Extinction Rebellion: four more (unconvincing) criticisms.

Here’s the companion piece to my previous post on the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement, with some thoughts on four further criticisms.

1. XR is too white and middle class.

The arguments from the political right I’ve seen on this point from journalists and on discussion boards where I probably shouldn’t have been lurking seem like mere sneering to me and don’t require a serious response. A general precis would be something like “perhaps it’s true that climate change is an existential threat to humanity, but then again these protestors like to eat funny foreign food that ordinary British people don’t much care for, so we can ignore them”. Yeah, whatever.

The arguments from the left require a more elaborate analysis. The two main ones are, first, that XR hasn’t done enough to attract and engage with working-class and minority communities and, second, that its strategy of arrestable civil disobedience is difficult for minority ethnic people to embrace or identify with in view of the discriminatory criminal justice system.

On the first point, again, I’m barely involved in any XR organizing and I can’t speak for the movement – one that in any case has a pretty flat and leaderless structure, making it hard to demand that it implements policy from on high. But I’d concur on the basis of my individual experience that white, middle class people like me are somewhat over-represented in XR’s demographic relative to the UK as a whole. I therefore find the argument plausible that it needs to do more to reach out to a wider base.

In that respect, XR is no different from just about every other major institution and political organization in Britain. That doesn’t mean the issue can be dismissed with a complacent shrug, but the extent to which leftist analyses of XR single it out for its white, middle classness strikes me as odd in this broader context. Take the Guardian newspaper, Britain’s bastion of respectable, left-of-centre media commentary, which proclaims across its website that “As the climate crisis escalatesthe Guardian will not stay quiet. This is our pledge: we will continue to give global heating, wildlife extinction and pollution the urgent attention and prominence they demand. The Guardian recognises the climate emergency as the defining issue of our times”.

Well then, with XR here we have the most prominent and radical grassroots political mobilization in the UK for a generation specifically geared to this defining issue and yet the paper’s opinion pages have almost without exception been lukewarm in their approach to it and have endlessly recycled the critique of white middle classness, such as here, here, here, here and here. There are many other critiques along similar lines in other ‘progressive’ media outlets. The critique itself is valid but its ubiquity suggests to me that XR is touching a nerve on the left about something that runs deeper in its soul.

I’ll elaborate on that in a moment after addressing the second point. Of course it’s true that it’s easier for – let us say – a middle-aged, white, middle-class woman to face arrest with equanimity than, say, a young, black, working class man (though, let’s be clear, there’s no requirement for XR members to get arrested). But an additional reason for the equanimity – one that leftist commentators have surprisingly missed in view of their movement’s history – is that XR’s protest is collective, building strength through solidarity. At the point of arrest, for example, XR’s legal observers establish who’s getting arrested and where they’re being taken. In the holding cages and cells of the police stations almost everyone is an XR protestor, which usually creates an engaged and supportive atmosphere with climate change looming large in discussions between activists and the police. And XR teams wait in the police stations to give support to arrestees when they’re released. Nobody seems to be talking about this politicization of custodial space, but to me it seems probably as crucial as personal identity to the different experiences of XR protestors and people of colour to the structural discriminations of the criminal justice system.

I think middle class XR activism has wrongfooted sections of the left because of the latter’s deep historical bias that authentic political critique can only come from the most structurally oppressed social groups – a bias it’s high time the left abandoned as a bad Hegelian legacy, rather than engaging in a rearguard defence of it by sniping at middle class activists for their privilege. Yes, it’s important to be aware of that privilege – and indeed to turn it to good social use, for example by engaging in forms of climate activism that people with other class or ethnic identities might judge too risky. But no, the existence of the privilege doesn’t intrinsically negate the activism. For its part, The Guardian has rightly called out the divisive language of the “real people of the country” used by the right in its messaging around Brexit. And yet, along with large sections of the left, it happily plays the same game when it comes to XR.

It may also be worth homing in a little more sharply on exactly which middle class people turned out for XR. The ones most in evidence to me as I moved around the protests were teachers, social workers, doctors, health workers, engineers, scientists, researchers, architects, craftspeople and creative types, along with a few farmers – people who seemed committed at some level to work that creates wider public good. Less in evidence were middle-class bankers, hedge fund managers, company directors, media celebrities, tabloid journalists and generally people who consider wealth creation to be a public good in itself. In the years to come, I suspect the willingness to create in-kind public good will come to be seen as a greater political virtue than the economic standing (middle-class, working-class) accorded by a crumbling capitalist economy. Therefore, however empty, gestural or silly it is for middle-class protestors to get themselves locked up for their climate activism, to me it’s come to seem less empty, gestural or silly than middle class non-protestors pursuing paths of personal nest-feathering.

Incidentally, since first drafting this piece, I came across Nafeez Ahmed’s critique of XR, which bears mostly on its questionable racial politics and, in his words, its ‘flawed social science’. He makes some good points, and has probed some of the issues more deeply than me, but I find a good deal of his argument problematic. I think he makes too much of past civil rights and anti-colonial struggles as somehow exemplary of what civil disobedience is and must be – essentially a claim for equal treatment of a stigmatized group made to political authority – whereas climate change raises wholly different and new issues. True, XR’s messaging is itself sometimes a little crass about what ‘the social science says’, but so too is Ahmed. I’ve argued here before against the idea of formulating policy on the basis of what ‘the science says’ and – much as I hate to diss my own tribe – that’s also true with bells on when it comes to what ‘the social science says’. Ahmed is right that climate change activism has to operate society-wide, though he seems to miss the point that protesting in central London is fundamentally about engaging existing political authority, not specifically about engaging London’s diverse population – and he leaves some questions hanging about the nature of and responsibilities for such engagement. There’s much food for thought in his article, but not quite enough to overcome my sense that what leftist animus against XR’s class character reveals most of all is its own political limitations.

2. XR’s ‘beyond politics’ stance is untenable. Solutions to climate change are inherently political, and must involve an anti-capitalist commitment to degrowth.

I agree with the second sentence, but not so much with the first – which I think puts the cart before the horse, and demands of XR activists some kind of tribal pre-commitment of political allegiance. I think leftists should have more confidence in their own politics. XR’s three demands are for the government to:

  1. ‘Tell the truth’ and communicate the urgency of climate action.
  2. ‘Act now’ to reduce emissions to net zero by 2025.
  3. Go ‘beyond politics’ by forming a citizen’s assembly to lead government on climate justice.

It seems to me that plausible attempts to implement those demands and their underlying analyses and programs would by necessity push politics towards degrowth and non-capitalist frameworks – though not necessarily ones that exactly mirror existing mainstream leftist positions. But I can’t see the virtue of insisting on some headline commitment to the ‘correct’ analysis upfront, especially since XR’s key job is to build a groundswell of support for appropriate climate action and usher people into that process.

In saying that, I don’t mean to suggest that the general public’s politics will simply line up with those of me and other leftists as inherently the ‘right’ ones if only they work through the necessary processes. I share the fear of ‘avocado’ politics (a brown or fascist politics beneath a green veneer) raised by commenters under my last post. So I think it’s important to keep emphasizing inclusivity and a common human fate in climate politics, and to keep the political discussions alive around climate change and its broader linkages with capitalist development, social injustice and the travails of the global south. But the larger point is that XR has opened up a new space of mass public reflection on climate politics which points to the poor future prospects of the present political economy. It’s less clear that its role is to prejudge exactly how to fill that space. XR has taken the horse to the water. The onus is now on us collectively as citizenries to do the drinking. If XR prejudges that process, my fear is that it’ll negate the work of recruitment that it’s so successfully charted to date.

Generally, my thinking on climate change has moved towards a pretty deep social adaptationism – social in the sense that I’m not really interested in thinking about individual prepping for an apocalypse, but about what kind of new social institutions people can forge to help them collectively deal with the grave challenges of our age. I struggle to see how those new social institutions won’t be ones geared around viable agrarian localism, and in that context while the new politics will be non-capitalist and non-growth oriented much traditional leftism will fall by the wayside. If we’re lucky, XR will help provide the tent within which we can hammer out the new politics. I don’t think we can expect more of it right now.

3. We need technological innovation to defeat climate change, not disruptive protests.

This mantra was repeated by Matthew Lesh in the Daily Telegraph, channelling the claims of Bjorn Lomborg from the same paper earlier in the year that we need to invest in R&D to ensure that carbon-free energy sources can be brought to market in the future.

Maybe if Lomborg and his ilk hadn’t spent the last twenty years scorning the idea of a climate emergency then by now we’d actually have some kind of carbon-free energy technology to ‘defeat’ climate change, though I think even that view short-changes the economic drivers of climate breakdown. In any case, no such technology is presently available, and currently we’re combusting more fossil fuel than ever before, while just 15% of all global primary energy comes from non-fossil sources. Some people still hang onto the idea that those of us in the global north will be able to retain our present high-energy lifestyle without causing climate breakdown with a snap of our technological fingers, but if that was ever possible in the past the fact is we’ve now run out of time for it.

Far too much discussion of climate change is taken up with a focus on technological mitigation, at the expense of discussing social causation (back to that issue of capitalism and growth) and social adaptation. I daresay that new technological developments may permit a little mitigation. I also daresay that it won’t be enough to prevent the need for deep social adaptation, and it’s this latter that now seems to me the only thing worth substantial political attention. If it takes disruptive protests to gain it, so be it.

4. XR is a millenarian death cult.

You’d think nobody would take such a claim seriously, but it’s become a minor mantra of the apoplectic plutocratic class, seemingly traceable to Spiked magazine and an article by its editor Brendan O’Neill who argues that XR should be ‘ridiculed out of existence’.

For those unaware of the underlying history, Spiked started life as Living Marxism – a magazine associated with Britain’s Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party – and then through some strange vicissitudes transmogrified into an allegedly Koch-funded mouthpiece of extreme rightwing libertarian opinion-mongering. Which is surely ironic, since it’s hard to think of millenarian death cults in modern times to match the havoc wreaked both by Trotsky-style revolutionary communism and its dreams of a future purified by the redeeming violence of the proletariat, and by market libertarianism and its dreams of a future purified by the redeeming violence of capitalist markets and their cargo cults. So what really needs ridiculing out of existence is ex-Trotskyist market libertarian publications lecturing anybody about millenarian death cults. Not once in O’Neill’s article does he reference the threats posed by climate change that these particular death cults have done so much to foment. His arguments are beyond parody really, but Nish Kumar does a pretty good job of parodying them anyway if you’re interested.

Nah, there’s nothing deathly or millenarian about the XR activists I know. They’re just ‘ordinary’, flawed, caring (middle-class) people like me, full of love and zest for life, and really, really scared about the deathly devastation that climate change threatens to wreak upon the world and the life they hold dear, unless governments act radically and immediately.

47 thoughts on “Extinction Rebellion: four more (unconvincing) criticisms.

  1. “…the XR activists I know… [are] just ‘ordinary’, flawed, caring (middle-class) people like me, full of love and zest for life, and really, really scared about the deathly devastation that climate change threatens to wreak upon the world and the life they hold dear, unless governments act radically and immediately.”
    “…however empty, gestural or silly it is for middle-class protestors to get themselves locked up for their climate activism, to me it’s come to seem less empty, gestural or silly than middle class non-protestors pursuing paths of personal nest-feathering.”

    Hear, hear!

  2. I make a new try to comment, which I tried to do when you put up the previous one. As you know Chris it ventured into outer space. Thanks for looking into it.

    Let me first say that this is a friendly critique. I don’t say that XR is wrong. And I certainly have no objections to the civil disobedience, direct action strategy. That is all good and worth a night in jail (been there, done that myself)! So please go on.

    One of the issues I raised, you tackle fairly well under #2. I am leaning more towards that the demand for action on climate change must include this analysis, of why capitalism is a lot to blame. In particular as the technological fixes you raise under #3 is intrinsically linked to ideas of preservation of the current ecnomic system etc. In addition, in order to deal with climate change we need to ensure that the “burden” is fairly distributed, something which is simply not competible with capitalism.

    The other concern I had was the call for a citizen assembly. For this to be meaningful it needs to be part of a political reform program. The status of such an assembly is unclear to say the least.

    I am also concerned about the “climate emergency” rethoric. For sure it is urgent, but the last calls I heard for declaring an emergency didn’t end very well in Sweden. it was end of 2015 and it shifted our migration policies for the worse. Other calls for “emergency” were after September 11, 2003 when many countries adopted draconian laws and the US managed to drum up an alliance to do whatever they did. Emergency declarations have a tendency to allow shortcuts for normal politics, martial law style. I can’t really see how the ultra-democratic assembly fits with the emergency narrative?

    I am also concerned that the “emergency” narrative make people go for stupid solutions, which are still compatible with the capitalist society, such as massive geo-engineering, mass culling of ruminants.

  3. Well, Chris, for #1 Iʻd say “whatʻs the problem?” In some sense this IS an intra-white, middle-class factional fight, as you point out implicitly in describing the different kinds. POC donʻt necessarily need to get in the middle of it. I know, that might seem flippant and even kind of racist, in a convoluted way, but I do believe thereʻs an element of truth to it. POC did not build this ruthless extractive machine and in fact a good case can be made that POC have resisted it every step of the way, so maybe itʻs fine that XR is so white. I do think Nafeez Amed makes some excellent points and if XR should “win” then itʻs white, middle-class-ness could well become a serious issue.
    As for #2 I would say XR is more proto-political than beyond politics, and yes making the claim to be somehow beyond politics is naive but trying to make XR politics conform to the old Left is so last century, jeez can we stop!
    As for #3, I do believe we can and should do both, and I completely agree about social adaptation being the key, and yet the hardest thing, because weʻve gone so far down the path of socially non-adaptive institutions and worship of technology.
    #4, too silly to engage.

  4. Much to agree with in points 2, 3 and 4, but I’m not sure 1 quite hits the mark for me. I’ve no great commitment to the Guardian commentariat, but many of those you link to were not claiming that ‘the existence of privilege intrinsically negates the activism’. The point in most cases seems to be that XR could become even more effective were it to actively seek to become more inclusive, and the reason they keep banging on about it is because it’s not enough to agree with the critique at an intellectual level – here, something must be done.

    I think Ahmed’s critique is really useful here, and I think you do it a slight disservice. He doesn’t seem to me to reify past civil disobedience and anti-colonial struggles, as you seem to suggest, except in as far as he draws out a very general principle:

    ‘[These strategies] worked because the solution was premised on core political changes directly related to the needs of those who wanted change; and disruption actions were targeted precisely at disrupting the system of injustice that was breaching their rights.’

    So his critique is not about staking ‘a claim for equal treatment of a stigmatized group made to political authority’, as you put it, but about the necessity of building solidarity right across the group suffering injustice in order to overcome it. In the case of climate change, that group is larger than ever before, and includes many of the so-called white middle class. Your distinction between those among them who value the production of public goods and those who value wealth creation for its own sake is a pithy recognition of this. The latter are invested in their own privileged positions within the status quo, and for all intents and purposes are ‘part of the problem’, actively promoting the ecocidal system that oppresses the rest of us.

    So I’m not sure it’s fair to impute a ‘leftist animus against XR’s class character’. Indeed, the point is that it has not yet embraced the whole of the class, in all its variation, that is unjustly oppressed by climate change. There’s no case for defending a partial embrace, and in seeking to become more inclusive, the movement will simply have to show that it’s willing to listen those who, as Michelle points out, have been actively resisting for a lot longer. It is a real problem if people of colour are put off from engaging in one of the most exciting mobilisations against climate change because it’s viewed as too white. Some of the stories I’ve read suggest that people within XR are actively trying to address these issues – great, I hope truly hope that XR eventually speaks for all, but it will only do so when all speak through it.

  5. Thanks for the comments. I began drafting a comment in response to Andrew, but it started getting a bit too lengthy and sociologically opaque for my taste. So maybe I’ll just say fair play to you Andrew for taking that line, but you haven’t convinced me that anything I said above was wrong. I suppose I could try to spell out why if you insist, but I’d prefer to let my words above stand or fall according to the tastes of whoever reads them. But one thing I would say is that you and Michelle can’t both be right!

    I pretty much agree with Gunnar that the idea of ‘climate emergency’ can lead into problematic territory, that a worthwhile citizen’s assembly implies major political reform and that the capitalist political economy is at the root of the climate crisis. I’m not suggesting that everything coming out of XR gets all this exactly right, but I don’t think these points are incompatible in general terms with what XR has been trying to do.

    • Fair enough Chris! I wouldn’t really want to polarise this discussion towards hard right or wrong, and given XR is a ‘live’ phenomenon it’s probably best not to get too bogged down in discussion just yet. I think we all agree, at least, that XR needs to broaden its appeal in future.

      I wonder if actively extending its solidarity to protests over the Hostile Environment policy (e.g. the immigration detention centres) might provide one way forward. Collaborating in future actions might allow XR to bring to greater prominence issues around the effects of global capitalism on populations more vulnerable to climate change, the divisive distinction between ‘refugees’ and ‘economic migrants’, and even the significance of local farming cultures (and their destruction) to the shape of this global predicament – and perhaps its resolution…

  6. Unlike the other criticisms, Criticism Number 1 — XR is too white and middle class — stands out because Chris stated “the critique itself is valid.” So at face value, it seems to be taken as constructive criticism, with XR trying to make improvements. How big a problem it is, and what XR should do about this problem, are debatable.

    But when the criticism is extended to a conclusion (explicit or implicit) such as “XR is too white and middle class to be taken seriously,” then the critique sounds like a dismissive ploy.

  7. Hi Chris,

    Long time lurker first time commenter. Let me first say your labors are invaluable and have gone a long way to inform my own thinking.

    A side note on #2: I think that fostering as much realism as we can about what a (best case scenario) future is likely to look like (or at least likely *not to look like*) is probably a good idea. Not because because we are obligated to offer solutions up front. On the contrary, we should be very cautions of early embrace of proposed solutions–eps. one-size fits all solutions–as they come along. But because myopia about just how (small R) radically ways of living will have to change risks taking us down the road of green-brown politics, outright fascism, violent chaos difficult to label or reckless hail Marys a la “Snowpiercer”.

    At some point we are going to have to come to terms with the fact that renewable sources (even if we include nuclear) aren’t going to offer anything close to a drop-in replacement for burning fossil fuels–even generated by glistening, nationalized utilities. Transcontinental air travel isn’t going to be replaced at scale with high-speed electric rail. Instead we are facing a low-energy/intermittent energy future where food an energy security are paramount in which travel will be less frequent and a lot slower (Cf. Low Tech Magazine for some excellent speculations on what a sustainable world might look like).

    I suspect the concern trolling that often (not always) underlies the criticisms you’ve enumerated stems from a kind of sunk cost fallacy–a resistance to the reality that most of what we take for granted won’t survive (whether we take deliberate action or not). This is as true of putative revolutionaries as Guardian liberals and Sp!ked dissident-bashing “libertarians”. (Fortunately there’s a blog out on the internets I’m told does an excellent job managing just these expectations.)

    • Hi Peter, welcome to the reconstituted fray, I mean conversation! I think you are right about the death cult accusation being an excellent example of concern trolling. Such a great phrase, I wonder if the Chinese internet has concern trolls too. Or is that one of the side benefits of Western liberal democracies.

  8. Haha, Chris, you are right that we both canʻt be right. But I donʻt even agree with myself!
    Trying to think about how XR could widen its appeal by perhaps more explicitly addressing (de-)colonialism and the colonial resource-stripping/environmental degradation that created the white middle class in the last two hundred years, as well as more recently the non-white middle class – and which you have written about here on more than one occasion I believe – I can see that there are some real problems in that area. One, because that story is painful and complicated. And two, it may well make some portion of XR-ers very uncomfortable. Are there ways to reconcile those tensions and contradictions? Iʻm sure there are but it is a tricky thing for a protest movement – which must keep the message very simple -.to negotiate.

  9. Generally, my thinking on climate change has moved towards a pretty deep social adaptationism – social in the sense that I’m not really interested in thinking about individual prepping for an apocalypse, but about what kind of new social institutions people can forge to help them collectively deal with the grave challenges of our age. I struggle to see how those new social institutions won’t be ones geared around viable agrarian localism…

    This is indeed the crux of the issue, but let me make a couple of comments about it.

    1. The 2nd of XR’s demands, rapid reduction of emissions to net zero by 2025, is a call for apocalypse. I’m all for it, but I am already in a viable agrarian location. What about almost everyone else?

    Britain’s population is 83% urban, and most of the remaining 17% are not very equipped to deal with a world in which emissions are zero. For the vast majority of people in rich countries, a rapid transition to zero emissions is a rapid transition to death. While that assertion may seem hyperbolic, it’s not. It just admits the dependency of modern civilization on extremely high energy inputs, most of which are from fossil fuels.

    XR has been deliberately vague about what a “people’s assembly” should actually do to keep people alive while virtually everything that supports them now is abandoned and replaced with…what?

    2. Social institutions are build by the interaction and collaboration of individual people. An agrarian group of families who have individually prepared for an apocalypse can interact and collaborate with their neighbors to collectively reinforce their resilience. Every family that has made substantial progress prepping is part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

    So, we don’t need ‘new’ social institutions. Models for truly resilient societies are a dime a dozen. We need people to do what it takes to be able to join one. And what it takes is preparation to live without fossil fuels, the global market economy and almost all aspects of modernity. No wonder XR is vague about their to-do list.

    • For the vast majority of people in rich countries, a rapid transition to zero emissions is a rapid transition to death. While that assertion may seem hyperbolic, it’s not. It just admits the dependency of modern civilization on extremely high energy inputs, most of which are from fossil fuels.

      Perhaps our definitions of ‘rapid’ are incompatible, but when I reflect on what transpired on the British island across the channel in the 40s of the past century I see a people who faced a very serious and rapidly evolving challenge and faced it with the ‘stiff upper lip’ and resolve to carry on. To get to net-zero by 2025 is a six year effort. Ambitious, yes. Too rapid?… well, a touch slower than the reaction to Nazi bombing campaigns. So I think your assertion is a touch hyperbolic. [- fair enough, bringing up Nazis may be considered hyperbolic… sorry]

      My gripe isn’t whether the movement is TOO white, or TOO middle class. I’m white and middle class… (and male, awe shucks)… My gripe is that I’m not seeing specific proposals being offered now that attention has been drawn – now that we’re talking about it. Maybe Brexit is sucking all the oxygen out of the political sphere, but excuses are like rear ends, we all have one.

      Why not propose an even greater tax on motor fuels. Use the tax windfall to invest in (or otherwise enable) other transportation systems with smaller (or no) carbon footprint.

      There is a university (in London, no?) promising to be carbon neutral rather soon. Vegan food at the commissary no less (or vegetarian?). This is an example of doing something. Trying something… something beyond screaming and shouting, and mere hand wringing.

      You’re right Joe, too many people are currently unprepared. But society today is far more connected than the society of 1940, there are better technologies to hand, and if we can get out of our own way I think we’ll muddle into some sort of solution. We’re still here… that alone gives me some hope.

      • If someone can come up with a viable plan to go to net zero carbon emissions in the next 6-10 years and still keep modern cities supplied with food, water and heat I have yet to see it. And whatever is done will have to be accomplished without busting the carbon budget, meaning no new additional burst of fossil energy to build out energy transition gear, for example.

        People are not going to vote for their own extinction to prevent the extinction of future generations. By avoiding even the slightest inconvenience to the lifestyles of the people in the rich world for so many decades (our lifestyles), we have saved up the required amount of sacrifice to such a high cumulative level that if we really decided to make the sacrifices needed, it would now result in widespread mortal effects. It’s never going to happen.

        There is no time for screaming and shouting and hand wringing. There is not even time for civil disobedience. There is only a little time left to get ready for catastrophe. Use it wisely. Don’t waste it on XR or a reliance on “muddling into some sort of solution”. Get ready to live without money. If you can do that, your family has a chance.

        • “Get ready to live without money.”

          Yes. This exactly.

          Any sustainable future will not be capitalist, because capitalism requires abstraction of nature — which manifests in an extractive economy. Financial flow is a very precise measure of unsustainability, and therefore will not be sustained in the long run. Though the famous quote is surely true that markets can remain irrational longer than we can remain solvent (or alive).

          I live in a tiny little city in the very middle of the US, so I only get rumors of the doings of many groups such as XR, but from what I hear, there are many well intentioned people doing good work there, and I am inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt. Having said that (and being of the same demographic as Clem, more or less), I am also sympathetic to wariness about excess whiteness.

          I agree most strongly with Michelle above, that the locals were not causing these sorts of problems before they got overrun by the capitalist hordes. Certainly not at a global level.

          I also agree with Chris that we need a completely different societal structure and philosophy. And with Joe that such will not happen voluntarily.
          So where does that leave me? Tending my garden. Helping my neighbor put siding on his garage.
          This, I believe is a key part that gets left out.

          All those white middle class people need to stop being afraid to get dirty, and do some manual labor. That is an excellent way to dissolve class barriers. And to show just how limiting it is to see money as the only form of wealth. And as a side benefit we might just build some of the skills and infrastructure to support the smaller, poorer, less insane society that the future will demand.

      • Clem,

        Forgot to mention the other option…carry on with what one is doing now. An economic collapse of the global market economy may not happen soon (though of course it might). If not, continue with normal life until it does.

        The truly devastating impacts of climate change won’t show up until a few decades in the future. Hothouse earth is probably centuries away even if tipping points that ensure it are in the much nearer future. Young people alive now will not see real climate catastrophe in their lifetimes even if emissions continue unabated. If tipping points aren’t a worry, just live a normal modern life.

        But if the global market economy muddles on long enough, hothouse earth will arrive eventually, at far greater cost for humanity’s future. Then again, if that far greater cost doesn’t worry you, party on.

        Preppers are the real optimists. They believe that the global market economy can and will fail utterly, though probably not from things like XR. If the failure is soon enough, the climate might be saved, albeit at great current cost, especially for the unprepared.

  10. Thanks Chris.

    Like yourself and some of the other commenters, I have been concerned about XR’s third demand:

    1. ‘Tell the truth’ and communicate the urgency of climate action.
    2. ‘Act now’ to reduce emissions to net zero by 2025.
    3. Go ‘beyond politics’ by forming a citizen’s assembly to lead government on climate justice.

    Somehow, I can’t bring myself to see a citizen’s assembly being the best process for bringing about climate action. It’s one of many possibilities, but I’m not sure why it’s been singled out specifically.

    Re-reading the text of the demand, it seems that the citizen’s assembly is designed specifically to address climate justice, possibly ameliorating the effects of the radical actions required by the second demand. While I think a citizen’s assembly may go some way towards ensuring climate justice, I think that those most affected by climate change are unlikely to be represented. I am speaking of future generations and citizens in the countries that will suffer most from climate change.

    But maybe the demand is not actually about climate justice (which is really mainly addressed by the second demand of immediate radical decarbonisation), but justice in the implementation of stringent climate policy. In that case, the people who will be most affected are alive today and their views should be taken into account. But it shouldn’t be called “climate justice”, it’s much more about “Just Transition”.

  11. Thanks for the additional comments above. Also, my apologies to Andrew for so shamelessly ducking the challenge of his comments, and my welcome to Peter – thanks for your interesting comments … I hope we’ll hear more from you here.

    I’ll try to respond as best I can to many of the points raised above but it may be a day or two before I do since I’m juggling with a few issues, including keyboard fatigue…

    So… back soon…

      • Rees notes after presenting his 11 steps (also in the piece I linked to), ““What? A deliberate contraction? That’s not going to happen!” I hear you say. And you are probably correct. It should by now be clear that H. sapiens is not primarily a rational species.”

        I wonder why anyone would think that a civilization that failed to engage in a deliberate contraction thirty years ago, when it would have been gentle and easy, would do so now when it would need to be very rapid and fatally difficult?

        Unless we very soon get an involuntary contraction, so rapid as to be the same as collapse, we are going to get a hothouse earth. Here’s a list of the things that might do the trick:

        1. Pandemic, either man-made or natural.
        2. Nuclear war, but only if the arsenals of the US and Russia are not engaged. Use of those arsenals would likely kill everyone from nuclear winter.
        3. Monetary and financial crisis that completely stops international trade.
        4. Loss of power grids to massive coronal mass ejection from sun.
        5. Total loss of communications to computer virus or malware. By now, civilization would crumble without the internet.
        6. A Tambora-plus volcanic eruption that severely depresses worldwide food production for several years.

        Here’s hoping.

  12. This is a tough one for me. Chris has asked another variation on the central question of our time, how to respond to the predicament we caused and now face.

    Humanity, and especially western culture, shows no sign of being able to collectively alter direction, and with the immense inertia of the current patterns, the vested interest of the “haves”, and probably man’s hard wired nature to maximize resource utilization, I don’t see this changing.

    While I think that global collective action is not likely, individual action is already happening, and maybe the best course is to encourage dissensus on what path to take. A shotgun approach means something(s) might work, as others fail. More power to XR, but others who don’t see protest as effective, should do SOMETHING.

    While I continue to follow the newsfeed, and am open changing my mind, right now I am rather in Joe Clarkson’s camp, that response will be personal and local, and the response is get in to survival mode now, as the crash is baked in at this point.

    Creation of local resilient/self reliant “lifeboat communities” is one option, toward which I lean right now. I guess that tags me as a bit of an optimist, since I think that through luck of geography and happenstance, some groups might get through the coming long emergency as long was we don’t tip all the way to being another Venus.

  13. Thanks to all of you for keeping the discussion ticking along while I’ve been otherwise engaged. I’ll try to respond to a few of the points. Overall, I find much to agree with in what everyone’s been saying and, in case there’s any doubt, the purpose of my posts on XR hasn’t been to suggest it’s beyond criticism. I agree with Joe and others that building local autonomies from the tottering edifice of the present global political economy is the key priority. The question I’m asking myself is whether there are any good reasons why I shouldn’t also spend a few days a year supporting XR protests – and so far my answer remains no.

    I’ll try to pick up on just a few specifics that people have mentioned. Sorry if I don’t respond directly to particular commenters – I’ve found everyone’s contributions thought-provoking.

    I think Steve L calls it right – a good deal of the critique of XR’s over-whiteness shades into what he calls a ‘dismissive ploy’, and I think this actually reveals something important about the inadequacy of major currents of leftist thought to present crises. I’d concede Andrew’s point that the articles I linked don’t explicitly claim that the existence of privilege intrinsically negates the activism – though some of them skirt pretty darned close to it – but it’s the endless repetition and foregrounding of this criticism that ends up effectively doing just that. I continue to disagree with Andrew about Ahmed’s critique. There are certainly parts of it that I find informative, but I think he misses the point about protesting in central London and problematically reifies a notion of “London’s communities”. Andrew writes that “his critique is not about staking ‘a claim for equal treatment of a stigmatized group made to political authority’, as you put it, but about the necessity of building solidarity right across the group suffering injustice in order to overcome it”. Well, I think it’s both of those things, but his investment in the legacy of the former is problematic.

    There are various other points at issue here. Have people of colour been resisting capitalism longer than white people? I don’t think so … and I’m not quite sure what bearing this has. What implicit political ontologies lie behind the ideas that XR needs to ‘listen’ to people of colour, or that presently it only partially embraces the class of sufferers from climate change? All of this needs a lot of unpacking, in my opinion. But I agree with Andrew that linking with activism around migration rights would be a good step for XR to breathe political life into its commitment to inclusiveness and common humanity. And with Michelle that there’s a case for emphasizing de-colonization, and also a case for NOT emphasizing it in relation to the need for simple, inclusive messaging. If Britain adopted a zero carbon now approach, the de-colonizing consequences might be more important than the words that framed it politically.

    People’s Assembly:
    Joshua makes some good points, which I’d accept. I guess I see XR’s tell the truth and people’s assembly messaging as pointing quietly towards a very radical reformulation of politics in the right directions – one that I find it easy to sign up to, and which I’m not sure is best served right now by specifying a priori its likely consequences. But as outlined above I agree that it won’t deliver a just and sustainable society by default and it’s possible to over-invest in the efficacy of a people’s assembly. Still, the republican and direct democracy elements of it hold some attraction for me over parliamentary models.

    Collapse and contraction:
    I find much to agree with in the comments from Joe and others in this thread, but maybe it’s most useful to focus on the parts where I disagree, which are as follows:

    1. Zero carbon by 2025: yes it would probably be impossible to achieve this in Britain without major population harm in the absence of fundamental change to the political economy, and probably not even then. All the more reason to support it as a mobilization tool, not as an inflexible endpoint. If we allowed ourselves to witness the truth about climate change and other aspects of contemporary crisis and tried to form political institutions – like people’s assemblies – that took cognizance of them we’d give ourselves more of a chance of meeting the challenges. We need the kind of radical mobilization that’s implied in this goal – as with Clem’s war metaphor.

    2. “We don’t need ‘new’ social institutions. Models for truly resilient societies are a dime a dozen. We need people to do what it takes to be able to join one.” Agreed, but few of those models have been operative in societies like contemporary Britain which, as Joe points out, is densely populated, heavily urbanized and ill-equipped to deal with low energy living. Figuring out low energy resilience individually or locally is a good idea, but figuring out how to fit that into wider political structures also seems to me to be a good idea, because without doing so there’s a good chance that individual or local prepping will come to naught. And that’s where I think the new social institutions are needed – even if they too will be adaptations of old social institutions.

    3. “Get ready to live without money” …. “any sustainable future will not be capitalist”. Well yes … but plenty of non-capitalist societies have used money, especially if we interpret ‘money’ liberally to mean a medium of exchange. So I’d rephrase this as “get ready to live without benefitting from an ever-compounding increase in capital”. Of course, many people in our present capitalist world already do live like this…

    4. “I wonder why anyone would think that a civilization that failed to engage in a deliberate contraction thirty years ago, when it would have been gentle and easy, would do so now when it would need to be very rapid and fatally difficult?” Well, I guess because the case for it is that much more obvious now, the dysfunctions and inequalities that much greater and more palpable. And because in various ways that makes it easier to contract than it would have been thirty years ago. On the other hand, I agree that the transitions now needed must be more rapid and are potentially fatally difficult, so there’s a danger of too little, too late. But I’m not sure that’s a good argument against me spending a few days in London involved in climate activism rather than engaging in some of the other frivolities I’d get up to (writing blog posts etc…) if I stayed at home.

    • Well said. Sometimes we have a compelling urge to adjust our priorities for the week. If we never succumbed to those urges, how boring life would be.

      I just want to consider the “whiteness” issue a little more. Assertions from people with a different identity or privilege status need to be evaluated with those differences in mind, if only to sort through bias and confidence in expertise, but in the end, every assertion should be evaluated for truth based on the content of the assertion, regardless of who is making it. Saying “E=mc2” would be true no matter the identity of the speaker (unless, perhaps, the speaker were Donald Trump).

      So to say that only people with a certain identity have the authority to comment on issues pertinent to their identity is wrong. Every person has a right, perhaps even a duty, to speak the truth as they see it and have their assertions evaluated by others based on as much objective evidence as is available. Every person is biased and makes mistakes, some more than others, and sometimes objective evidence is sorely lacking, but to say that truth is dependent on the identity of the speaker is to say that there is no such thing as truth at all.

      • ‘So to say that only people with a certain identity have the authority to comment on issues pertinent to their identity is wrong.’

        Thank goodness I didn’t say it then! My point was that ‘in seeking to become more inclusive, the movement will simply have to show that it’s willing to listen’ to people of colour. In the context of movement-building, listening, recognising that different perspectives imply different needs and demands is the first step to incorporating those perspectives within a larger project, and finding common cause.

        As to whether people of colour have been resisting capitalism for longer, well, I accept that does need unpacking. I can’t speak for Michelle, but when I invoked her comment I didn’t have in mind some specific history of events in which people of colour can be demonstrated to have started resisting capitalism two years and four months before everyone else. It is also, of course, unhelpful to identify and generalise about ‘people of colour’ as an undifferentiated group of people in the past.

        But my reading of this issue turns on the fact that ‘person-of-colour-ness’ is only such a major social, economic and political quality in modern society because it formed an essential component of the expansion of global capitalism historically. Mechanisms of imperial domination and government were not racialised simply because that’s how society was back then – on the contrary, racism was created and maintained as the primary mechanism of subjecting large groups of people to imperial demands.

        So who’s been resisting capitalism the longest? The question itself just seems wrong-headed! When, for so many, gaining any positive sense of their own personhood involved a thousand little acts of resistance against the boxes they were beaten into by white men out to make a profit, what’s the point in even asking it?

        I’m a white man, culturally ‘middle class’, and I have the urge to join XR at their next action – I agree that it seems a worthy use of a week, and the voice of this movement is one of the few things that inspires some hope in me. But for me power is still so very abstract, and I’m more used to watching injustices perpetrated on others on the news than experiencing them myself. I don’t even ‘feel’ like a victim of the climate crisis, even though intellectually I know that I am. But for others, notably people of colour, (lack of) power is still experienced viscerally on a regular basis. I will never experience that directly, so I have to listen to others who have, in order to understand the nature of their struggles, how they fit into the wider picture, and thus how we can help each other in this fight.

        I sympathise with some of the fatalism in comments above in the face of the power wielded by vested interests, but I don’t believe that some kind of human nature has doomed us to impotence in response. XR gives voice to the idea that we can mobilise sufficient political will across a broad enough base. But there is no ‘pragmatic’ solution to the problem of mass political agency, and thus to a chance to confront the climate crisis effectively, that does not involve trying to understand people with very different life experiences to our own in order to build common cause.

        Concern with whiteness has been seen by some as middle class hand-wringing or virtue-signalling in some quarters – God knows, there may be some truth in that – but even then, to bastardise Joe’s maxim, just because the person saying it is trying to feel good about themselves doesn’t mean that what they’re saying is wrong! So I still believe that confronting the tensions in the movement around race, and no doubt around other issues, is essential to its success.

        • Thanks for that Andrew. I’m pretty much with you on all that, and I certainly agree that the movement needs to confront issues around race and class – it’s just that I didn’t find a good deal of the media outpouring about it during the October protests very authentic.

          “racism was created and maintained as the primary mechanism of subjecting large groups of people to imperial demands”. Well … I’m happy to endorse that as a kind of political shorthand, but I think it’s a bit more complicated, as argued in this unjustly-neglected classic of obscure sociological prose:


          • I’ll second Andrew’s thought… an inventive and succinct plug indeed 🙂

            this unjustly-neglected classic of obscure sociological prose

            One might hope that in twenty years there will be no need for a similar analysis of the treatment of the coming Smaje effort on behalf of small farms.

            BTW, was the linked book from a dissertation??

          • One might hope indeed… Perhaps an early report on the likely prospects there will be in order soon.

            As to your question whether it was based on a dissertation – nope, I can’t even invoke that excuse for its turgidity. Though for all its faults I still think the core of what I was trying to do in that book was worthwhile.

  14. This discussion reminds me that I am not clear about what the “extinction” in Extinction Rebellion refers to. Perhaps, Chris, you could explain, since you are perhaps the best situated to do so? Is it plant and animal extinctions or is it human extinction or even extinction of our Western way of life? I hope its not the last obviously, but even that would not obviate the validity of the movement, since noise needs to be made period. And it would bring up the thought of the many ways of life already made extinct by global capitalism, that now of course threatens everyone and everything.

    • I believe it refers to the first two on your list, not the third. The mobilization is around the ‘climate and ecological emergency’ and the danger of extinction to numerous species, including our own. Rebelling against the extinction of the western way of life by demanding net zero emissions in six years wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Though to be honest I think some folks active in the movement haven’t fully grasped the implications of zero emissions to the western way of life. This probably includes me.

  15. Just a brief comment on the notion that “XR could become even more effective were it to actively seek to become more inclusive”.

    JM Greer may have swerved to the crackpot right in recent times, but back in the day, he was a compellingly astute political analyst, IMO, and he wrote this back in 2016:


    In this pre-XR and pre-Trump piece, Greer continues his assessment of “the failure of climate change activism to achieve any of its goals” by looking at an activist goal that was in fact achieved: gay marriage rights.

    The logic here was, if we can understand what this latter campaign did right, perhaps those lessons could be applied to the campaign to address climate disruption.

    What he comes up with is that gay marriage succeeded because it avoided four common ‘poison pills’ that have doomed similar campaigns on the left, including, in his view, the campaign to seriously address climate issues.

    1. Piggybacking: “This is the insistence that any movement for social change has to make room on its agenda for all the other currently popular movements for social change, and has to divert some of its time, labor, and resources to each of these other movements.”

    2. The Partisan Trap: “To some extent, today’s U.S. partisan politics is the ultimate example of piggybacking; movements on the leftward end of things have been talked into believing that they should put their energy into getting Democratic candidates elected, rather than pursuing their own agendas, and as a result Democratic candidates get elected but the movements for social change find that their own causes go nowhere.”

    3. Purity Politics: “The creation of a movement that included Republican as well as Democratic gays, lesbians, and sympathetic straight people also violated another commandment of contemporary left-wing activism, which is that movements for social change must exclude everyone who fails any of a battery of tests of ideological purity.”

    4. Pandering to the Privileged: “Since the early 1980s, most activists have framed their appeals and their campaigns as though the only audience that mattered consisted of affluent liberals, and as often as not went out of their way to ignore or even insult the great majority of Americans — you know, the people who would have had to be on their side if their cause was going to achieve any kind of lasting victory.”

    I consider the above on target, and perhaps it’s to some degree in line with Chris’s notion of ‘inadequacy of major currents of leftist thought.’

    At any rate, it seems to me that, while I completely agree with Andrew and others that listening to other groups and becoming ‘more exclusive’ is vital, it’s also important NOT to take this to the point where it succumbs to one or more of the above pitfalls, all of which are dangers neatly embodied, IMO, by that coded term ‘inclusive’ which ironically has so often manifested in practice as its opposite.

  16. Of course final paragraph should have read “I completely agree with Andrew and others that listening to other groups and becoming ‘more inclusive’…”

    • Yes, interesting points. As per my comments above, much grassroots activism historically has been about civil rights where the issue hinges on extending the compass of political authority (eg. with Greer’s example of gay marriage), whereas the issues with climate change are quite different. Since climate change activism pretty much has to point to creating a different political economy, it easily falls into Greer’s ‘partisan trap’. I think XR has done a good job of avoiding that. Though perhaps it can only be avoided for so long…

      • “Since climate change activism pretty much has to point to creating a different political economy…”

        When you have a second could you please expand upon why you feel this assertion is prescient? My confusion may come from a notion that partisan political views are not always drawn along economic lines (and as such, “political economy” as a concept is frequently muddied). Indeed if I’ve read Oz’s summary correctly, it seems a notion that any change espoused by one group may be doomed if that group wants exclusive ownership, or doubts the ‘other’ is capable of finding some angle(s) for common cause.

        • Guess I just mean that the present political economy relies on capital growth which manifests materially in increasing fossil energy use, so it’s hard to tackle climate change without creating a different political economy that doesn’t rely on capital growth. And indeed that’s where it’s easy either to fall into the partisan trap or risk being damned for effecting to be ‘beyond politics’.

          • OR… or reestablish communicative norms within society at large that allow conversation(s) to occur between partisans without traps and risks to being damned by one’s fellow travelers. The inability to share ideas across the whole polity is a major problem. If this is a manifestation of the ‘political economy’… then I suppose you’re right. But if its rather some sociological deficiency in modern humankind then we might all benefit from a peek at Jacob’s How to Think

          • I’m not so sure that Mr. Bilbro has much to teach us about bridging the partisan divide, Clem. For one, his “updated for the 2020 election” prose version of Wendell Berry’s poem “Questionnaire” reads like one of those suggestive “surveys” in partisan political fundraising mailers that’s carefully designed to steer respondents toward very specific answers. Furthermore, his claim that the American Solidarity Party “transcends the partisan divides of American political discourse” is…well, politeness inclines me to write “questionable”, but “absurd” or ridiculous” seem more accurate. I’ll grant that they have some laudable positions on the environment, civil rights, foreign policy, and immigration, many of which are likely to have broad appeal among the American voting public. That being said, no party that argues that “there is no right to abortion” and that marriage should be defined as “the exclusive union of one man and one woman for life” is going to bridge the partisan divide.

          • This line, from Alex Pareene’s “Making Impeachment Matter” at The New Republic, is pertinent to what I wrote yesterday:

            “He [US President Andrew Johnson] did make an aborted attempt to revive a third party—a sensible, moderate, third-way party…that, as these things tend to do, pissed off both sides.”

            Should they become more widely known, this is precisely why the American Solidarity Party will fail to gain any traction in American politics. They’re guaranteed to alienate Democrats en masse with their positions on abortion and marriage (which are completely out of step with the electorate as a whole). While they will likely have a broader appeal among Republicans, they’re still guaranteed to alienate strongly partisan Republicans with their more progressive positions on racial justice and reparations, immigration, and, I suspect, voting rights and electoral reform.

            This brings me in a roundabout way to an underlying problem I have with talk of “bridging the partisan divide” in general, and Pareene’s article touches on this, as well: it might seem obvious, but it’s always worth remembering that partisanship isn’t inherently bad and moderation or compromise inherently good. As political scientist Julia Azari wrote in a piece for FiveThirtyEight in early 2018 (“Politics Is More Partisan Now, But It’s Not More Divisive”), “Before we let nostalgia for compromise go too far, we might consider that finding common ground politically has sometimes made things worse.” Or, as Pareene observes about the Radical Republicans who controlled Congress during the Johnson administration, the “Radicals had a clear understanding of what they were fighting for—Johnson had to be stopped, not for the sake of restoring a comfortable status quo, but in order to allow the Radicals to remake the country itself.” Given that XR is out to achieve something similar but on an even larger scale, perhaps there’s a lesson to be drawn from this moment in American history when, despite the efforts of partisan, Radical Republicans, compromise and moderation won the day.

      • And I thought your Speech was excellent, Michelle.
        If you’re partial to the occasioanal short film, The Perennial Plate site has many short small-farm/foodie shorts, similarly lovely to the one above and with an international flavour. Worth a look if you haven’t already… meanwhile well worth a listen, I believe, was today’s Guardian podcast with James Lovelock – fascinating as ever in his 100th year. Season’s greetings!

  17. The Sunrise movement here in the U.S. has not gotten much traction after a rather brief flash in the news last year. They have hitched their wagon to the New Green Deal, and more directly focus on pushing the political levers, so maybe that’s why they seem to be fading?

    It is always a mystery to me why one movement will fizzle, and another spark and expand. The confluence of strategy and specific topic, and its relationship to the mood of the wider public gives outcomes that are unpredictable to me.

    Gladwell’s Tipping Point tries to explain how these things work, but there is some secret sauce that needs further exploration.

    Probably doesn’t help when big money funded Bernaysian messaging fills the media conduits.

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