I’m putting together my reading list for next year’s LSE course on activism and this week’s Guardian long read on Extinction Rebellion is going to be on it, even though it’s a bit UK-centric. It brilliantly pulls together a number of features of the rise of new social movements. Here are some extracts, but as ever, better to read the whole (5,000 word) thing:
The visionary leader: ‘[In 2017] the air pollution campaign, Stop Killing Londoners, had yet to gain traction with politicians or the media, but Roger Hallam didn’t seem too concerned. He explained that it was partly being used to “road-test” civil disobedience tactics. “Within a year or so we will have thousands of people on the streets, blocking large parts of central London for days on end,” he said. “Hundreds will be arrested and the government will be forced to sit down and tell the truth about the climate emergency.”
First Followers: ‘Over the coming months, Gail Bradbrook and Hallam continued their conversations, along with a loose grouping of like-minded people, who eventually formed Rising Up, a network of activists committed to peaceful civil disobedience. It wasn’t until April 2018 that, in Bradbrook’s home on a hillside overlooking the Cotswold town of Stroud, the idea of Extinction Rebellion was born. At the “Stroud meeting”, as it has become known, a core group of about 15 long-time campaigners, activists and academics decided that after years of small-scale political campaigns, about everything from fracking to migrant rights, they were, in Bradbrook’s words, “ready to go for the ‘big one’”.’
Branding: ‘Agreeing on a name for the new group turned into a 25-step process that went on for weeks. When “Extinction Rebellion” was first suggested, “there was quite a bit of disquiet, because some people thought it was too harsh”. But eventually it won.’
Repetition of Core Message: ‘XR’s goals were boiled down to three demands of the government: to tell the truth about the climate and ecological emergency; to halt biodiversity loss and commit to net zero emissions by 2025; and to follow the lead of a citizen’s assembly. A presentation titled Heading for Extinction and What to Do About It was developed, and quickly became known as “the talk”.’
Take-off precedes strategy: ‘The [April 2019] protests turned XR into a movement of global significance, with scores of XR groups springing up in cities around the world, as well as in towns and cities across the UK. By the end, XR’s representatives were sitting down for talks with senior politicians and ministers in the UK. Supporters and funders – many of whom had been sceptical before April – showered praise and money on the new movement, and in the weeks that followed, the UK parliament and scores of councils around the country declared a climate emergency. XR had changed the conversation around the crisis. Now it had a big question to answer: what next?
The movement grows, but sprawls: ‘People do not formally join XR, and there is no central membership list. Local groups can plan and carry out their own actions as long as they follow XR’s 10 core principles and values, including a commitment to non-violence and focusing on systemic problems rather than “blaming and shaming” individuals.
Although XR’s structure aims, as its website says, to build a “participatory, decentralised and inclusive” movement, some complain that it allows those with the loudest voices – often white, middle-class men – to dominate. Others complain of endless meetings, labyrinthine decision-making processes, and the sprawling network of WhatsApp groups the organisation has spawned.’
Tensions between insider and outsider tactics: ‘the months after the April rebellion were dominated by internal wrangling. On one side were Hallam and his backers, who were pushing for an escalation in provocative direct action to keep the momentum going. They believed that a relatively small group of people, prepared to keep escalating their disruptive, peaceful, direct action could bring about systemic change quickly. On the other side were people who argued the good will and moral high ground achieved in April should be used to build a broader movement, within the UK and internationally.’
The difficult second album: ‘it proved impossible to recreate the surprise and novelty that defined the earlier protests. Although XR held more sites in October 2019 and said it had more people arrested – 1,837, compared with 1,138 in April – the protests failed to catch the public’s imagination in the same way. Actions that would have been headline news just six months earlier – such as hundreds of breastfeeding mothers closing down Google HQ – were now seen as par for the course by the media.’
Difficult relationship to formal politics: ‘The [December 2019] UK general election was another flashpoint within XR. The Labour party offered a raft of policies to rapidly decarbonise the economy and invest in sustainable, well-paid, unionised jobs: its so-called green industrial revolution. For many people concerned about the climate crisis, this was a cause worth rallying behind. But during the election campaign, XR – to the dismay of both Labour party activists and some inside the movement – did not mobilise behind Labour’s climate offer, preferring instead to target all three main parties with hunger strikes and people dressed in bee costumes under the slogan “Bee-yond politics”.
The clash came down to two competing ideas about XR’s ultimate purpose. For some, it was a vehicle to transform the political landscape, making it possible for existing institutions to put forward radical environmental policies. For others, the existing structures were incapable of overseeing the transition needed, and had to be overhauled and replaced.’
The charismatic founder leaves: ‘In a sign that perhaps a more consensual approach was gaining the upper hand in XR, the group announced that Hallam – whom Bradbrook had previously described as XR’s “biggest asset and worst liability” – no longer had a formal role with the group. In a statement posted to Facebook on 28 July, Hallam stated that he would be devoting himself to a “new direct action organisation/anti-political party”, Beyond Politics.’
Fascinating – what else should I be recommending on XR?