Guest post: In (partial) defence of Extinction Rebellion

A few days ago I published something under the title “XR- useful, useless or worse than useless?” Given that I wrote it, there were of course no tpyos, no sweeping generalisations and no inflammatory denunciations whatsoever.

Someone I know slightly kindly wrote an email, and I encouraged them to turn it into a longer comment. Originally I was going to post this under the original post. However, I reckon it deserves its own standalone post, so here goes…

I agree with much of what you say about the danger of people getting burned out, and about political illusions, but I think that people have participated in XR in many different ways. The experience is heterogenous, and XR is pretty heterogenous too.

I started going to the meetings of the local group here in Greenwich, south east London, after a lifetime’s involvement with socialist politics and the labour movement. I think we’ve done some worthwhile things, such as:

1. A big event in the local uni in June 2019 attended by 150 people including local councillors, MPs, people who knew what they were talking about on climate, etc. Shortly after that, and partly as a result of it, the local council declared a “climate emergency”.

2. Coordination with local long-running campaign against construction of the Silvertown Tunnel (a terrible project to build a new river crossing under the river Thames, by the supposedly climate-conscious Mayor of London, which will wreck London’s climate targets, exacerbate air pollution problems, etc). We have had several events and demonstrations where a brilliant street theatre group started by XR members has been combined with community mobilisation.  

3. A series of monthly discussions on climate and related political issues with speakers. These have been well-attended, and allowed discussion of the many climate-related issues – scientific, political, etc – which XR members, and others (they are open to the public) are in some cases thinking about for the first time.

4. (Still ongoing, with help from Climate Emergency Manchester), monitoring of the local council and whether/ how they are doing anything about their “climate emergency”.

There are different approaches within the group. Some people are into more local environmentalist stuff. Some people are only interested in taking part in direct action – and that’s obviously been fearfully difficult due to coronavirus.  

As a socialist I am pretty sceptical about the politics of the people who set up XR. I don’t have much time for Roger Hallam. When he spoke about the holocaust being “just one more fuckery in human history”, I said to people in our local group that I strongly agreed with XR Germany’s statement denouncing him. I have not been involved in any of the national coordination processes in XR, but I asked what was being done about this at national level. It was all a bit confused, but XR UK issued a statement denouncing what Hallam said on the holocaust, and in other ways put him at arm’s length. Then he quit, thank christ.

My political problems with some of the XR initiators go beyond that, and I think the whole “deep adaptation” argument by Jem Bendell is a negative influence. It’s paralysing, and it discounts the potential for society to change, which obviously coming from a socialist point of view is crucial to me. On this, too, what XR looks like on line or in the papers is not necessarily reflective of the local groups. Tom Nicholas, who is in XR scientists, and two of his colleagues, who challenged Bendell’s approach in that article in Open Democracy, came to speak at one of our sessions and were well received.

There have been discussions about some of the issues you mention. Specifically, the notorious tube action at Canning Town (which is right over the river from us) had no support that I heard of in our local group. What’s more, there was in our group very strong support for a “fourth demand” linking climate action with social justice and solidarity with the global south. (The only debate was whether to push for the whole of XR to adopt it at once, or to go ahead and do so locally – we went ahead and did so locally).

I’d be the last to claim XR is perfect. Its politics at a national level often look weak to me. I’ve not been involved with all the loads of committees and working groups, but some of them seem to attract self-important egos (which happens in many organisations). But thinking back over organisations I’ve been involved with down the years (mostly Trotskyist or other extraparliamentary-leftist), it’s been a more tolerant – and at times more thoughtful – arena for discussion than many of them.

Although many XR participants thought it would change the world, I didn’t (to be blunt). It’s probably been less effective on the big scale than Fridays for Future. But it has put direct action back on the agenda, and I think it has helped to make people think differently about the politics of climate change.   

Simon.

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