion remains a force for good and will do so until the global climate emergency is miraculously resolved. XR have managed to keep the issue of the climate crisis within the media spotlight, which has previously been unachievable for climate activists, as the issue is not technically ‘breaking news.’ This in itself is an invaluable achievement, as the climate crisis is now mentioned in everyday politics just as much as Brexit and Boris.

The XR activists’ most substantial success is that they have completely revolutionised the language surrounding climate change; words such as ‘extinction’, ‘crisis’, ‘emergency’ and ‘breakdown’ are now an integral part of environmental discourse. The world now appears to truly understand the existential threat posed to humanity, and more people than ever before are actively changing their lifestyle choices on account of climate change. Whilst Extinction Rebellion may have scored numerous own-goals, as admitted by spokesperson Fergal McEntee, I believe it is imperative that their controversial work continues. The question now is whether global authorities are prepared to act and whether Extinction Rebellion can regain public trust, in order to force them to do so. 

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