Is Extinction Rebellion really quitting? Analysis of their New Year’s Day statement

January 4, 2023

     By Duncan Green     

As well as the headlines, First Edition, the Guardian’s excellent daily news summary (free subscription here), includes an in-depth conversation between the editor and one of its specialist journalists. Yesterday’s, with environment correspondent Damien Gayle, was on ‘Extinction Rebellion’s New Year’s Day statement, which led with the headline-grabbing phrase “we quit”’. Not true, apparently. Here’s the Guardian’s analysis:

‘This is less a resignation than a reorientation. XR is promising a “temporary shift away from public disruption as a primary tactic”, but they also say that they will now “prioritise attendance over arrest and relationships over roadblocks, as we stand together and become impossible to ignore”.

XR links this new focus to a bet that tumult in the wider political climate means that people may now be more receptive to the message: “The conditions for change in the UK have never been more favourable – it’s time to seize the moment. The confluence of multiple crises presents us with a unique opportunity to mobilise and move beyond traditional divides.”

To that end, they are planning a protest outside the Houses of Parliament on 21 April which they hope will attract 100,000 people. “Their view is that it can be alienating towards an everyday trade unionist to have disruptive protests that are stopping people getting to work, getting criticised on talk radio, and so on,” Damien Gayle said. The new approach is meant to make that 21 April protest more palatable to those people.

One crucial question when interpreting the XR statement is who it is speaking for. “XR says it operates according to a decentralised model,” Damien said. “So there will have been a group responsible for this statement, but there’s nothing stopping individual XR groups from taking more radical action, and no overarching discipline if they do.”

How did Extinction Rebellion get here?

A casual observer might view this news as a sudden break with the past, but debates over whether to stick to a radical approach or seek to broaden the movement have been part of XR’s evolution from very early on. “This is more a reflection of what’s already been happening than something new,” Damien said.

In this excellent long read from 2020, Matthew Taylor lays out the internal debates that began soon after the first successful April 2019 “rebellion”: one side believed that “a relatively small group of people” could bring “an escalation in provocative direct action to keep the momentum going”. The other thought that “the good will and moral high ground achieved in April should be used to build a broader movement”.

That debate was tied to a sense that leading figures had failed to recognise the narrowness of their own perspective as older, middle-class, mostly white activists. A proposed shutdown of Heathrow airport was abandoned, but taken on by a new group led by XR co-founder Roger Hallam, without much success.

Later “rebellions” charted a similar course to the initial April action but drew less attention as direct action became a more familiar approach. “When XR first appeared, we were completely gobsmacked by the idea they could blockade Waterloo Bridge for days at a time with hundreds of arrests,” Damien said. “But now those sort of actions look almost tame. We’re used to them.”

Has direct action already fallen off the agenda?

No. In October 2021, a new group called Insulate Britain made a dramatic impact by blocking busy roads during a five-week campaign – and while they drew the apoplexy of Boris Johnson’s government and parts of the media, they also had success with their prescient demand to get home insulation on to the political agenda.

Last year, a new round of protests by Insulate Britain were accompanied by direct action from the group Just Stop Oil, the most infamous of which saw the group throw tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers. (No damage was caused to the painting.) Both groups were co-founded by Roger Hallam, who split from XR before the Heathrow protests. “Those radical elements that would have once been attracted to XR are already bypassing it, and going straight to the likes of Just Stop Oil,” Damien said.

What are the arguments about the best way forward?

But not really

One of the most interesting and persuasive cases for the emergence of a less abrasive strategy in the climate protest movement is also much misunderstood: its proponents insist they are not repudiating what has already happened, but building on it.

In a recent episode of the Accidental Gods podcast, Rupert Read, the XR co-founder who is now one of the most prominent voices of the wider “moderate flank”, put it like this: “The greatest compliment we can pay now to what we accomplished in Extinction Rebellion and the other parts of the radical flank in 2019 … is to exploit it fully, to encourage and enable a far larger group of people to march through the widened Overton window.”

This argument might be seen as suggesting a future where radical and moderate approaches can be symbiotic rather than opposed, with one approach inculcating a sense of urgency, and the other helping a critical mass of people to see what they can do about it. “One theory is that the radical flank can actually make the more moderate groups more popular because they don’t look extreme in comparison,” Damien said.

But Read does seem to see diminishing returns in the continuation of disruptive protests, and implies that they are largely a spent force. In this fascinating YouTube conversation from last January with Roger Hallam, he says that XR’s successes were “quite a thin achievement that have not come to dominate everyday politics. We have not moved into emergency mode.”

Others disagree that a more moderate approach will help solve this. In this October piece answering another from Read, Just Stop Oil’s Indigo Rumbelow argues that disruption is “an electric shock that calls upon people to see the horror of what’s unfolding before us”. In that YouTube video, Roger Hallam suggested that a different approach could be actively counterproductive: “If you present a moderate flank proposition, you’re sort of letting people off the hook.”

So does XR’s decision mean the end of direct action?

That is very unlikely: those within XR who believe in continuing the disruptive approach are likely to align themselves with other groups that intend to do exactly that. And last night Damien reported that Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil both saying that they remain committed to civil resistance. Still, the news does signal the public resolution of a debate inside XR that made the disruptive approach inescapable.

The vital question now is whether Hallam is right that this will mean a dissipation of activist energy – or, as Read hopes, herald a new mass movement that can reach new heights by casting off trivial controversies about road closures and vandalism. One thing they all agree on is the urgency of the case. As the XR statement says: “Despite the blaring alarm on the climate and ecological emergency ringing loud and clear, very little has changed.”

To read more about protest and the climate crisis by Damien Gayle and others, subscribe to Down to Earth, our weekly environment newsletter.’

For campaigners and students of how change happens (including this year’s cohort for my LSE course, which kicks off in a couple of weeks), this is a classic and crucial debate on engagement v protest, insider v outsider, and the relationship with the two. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out during the course of this year.

January 4, 2023
Duncan Green