Confused about Extinction Rebellion? You should be. The representation of the non-violent climate activist group in the media currently ranges from the funny to the downright absurd. Recent interviews have included XR spokespeople being shouted down as ‘hypocrites’, and Adam Boulton branding the group ‘incompetent, middle class, self-indulgent people’ causing ‘fascistic disruption’.
For those unaware, Extinction Rebellion is a group advocating non-violent direct action in order to get the government to agree to its three demands on climate change. These demands are for the government to: tell the truth about climate change; reach net carbon emissions of zero by 2025 and create a Citizen’s Assembly on climate change. Today is the 6th day of the climate activist group’s protest in London, which currently occupies Oxford Circus, Waterloo Bridge, Parliament Square and Marble Arch.
It is important to note the way these interviews were conducted on Sky and LBC. They unfortunately demonstrate a growing and concerning trend within journalism, the ‘Piers Morgan effect’, where aggressively talking over your interview subject and calling them names apparently constitutes a ‘debate’. We need to scrutinise this trend as it appears, being critical where necessary. Of course it is important for interviewers to ask the hard questions, but it is ridiculous not to give interviewees the space to answer them. The second thing to note is that despite widespread coverage of these protests, there has been little media attention that accurately characterises protesters and their demands. This poor characterisation means that people are falling back on the same lazy arguments generally applied to anyone who disrupts the status quo. Let’s unpack some of those:
1. “Extinction Rebellion is just annoying the people who support them by causing disruption to the lives of working people.”
Extinction Rebellion’s policy on direct action is ‘to hit where it hurts’. But, in reality, they intend to cause as little disruption as possible while still gaining maximum attention. The protest on the underground was deliberately held at Canary Wharf on the DLR. This meant that trains were able to continue to run on parallel lines, but Canary Wharf (London’s financial district, and home to some of the companies most complicit in pollution) was temporarily out of service.
Some shops have reported a fall in profits due to ‘disruption’. But access is still entirely possible and protestors are taking up areas of the road - not the pavement. This lack of footfall may be because the demonisation of peaceful protests in the media has caused people to avoid the scene. Protestors are reminded to clean up after themselves, remove litter from the site and interact respectfully with police and members of the public. At daily ‘people’s assemblies’ at Oxford Circus, passersby and police were invited to join facilitated discussions, sharing their opinions of XR and its mission with group members.
2. “They won’t achieve anything. They should just make a documentary like David Attenborough instead.” (Anna Soubry, paraphrased)
This is essentially a comment on the efficacy of direct action, suggesting that protestors should go home, be quiet, and write about their concerns instead. That has been done for 20 years. We have known about climate change since the mid-90s. Scientific research on climate change is at an all time high, suggested government and business reforms and policies are being published and no action is being taken. How many documentaries/tweets/academic papers will it take to push the government into action? I do not support XR in all its methods, but I would strongly contest the idea that direct action is ineffective, when it is one of the only radically effective forms of protest we have seen throughout history. This is not about getting the government ‘on side’ to change their behaviour.
This is not an exercise in persuasion. The government is supposed to represent people, and work towards the best possible outcome for its citizens. But still our air pollution is at dangerous levels, we are not on target to meet our side of the Paris Climate Change agreement, and even if we were it would not be enough.
3. “They are hypocrites. Emma Thompson flew 5,400 miles from LA and I bet all these people have cars and eat meat etc etc”
People can want to change a system while also living in it. I can eat meat but support the reduction in supply of it. I can drive a car and support the subsidisation of electric cars. I can fly but think that we should all fly less. The fact that Emma Thompson flew from LA for the protests in no way undercuts the massive failures on the part of the international community to halt climate climate change.
It is not hypocrisy that people currently live within a system where in order to live comfortably it is easier to do things like have mobile phones, drive, fly, use electricity and eat meat. You can work within that system and also want it to be better and work for it to be better. If you call someone else a hypocrite for existing within our system while having values, it is counter-productive; all it means is that you exist inside that same system but do not care how damaging it is.
I can only speak from my own experience: what I have observed and the people I have met. But my understanding of Extinction Rebellion is that it is a radically inclusive, non-violent group of people from all different walks of life, all of whom have lost hope in the government’s ability to protect them and their loved ones. I met one man who heard about XR for the first time on Monday while walking through Oxford Circus, and by Tuesday afternoon had been arrested for gluing himself to the pink boat in the centre of the crowd. I was shocked at how open minded he must be, to commit himself entirely to a cause in the space of 24 hours. I heard about it several months ago and didn’t attend a protest until I had done weeks of sceptical googling. Obviously it’s important to do your research, and see what people really represent. But this protest has taught me a lot about my own cynicism, and I have a huge amount of respect for those committed to action and calling the government to account.
After feeling anxious and powerless about climate change for a long time, Extinction Rebellion has given me hope that there is a network of people committed to change, to peaceful inclusive protest, and committed to holding the government to account. Of course we should ask them the difficult questions and get them to explain and defend their actions, but let’s do it with real resourcefulness, gathering information rather than resorting to the same lazy criticisms while continuing to do nothing.