A memo to Extinction rebels: on the need for truth-telling and its possible needful consequences

Telling the truth

Extinction Rebellion’s (XR’s) first demand is for the Government to tell the whole truth about the gravity of the climate and ecological emergency. The time is now because everything is not going to magically sort itself out, everything is not going to be ok. What we are currently witnessing is climate spiralling out of our reach while ecosystems are already thoroughly degraded with the sixth extinction crisis under way. Climate disasters are coming, inevitably, and the climate situation will worsen for at least a generation, probably far longer, whatever we do. This is because of the time-lags built into the system: CO2 stays in the atmosphere for decades/centuries, and for every litre of petrol that gets burnt, the heat generated (ie. trapped) over time by the green house effect from burning that litre adds up to about 60000 times the heat you get directly from the petrol in your engine. This is why we are on the verge of destroying ourselves. This is why fossil fuels really are weapons of mass self-destruction.

We have to be honest about this grim truth. We need to focus not only on prevention and mitigation (XR’s zero-carbon target), but rather more on adaptation, transformative and deep. We have to start taking seriously the need to try to adapt to the worsening ecological situation that we and our children are almost certainly going to inherit even if we win.

Our rebellion must be as much about trying to create the seeds for something better to come out of the likely wreckage of this civilisation, as it must be about one last desperate push to change this civilisation into something ecologically-viable without suffering catastrophic collapse first.

Taking stock and active hope

When the International Rebellion launched, in mid-April 2019, very few people thought it would succeed. Yet it did. After almost two weeks of nonviolent direct action (NVDA) and over one thousand people arrested, an avalanche of change had come. This includes such extraordinary developments as a letter in the Times from business leaders supporting XR, a major Telegraph op-ed by William Hague, and, perhaps most extraordinary of all, a parliamentary motion, passed without opposition, declaring a climate and environment emergency. Furthermore, the former Prime Minister, Theresa May, has legislated for a carbon-net-zero target (albeit a target set way too late) and six Parliamentary Select Committees have united to create a kind of Citizens Assembly (CA) to look at the crisis.

Meanwhile, opinion polls showed, unprecedentedly, a massive majority of the public believing there is a climate emergency, and ‘the environment’ shooting up the political agenda.

Now, we need the Government to declare an emergency, follow up that declaration with a massive truthful public information campaign, and then act accordingly. This will also require massive resources to be devoted to adaptation, as insurance in case of failure. Only once all this honesty is flooding our society we can realistically hope to actually triumph in the full implementation of our demands.

In the next stage of the rebellion, we can expect greater numbers to flock to us. But we can also expect things to get harder. The task we, XR, are engaged in, is truly historically unique, unprecedented in scale and timescale. What we need is to rapidly change the entire economic, social and political system within years, not decades. This has never happened before and we will need a massive support from people to deliver it.

Bringing people with us

We want XR’s three demands to become law. Such transformation will mean that many economic interests get challenged or indeed ended. When it starts to impact people’s lives for more than a few days’ worth of disruption – when it affects jobs, what foods and products people are able to buy, or the ease of long journeys – then we will have to go to a whole new level in order to win the argument.

First, we need to state the truth that we cannot guarantee against collapse, even if our objectives are achieved. Our best hope for winning people over lies in authentically relating to them just how much of an emergency this really is.

But we cannot rely on even the full truth about the crisis doing the trick for us unless it includes the differentiated responsibilities of poor and rich. Therefore, we need to tackle gross inequality in the warp and weft of our rebellion. The stats are very clear: it is overwhelmingly the rich who are driving us over the ecological and climate cliffs.

Let’s design the Autumn Rebellion to bring that point home. We need by our actions to convey to the public the sense that we are on their side; that, while everyone will have to change now/soon, the greater burden of the changes will fall upon those more able to bear that burden; that we are them (the people, the citizens, the 99%) and they are us. What in concrete terms does all this mean?: that the Autumn Rebellion should target primarily the rich and powerful.

The Autumn Rebellion

We need overall, over time, to strike a balance between nonviolent disruption that is noticed by all – and resolutely nonviolent disruption that falls, justly, more heavily on the rich and powerful, the 1% elite. Such disruption can help us to deliver the wide sympathy that we will need to carry forward our struggle successfully into real change on the ground.

Proposed targets for the Autumn Rebellion, therefore:

  • Target Parliament / Government itself: We can bring some of the business of Government to a halt through NVDA. E.g. If we were to make it very difficult for Parliament to enact a Budget that wasn’t a climate and ecological emergency budget or if we were to massively disrupt a Ministry (e.g. the Treasury) from functioning at a time when it was seeking to enact some dubious new rules or subsidies. A potential danger of such an approach is that a Government starts acting more dictatorially in response. In that case, we need to target economic elites too, to put elite material interests in the balance, and to make clear that reducing democracy would not stop us from being effective:
  • Focus on major targets in the City: Imagine shutting down the Stock Exchange or Goldman Sachs, or a bunch of merchant banks. Imagine occupying and shutting the Green Investment Bank, which the Government privatised and neutered, or Canary Wharf, which is very geographically vulnerable due to limited access-roads. Doing any of that/those would be hugely popular with people still seriously pissed off by how the banksters got away with it ever since 2007–8.

Our actions must remain respectful. We should empathise with the difficult role assigned to the police; let politicians who believe their hands are tied by voters (and funders) understand that CAs can help, by giving the politicians ‘cover’: “It’s not us who are telling you citizens that everything has to change; YOU the citizens have to decided that!”, they can say, when a CA reports. And: We need to be clear it is the abysmal financial system (not the individuals staffing it) that is the key factor in the escalating ecological destruction, a system which must be replaced with something massively fairer and more intrinsically caring of humans and the ecosystem. That’s why we should target that system.

Citizens Assemblies [CAs]: how to make them real

We want CAs that have real decision-making power, are sortitionally-based, and are tasked with figuring out – with expert advice – how to put together the drastic package of changes now needed. We want them not just for the four nations of the UK, but for localities across those nations, too. Local Government just as much as national government needs to be revived and democratised.

But why would politicians give away some quasi-legislative power to the CA? As already intimated above, CAs can take something out of the ‘too-difficult box’ into a zone where something real – enough – can be done. Politicians can offload onto the public, who are picked at semi-random like members of a jury, but in this case also ensuring that taken together they are geodemographically representative of the broader citizenry, to deliberate in the CA with the difficult responsibility of acting for the benefit of the future.

One possible way of enabling politicians not to lose more control than they are willing to, is to include some of them in the CA. The option of agreeing to a CA(s) with elected politicians among its members is therefore one with a powerful positive precedent, and it is an option that XR should actively retain.

To win a CA of whichever kind with real power from the Autumn Rebellion or thereafter, we need to strike a balance between:

  • Giving politicians the sense that we can help them out of a hole;
  • Giving everyone the sense that everything really does have to change, and that it’s time to get serious about making that change, and
  • Giving everyone the sense that in that process, some – roughly, the 1% – have to change a lot more than others.

We need by our actions to give fellow citizens the sense that the CA will be just and seek justice. For: Even if a Citizens Assembly were to come up with radical enough plans, we cannot expect those plans to be implemented if they appear to the majority of citizens to be unfair and hostile to their interests. But: When people understand that the rich are the ones who need to cut back the most and that this is going to happen, then we become the popular ones, and, crucially, we pre-empt a ‘populist’ reaction against us.

The crucial role of our children

The climate school strikers have called for a general (adult) strike – the Global Strike – on Friday 20 and 27 September. It is absolutely crucial that we in XR show massive solidarity with this, and help it work. For our children and their plaintive call to “Save our world!” are our most powerful instance of emotional resonance; their struggle has touched the world.

Our Autumn Rebellion follows swift on the heels of 20–27 September. It must seek to reach out to involve people of all ages, especially those children. When there are arrests and imprisonments of some children (as happened at the turning-point of the civil rights movement in the USA in the 60s, at Birmingham Alabama; see the inspiring film, ‘The children’s march’) alongside adults, the game will have changed: the authorities will be placed in a very difficult dilemma; whatever action they take will look very bad.

If we can forge a close alliance with the school-climate-strikers this autumn, then the unprecedented historic change we so desperately need could come to pass.

On bravery

If we can look climate reality in the eye, if we can bear to face the extinction crisis that we have engendered, and if we can respond to these with open-ended flexibility, adaptability and courage, then perhaps a new hope arises. Like many XR colleagues, I am confident that our ultimate purpose is not ‘just’ political but psycho-spiritual. Our deepest purpose is to manifest the spirit of transformation, whether or not we succeed in our goals. Our rebellion is about doing the right thing: being dignified and courageous in the face of adversity, no matter what the consequences. The trick is not to be attached to getting the right outcome – while working determinedly and as intelligently as possible for the right outcome.

Let’s keep our eyes on that prize.

…See you on October 7th!