XR- useful, useless, worse than useless?

So there is a debate coming up – “this house believes that XR has done more harm than good for the movement towards climate action.”

An organisation I am part of has been invited to participate, and I may or may not be speaking on its behalf. That’s the impetus for putting fingers to keyboard below, (and before I found out about it I’d been talking to my voice recorder on my with-bricks yomps). To emphasise, what is written below is my personal view, not the “official” or “collective” view of the organisation.

You might also like this debate “has Extinction Rebellion got the right tactics” in New Internationalist December 2019 and this “open letter to new climate activists” in October 2018.

Let’s recap the XR history very briefly, and I hope fairly.

In summer 2018 there were various meetings about setting up “Extinction Rebellion.” Stickers with the triangular hourglass and slogans about climate change being genocide (it sure is – it’s worse in fact) started appearing on lampposts. There were meetings around the country, advertised if not organised for people who knew how late in the day it was (I managed 25 minutes of the meeting in my city before giving up).

There was then a “Declaration of Rebellion” in October in Parliament Square, with Gorgeous George Monbiot swooning in print and a good turn out. This was followed in short order by the “occupation” (with Met consent) of five bridges in central London. Thousands of people. Definite momentum (if not Momentum).

Groups sprang up around the country. Speaking for where I am, the meetings were just fucking awful. I mean, fucking awful. An “April Rebellion” was announced. It happened in April 2019. Huge media coverage, lots of emotions, lots of declarations. Huge public interest. More beyond-fucking-awful meetings. A definite trajectory of burn out, of churn, of shrinking back to the (c)rusted on types – mostly students and retireds. [There’s lots of good academic survey work about the make-up of these folks].

The decentralised and democratic groups were then told they were taking part in another (October) rebellion. The promises of disruption were bigger. But the numbers weren’t there, the police changed tactics (having probably, in April, gotten all the additional money they were going to get from the Home Office, and now not wanting to look weak) and the media angle was different.

And, of course, there were those idiots on the Tube train.

And XR then spent time soul-searching and navel-gazing, as the meetings shrank (but were still fucking awful) and Saint Roger said stupider and stupider things.

And then came Covid. And for months they flailed online, and then announced a September 2020 “rebellion” which was tiny, and inevitably both achingly reformist and demoralising.

And now? I think it’s all done. I think it went up like a rocket and was coming down like a stick after October 2019 anyway. Covid has sharpened this, but its demise was – like climate apocalypse – baked in. The model, the millenarian model and the absence of any actual movement-building that I could see (there may have been some elsewhere, but I’ve not heard of it) meant that it was always going to be gone like a fist when you open your palm.

I’ve had interactions, and occasionally discussions (ish) with people who were more sympathetic to XR than me – actually, now would be a good time to clear up/prevent a misunderstanding about my critique of XR.

I believe the XR sense of urgency on climate as an issue is largely accurate (though that Andrew Neil interview with the pro-nuclear “turncoat” was a car crash). I think, in the words of Susan Solomon in 2007 “It’s later than you think” and that lots and lots of people currently walking around are going to die because of climate change. I’m not a climate denialist, or a lukewarmist, or a techno-optimist by any stretch of the imagination. You can call me Chicken Little or a Doomer or an Edge Lord, yeah, fine, whatever.

The two main defences I’ve heard of XR are that

a) it raises the issue of climate change/puts it on the agenda

b) it gives people their first taste of activism (and related, helps people feel less lonely and isolated)

So, taking those in turn

a) Nope. We’ve been here before (as XR never really acknowledged) with the big upsurge in public concern and policymaker attention between 2006 and 2010. XR did not put climate on the agenda alone – there were weather events, the IPCC’s 1.5 degree report, Saint Greta etc. And more than this – it isn’t a question of climate being on the agenda – it’s been on the agenda for 30 years. It’s not so much about getting better policies (though we defo need those too) but of scrutiny and implementation of the existing policies. What is needed is not new promises and five year plans and new deals, but the mechanisms by which politicians and bureaucrats are forced to keep their promises. That needs forensic grinding activism by groups that refuse to be bought off or bored out.

But mostly, this:

b) it has taught people shit activism. What it has taught people is that activism is only/primarily about dressing up, blocking roads, shouting from the public gallery instead of using the existing democratic mechanisms that haven’t really been tried. It has taught people that activism is about interminable lousy meetings where your lived reality will be largely ignored and you will be treated as ego-fodder for the hungry benefit of the cool kids. It has taught people that “activism” means semi-regular organised explosions of emotion (what I call the emotacycle.)

So, has XR then been useless? Nope, it has been WORSE than useless.

In descending order of importance (from my perspective)

  • It has burnt out, demoralised and disvisioned (as opposed to disillusioned) a load of people who were motivated and available for activism, and taught them wrong things about what is possible (see above). These people will be much harder to re-recruit than you’d think… The millenarian rhetoric will have cauterised people’s hopey-veins, and they’re probably beating themselves up for not having been able to stay involved in a massively dysfunctional process
  • It has discredited mass action as a “thing” (though to be fair, no matter what it had done, this would result. Large chunks of the media, and especially the political parties, hate extra-parliamentary action, for reasons that don’t need to detain us here.)
  • It has created enough pressure on governments and corporates to inoculate themselves with declarations of emergency and good will
  • It has wasted time that we really don’t have (I put this last because, you know, we’re outa time already. So it goes).

There are some predictable possible responses to this above. Please read the list below and if you were going to reply with one of them you know, just keep to yourself, because it’s a lot later than any of us realise and I’d rather not waste time and electrons on stupid going-nowhere conversations.

You’re just a defeated misanthrope

Yep sure….. But that’s an ad hominem argument that doesn’t address my actual critique. Perhaps you’d like to try again?

You’re jealous of all the attention it got, and all the energy of all the people it engaged

Warmer, but not so much jealous as incredibly frustrated. The waste of talent, the wilful refusal to engage with what skills people had and wanted to have. And I was full of foreboding for the aftermath. I was saying all along that it would go up like a rocket and down like a stick…. And now here we are…

You don’t have any alternative vision of activism

“Go fuck yourself, you Manichean maniac.” Sorry, I mean “actually, yes I do – here and here.”

To quote the Boss we’re still here, they’re all gone.

One thought on “XR- useful, useless, worse than useless?

Add yours

  1. Hi Marc,

    An excellent piece. I’ve said for many years that Britain is a free country and we can protest all we like on what ever we want, so long as we don’t expect to be successful and so long as we can still have our cake and eat it.

    P.S. we met years ago in Manchester at the sustainable aviation forum, where I asked smarmy smart assed questions such who they thought would be going on holiday in 2050 when the world was on fire and why they thought sustainable biofuel was a possibility when we’d just had the first round of global food riots.

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