Extinction Rebellion: Four Criticisms (and why they’re unconvincing)

The issue of climate change activism and the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement has caused me a good deal of intellectual and emotional soul-searching. A journey that began last year with a large helping of scepticism on my part took me last Friday to a cell in Sutton Police Station, where I whiled away several hours. I’m not going to tell that story here, but my enforced idleness at least gave me the opportunity to reflect on the various criticisms of XR that have been doing the rounds of the media, formal and social, during its actions over the last couple of weeks and why I’ve now come to find these criticisms unconvincing.

So below I bring you a sceptic’s guide to XR scepticism, in a two-part post that’ll be continued next time. In this first one I focus on issues that strike me as requiring a genuine, substantive response and/or that I wrestled with myself in embracing the movement. In the next one, I discuss objections that seem more like flummery to me (“XR is too white and middle-class”, “XR is a millenarian death cult”, “technical innovation will save us” etc.) but nevertheless tell us interesting things about our times.

I’ve chased down a few references and datasets to inform this post after regaining my freedom and internet connectivity (same thing, right?), but I’m dashing this out kind of free-form while I can still remember my thoughts without explicitly linking to many sources for these criticisms. They’re not hard to find online for anyone who cares to look.

Here we go, then – XR defended, Part I, in relation to four common objections.

1. With their nylon tents, smartphones, coach rides to London and so forth, XR activists demonstrably participate in the fossil fuel economy and are therefore hypocritical.

This is one I wrestled with personally longer than I should have. But it would only be true if the point of our demonstrations was to showcase our lifestyles as exemplary beacons for others to follow. What we’re actually saying is that climate change poses a massive collective problem to which we as individuals certainly contribute, but that can only be satisfactorily addressed right now if our most powerful collective institutions at present – namely our governments – treat climate change with appropriate urgency and radicalism.

Maybe it helps to invoke the language of addiction. If an alcoholic tells you they desperately want to quit drinking because of its damaging consequences, and then you see them knocking back the vino, you don’t accuse them of hypocrisy. The analogous role of government presently is to say “alcoholism is a very serious problem and we’re bringing through some truly radical policies to tackle it. Possibly next year. Or the one after. In the meantime, would you care for a glass of wine?” We need to get ourselves off fossil fuels – and we need governments to make it easier for us, not harder.

I’m not convinced that governments are capable of doing so. But I think it’s worth at least spending a few days of the year raising one’s voice alongside others to remind them that they really should.

I wonder if the argument about hypocrisy pulls so strongly because humans have a finely-tuned urge to push back against even the most minutely articulated suggestion of social superiority, which is no doubt evolutionarily functional in face-to-face settings (though regrettably not functional enough to prevent the emergence of monarchies, empires and capitalist world systems). It too easily leads us astray in our modern, vast, mediated societies when we read structural critique as mere personal self-aggrandizement. But if climate change activists need to get over any personal self-satisfaction – and I think XR does a good job in emphasizing the importance of this – then so do their critics. Would you rather be looking at the wreckage of a dying civilization and feeling good about yourself for at least not putting on airs and graces, or might you heed the warning of people who, like you, are contributing to the problem but are at least trying to sound a warning bell and chart another course?

And if you’re still not convinced, maybe this meme might help.

2. The protestors’ demands are cruel and absurd: they’d result in old people dying/poor countries unable to develop/us all living in the stone age.

The XR demand relevant to this is for the government to act now to reduce Britain’s emissions to net zero by 2025. It’s quite a stretch to get from there to the kind of claims in the sentence above, but I’ll try to unpack this a little.

If the government went for net zero by simply mothballing all fossil fuel infrastructure immediately, ceasing to airfreight medicines and so on then yes more old people would probably die. But instead it could aim towards net zero while attempting to mitigate social harm, especially to the most vulnerable people. If it did that, the people who’d experience the largest decline in their fortunes wouldn’t be vulnerable old people but fossil fuel companies and other corporate players. And, well, y’know, most of those planes in the sky aren’t up there carrying medicines… I can’t help feeling that the rush within the right-wing media to identify vulnerable groups who’d suffer from decarbonization is something of a smokescreen to deflect attention from the non-vulnerable groups who’d suffer from it more.

When it comes to poor countries being able to develop, I’d agree that it would be good for the poorest ones to be able to do so – even at the cost of higher emissions. For example, compare Burundi (GDP per capita: US$245; CO2 emissions per capita: 0.04 tonnes) with the UK ($41,125; 6.5 tonnes). However you distribute that average $245 around in Burundi, most people are going to be really poor, so the case for increasing it is strong. But here’s the thing: ‘development’ accrues mostly to the people or the countries who can gain the largest returns on investment, and this in turn depends on who has the most money to invest in the first place, as I showed in more detail here. Meanwhile, there’s a net financial drain from the poor countries to the rich countries. If rich countries like the UK junked their fossil fuel infrastructure and contracted their economies, it would increase the welfare of poorer countries while decreasing global emissions.

There’s also another facet to the issue of ‘development’, but I’ll come on to that under my next heading.

Finally on this point, would decarbonization and economic contraction revert us to the stone age, or at least to premodern living standards? To me, continuing on the present ‘business as usual’ pathway that could take us close to 5oC of warming by 2100 seems more likely to result in a future stone age than degrowth and decarbonization. But, as voluminously argued on this site over the years, a move towards more egalitarian, low energy, labour-intensive, local agrarian economies is more likely to increase welfare and living standards globally than decrease it.

3. Britain is a world leader in decarbonization with a tiny contribution to global emissions. Why aren’t the protestors targeting China or India instead?

It could perhaps be plausibly argued that Britain is a world leader in decarbonization, but what this mostly goes to show is how crap world leadership on decarbonization has been. In 1960, global CO2 emissions averaged 3.1 tonnes per capita, while by 2014 they’d reached 5.0 tonnes (the absolute increase, of course, has been much higher). The corresponding figures for Britain are 11.15 and 6.5 – a good improvement, but 6.5 tonnes per capita is still well above the global average and not good enough. Indeed, on current performance Britain is set to miss the carbon budgets that its own government has set itself for the mid-2020s and beyond. So on the basis of those figures alone, I’d argue there are plenty of reasons for us in Britain to protest to our government about inaction over climate change.

One reason that Britain’s emissions have declined quite impressively is that we no longer have a large, energy-hungry heavy industry and manufacturing sector, a baton that’s now been passed to other countries – China in particular. So the Chinese figure of 7.5 tonnes of CO2 per capita (still way below the US figure of 16.5 tonnes) needs to be interpreted in that light – a good proportion of China’s emissions arise in service of imports demanded from wealthy countries like Britain (India, by the way, emits 1.7 tonnes per capita, and is also a net exporter).

How big a proportion? According to this analysis CO2 emissions embodied in trade constitute -16% of Chinese emissions and +37% of UK emissions – so if we correct the figures I gave above accordingly (is that methodologically sound? I think so…) the Chinese emissions turn out at 6.3 tonnes per capita and the UK ones at 8.9 tonnes – another reason, I’d argue, for us in Britain not to get too uppity about Chinese emissions. If you throw in a proportion of the emissions embodied in all the local infrastructure to deliver those exports (roads, factories, ports etc.) then those figures would look even worse.

But whether the Chinese figures turn out higher than Britain’s or not, there’s a wider point to be made. If the poor countries of the world really ‘develop’ and attain something like the levels of wealth currently enjoyed by a country like Britain (though frankly this is fanciful within the present structuring of the global economy), then they’re probably going to have to do it along the lines that China did – with relatively cheap, low tech and dirty industrial infrastructures (concrete, coal etc.) So currently, the only path to ‘development’ on offer through the mainstream economy is one that leads to earth systems breakdown. We need to construe alternative futures – and as I’ve argued on this site and in my forthcoming book, the most plausible one I can see is a small farm future of local agrarian autonomies that nourish their ecological base.

Another dimension to the issue arises from the fact that carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels tend to accumulate long-term in the atmosphere, acting as a growing stock that forces temperatures ever upwards. Therefore, any carbon dioxide that we choose not to emit, in however small an amount, helps towards mitigating climate change. This also means that although many different things can happen to a given CO2 molecule, most of the ones emitted from fossil fuel combustion in humanity’s recent industrial past are effectively still up there, doing their climate forcing work.

On that front, this dataset again provides interesting information on historic, cumulative CO2 emissions. As recently as 1920, Britain was responsible for a quarter of all global cumulative emissions. That figure has now sunk to 4.9% – though that’s still quite a bit higher than its current annual contribution of 1.1%. Only four countries have higher cumulative emissions – the USA (way out in front at 25%), China (13%), Russia (6%) and Germany (6%). If you adjust the figures for each of these five countries by current population size then Britain comes second only to the USA, and not by much. Given that there’s a fixed budget of only about 14 years-worth of current global annual emissions to retain a 50-50 chance of staying within 1.5oC of global warming, one interpretation of these figures is that Britain has already had more than its fair share of fun with CO2, and now it’s time to step back gracefully – ideally by reaching net zero emissions in 2025 as XR demands – and cede space to countries like Burundi.

You’ll note that quite a lot of the figures I’ve used above are on a per capita basis. That seems fair to me. Each person has to take some responsibility for their own local emissions, rather than pinning the blame generically on other countries – and, as I’ve shown above, British emissions are pretty bad and worse than they first appear from current production-based emission figures when various corrections are introduced. Still, it’s true that whatever Britain does about its emissions, the consequences will be dwarfed by what China or India do because they’re much bigger countries.

But there are, finally, three lines of argument that suggest to me this has little bearing on the case for UK citizens to direct climate activism at the UK government.

First, since – as I indicated above – emissions are a cumulative stock, not a transient flow, then any CO2 that we’re able to avoid emitting has positive consequences for climate change mitigation. It really doesn’t matter that Britain is a small, insignificant country in terms of current global emissions – whatever we can abate is a help (incidentally, it’s funny how the sort of commentators who say that Britain is a small, insignificant country when it comes to climate change say exactly the opposite when it comes to Brexit…)

Second, since Britain was one of the first industrial/emitting powers, has one of the world’s largest economies and has emissions per capita that are still 30% higher than the global average, it’s hardly likely that bigger, poorer, ‘developing’ countries will commit seriously to climate change mitigation if we simply point the finger at them and don’t take radical steps to reduce our own emissions. Therefore we need to pressurize our government to do more.

Third and last, though it began in Britain, XR is an international movement, with people lobbying their governments in many countries. Usually, it’s easier for citizens to influence their own government than foreign governments, who have no formal or de facto accountability to them. A hundred British protestors blockading Waterloo Bridge is disproportionately more influential than a hundred British protestors blockading the Chinese Embassy – or Tiananmen Square for that matter. And to those enthusiasts for capitalism and freedom who say XR activists should be lobbying against climate change in Tiananmen Square, I say you should be lobbying for freedom there, so let’s go together – but you first.

4. How does stopping ordinary Londoners going about their business and the police from focusing on real crime help advance the cause of climate change mitigation?

This is a favourite of angry, right-wing radio talk show hosts and – though I must confess it’s one that I’ve struggled with too – ultimately I think they answer their own question. It does so in some measure by getting self-important blowhards in the media to talk about climate change and thus to raise it in public consciousness in ways that simply wouldn’t happen with legal demonstrations that would get precisely zero media coverage in comparison with Brexit, the royal family or the football results.

Most members of the public I encountered in the course of the protests were either enthusiastically or cautiously supportive of XR, and only a few abusively opposed – a number of the latter looking quite well to do, rather than ‘ordinary’. As I stood lined up against a wall with my fellow arrestees behind a phalanx of police officers, one kind passerby stopped and thanked each one of us personally for what we were doing. Almost every activist I’ve spoken with has similar stories about the high levels of public support they’ve met, sometimes from unlikely quarters like arresting police officers or city bankers. I think there’s more support for XR than a casual reading of the daily press might suggest.

As to the use of police resources, it’s up to the police and the government to decide what they want to devote their resources to. As the climate and other crises deepen, governments are going to have to spend an increasing proportion of their resources on the ‘intermediate economy’ that furnishes the final products – spending more of their income just on figuratively keeping the roads open. On that score, maybe they should thank XR for giving them a taste of things to come and letting them get some practice in.

In the midst of the latest rounds of protests, the Metropolitan Police issued a Section 14 order that enabled them to arrest any group of three or more identifiable XR activists assembling anywhere in London. Regardless of the underlying issue that’s being protested, I think a lot of people found the wider political implications of that troubling, just as a lot of people found the wider political implications of the government closing down parliament in order to get its way over Brexit troubling. It seems likely to me that the way many of the political, economic and ecological crises of our age will manifest is in increasingly divisive and authoritarian forms of governance – of which these perhaps are early signs. I think this needs resisting, and I think XR is helping to shape that resistance.


Note: Except where otherwise stated, all data reported above are derived from the World Bank’s World Development Indicator dataset, 2014 data (the latest year for which it provides emissions data).

49 thoughts on “Extinction Rebellion: Four Criticisms (and why they’re unconvincing)

  1. To me the big criticism that needs to be addressed is part of your #2 – the demand for net zero by 2025 – that’s just over 5 years away, an no-one has any realistic suggestions as to _how_ it could be achieved.

    For example, to take just one area that will be familiar to everyone – transport. There’s 38.2 million cars in the UK, with 2.9m new ones in 2018 (according to DfT stats), of which just 64k were ULEVs. Now even if we stopped sales of new IC cars tomorrow, and somehow instantly switched all the capacity to producing EVs, it would still take 13 years to replace the existing vehicle stock. A lot of that could be reduced by eliminating the need for a car within cities, but that still requires the production of tens of thousands of buses, new trains (and railways to run them on) and other infrastructure – and there’s still the rural areas to consider – with many rural dwellers being on lower incomes and so unable to just go and buy a new car, and rural bus services being poor to non-existent in many areas.

    Our infrastructure and culture are so car based that for most outside of the biggest cities it’s almost impossible to live without, and it’s going to take a big culture shift to fix that (starting with getting rid of commuting, shifting things round so people can work remotely, or within walking distance of their homes) – I just can’t see that happening in 5 years. I’ve managed to halve my car usage over the last few years, but still can’t get rid of it completely.

    Food is another area – we can do something about the desire to have everything available all the time instead of eating seasonal local produce, but as a country we’re nowhere near self-sufficient for food. I’m very much in favour of the small farm approach, but is it possible to produce enough meat and veg to feed the whole country?

    IMHO the thing we need to focus on most, from a consumer perspective, is consumption – make second-hand, re-using and repurposing fashionable, and buying new shameful. Nobody needs a new car or TV every three years, a new wardrobe every season, etc. Get rid of the concepts of fast fashion and designed obsolescence, and push up the lifespan of manufactured goods to massively reduce the amount of stuff produced. Except, of course, as you point out, that would hit the corporations’ profits…

  2. “China in particular. So the Chinese figure of 7.5 tonnes of CO2 per capita (still way below the US figure of 16.5 tonnes) needs to be interpreted in that light ”
    but there are 1.3 billion chinese , against 65 ish million brits AND 300 million yanks .
    The idea that the uk could be carbon free by 2025 is laughable , never mind cars what about trucks ? ,millions of them , tessla tried battery trucks an artic had a payload of four tonnes instead of twenty five , the rest was the battery pack , the entire distribution network would have to be reworked with thousands of miles of new rail lines .

  3. Allow me to second Mr. Boxall’s motion. Taking these steps can not have been easy. Regardless of the opinions of others, you’ve demonstrated the passion you feel and now present your own well stated explanation for it.

    Next I suppose it my duty to toss a quibble or two – though I hope no ill feeling should result:

    Last two paragraphs:

    As to the use of police resources, it’s up to the police and the government to decide what they want to devote their resources to.

    Where the cartoon character Pogo once observed – “We met the enemy and he is us”… I would observe that WE are the government (ultimately), and by association we are similarly the police. It is society that must step up and make change. Boris Johnson may still have #10 Downing as his official residence, but he is merely the present occupant… one set of nostrils, one set of lungs, and the carbon footprint of just one person bound up into the overall UK footprint you’ve so nicely laid out. The same can be said of any and all other “government” personalities.

    Where am I going with that? If XR wants to make it make a sufficiently noisy statement – one to rise above Brexit, Westminster, and football results in the public square – then I believe it should also own that such a noisy statement will indeed require resources from society at large (government and police). It is, after all, a change in government and police policy toward the environment that you (we) seek. Why suggest that it’s up to the police on one issue, and up to XR on another. Indeed, I think you come close to this latter line of thinking in the final sentence in that paragraph.

    In the midst of the latest rounds of protests, the Metropolitan Police issued a Section 14 order that enabled them to arrest any group of three or more identifiable XR activists assembling anywhere in London. Regardless of the underlying issue that’s being protested, I think a lot of people found the wider political implications of that troubling

    Here, perhaps, less a quibble than a search for qualification. Is there no situation you might imagine where a Section 14 order might be worthy in a city of the size and international significance of London? Suppose a white supremacist group were agitating near the London Bridge… or ISIS wanabees are gathering at Bib Ben. I don’t mean to equate XR with these groups… but I do want to ponder how a policeperson should navigate the continuum from outraged citizen with fair a complaint to sinister malefactor with evil intent (and do so at a moment’s notice).

    Again, I join JB in offering kudos. It had to be (and yet remains) a difficult thing.

  4. First, since – as I indicated above – emissions are a cumulative stock

    Yes, and this makes the situation more dire than most people realize. The per capita global carbon budget remaining for 1.5 C temperature rise is about 17.5 tons carbon. Since excess carbon (as CO2) remains in the atmosphere for centuries, any individual carbon budget should be passed down to one’s children and grandchildren if they are going to be allowed to emit carbon at all. Divide 17.5 tons by 7.6 billion people and, say, 200 years and one gets an annual carbon budget of about 0.08 tons per person, about twice that of Burundi.

    What would allow an annual carbon budget of 0.08 tons per person and still maintain an industrial civilization? I really doubt that it can be done, but perhaps if we converted to 100% renewables we could still power some sorts of industry. The problem, as Nick points out in his comment, is that we would need to expend huge amounts of carbon just to replace the existing infrastructure of the industrial world with stuff that can run on renewables. The embedded carbon in new EVs, long distance transmission lines, all that solar and wind generation, and things like heat pumps to replace gas furnaces, would immediately bust our carbon budget.

    The choice facing us is between everyone living like those in Burundi do now or greatly reducing our population so that we can live with a larger individual carbon budget. This is a choice that no rich country’s population can make (without mass death) and no amount of persuasion from XR or anyone else will succeed.

    So, what is left to hope for? Perhaps global economic collapse will do the trick. The combination of mass death and forced subsistence farming will dramatically and rapidly reduce carbon emissions and save the climate. Perhaps, after a few decades, we could then climb back out of the hole we have dug for ourselves and create a tiny little bit of industrial civilization for a few lucky folks to enjoy.

    • “The choice facing us is between everyone living like those in Burundi do now or greatly reducing our population so that we can live with a larger individual carbon budget. This is a choice that no rich country’s population can make (without mass death)…”

      I fear that mass death is exactly the choice that rich nations will make, but it will be the mass death of other nation’s citizens rather their own and, if it comes to pass, will likely happen under the umbrella of what historian Nils Gilman calls “avocado politics” (a play on the term “watermelon politics from the 1970s/80s) — “green on the outside, brown(shirt) on the inside.”

      Beware the Rise of Far-Right Environmentalism

      Although Gilman doesn’t reference XR in the piece linked above, he does make a point that dovetails with what, to my mind, is one of the more substantial critiques of XR — that its attempt to remain above politics opens the door to an avocado-style illiberal response to climate change:

      “…ratcheting up the rhetoric about the urgency of the climate crisis — ‘We only have 11 years!!’ — can just as easily be used to justify the necessity of avocado policies. Indeed, what seems more politically achievable: creating a globally coordinated and democratically inclusive set of new institutions that will enable the resolution of all the difficult trade-offs associated with a ‘socially just’ approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, or shooting brown and Asian people?”

      That being said, I very much admire what you chose to do, Chris, all the more so since I’m not sure I would have the courage to do the same. While I have some concerns about XR’s strategy and tactics, they’re of the minor sort — what XR has achieved so far in terms of media attention and mobilization is both impressive and inspirational.

      • The trouble with “avocado politics”, in addition to being horrifically unjust, is that it won’t do much, if anything, to solve the climate crisis. People in the global south don’t use enough resources to make a meaningful dent in carbon emissions even if those resources are “reserved” for the white populations of the global north. The only people who improve the climate crisis by being shot are people in rich countries.

        Keeping poor people from moving to rich countries would help a little at first, but since rich countries must become almost as poor as Burundi to have an acceptable rate of carbon emissions, really doing something about the climate crisis will make migration so much less desirable as to be irrelevant. If everyone is equally poor, why move?

        It is unfortunate that the riches of the north can’t be be shared with those in the global south, but moving excess emissions around won’t increase the global carbon budget (even though it would increase the social justice budget). Poor nations need to stay poor and rich nations need to become equally poor. Anything less means failure to save the Holocene.

        But try asking anyone in a rich country if they want to live in a hut and use a hoe to grow all their food. Their answer “no” is why XR is doomed to failure. And even if XR could become so persuasive that the answers miraculously became “yes”, how would we actually move everyone in cities such as London, New York or Los Angeles into little huts in the countryside and set them up as successful peasants? Unfortunately, what needs to be done just can’t be done.

        • You’re no doubt right that avocado politics will be a delaying action at best, one centered on maintaining business as usual for as long as possible instead of actually solving the climate crisis. It will by necessity have to turn inward very quickly (if not from the outset) as who is and isn’t a “legitimate” citizen and who does and doesn’t deserve access to a first-world lifestyle is sorted according to what I’m sure will be very predictable criteria. Politics is a slippery business, after all, and what’s perceived as a solution by the people with the power to implement it is a question that might be answered in ways that, as you put it, are “horrifically unjust” by the standards of those of us with more egalitarian mindsets.

  5. Its worth pointing out that during WW2 the economies of almost all of the participants were massively changed in order to support the war effort.

    As a ‘For Example’ the USA went from a minimal ship building capacity in 1939 to building 6000 ships between 1940 & 1945.

    The emphasis in this period was not on what was practical, it was what needed to be done

    In the same way we will need to re purpose our economies again.

        • There was plenty of cheap energy now not so much , AOC green new deal idea needs masive investment in insulation, steel ,concrete , oil based carbon fibre , and power lines costing trillions of dollars that we do not have considering .gov is running a one trillion dollar defacit every year the gov has to have tax growth to pay for it and it just aint there , bancrupting every billionare adds up to six months spending of the green new deal , the fed reserve dumped $ 90 billion on the market last week 70 billion the week before to keep it fluid / kicking the can down the road , the masive spending called for by the GND would turn the $ into confetti , the money just aint there !

    • This analogy has obvious merit, but there’s one crucial difference between then and now: big business will be an antagonist to state planning, not an ally as it was for wartime governments.

  6. I think you should check your source figures and your maths. You have referenced this organisation for CO2 data: https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions. But looking at their figures, they don’t tie in with what you are saying on the per capita output (they give a figure of 5.8 tonnes for U.K. your article says 6.5. May be you are using multiple sources? If so, it doesn’t help your case to pick and mix stats.

    Also, I cant see how using cumualtive CO2 on a per capita basis as a measure of current performance or future intentions is of any benefit to the debate.

  7. Looking at pre-globalization consumption may give some indication about how local economies need to be repurposed post-globalization. The portion of income spent on food and clothing was significantly higher during the pre-globalization years.

    “The major trend over the past 80 years has been a reduction in the share of spending on food and clothing. Food had been the largest budget item, consuming 35 percent of the average urban household budget in 1935–36, dropping slightly in 1941 to 31 percent, moving back up to 36 percent in 1944, drifting down to 31 percent in the 1950s, and then continuing a long decline in relative share, dropping in half to 16 percent in 2013.”

    “Clothing was 11 percent of total consumption in the 1930s, climbing during the war to 16 percent in 1944, dropping to 12 percent in the 1950s, and showing the same long-term decline in relative share as food. It is now just over 3 percent of total consumption.”


  8. OK, so the revolution starts today then.

    As an opening gambit

    1. No more major road schemes or airport expansion
    2. As in the mid 70’s reduce the speed limit to 60mph on motorways & 50 on other roads, with strict enforcement
    3. An immediate ban on the sale of unnecessary high energy products eg Large/high performance cars, hit tubs, private swimming pools, and the building of large/luxury housing
    4. All rented housing to have a minimum EPC rating of C with only very limited exceptions
    5. All new housing to be built to Passivhaus standards including mandatory fitting of solar PV/Thermal systems
    6. All new domestic equipment to be made to the highest energy efficiency standards including the fitting of automatic shut off on all fridges at times of high power demand
    7. Bus services to be brought back under control of local/national government
    8. A graduated air passenger tax
    9. The development of a national passenger and freight transport strategy/plan

    None of it exactly difficult and all very do-able

    • Will all of the above really be enough? It reads more like a “Zero-by-2050” plan than a “Zero-by-2025” plan, and therefore a “4-degrees-by-the-end-of-the-century” plan. More appropriate to the gentle concern over global warming of the turn of the millenium than the urgent crisis that we’re facing now.

      All good stuff though. I would just make some minor modifications as follows:
      2a. Make single-occupancy car driving illegal on all major roads. Every car is a potential 5-seater bus… Maybe make an exception for electric taxis.
      2b. Speed limit of 15mph in all urban areas so that cycling is as fast as driving.
      5. Ban all new housing until there are no empty homes locally. This obviously entails addressing the causes of having homes stand empty.
      8. End fuel tax and carbon tax exemptions for airlines. Or just ban passenger flights within 5 years (that gives people time to make choices about where they want to live).

  9. Just catching up as I’ve come late to the party. So, congratulations on completing the book Chris, can’t wait to read it! And it’s great to see the blog waking up again, and the crew getting back together – Agrarians Assemble!

    I’ll also add my admiration to that of others above for your commitment to XR. I think the disruption caused by protest can be a very powerful force, and XR have largely wielded it well so far. I admit it feels a little churlish to comment from the sidelines, having not participated in the action (so far!).

    That said, and whilst I agree with most of your points in the post, you haven’t yet responded to the one criticism that does hold weight, at least in my opinion: XR’s claim to be ‘above politics’, which Ernie also referred to above. Quite aside from the obviously political nature of its activities and its demands, I can’t see XR accepting any kind of success that didn’t look fundamentally left-wing: the issues regarding unequal distribution of responsibility for and effects of climate change, and the necessity of redistribution in any effective global political solution, mean that such a solution will never come from political forces invested in the status quo – basically the centre and the right.

    The role of the proposed citizens’ assembly is also a little unclear in this regard. I can see an important role in such entities for building wider public consent for necessary changes (which is surely XR’s primary purpose), but the idea that it would guide government responses completely overlooks the campaign for a green new deal already in train among left wing political parties in the US, UK and EU. Political solutions are already in train (if a long way from successful implementation), and could only benefit from XR’s explicit support.

  10. Thanks for the various comments, plaudits and criticisms. A few responses:

    Criticizing XR for unrealistically ambitious decarbonization demands misses the point. I’m not that bothered whether Britain does or doesn’t reach net zero emissions by 2025. The point is that the rich countries need to set themselves challenges of that order if we’re to avoid climate breakdown and that this will involve making rapid decarbonization the fundamental goal across all aspects of society. I doubt it’ll happen, but it certainly won’t without concerted grassroots mobilization of the sort XR is attempting. To me, what’s more laughable than XR’s demands is a civilization that knows full well its current activities will bring the curtain down on itself (no cars, trucks, railways or cities to worry about at +5 or +6 degrees) and yet won’t reform them because it’s ‘unrealistic’ to do so. As XR co-founder Gail Bradbrook put it “this is not the time to be realistic”.

    I think John’s point about a world war style paradigm shift is worth holding onto figuratively to exemplify the extent of the mobilization required, though of course it’s more a case of not building ships rather than building them – and here I agree with Ernie that the task is harder because it’s undermining rather than supportive of capitalist industrialization. To my mind, the same problems attend a green new deal – I can’t really see how an effective one could be anything other than an anti-capitalist one (worth bearing in mind that dynamic within the original New Deal … and the near forgotten aspects of its emphasis on smallholding).

    Regarding Nick’s point on feeding Britain, this is very easily done within foreseeable agronomic realities as I show in my forthcoming book. The reason it’s not done presently is because we prefer to import the products of cheap labour from abroad, in much the same way we import goods from China. But that will change.

    Not sure I follow the import of Daz’s population figures for the UK, USA and China – I think I covered that under point 3.

    To Clem’s points, I feel I can only answer briefly but will perhaps return to them another time. Yes, in some sense ‘we’ are the government, but to my mind that doesn’t mean that we as individuals must accept authorship of everything that governments or their agencies decide to do. Or to put it in the terms of an XR protest chant “This is what democracy looks like”. Regarding Section 14, some might argue that while it may be reasonable for the police to have the power to disperse a given public assembly in a specific place and time, any group of 3 or more XR protestors anywhere in London over a period of a week isn’t specific enough – as even London’s mayor has argued.

    I’m only a minor bit-part player within XR and can’t speak for them, but on the ‘above politics’ or ‘avocado’ point (people’s inventiveness with fruity political metaphors never ceases to amaze me) I’d suggest that the slogan isn’t ‘above’ politics but ‘beyond’ it – ‘beyond’ in the sense that it goes beyond identifying the present apparatus of political parties and the machinery of government as adequate to the task in hand (see https://rebellion.earth/the-truth/demands/). The People’s Assembly idea comes close to some of the civic republican ideas that I’ve previously discussed here. In some ways I’d like to see XR connect up with a wider politics such as the case for a small-scale agrarian republicanism that I’ve made on this site, but I think there’s something to be said for retaining its grassroots/protest focus – XR itself doesn’t have the money, technical expertise or political reach to develop and institutionalize climate change mitigation policies. What it’s trying to have is the political groundswell to make governments use their capacities in these respects to effect change. I’m inclined to agree with those commenters who think it’ll probably fail. But I still think it’s worth a shot. I also agree with Andrew that the main focus of XR is broadly leftist, but it’s worth keeping an eye on ‘avocado’ possibilities – especially around migration. There’s a lot more about this kind of stuff in my book.

    On carbon-intensive infrastructures, I don’t know if the depressing trajectory charted by Joe will come to pass but I’m closer to his view than to the notion that electric cars, nuclear power etc. will save the day. That’s why I’ve come to think of XR as worthwhile – maybe a last throw of the dice.

    Regarding Paul Brooks’ comments, it’s utterly normal to use multiple sources and to ‘pick and mix stats’! The discrepancy between the WDI and OWID figures seems attributable to the different dates – the latter one being later and lower, but not in my opinion fundamentally challenging my analysis. The logic for giving per capita cumulative emissions is surely the same as that for giving per capita annual emissions. Strictly speaking it should be weighted by population over the relevant time period, which maybe raises some issues of method but I don’t see that there’s anything too misleading in what I said above. My feeling is that a more substantive objection to my thinking probably lies behind the methodological nit-picking – perhaps you could say what it is?

    • Hi
      Just to follow up: use of different data sources. I don’t agree that mixing stats is normal. I think you should present the different sets of data and explain why you want to use one over another. We can then make our mind up whether you’re right or not. The differences in the data are not trivial and using data which enhances your argument while ignoring data which reduces it just gives people reason not to change. There is uncertainty in the data and not recognising this just polarises the debate.

      Re using cumulative CO2 emissions. This seems to me to be only helpful in understanding the history and the science. In my view, this type of approach just carries on a blame game – demonising countries / industries.

      On a wider point, the solutions to the climate crisis encompass changes in lifestyle for sure but they also include the involvement of tech, energy companies, the finance industry and government. We live in a democracy, so working with these four is the reality. You may argue that the democratic system needs to be overthrown (as apparently do XR) but there we part company as that seems to be totally unrealistic in the time available.

      • ‘Multiple sources’ is different from ‘mixing stats’. I used emissions & GDP data from WDI, for which the last year of available emissions data is 2014. WDI has no data for cumulative emissions, so to present something on cumulative emissions I used OWID – which also happened to have a more recent annual emissions figure. I didn’t deliberately select data that enhances my argument and I think my argument stands. Maybe the decline highlighted in the more recent figure is a real decline and/or indicative of absolute decoupling – but I’d like to see some consumption-based emissions figures from you if you want to argue that.

        Fair enough if you want to avoid a blame game about which countries bear more responsibility for climate change – but then by that logic nobody should be telling British XR protestors to target India or China instead, and this was the point at issue in that part of my post. However, the avoidance of accepting historical responsibility for climate change is a large reason why international climate negotiations have got nowhere.

        I don’t argue that democracy needs to be overthrown. There’s no necessary correlation between civil disobedience and anti-democracy. In my view, XR exemplifies democracy in action in many ways.

        “the solutions to the climate crisis encompass changes in lifestyle for sure but they also include the involvement of tech, energy companies, the finance industry and government.”

        Agreed. Those are key messages that XR is trying to get across. At the moment most of those sectors are foot-dragging at best.

  11. Point taken on the “above” vs “beyond” politics distinction, Chris — given the connotations of “above,” in particular, the difference is obviously important. As for whether this approach is or isn’t wise, I’m somewhat ambivalent. Of the critiques that I’ve read, though, this recent piece at Current Affairs is one of the better ones:


    In light of what both you and Andrew observed about the “broadly leftist” politics of XR in general, the closing line is especially relevant to the discussion at hand: “An explicit endorsement of leftism wouldn’t bring about a radical change in the culture of the organization—rather, it would bring its stated principles in line with its spirit.”

    • Thanks for the link Ernie. Maybe I’ll engage with the line of argument in that piece a little more in my next post. Generally, I wasn’t that persuaded by it and I’d be inclined to file a lot of its argument in the ‘carping criticism’ folder. I do agree that any plausible solutions to climate change will be inherently political and will have to draw from leftist politics, but I’m not sure that it’s XR’s job to do that. While I’d accept there’s some force to some of the criticisms of XR from the left, it’s also worth turning this around. I happily identify with the left myself, but I find a good deal of its thinking moribund (some of which is in evidence in the linked article). I think it’s been wrongfooted by the success of XR and instead of lashing out at it, it might do better to spend some time reflecting soberly on what XR has got right, and what it might therefore learn from it.

  12. More power to you, Chris, finishing the book and getting arrested all in one month!

    XR – and other similar movements (we have a local version here on our island having to do with building a telescope) – are war by other means, and I am very happy that it is another means. On the other side are the Tea Party, Gilets Jaune, etc., so XR is strategically utterly necessary. The implications for the future of politics are a little scary but preferable to actual war. Letʻs hope we can develop the political capacity to keep it so.

  13. Yes, congratulations Chris on getting out there to get your ‘fair share of abuse’ as the line goes. And for finishing your book. I too look forward to seeing it.

    I am going to start here by agreeing with Ernie above that transport is a hard problem. And I concur that dispatching the police to hassle protesters is also a problem. I have a solution to both. Ride your bike to your job, and to do your shopping. Enjoy yourself while you are doing it, and let all your friends know how much enjoyment you are getting from it.

    If you live too far from your job to commute by bike, don’t worry about it too much, but next time you get another job or house, make sure that it is close enough to do all your essential daily transport by bike. I have done this, and it was surprisingly easy. Now my only fossil-fueled travel is for optional leisure activities.

    I save a lot of money, my car lasts a lot longer, and I get plenty of fresh-aired exercise. If enough people do only this, then effectively the XR protest has taken to the streets ‘Critical Mass’-like and it becomes much easier to leave your car and join in. No policing required, because not only is this all legal, it is a much more efficient use of the roadway per commuter-distance traffic flow.

    The only flaw with my little construct here is that almost nobody has the imagination to see how easy and fun this solution is. Everybody around where I live seems to think that getting a mortgage to buy a couple tons of steel to drive around is somehow the norm for our species.

    As for Clem’s assertion that I am the government, that is demonstrably false. If I or even I and all of my friends together were the government, then we would not have invaded Iraq in 2003. Anyone who paid the slightest bit of attention to the selling of that war could see that it was all lies. I said so to whoever got in the way, as did many thousands of others. Yet the powerful forces that wanted the war did it anyway.

  14. Like you, I don’t think any of the criticisms you list are convincing.

    But there’s another one I’ve been thinking about. Comparing XR to (for example) the big German protests of Ende Gelände which also has thousands of participants, XR explicitly wants people to get arrested. That is not the case in EG, where everyone is anonymous and uses agreed-upon tactics that are non-violent but that try to avoid and flow around the police, by dividing up into many unpredictable groups. I would rather not be arrested if I can avoid it, and instead be free to protest another day. Fines and prison sentences can be draining both for individual protesters and for the movement as a whole, and such repression from the state has wrecked movements before.

    That said, strategy is hard and I can’t say that I am sure of what the best way is. : / If it were easy, we would already have done it…

    Anyway, well done for participating!

  15. I’m sorta familiar with the soul searching that’s involved, but I’m still in the camp that wants to avoid arrest at protests, at least until the perceived “benefit cost ratio” improves somewhat.

    It strikes me that part of the picture is that the protesters are getting something out of their participation (even if it’s “only” the ability to look at oneself in the mirror). This type of personal “benefit” is perhaps the most significant result of my boycott of air travel during the past couple decades (for climate reasons).

    The Wikipedia page for “Prosocial behavior” makes this distinction between prosocial disobediance and antisocial disobediance:

    “Disobedience becomes prosocial when it is enacted for the sake of the whole society, including all its different levels and groups. In contrast, anti-social disobedience is enacted mainly in favour of one’s own group, in order to attain individual rights.”

    Perhaps this ties in with the “beyond politics” stance of XR, wanting to act for the sake of the whole society, instead of being seen as pushing the agenda of a political party.

  16. TFTFC. Yep Michelle, it’s been an eventful few weeks! Much to ponder on personal agency, political tactics etc. but I think I’m going to hold that over at least for the time being. Some more in my next post on the wider politics of it.

    • I think you mean “a deeply depressing read”.

      If “we”, collectively, were in any way serious about emissions reduction then our cities would already look very different. As it is, over the last couple of decades, I’ve seen increasing ‘concern’ about the climate accompanied by more and more (and bigger), cars. And then there’s the whining about “war on the motorist” provoked by even the feeblest attmepts to make cities slightly nicer for walking and cycling.

  17. Pingback: Extinction Rebellion: Four Criticisms (and why they’re unconvincing) – Olduvai.ca

  18. This article published today, about 81-year-old Jane Fonda getting arrested four times these past four weeks at climate protests, helps me to better understand the potential benefits of such actions.

    ‘Understanding the function of “arrestables” is common practice for those in frontline struggles. This isn’t performative – it’s a much needed show of solidarity, and one that can usurp the damage that state violence enacts upon so many of us.’


    • The more I think about this, I wonder if the best thing XR’s insurgent dynamic might accomplish would be to galvanise the development of local direct democracy across the country (not just London!), to encourage self-organisation against the power centres of the status quo, wherever they may be, and build productive local solidarities.

      It seems to me that any hope in the future lies in the kind of societies represented by the ‘democratic confederalism’ now being devastatingly attacked in northeast Syria, or the communes of the Bolivarian Revolution in Latin America, trying hard to emerge from unstable relationships with centralised states. So many of us in the UK are habituated to institutionalised government from local to national level – perhaps XR could remove the scales from our eyes.

      • Andrew, Iʻve been following Rojava with a mixture of dread at the precariousness of their situation and amazement at what can blossom, but I donʻt know much and canʻt seem to find any sources on the ʻnet that seem objective or interested in the details of the Bolivarian communes, any recommendations?

        • Hi Michelle, I’m no expert, but I bought two books recently that I found very informative.

          M. Knapp, A. Flach, E. Ayboga, ‘Revolution in Rojava’ (Pluto Press, 2016)

          G. Ciccariello-Maher, ‘Building the Commune; Radical Democracy in Venezuela’ (Verso, 2016)

          I’m sure these only scratch the surface, but they provide a good way into many of the issues – they’re objective in so far as they don’t shy away from problems, but both are written from a supportive perspective. Both books go into some detail on the politics of local democratic self-organising. Both also show that it’s ultimately only by starting to organise in this way that people can really grapple with the issues and problems that such organisation generates. I suppose that’s obvious, but personally I’ve always been much better at theory over practice, and would dearly like to find ways of overcoming that tendency!

  19. Thanks for keeping the debate ticking over and apologies for my absence from it. I’m immersed in a couple of local mini dramas at the moment so probably won’t be posting or commenting anything for a week or so, but I’ll hopefully be back online soon.

  20. Thanks, Clem. I think I may become an Ocalan-ist.
    “Ecology and feminism are central pillars. In the frame of this kind of self-administration an alternative economy will become necessary, which increases the resources of the society instead of exploiting them and thus does justice to the manifold needs of the society.”

    • Ocalan’s ‘Kurdistan, Woman’s Revolution and Democratic Confederalism’ is interesting. I mention it briefly in my book, though whether it makes it through the editing is another matter… I’m sympathetic to it and to Bookchin’s confederalism, but not entirely swayed…

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