Extinction Rebellion’s future is far less radical than its past

This article first appeared in the Guardian here.

Gail Bradbrook, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, has been found guilty of criminal damage, after she broke a window at the Department for Transport in an ecologically motivated protest against HS2 in 2019.

The timing of Bradbrook’s verdict is almost exquisitely ironic. Five years ago last week, Extinction Rebellion was launched in Parliament Square. Back then, a principal term of criticism lobbied at XR was that it was “alarmist”. Five years on, it’s plainly visible that it was not.

In the past few months the process of climatic decline has dramatically accelerated, and we are exceeding many of the supposed worst-case scenarios laid out in climate models. We are plainly hurtling towards 1.5C of global over-heat, long before most seemingly well-informed people thought we would.

And yet despite this, our climate protest movement in the UK today is nowhere near strong enough to force a change of course. XR’s “scare-mongering” over the existential threat facing us may have been decisively vindicated, but it was never able to recover its reputation from the Canning Town incident in October 2019, when rebels inexplicably stopped underground trains running – to much public criticism. Since then, it has struggled to assert itself as a credible vehicle for truly mass mobilisation.

Many significant organisations and movements have emerged in its wake. The most attention-grabbing have been from the recent, even more radical flank of the UK’s climate movement – first Insulate Britain and then Just Stop Oil – who have blocked the M25, stopped test matches and much more. To me, these activists are obviously on the right side of history. But at the same time, many in the broader climate movement now feel that action that disrupts the general public has become counterproductive – as XR came to learn. Citizens already feel the alarm has been raised. Right now, they don’t need further reminders: they need a journey into positive, effective action that they feel includes them.

I moved on from XR in 2020, judging it likely that it had achieved most of what it was capable of achieving (a huge raising of climate consciousness – not to mention a parliamentary declaration of climate and environment emergency, a net zero law, and a parliament-backed citizens’ assembly on climate).But what is now plainly obvious is that the most important achievement of XR may turn out to be the space it opened up for a new, moderate flank in the climate movement to emerge.

XR successfully dragged the whole eco-agenda into the light of day, and this has made it both necessary and possible for a wave of novel organisations and initiatives to fill the vacuum; groups such as Wild Card, Community Climate Action, Lawyers for Net Zero, Purpose Disruptors and Zero Hour. Indeed, many of the successes of historical movements that inspired XR (the Suffragettes, for instance) followed a similar pattern: an agenda-shift prompted by radical-flank initiatives paving the way for actual political success by more moderate agents of change.

What has become abundantly clear since XR launched is that, in order to make any real impact on the desperate situation we are slipping into, movements must now unite people in campaigns that they can actually get on board with. That means acting with others where they live, or work or pray – and within the law.

XR itself knows this is the way forward, and seems to have learned from past mistakes. As of 2023, it will no longer disrupt the public. XR’s new strategy, optimistically titled “Here comes everyone”, plans to build on the clearest success of the movement so far. In April, it mobilised about 60,000 people – considerably more than at any previous moment in its history – in a peaceful march on the climate crisis. But it will be a long road ahead for XR from here; it will be hard work to fully detoxify its brand. The best prospect for a huge XR resurgence lies in the possibility that the coming climate disasters may help to grow and rejuvenate its ranks.

Those of us who stood up and were counted at the launch of XR can be justly proud. But of course, it’s not as if XR’s main objectives were actually achieved (XR’s second demand was for carbon net-zero by 2025). If there is to be any chance of achieving a transformative adaptation to the self-imposed threat of ecological collapse, it’s going to require not just a minority, but most of us, to step up.

In decades to come, the only question our children will have any real interest in is: now that it’s becoming clearer what can effectively achieve change, how will you act? And once you knew, what did you do?