Extinction Rebellion: How Radical Climate Crisis Advocacy Became a Social Justice Battleground
Extinction Rebellion (XR) is a radical climate crisis advocacy movement that originated in the United Kingdom in May 2018. Now present in more than 33 countries, including India, the founders and scientists Gail Bradbrook and Roger Hallam define XR as “an international movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience in an attempt to halt mass extinction and minimize the risk of social collapse.” So far, so great, right? With the world’s ecosystems collapsing all around us, radical climate advocacy is a welcome respite from climate-change-denying prime ministers and conspiracy-theorist politicians who keep entertaining the interests of companies contributing to the climate crisis.
But there’s one problem: a lack of inclusivity, which keeps the message focused on the future, rather than the very real environmental disasters affecting people now. In Western nations, XR has been criticized for mostly being run by white people; in developing nations, it receives the same kind of criticism for comprising wealthy people. While the privilege — race or wealth — changes, its existence within XR leadership remains ubiquitous.
This is apparent in how we treat the climate crisis: as impending doom, rather than a human rights crisis that has already affected the livelihoods of millions around the world. For example, in the West, predominantly white neighborhoods are not targeted for land-clearing for commercial use, as has been happening to the habitats of Amazonian tribes. Polluting multi-national companies are moving out of the Western world, where they were slapped with regulations, and into developing countries, poisoning the land of black and brown people with impunity. That’s why the message with an organization such as XR is “we must act while we still can.”
But that ship, for many of the world’s populations, has already sailed. As climate activist Suzanne Dhaliwal, who works for indigenous rights within the climate advocacy movement, told The Guardian, “So when you talk about it as some future situation it means that the responsiveness to climate catastrophes and events isn’t even thought of as part of consciousness work. It’s all about white, middle-class people protesting about something that might happen.”
The reality is for decades already, ecological poverty has been on the rise; worldwide, the poor lack basic access to facilities they need in order to survive because their environment is under attack. For example, the Amazon has been burning as a result of corporate over-utilization of its resources, and, as a result, Amazonian tribes have been displaced and robbed of resources for survival and a voice in determining their own future. Marginalized communities have been bearing the brunt of the climate crisis forever — but have been robbed of a voice to protest their own future. Initial messaging from XR focused around environmental issues going “beyond politics,” and the idea that “intersectionality – where environmental issues are considered in connection with those of race, poverty, class, and misogyny – [is] divisive and likely to alienate more potential supporters than they would attract,” The Guardian reported.
This early stance has colored all XR advocacy, which routinely exposes loopholes within its exclusive-seeming goals. In July, activists from Extinction Rebellion London tweeted, “It has been announced that all protesters arrested during the April rebellion will be prosecuted. We are asking the police and legal system to concentrate on issues such as knife crime, and not non-violent protesters who are trying to save our planet.” Many perceived this as having racist connotations; Guppi Bola, an activist with environmental group Wretched of the Earth, which focuses on black, brown and indigenous voices, told The Guardian that XR’s tweet was “feeding into a racist narrative” and that the group was setting itself apart as non-violent protesters different from the inner-city kids who indulge in knife crime.
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Bola went further to talk about the institutionally racist problems within XR: “Outside of environmental think tanks and environmental organizations, grassroots organizing is often very isolating for people of color, particularly in the kinds of cultures or activities that are decided on.” For example, protest meetings in pubs can alienate Muslims; team-building exercises such as hiking or camping can alienate many who can’t attend or participate, she told The Guardian.
An open letter from Wretched of the Earth that Bola helped draft urged XR to evaluate its lack of inclusivity and reckon with “an ongoing analysis of privilege, as well as the reality of police and state violence.” She told The Guardian that XR understands POC cannot participate in certain radical ways and so the privileged white people are taking the lead; however, she adds, this exclusion is not the most effective way to further climate advocacy.
Most of the radical civil disobedience undertaken by the group excludes people of color. This is, in part, because much of XR’s awareness-raising activities focus on disrupting civil life in non-violent ways, geared toward getting as many arrests as possible without resistance. This leaves out activists of color, who face racial prejudice within the criminal justice system and receive disproportionately harsher, heavier judgments on disruptions than white folk.
“The way they conceptualize the police and the state and being arrested alienates a lot of people of color, a lot of migrant people,” Susuana Amoah, an environmental activist from Brighton, who focuses on addressing race issues within the climate justice movement, told The Guardian. “[XR activists] have so much faith in the system to be on their side and not send them to prison, or not send them to prison for long. And the bravery around that. People of color can’t do that. It won’t happen for us.”
Not everyone, however, sees it like that — an XR activist of color, Daze Aghaji, told The Guardian that critics misunderstand XR’s arrest strategy: “The idea of being arrestable and non-arrestable, people think [these] are problematic terms, but they’re not. For example, I’m personally non-arrestable, and this is a decision that should be made by every individual. I understand that, being a black woman, the police are not going to [treat me the] same as a 40-year-old white woman. So I’m not going to put myself in that position. And within XR you’re not forced to.”
XR’s tactics, especially disruption of traffic and tube trains in London, have also come under fire as inconveniencing hard-working, everyday citizens just trying to get to and from work to earn a livelihood. Critics say the protests are aimed to create awareness among the wrong people — that making life harder for common citizens is misguided, and XR should be focusing on those with actual power. However, many also say disruption is a key motivator for mobilization for a people’s movement.
In India, similar issues plague XR, which came to India as early as March 2019, when a protest involving 400 Delhi schoolchildren rallied against climate change. The movement then quickly spread to other Indian cities, such as Mumbai, Bhopal, and most recently Chennai.
XR has been struggling to mobilize young people in India, Vice India reported earlier this year. Talking to Sarthak Tomar, founder of the Bhopal Chapter, Vice learned, “First, you need people willing to take such steps [like the ones taken by London protestors] — there are quite a few in India. But then, you need mass support for these acts —this is lacking in India. You need the police to cooperate with the protesters. This, too, is missing in India. You also need a political environment that will respond to these actions — I doubt this is also present in India.” Speaking to the lack of inclusivity in India so far, Tomar said, “In the Bhopal XR campaign group, people involved are mostly from quite well-to-do, middle-class backgrounds,” adding that he’s looking to get more marginalized communities involved in the advocacy.
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In Mumbai, XR activists call themselves the Red Saree Brigade and are often seen donning red sarees, with faces painted white. They first made an appearance on October 13, Vice India reported, in the thick of the Aarey protests, which sought to halt government-sanctioned deforestation in the Aarey forest to make room for a metro shed. The RSB often undertakes the performance art method of protest and is often seen dancing or miming. Most climate advocacy around Aarey, including that of XR, mimicked the same issues critics highlight within the global XR movement — that it’s to deter governments from doing further harm to the ecosystems that offer Mumbaikars a healthy environment, but isn’t focused on the damage the government has already done by displacing the Aarey tribes who have long been impacted by the climate crisis. In putting the goals of the human race at the forefront of climate advocacy, XR perhaps forgets the human rights that have been foregone in the process.
But better late than never, right? In the U.K. at least, XR has been effective. It has managed to raise awareness about green issues and has commanded attention from government ministers. In April, when the movement did a city-wide shutdown protest in London, city parliamentarians met with XR activists and agreed to declare a climate emergency. XR, whose logo is an hourglass inside a circle to symbolize time is running out for many species, has had two “international rebellions” so far — two-week-long direct action protests spanning more than 60 cities wherein climate activists gathered to protest their regions’ complacency regarding the climate crisis and voice three demands: 1) Tell the truth: “Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with their institutions to communicate the urgency for change”; 2) Act now: “Government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2025”; 3) Move beyond politics: “Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.”
But many also say XR’s vision is not clear: While its methods are radical, it often aims to reform the political system by appealing to the conscience of those in power, instead of focusing on upturning the political order, a columnist for The Guardian wrote. “Reform or revolution – XR will have to make this call as it reflects on its own success.”
The climate crisis advocacy that prioritizes the privileged and co-opts an environmental movement to address the issues that will plague them, without input from communities who are already battling the climate crisis, is not radical, and not responsible.
We need an Extinction Rebellion, i.e. an aggressive, motivated group of people who understand what is at stake, and can successfully mobilize and communicate the urgency to mass populations across the world — but only, and only if, it is an XR that spans race, gender and class lines, and gives voice first and foremost to those most affected by the climate crisis.