The Extinction Rebellion & its place in the Anthropocene

Words: Louise Nilsson with an Introduction by Faith Thurnwald
Artwork: Faith Thurnwald
The ocean is on fire, facemasks are a new mandatory accessory, and impending doom lingers in the air…this is the anthropocene in which we live. Now regardless if you’re left, right or ambidextrous, surely we can agree the earth is dying, decaying and just generally fucked? So, what are YOU going to do about it? Do you want to chain yourself up and riot, or continue to sit in your ivory tower sipping tea?
Personally the idea of getting chained up to the absolute horror of the police sounds utterly thrilling. I can clearly get on board with the methods of The Extinction Rebellions madness.
For a more objective view Louise Nilsson delves deeper into everything the Extinction Rebellion.
If you haven’t heard of the extinction rebellion before, think Pussy Riot, but with climate change and T-shirts.

The extinction rebellion (XR) has many critics. People who oppose the movement do so because of its public disturbances and its alarmist approach. It obstructs. It causes difficulties. It makes people angry. But that is exactly the point. Whilst some of the movements criticisms do hold weight, such as questions over diversity within the movement and whether it uses the right tactics, there is no denying that the global effect the protests have had on climate discourse have been a great success. It is not a perfect movement but it’s methods should be considered reasonable given the crisis we find ourselves in.

The central strategy is mass disruption of city centres through non violent civil disobedience. It demands three things of the government; to declare a climate and ecological emergency, to bring an end to biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025, and for the creation of a citizen’s assembly on climate and ecological justice. XR is unsettling and disruptive. It triggers a reaction in people. It demands to be heard and its negative effects to be felt.

The Anthropocene and the absence of climate action from states and world leaders has set the stage for a movement such as XR. The Anthropocene is the current epoch which began in the 1800’s with the industrial revolution. In this period of time humanity has exploited the earth to such an extent that we have changed its geophysical nature. Without serious measures put in place this will most likely lead to our own demise. It is through these circumstances that a movement such as XR has been created. Global climate change, decreased food and water supplies, increased pollution and the loss of biodiversity are approaching and pressing issues we need to deal with. As humans we are threatening the survival of the natural order of the planet, of the planet’s animal species and subsequently our very own survival. This sense of impending doom and inaction is what has birthed the Extinction Rebellion.

What is civil disobedience?

XR has inspired thousands of people to take to the streets globally and has gained a lot of media traction. Its protesting through civil disobedience both inspires and infuriates. So what exactly does ‘civil disobedience’ mean? It can be defined as a non-violent act carried out in public which purposefully breaches the law with the goal of changing government policies.

These acts have most commonly involved the blocking of important roads and buildings with the activists own bodies. The XR activists aim is to be arrested and when they are, to react peacefully without resisting.

The movement which began in 2018 now has groups in several countries willing to take action. In April 2019 the extinction rebellion held a demonstration in London which lasted for 11 days and saw 1,100 arrests. These arrests were mostly due to protesters refusing police orders to move. Activists chained themselves up and glued themselves to trains and to the London stock exchange entrance.

This idea of breaking the law to create political change has been used succesfully in the past. Those who judge the movement and consider themselves inconvenienced by the obstructions should remember how women won the right to vote. In the early 20th century women in the US and the UK resorted to civil disobedience in the suffrage movement to have their voices heard. Take for instance, when women of the National Woman’s Party in the US were jailed for picketing the White House. These women were known as the ‘Silent Sentinels’ and their activism lasted between 1917 and 1919 until they were arrested. As a commitment to suffrage they refused to pay the fines and accepted their prison sentences.

XR and the climate change narrative

The 2019 XR protests in the UK succeeded in creating a government response. Local authorities, councils and the labour party declared a climate emergency in the following months and it made many politicians acknowledge that climate change is currently our most serious global threat.

The rise in XR protests alongside the school strikes for climate received enough media attention to create a widespread acknowledgement of the seriousness of the climate crisis, bringing it to the forefront of peoples minds. It has helped shape a new dialogue around climate change.

Public narratives help groups of individuals synchronise action and make sense of events. To overcome climate change, groups have to work together as the amount of carbon mitigation depends on the collaborative action of different stakeholders. Public narratives create frameworks for these actors to follow without having to rely on centralised authorities.

In broader society, people tend to be against the idea of rebelling because authorities have succeeded in categorizing non conformists as nothing but a destructive minority. Rebel narratives often lack apeal unless circumstances are serious enough for people to believe that it is worth it. In the UK in 2019 these circumstances presented themselves. It may have been the unusual record breaking weather events, which inspired people to rebel. Or circumstances may have seemed particularly dire because of the release of the special report from the Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change (IPCC) which was published in 2018. It stated that humanity had only 12 years to make changes to avoid the detrimental consequences of sea levels rising and the destruction of ecosystems.

What do the critics say?

XR has been criticized for having a race issue with the way it glamorizes its arrests and for depoliticising climate change.

The environmental movement and its activists since its beginning has always been associated with privilege. The environmental movement is said to have started in the 1960’s, although there is no single environmental movement but many different groups, organisations, institutions and campaigns focusing on different issues of climate change with different ideas on how to save the earth. The birth of the modern environmental movement is believed to have started in conjunction with the peace movement and feminism movement of the 60’s in America. This view also birthed the idea that environmentalists are middle class, white, hippies. This perception is one which XR has had trouble breaking away from. It has been criticised for not doing enough to address the link between inequality and climate change and for its lack of diversity. As a movement based around the concept of civil disobedience and with the aim to have as many activists arrested as possible it does not recognise that this may be problematic for people of colour.

Another component of XR which is problematic is that it demands states to declare a climate emergency while its simultaneous goal is to create policies which achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2025 through a citizen’s assembly. This is contradictory as it demonstrates two opposing approaches; bottom-up and top-down.

When it comes to fighting for climate justice, every idea and mitigation strategy has its own downfall. Climate change is the ultimate wicked problem. If one thing is certain, it is that XR has succesfully shaped a narrative that depicts the reality of this imminent and approaching catastrophe. We live on a dying planet. XR’s message is clear, once all of the sand has fallen to the bottom of the hourglass there is no turning it back around.




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