Debate speech: XR has done more harm than good

Here’s the text I prepared and delivered for what was, in the end, a deeply unsatisfactory debate held recently.

I am Dr Marc Hudson. Speaking as editor of Manchester Climate Monthly, I put the case “that Extinction Rebellion has done more harm than good to the movement towards climate action.”

I will stick to XR in the UK, which has been far and away the most important one, despite a certain amount of activity in the US and elsewhere.

I will not talk about XR’s frankly ridiculous three aims, or the behaviour and words of its co-founder, Roger Hallam. I won’t hammer on about the sending of flowers to Brixton Police Station, or the tube train action. 

Why? Because I want this to be a substantive debate. I’m going to respond to the strongest case for XR. There are three primary arguments. Agenda-setting, hope, and creating a new generation of climate activists.

Firstly, climate change was already on the agenda, and has been since 1988. We don’t need agenda-setting. We need a broad-based resilient and long-lasting movement that makes sure that shiny promises made by politicians and capitalists actually get kept. Being there to applaud a climate emergency declaration and then basically wandering off is not good enough.

Secondly, to quote St. Greta Thunberg, “I don’t want you to hope… I want you to panic.”  This is not about feeling warm and righteous.  The temporary hope XR generates in those who attend its events fades. New, bigger doses are sought. XR feels like a hope addict, looking for its next fix. But there is such a thing as fake hope, cruel optimism.

Thirdly, XR has NOT created a new generation of activists. It has created a spasm whereby very few of the people who were available two years ago are still available today. XR has burnt through activists like an Australian bushfire burns through koalas and kangaroos. 

Those activists have also learnt the wrong lessons – that activism is naturally boom and bust, that it is about fancy-dress street parties and sleeping on cardboard in capital cities. They have learnt that being involved requires attending regular long boring meetings. And that these meetings will be dominated by an unelected clique more interested in its own emotional needs than in engaging new people, their skills, their knowledge, their connections, their hopes.

And this brings me to “more harm than good.” We desperately need a broad-based climate movement that isn’t just made up of the well-educated, of students and retired people who are left of centre. And despite some of its rhetoric – that is what XR has been. This isn’t a Daily Mail smear – this is borne out by detailed survey work conducted by academics at repeated big XR events.

I am interested in better citizen action. Have existing inadequate outfits like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace been forced to up their game, change the way they do things?

Has XR established, radical sustained local groups that can survive downturns in media attention?

And the answer to both those questions is no.

XR has been the wrong organisation with the wrong tactics at the right time.

XR has demoralised and decruited activists, leaving them hopeless, adrift and full of self-loathing for no longer being involved. It has alienated allies. It has enabled governments and corporations to inoculate themselves with meaningless promises which they will not be held to.

Don’t get me wrong. The UK climate “movement” before XR was shit. Change was needed, but genuine, long-lasting, change that understood the power of the British State and corporations, and understood that Whitehall sleepovers and celebrity endorsements from people flying in first class from LA were not going to … build a movement.

XR’s implosion – the fact it has gone up like a rocket and down like a stick – makes it harder rather than easier to mobilise, recruit and movement-build in future.

It makes potential climate activists cynical, scared and wary of what their friends will say.

It has made people think that activism is all about adrenaline and endorphins.

It has wasted time and energy we did not and do not have. It is worse than useless.

Thank you.    

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