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Extinction Rebellion sprung into the public consciousness in 2018. A grassroots movement that employed tactics of civil disobedience in order to make headlines and gain attention for issues of climate change and the growing environmental crisis.
The actions of Extinction Rebellion have created a movement, the likes of which we’ve never seen before, however, they’ve also been subject to criticism and have in recent years the movement has been forced to reconsider their identity.
👉 In this article we’ll explore who Extinction Rebellion are, what they want, and what tactics they employ to achieve their aims.
Extinction Rebellion - also known as XR - is a global environmental movement that began in the UK. It focuses on employing tactics of civil disobedience to push governments to take action to avoid tipping points in terms of climate change, biodiversity loss, and societal and ecological collapse.
Extinction Rebellion can trace its roots back to 2017, and a man named Roger Hallam. Roger was an organic farmer and PHD student at the time, but he was also a climate activist who had been planning and executing small scale movements in London. However, these acts were to be greatly eclipsed by what was to come.
The seed of an idea already existed in Hallam’s mind, and he famously told journalists in 2017, that “within a year or so we will have thousands of people on the streets, blocking large parts of central London for days on end”. However, it wasn’t until he met Gail Bradbrook a short time later that the seeds were able to take root and grow.
Gail Bradbrook was also already a devoted climate activist and had previously been involved with campaigns such as the Occupy movement (a socio-political movement that opposed social and economic inequality). The story goes that prior to meeting Hallam, while in Costa Rica, Bradbrook took part in a spiritual ritual. As part of the ritual she tried some psychedelic drugs in the hopes of finding inspiration for what she calls “the codes of social change”.
It wasn’t long after this trip that Bradbrook met Hallam. They reportedly sat for over 4 hours together, going over the growing environmental crisis and their ideas on how to affect change to the system. It was during this meeting that Bradbrook claims Hallam referred to the ‘codes’ of change - a sign she took to be fate.
The rest is history as they say, and this little anecdote lends an air of destiny to the Extinction Rebellion movement. Bradbrook and Hallam, alongside a small group of fellow activists, began to work on something they called Rising Up - a movement that was committed to peaceful forms of civil disobedience. This eventually grew into Extinction Rebellion.
After much discussion as to what the core aims of the movement should be, the founders focused in on three demands for the UK government:
The group believed that it could realise these aims if only they could motivate normal citizens to care about the issues and to take civil action.
Extinction Rebellion were certainly not the first to tackle the issue of climate change and biodiversity loss - many before them had tried and failed (or failed to gain much traction at least). What made the group different were its members - a mix of people with expertise in a variety of different fields including science, politics and even philosophy. This experience combined with their dedication to bringing about serious change was a recipe for success.
They took their inspiration from the civil rights movements in the United States and Gandhi’s independence struggle in India. The idea was to create as much chaos as possible and for as many people to get arrested as possible - something they hoped would overwhelm the UK’s justice system, forcing the UK Government to take notice.
Extinction Rebellion members toured the country, educating the public about the severity of the issues at hand - ie. climate change and biodiversity loss. They built up support and bolstered numbers before finally launching their campaign outside the UK Houses of Parliament. Around 1,500 participants came to support their ‘Declaration of Rebellion’, occupying the road outside Westminster.
The movement took flight and only five months later, in early 2019, thousands more were joining their protests; occupying key sites across London for a period of two weeks, bringing disruption and chaos to central London - tactics included blocking major bridges crossing the Thames River and even supergluing themselves to the gates of Buckingham Palace. Over 1,000 people were arrested over the two weeks of civil action, gaining huge media attention and transforming Extinction Rebellion into a movement of global importance.
The movement was so successful that it planted the seed for offshoot demonstrations in towns and cities across the world. Extinction Rebellion had gone global, and the founding members were being inundated with donations for the movement, and requests to sit down with senior politicians and UK Government ministers. New members were also pouring in - with some of them even quitting their jobs to focus full time on the movement.
Extinction Rebellion and its founding members suddenly found themselves facing the questions of: what comes next?
The influx of new members was of huge advantage to Extinction Rebellion. Some of the key new figures in the group lent the movement even more respect and weight. Farhana Yamin for example was a former UN lawyer who had also worked on the Paris Agreement - her track record lent significant credibility to the group and she went on to become one of their primary spokespersons.
Born and bred in London, Extinction Rebellion is now a global movement with over 650 different groups in over 70 countries around the world.
This is how they mobilise and organise - small, autonomous groups form a decentralised web. The groups are connected by the overall movement but the structure ensures that anyone can become a part of Extinction Rebellion.
There is no formal process for joining, and no official register of members. All that Extinction Rebellion ask is that members agree to follow ten core principles, which are:
Extinction Rebellion originally eschewed traditional, ‘soft’ methods of civil action - they believed that writing to MPs and signing petitions didn’t go far enough. Instead they chose to employ a tactic that’s more extreme - something known as nonviolent civil disobedience.
Nonviolent civil disobedience is the very heart of what Extinction Rebellion does. It’s a form of political tactic and also the basis of movements that advocate for social change. Those using nonviolent civil disobedience disobey and refuse to comply with the letter of the law (using nonviolent means) in order to dramatise and bring attention to a certain issue. Sometimes this even means risking arrest or jail time.
The primary idea was that by using mass civil disobedience that takes place in full public view, Extinction Rebellion would be able to garner the maximum amount of publicity and attention, enabling them to raise awareness and force politicians into taking action.
You’ve probably heard about or even watched some of the actions of Extinction Rebellion - that’s the whole point after all: public acts that attract national or even global attention. The list is long and impressive, but here’s a brief overview of some of the more notable and headline grabbing actions the group are responsible for:
400 Extinction Rebellion protestors marched outside Downing Street (the UK Prime Minister’s place of residence), pouring buckets of fake blood onto the road. The blood was intended to serve as a reminder of the threat presented by climate change to future generations.
An 11 day demonstration (or rather - series of demonstrations) was held in London in April of 2019. The demonstrations focused on creating maximum disruption in the capital city. Extinction Rebellion activists fixed a boat, painted bright pink, to the busy shopping intersection between Oxford Street and Regent Street. Activists then proceed to glue themselves to it and even set up a gazebo and skate ramp.
The boat was moved to several different locations around London throughout the 11 day period, disrupting an estimated half a million people within the first couple of days alone.
Other notable acts from the demonstrations include the actress Emma Thompson reading poetry from the deck of the boat, and protestors gluing themselves to the entrance of the London Stock Exchange. A total of 1,130 people were arrested over the 11 day period.
International Rebellion was a movement that took place in over 60 cities worldwide. Attracting several thousand participants in London alone, members of Extinction Rebellion brought heavy disruption to London.
Notable acts include the delay of two planes by activists who had purchased tickets; a funeral procession of more than 20,000 participants in central London; disruption to rail and underground networks by members glueing themselves to trains; and even the scaling of Big Ben by a free solo climber.
As with earlier demonstrations, they attracted the attention and support of well known public figures - including Paralympian James Brown who climbed on top of a plane, live-streaming the whole thing. Belgium’s Princess Marie-Esmerelda also demonstrated with Extinction Rebellion members in central London and was arrested and later released.
Extinction Rebellion activists, including two Olympic athletes, blocked major bridges in central London, climbed onto oil tankers and chained themselves to various structures at different oil depots.
Two Extinction Rebellion members glued their hands to one of Pablo Picasso’s paintings at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, in an attempt to highlight climate concerns. Using superglue they attached their hands to the protective perspex glass.
One of the most recent demonstrations led by Extinction Rebellion has been named ‘the Big One’. It took place in London in April 2023 and over 200 different organisations took part - ranging from trade unions, to charities, to community groups. The demonstration was peaceful and didn’t employ any disruptive tactics - this reflects the changing tactics of the group, something that we’ll touch on in more detail shortly.
Original Extinction Rebellion campaigns focused heavily on creating general disruption and chaos in an effort to raise general awareness and to motivate politicians to take action. However, recent actions have shifted gear slightly and now tend to target specific groups or corporations. Results have been more mixed, with the group struggling to gain as much media attention as the original demonstrations. Though arguably this is to be expected, early demonstrations had novelty on their side - something that always garners attention.
What's undeniable though is that Extinction Rebellion got people talking. Most people have heard of their activity, and they’ve even managed to attract the support of scores of public figures. It’s unquestionable that Extinction Rebellion has been successful in raising awareness of global warming and biodiversity loss. Extinction Rebellion managed to put the pressure on and drive forward the climate change agenda in a way that no other civil movement has.
Arguably, Extinction Rebellion wouldn’t be doing their job right if they were stirring up controversy and criticism. But is any of the criticism actually justifiably founded?
It probably comes as no surprise that the acts of Extinction Rebellion don’t always win approval. By design they employ extreme and often disruptive tactics. At times their acts can even be destructive with pretty significant cost implications for public authorities. For example the 2019 protests by the movement resulted in a bill of over 7.5 million GBP for the Metropolitan Police. So it’s no wonder that they’re seen as a nuisance to public authorities and governments - though, Extinction Rebellion would probably be the first to remind us that’s their whole aim!
As you can imagine the conservative right have taken particular issue with Extinction Rebellion, labelling them as a radical far left group. The UK’s Conservative party have even discussed the possibility of labelling Extinction rebellion as an organised crime group - however, it’s never actually come to fruition.
Regardless of your political leanings or personal opinion of the movement, one of the more justified criticisms is that Extinction Rebellion ignores the prejudice within the criminal justice system. Using the tactic of mass arrests is seeped in white privilege and ignores the extensive racism that exists within society’s structures.
In a similar vein to this, is the now infamous incident of the Extinction Rebellion members who blocked a London commuter train in 2019. Intended to disrupt those working in the finance sector, the action was completely blind to the reality that those most impacted by the disruption to the rush-hour train were in fact mainly working class Londoners - many of whom belonged to ethnic minority groups. The act was poorly received by the public and widely criticised by the media. Extinction Rebellion's reputation took a significant hit and it cemented some of the criticism around white privilege that had been levelled at the movement.
To their credit however, Extinction Rebellion seem to have taken this criticism on board and claim to be educating themselves on the connections between inequality and racism and the climate crisis, and are working with activist groups who operate within these areas.
Despite Extinction Rebellion’s widely successful beginnings, in recent years they’ve struggled to make quite the same impact. The restrictions of the Covid 19 pandemic also severely capped their ability to mobilise and act.
Some members of Extinction Rebellion, including one of its founders - Roger Hallam - have gone on to start other grassroots movements such as Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil. These groups continue to make headlines by employing extreme and attention grabbing tactics.
These challenges have prompted Extinction Rebellion to reflect on their own goals and operations, and led to the announcement of a change in tactic on New Years Day 2023. Extinction Rebellion explained that they were going to stop prioritising arrest as a tactic and instead focus on growing a mass movement by prioritising activities such as canvassing, phone-banking and by hosting local events and meetings. This represents a much softer form of activism for the group, and is one that they hope will attract new members and help resolve any issues of public sentiment.
XR Youth are an off-shoot of the original movement that are also worth drawing attention to - they are the future generation of the movement after all.
Created out of the need to form a space for younger members who are passionate about climate activism, XR Youth isn’t just fighting for future generations, they’re also fighting for themselves - i.e for the here and now.
XR Youth may have been born out of the original Extinction Rebellion movement, however, they are a movement that is completely separate. The two movements do however sometimes cooperate with one another, but they always retain their own autonomy.
XR Youth aims to give young people a political voice by creating youth-led structures that determine actions to make their voices heard. Like the original Extinction rebellion, XR Youth aim to tackle climate change and environmental destruction. They believe that the answer is not purely scientific or technological, but also needs to incorporate the societal structures within which we operate.
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