Extinction Rebellion’s disruptive tactics have included blockading oil terminals. Image: Chris Jerrey/Extinction Rebellion
Extinction Rebellion has dominated headlines by smashing windows, blocking roads, and dropping banners since bursting onto the scene in 2018. But now its activists are pausing the disruption to try and make friends.
A dramatic statement announcing ‘we quit’ made global headlines at the beginning of the year. It showed XR putting the brakes on roadblocks ahead of ambitious plans for a 100,000-person protest outside Parliament in April. This wasn’t despair – it signals a tactical shift as XR tries to build bridges with other social justice movements.
In doing so, there are signs of how the climate movement in the UK is starting to widen out in a bid to sustain pressure on the government. There’s often a focus on the tactics of any individual group, with protests measured by how much they alienate hypothetical sympathetic people. The bigger question is what it looks like when climate activists, trade unions, and other campaign groups begin to work in tandem.
Mass protest has played a huge role in making climate change one of the issues considered most important by UK voters. Half of UK adults think the UK is not doing or spending enough to reduce emissions – compared to just 18 per cent who believe the government is doing too much. But “raising awareness” through protest has not really led to tangible change.
“For a lot of people, there’s awareness of climate catastrophe like there never has been. That’s been a success of disruptive protest. But the climate movement isn’t growing on a mass scale. People aren’t necessarily coming out, so we want to try and find out how we can get people to come,” says Alanna Byrne, an Extinction Rebellion spokesperson.
Who needs winning over? It’s not just angry cabbies or Conservative politicians. The obvious allies when building a big movement don’t appear to be fully onside. Labour leader Keir Starmer has called the group’s protests “counterproductive” and trade unions – who hold the power to bring numbers onto the streets few others can muster – appear lukewarm.
At an Enough is Enough rally in October, RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said: “Everybody’s got a different path to the same objective, which is to make a more equal world and a more sustainable world. We will have differences with Extinction Rebellion but they’re very welcome here.”
And so the group has turned its focus to tactics more reminiscent of day-to-day political campaigning: knocking on doors, having conversations and building alliances.
As academic Marc Hudson argued, radical movements often have a shelf life and face a battle to retain momentum after the first few years.
“We’ve said we’re going to really work at building relationships with other groups and movements and encouraging them to come out with us in April,” Byrne says.
“If that means for the next few months, not going out and disrupting traffic and things like that, then we’ll hold off doing that and really work on the relationship building.”
The group is in talks with NGOs, but won’t be drawn on which. And it is turning up on picket lines and showing solidarity with strikers.
“It’s given us a moment of reflection to say actually, maybe we can go and do a bit more behind the scenes, doing more targeted action,” adds Byrne. “Things like meeting the NGOs, meeting the unions, and other movements to ask how we can work together and come together as one in April.”
A move beyond blocking roads could also facilitate a move beyond a commonly-held perception of XR activists: that they are all upper-middle class rural hippies who struggle to attract a more diverse range of activists.
Not all XR groups around the world are ‘quitting’, though. In Canada and Australia, branches are pushing ahead with disruptive action. In the UK, Just Stop Oil has bought the space for XR to step back.
Born in April 2022, Just Stop Oil captured attention with the traditional tricks of roadblocks, but also by chaining themselves to goalposts during Premier League games and throwing soup over paintings.
Just Stop Oil is an XR offshoot. Activists will move between the groups, but they are not formally linked. The relationship is described by Byrne as allies who will talk to each other, but may disagree. As such, XR’s move to quit took some by surprise
“I was actually a bit curveballed by Extinction Rebellion’s new declaration, it took me quite off guard. I think quite a lot of people in Just Stop Oil felt the same. But it’s important to say we’re not opposed to it,” says Sean Irish, a 25-year-old activist who acts as a spokesperson for the group.
He predicts activists will continue moving between the groups, with more radical XR members coming over to Just Stop Oil, and vice versa. This is a good thing, in Irish’s view, as it makes the climate movement more accessible. People know who to join for their level of commitment.
“Accessibility is one of the most important things for any movement to get off the ground, and to really bring about change we have to have something that appeals to everybody in some shape or form”, he says.
This is all working towards April, which Byrne hopes will see 100,000 people protesting outside Parliament – XR’s biggest ever mobilisation.
Extinction Rebellion itself has turned away from party politics, with its own Burning Pink party de-registering with the Electoral Commission in November. It stood a total of five candidates, all of whom placed last, including in 2021’s London mayoral elections.
Instead, its efforts are focused on citizens’ assemblies and direct democracy, aiming to show people they can have a direct impact on politics.
“What’s happening here in the UK is a melting pot of frustration and anger with politics. That’s a massive focus for us – how can we popularise citizen assemblies,” Byrne says. “Empowering people to want more of a say in politics day-to-day.”
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