XR UK: Telling the truth through targeted disruption

It is important to re-state the truth: Our very survival as a species may now be under threat. A mass of other species have already been committed to extinction. That’s why we are in rebellion.

The sixth mass extinction and climate breakdown are happening right now. The truth is that everything is not going to be OK. Even if destruction of ecosystems stopped tomorrow and greenhouse gas emissions peaked, we will still experience the consequences for a long time.

People sometimes say we are hurtling toward a cliff edge, but the truth is that we’ve already breached planetary limits. We are already in the unsafe zone of the Earth-system. There are ‘limits to growth’. The job of XR is better conceived as stopping us crashing to the bottom of the cliff and lying bloodied on the rocks, than as stopping us going off the edge: we’re already over the edge. We need to halt our deadly descent. It is going to be incredibly hard; though, as we do it, the rewards are immense: we can make our lives better in all sorts of ways: for instance, less insecure, less lonely, and more local.

This hard truth about the place we are in as a species is still the case even if climate justice movements triumph rapidly worldwide. It’s difficult to face up to this climate reality. For at least a generation, more likely two generations or more, climatically-speaking (with some feedbacks already kicking in), things are virtually certain to keep getting worse. This is a massive blow to expectations that most of us were raised with of eternal ‘progress’. It’s going to be incredibly difficult to change this system enough and we might well not do it, so while we do everything we can to prevent collapse we also need to undertake deep adaptation to deal with things like disrupted food supplies.

Since it began last year XR UK has helped to raise awareness of how serious the climate & ecological crisis is. Nowhere near enough of the UK population realise just how terrifyingly bad the situation is so XR needs to continue to communicate the scientific truth to the public – thinking up ever more imaginative, emotionally-real and creative ways to present the facts to as many people as possible, and so to convey our collective vulnerability.

At the same time, we have to make sure that XR disruption does not make ordinary peoples’ lives, and especially at a time of extreme inequality, marginalised people’s, more complicated (it’s good to see that Phil Kingston who was arrested for blocking the DLR at Shadwell in October reached the same conclusion). After all it’s not the general public who have created or make huge profits from the current economic system. Our actions this year have repeatedly made the point that this is about a common crisis in which all of us have to change. But we have not made the point often enough that the burden of change should not be shared equally: that some of us will have to change way more than others, starting with the richest (more on that below).

XR’s main targets now should be the powerful forces blocking change, like the government, the fossil fuel companies, and the parts of the financial sector that invest in fossil fuels (including pension funds). It was great to see that these were locations of some XR protests in October 2019 (we are thinking particularly of innovative XR actions outside government departments, in the City and at London City Airport). Focusing more on these kinds of targets – devoting a larger chunk of our attention to them, and stepping back from targeting ordinary working people – is what puts XR on the side of the general public, and vice versa (and also of those, often marginalised groups who have already been campaigning for environmental justice regardless of their background).

If we see XR as part of a movement of movements we should among other things mobilise people to stand in solidarity with and support existing groups already targeting these wealthy vested interests. When XR rebels use the strategy of getting arrested, for instance, we are acting in solidarity with frontline communities (in the UK and elsewhere) and our primary target should be those responsible now and historically for the climate & ecological crisis. Those responsible, that is, for creating our growing common vulnerability (to famine, to climate-chaos-caused disasters, and so forth). XR in the UK should continue in this way also to frame its protests as in solidarity with environmental defenders who are being oppressed and murdered in the Global South. They are often being targeted for defending their territory which is why we need to also tell the truth about the need for a green transition (solar panels, wind turbines, lithium batteries etc) that does not exacerbate the devastating environmental impact and human rights abuses which often accompany mining.

Imagine if XR could help contribute to significant operational and economic (as well as symbolic) disruption of where real power lies – the financial sector, the operations of fossil fuel and polluting companies, as well as the government ministries which back them to continue destructive business as usual. The urgency of the ecological crisis means this kind of disruption should be planned and carried out immediately (in case anyone was thinking anything needed to wait until April 2020 for the next phase of the rebellion proper (which is already planned to start on Monday 13 April 2020…). The time literally is right now, especially now that we are in a general election campaign, in which XR is actively seeking to keep attention on the climate and ecological emergency. The dark money lobbyists, the fossil fuel companies and the big banks can seem invincible but actually they are vulnerable to growing public pressure. They fear us because they know we have the power to take away their political and social licenses to operate. We can win.

Are we not all in this together?

As we know the climate and ecological crisis is not happening in a vacuum. The UK is incredibly unequal, and people are suffering from a decade of austerity, with thousands of people sleeping rough on the streets, and living in conditions of persistent poverty.

At the same time the rich are getting richer. Wealth, income and power are concentrated in a small group. All of this is of course interconnected. The links need to constantly be made between inequality and the ecological crisis. For example, the government says there is no money and has promoted austerity for the last decade but could still consistently find billions of pounds in tax breaks for the big oil companies and allows tax havens to continue.

It is the polluter elite in the UK (and all other countries) who are most responsible for the climate & ecological crisis through their luxury consumption and investments in polluting companies.

They are the millionaires and billionaires who profit the most from the economic system that’s destroying the planet. They do not need any more money; they can’t even find the time to spend it. They are the portion of the richest who still want more money even though they know it means more environmental destruction.

Crucially, the way that XR does this activism is and will be very different from the way it has been done before. So, you can be a believer in social justice and be part of XR. You can be an anti-capitalist and be part of XR. But you don’t have to be either, or anything else. You just have to believe in non-violence and in the absolute urgency of the climate and ecological emergency. That emergency imposes upon us all a necessity. The growing fleet of private jets, for instance, has to be reduced and ultimately probably eliminated. Not, from the broad-based XR perspective, because capitalism is wrong, but simply because there is no emissions-space left for that kind of luxury.

If we let the polluter elite go on as they are, then it’s curtains for humanity. That is not ideology; that is plain and simple fact. This is not about targeting the individuals involved. We don’t name and shame or cast an othering blame. We tell the truth with calm composure with a hand held out for all who are willing to change. This is about changing a toxic system, which is ultimately killing us all.

Deprioritising survival

Whose side is our government on? Instead of telling the plain truth and taking action to drastically reduce emissions the government promises to do something about all of this by 2050. Even with scientists and other experts (e.g. the Climate Change Committee, though even they don’t go nearly far or fast enough) advising it to reduce pollution more rapidly and on a huge scale, it is basically ignoring the emergency; e.g. recently deciding not to stop the approval of a new coal mine in Cumbria!

Despite continuing to use our taxes to directly support oil and gas companies to extract more in the UK and abroad, the government think they deserve praise for their ‘leadership’. It’s a sickening – and terrifying – state of affairs. By prioritising the interests of the polluter elite and refusing to even contemplate large-scale change, the government has abandoned the rest of us.

The government has stopped putting our health and wellbeing first. People who have joined XR have realised this and understand that the UK government has pretty much abandoned them. Two examples of damaging inaction:

  • After being taken to court 3 times and losing because of illegal levels of air pollution (which are causing tens of thousands of deaths a year) the government has done nothing to sort out the cause of the problem. It’s the poorest (and often Black and other minority communities, and of course many communities in the Global South) who suffer more health problems from air pollution and living close to polluted sites.
  • Despite knowing they are going to be more frequent the government is not even bothering to prepare for heatwaves and flooding with the Climate Change Committee concluding “the country remains unprepared for even a 2 degree rise in global temperature”.

Weather itself doesn’t discriminate between people, but the ability to escape the impacts of changing climate is fundamentally unequally distributed, as we’ve seen. It is life-changing and for those people who are living on the edge it can be catastrophic.

The impact of the government putting things off until 2050 is the continuation of death and displacement for millions of people in the Global South who have already been living through this crisis for decades. It’s vital to welcome refugees (who often move due to the impacts of the climate & ecological crisis) because by doing this we can directly support the communities who often have the smallest carbon footprint. It’s crucial to make the links between carbon inequality and environmental destruction. The problem is not the climate refugees (still not recognised by any UN convention). The problem is the system and actors profiting from the ways things are. This is in part why XR UK needs to prioritise environmental justice and needs to ensure this prioritisation is seen, signalled, and understood. In our actions, as well as our words.

When there are floods and heatwaves the richest have more resources to adapt and continue business as usual, for a while at least. The rest of us can’t do that. This is what unites us. It’s not “commuters vs protesters”. Together, we seek survival. And that has to mean justice. Because there is no possible future in which society remains as riven by inequality – including carbon inequality – as it currently is, while hitting the kind of targets embodied in XR’s demand to halt biodiversity loss and decarbonise by 2025.

Disrupting power = shifting relationship with the police

Why is the government ignoring the scientists? It is lobbied by and to a considerable extent controlled by fossil fuel, car and other polluting companies who want to carry on making as much money as possible regardless of the consequences. These are the powerful vested interests who will in all probability do everything they can to defeat XR and anyone else who is challenging them.

They need to be undermined economically, morally and politically if we are to have any chance. These powerful actors are not going to concede anything unless they are challenged.

All of this implies – especially given the recent shift in police tactics against us, and given the overtly political request for more powers being made by the police – that there needs to be a shift in how XR talks about its relationship with the police. The police are there to defend the government, polluting companies and the bankers that finance them. This was made absolutely clear when during the second week of the October phase of the rebellion, straight after we non-violently hit City Airport and the City of London, they placed a blanket ban on our peaceful protests – and were in many cases more aggressive (“Use pain and compliance!!”). They took facilities for disabled people and then arrested those who protested about it.

There is a balance to be achieved between continuing not to dehumanise the police – and indeed to appeal to them – whilst also making it clear they are obliged to defend the system that XR wants to transform – and thus not naively expecting them to ‘defect’ to us, and not making it look as though we ‘love’ what they are and do. This is what will also put XR on the side of citizens who have suffered from police actions because of their race or class.

To gain maximum support from the public XR needs to demand a Just Transition

We’ve exhausted the targeting of ordinary people so as to create a sense of ‘national crisis’ in the capital. Creating that same sense of crisis on the streets is unlikely to be relevant or necessary again. For the foreseeable future, Rebellion cannot mean blocking streets (including buses) en masse. It might do if our movement becomes so large that it can literally shut down London to make its point against a government that refuses to prioritise our right to life ahead of the profits of the polluter elite.

Until then, we need to complement what others are already doing to build and diversify the movement. We’re not going to succeed in doing that while alienating many people (see XR Jews recent statement). In particular, those who are suffering under the current system (a key reason for people involved in XR to not glorify arrest and prison time, even if not intentional). We need to consciously choose targets from now on to signal to ordinary working people that their fight is our fight. And to make clear that the kinds of changes that are needful will impact far more on the rich than on them.

This is why in October it made sense to target the financial institutions in the City and London City Airport – mainly used by the rich, business elites, private jets, and people flying off regularly to ‘second homes’ in Spain, Greece, etc (we wish that more XR activity had concentrated on these kinds of targets; and that public transport was left alone). Luxury emissions are intolerable when there are only barely enough non-luxury – basic – emissions to be shared around. This is especially so once one takes into account the importance of leaving the Global South emissions space, to compensate for the far greater historical responsibility of the Global North for the climate and ecological crisis.

XR is dead-right to call for system change and correct to identify the fundamental role of our government in implementing that change. Systemic change needs to be done in a way that does not penalise those who are more marginalised and trying to survive from day to day. And systemic change will not happen so long as we pretend that our fake version of democracy is real; we need to help citizens look behind the façade, to see the vulnerabilities we are exposed to – and the powers that are conniving in worsening them. Westminster alone cannot cut it, when Westminster is thoroughly dependent upon an out-of-control financialised economic system.

With over a million people relying on food banks and the scandal of zero hours contracts there are people in the UK who literally do not know when they will be paid or if they will have enough to eat. Because of structural inequality and racism there are often overlaps with Black and other minority communities. There simply, pragmatically is no way of addressing the urgent, permanent emergency we now inhabit without creating a massively more equal society in the process. To be part of a mass movement of movements that can win XR needs to connect with the people living precarious lives to show we are on their side.

The need to rein in extremes of inequality has nothing to do with any particular ideology, and everything to do with practical necessity. Similarly, rationing in the World War Two emergency was driven by necessity, not ideology. Necessity can unify society. This is how emergency thinking could unite most of the populace behind the kind of thinking we are urging in this article.

Our government has the ability to design and fund a Just Transition so that the UK public, and in particular poor and marginalised groups, are supported to switch to greener choices like public transport, energy efficient homes and more environmentally friendly diets.

By calling for a Just Transition XR can proactively show it is on the side of all of those people abandoned by the government who are instead acting in favour of the polluter elite.

The reason it’s so important to show XR wants a Just Transition is that after our success in raising awareness of the crisis, we will enter a more challenging phase as people realise this means rapid change to their own lives. We may already be in that phase. XR is calling for a Citizens’ Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice because it will empower citizens to take the lead and politicians to follow with less fear of political backlash (e.g. when difficult decisions are needed on trade-offs). Backing an inclusive Just Transition now will give credibility and legitimacy to a future Citizen’s Assembly which would need to discuss making huge changes to the economy to prevent ecological collapse.

XR has huge potential if it is focused and complements what other movements are doing. It needs to stay unified around tenable ends. There is no unity around further targeting of the general population. There is, around the targets we have identified. Let’s build that unity and help give this species its best shot at survival.

Conclusion: Focusing XR

The April Rebellion was a stunning success; the October Rebellion in London was larger, and brought the climate emergency directly to the doors of government departments, City Airport and the financial sector. But let’s be honest with ourselves: time’s up for the old methods of sitting in streets, ‘swarming’, let alone blocking public transport. We need to change up. Unless and until we have built our movement so that it is hundreds of times bigger, we need to focus our activity much more smartly.

Every action should have a clear target: either symbolic in a way that represents what needs to be transformed (e.g. a hunger strike outside a supermarket depot whose just-in-time methods are vulnerable to climatic-disruption), or causing real economic disruption (e.g. bringing a destructive economic institution such as the Stock Exchange to a halt for a while), or information-eliciting (e.g. targeting insurance companies who have data on how our society is at risk that they are not releasing).

We as XR have made the point that there is a sense in which we are all in this together, in that all of us need to change. We’ve done loads of mega-actions that make it explicit that this has to be part of an all-encompassing national conversation! If we try to flog that horse any more at present, we will only piss more people off, perhaps terminally. Instead, we need to build and diversify the movement whether people ‘join’ XR or not (this means doing actions which are more often popular and do not undermine the struggles of others). We need to communicate to people successfully, by what we do, that, in the vast transition that is coming, everything will have to change, but those that will have to change the most are those with the most i.e. starting with the polluter elite.

This is the shift of vision and action that we need, to recover from the low moments toward the end of the October rebellion and to change our public image in a way fit to win. We can start now. In the remainder of this election-campaign, autonomous XR groups have the opportunity to show how we can tell the truth in part via targeted disruption.

During the coming days of #electionrebellion, in which we are seeking to encourage the country to vote on the issues of climate-and-ecological-emergency, XR should focus its pressure on disrupting the political parties, candidates who have not signed up to our ‘3 XR demands’ bill in Parliament (declaration, emissions target and citizens’ assembly), government itself, plus sometimes the powers behind their throne: the press, big donors, and the financial institutions and dark money who perpetuate the environmental crisis. Only if and when we do so will we be well-placed to build pressure for Citizens Assemblies to move into some of the space that ‘representative democracy’ has failed to take up: the space of saving our common future…

Thanks to Vlad Vexler, Sarah Kingdom Nicolls and other colleagues for valuable feedback.