How to Resist: Lessons From Extinction Rebellion

As it increasingly becomes up to the individuxal to fight the establishment, Extinction Rebellion offers a promising vision of what the future of climate activism looks like and can achieve.  

Protest is an increasingly common element of our everyday lives. Whether we participate, observe, or even oppose, it is becoming clear that protest may be one of the few means with which we have to challenge established power. Extinction Rebellion (XR) is notorious for sit-ins, marches, and even die-ins and I believe provides an effective model for what climate activism can be. XR was born on October 31st, 2018 when a group of British activists assembled in London’s Parliament Square to announce a Declaration of Rebellion against the British Government. In the weeks that followed, acts of civil disobedience increased, including the blocking of five major Thames bridges and planting trees in the middle of Parliament Square. As the movement became globalized, XR developed 10 wide-ranging principles in an effort to decentralize power and encourage individual action. The goals vary from working to break down power hierarchies to developing regenerative culture, which draws a uniquely broad portrait of utopia. Both the means and the ends of Extinction Rebellion present an intriguing window into how to address the climate emergency and work towards utopia.  

Both the means and the ends of Extinction Rebellion present an intriguing window into how to address the climate emergency and work towards utopia.  

On October 23rd, XR Scotland staged a demonstration outside an Ineos oil refinery in Grangemouth. They blocked two main roads with boat trailers as well as linking together in a human chain at the gates. Simultaneously, there were organized protests outside the company’s London headquarters building. XR’s goal was twofold: expose Ineos as Scotland’s largest polluter and build public awareness about the oil industry’s contribution to climate change. XR’s method of direct and very public confrontation highlights the important role that collective action plays in addressing the climate emergency. XR protests in London, for instance, have been so large that upwards of 600 people have been arrested in a single day. 

The Ineos demonstration is but one example of many where targeted direct action was used to generate publicity and provoke further protest. In June 2020, XR organized a seven day, 125 mile protest walk along phase 1 of the High Speed 2 (HS2) high speed rail line, which has devastated wildlife and environmental resources. The “Rebel Trail,” as it was called, was also designed to be a tool of collectivizing regional opposition to HS2. As the walk continued through villages and towns, protests and meetings with locals helped to solidify regional partnerships of resistance. 

XR has been instrumental in developing alternative and effective means of protest.

The Ineos demonstration and the “Rebel Trail” concept both exemplify what effective methods of resistance look like and what is needed to get the broader public onto the streets and apply sustainable pressure on governments and corporations. Namely, the concepts of direct and collective action as well as a decentralized organizational structure should be replicated elsewhere in the climate action movement.  

Direct action is critical to targeting specific governments and corporations so as to channel public attention and anger towards them. For example, in April 2019, XR New York City organized a “die-in” at city hall to call attention to the city government’s lack of action on climate change. The event lead to 62 arrests, but more importantly attracted an enormous crowd of both onlookers and participants, many of whom brandished signs and megaphones, with some even playing instruments. This direct action, especially one that targets important but often forgotten local governments, is more valuable than broad and meaningless calls for action which fall on deaf ears.   

This direct action, however, would be useless if it was not collected in the way that XR activism is. The climate emergency is inherently an international threat, and thus the response must be collective and unified. XR has taken the unique path of balancing their approach between structural demands and prophetic demands. In this approach, structural demands like banning fracking are hybridized with prophetic demands such as climate justice. This hybridization allows XR to appeal to a broader range of the public and avoid becoming a one-issue organization.   

Decentralization is the defining trait of XR’s organization philosophy and is critical to its ability to be flexible and international. Elements of XR’s decentralized approach can be found in the management models of companies such as Google and Zappos, and is often referred to as holacracy. On the surface, this approach might seem more like organized chaos than any management doctrine, but XR has established some organized forums for debate and discussion, as well as rapid response teams in charge of ensuring the continued flexibility of XR. One such forum, the citizen’s assembly, is intended to provide structure to decision making and research, while expressly cutting through party politics and avoiding the influence of lobbying groups.    

XR has proven itself as a worthy challenger to the social and political status quo.

Through methods of decentralization and collective action, XR has seen success in challenging governments and corporations to become more responsible and sustainable. However, change is always in flux. With the COVID-19 pandemic, uncertain political climates, and the relentless march of climate change, XR has significant work still ahead and both its means and ends will be constantly challenged. Regardless, XR has already proven the power of the individual to bring about substantive change and we should continue to strive to educate and equip future generations for the same fight. 

Art by Oliver Walter

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