A Pinch of Salt: Where next for Extinction Rebellion in the UK?

by Robert Alcock, XR Scotland activist, August 2020

Note: The opinions in this piece are my own, not representative of any XR group or anyone else. It’s written in a spirit of constructive criticism and I hope it will be read in the same light. When you see your friends making what you think are mistakes, you have a duty to tell them, as quickly and clearly as you can.

Summary

  • XR-UK’s September rebellion is using the same basic strategy that worked in April 2019 but didn’t in October. It hasn’t changed to fit a new context.
  • XR-UK pin their hopes on a Climate & Ecological Emergency bill that will never pass under a Tory government.
  • XR’s theory of change (mobilizing 3.5% of the population) is also flawed.
  • The issues are connected with a lack of effective internal structures in XR, leaving decision-making power to unaccountable, informal networks of insiders (the “Tyranny of Structurelessness”).
  • XR-UK needs a period of deep reflection on its core identity as a direct action movement.
  • XR should balance disruptive action with prefigurative action that brings a new world into being.
  • XR needs empowered, fair, transparent deliberative assemblies for internal decision-making.

XR-UK: Headed for the Rocks?

I’m writing on the eve of XR-UK’s third major Rebellion. From 1st September, thousands of XR activists will occupy the streets of London, Cardiff, and Manchester. They’ve been working behind the scenes for months in preparation. A red-and-white-striped lightship (which is a lighthouse on a ship, of course) called the “Greta Thunberg” is being towed all the way from Brighton to London, on foot, by a team of rebels wearing yellow oilskins and sou’westers.

The lightship Greta Thunberg.

They might be dressed as salty sea-dogs, but is this latest rebellion worth its salt, or is XR’s strategy lost at sea?

In a nutshell, the stated goal of the September 2020 rebellion is to pressure Parliament into passing a new Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill that includes key elements of the XR programme, like strong binding targets for reducing carbon emissions and a Citizens’ Assembly “with bite”. XR’s “theory of change” says that this is going to work because if you mobilise 3.5% of the population behind you (i.e. 2 million people across the UK), your movement will inevitably succeed in its objectives.

Well, to be honest, I’d take that idea with a big pinch of salt. It seems to me that XR-UK themselves are in need of a lighthouse. They urgently need to get their bearings before they end up on the rocks.

Where I’m coming from

Before I go on to explain why, I should make it clear where I’m coming from. I’ve been an activist with XR Scotland since its foundation, in December 2018, as an autonomous movement, independent of XR-UK, based on the same principles as other international XR groups but with its own demands and purpose statement. I was involved in both the first and second International Rebellions, IR1 and IR2, in April and October 2019, as well as in organizing and carrying out major XR actions up in Scotland: notably the Burns Day occupation of the Scottish Parliament in January 2019, the disruption of the Scottish Oil Club dinner in March, and Holyrood Rebel Camp in June.

The Burns Day occupation of the Scottish Parliament in January 2019. XR Scotland’s first major action.

So naturally I want XR-UK to succeed; but it seems to me that they’re stuck with a theory of change, and a resulting strategy, that just aren’t adequate to deal with current reality; and that these issues are the result of structural problems in the movement that need to be addressed.

The first International Rebellion in April 2019, during which rebels occupied five sites in central London for a week, was a historic landmark in environmental direct action. The image of a pink boat, moored in a sea of rebels at the centre of Oxford Circus, became an icon of imaginative protest, even after the “Berta Caceres” was finally “arrested” and escorted away with a guard of honour made up of hundreds of the Metropolitan Police’s finest. We pushed the Overton Window wide open, and fresh air poured in. As awareness of the climate crisis spiked to unprecedented levels, air pollution plummeted, and a nightingale sang in Berkeley Square.

I wasn’t physically in London during IR1, but I was there in spirit, running the XR Scotland Twitter account. I was present at IR2 in October, but my contribution was mostly during the run-up, coordinating the “world-building” team in charge of infrastructure for Site 6 at Westminster Abbey, and trying to get the resources (financial and physical) we needed to create the site via the byzantine budgeting system of the London-based Rebel Support Office.

IR2 was more ambitious in scale than IR1, with a dozen autonomous sites encircling Westminster, the heart of state power in the UK. But the rebels no longer had the element of surprise on their side. The police managed to prevent some of the sites being taken in the first place (including two bridges that rebels tried to block), and cleared the rest by day three, leaving rebels who’d come down for a ten-day or longer stretch having to improvise encampments elsewhere.

As in April, for a brief moment, we brought a new world into being in the shell of the old, and it was beautiful. The lightning of peaceful rebellion once again cleared the oppressive air of the capital. But beyond that, the goals of the October rebellion were unclear, and it’s mostly memorable for its embarrassing failures: a police raid on the central warehouse (whose idea was it to have a central warehouse in the first place?) that seized a large amount of gear just before kick-off, including a number of pink cushions; a naïve activist sending flowers to the Brixton police, notorious for their brutal treatment of black citizens; a small affinity group of rebels climbing atop a Tube train in working-class Canning Town and being pulled off by an angry crowd of commuters. And then — not during IR2 but shortly after it — the media meltdown over XR co-founder Roger Hallam’s deliberately provocative Holocaust remarks, which many XR rebels (in Germany and elsewhere, including Scotland) saw as appalling, anti-semitic, courting the far right.

After both the April and October rebellions, the movement took a long time to recover from the exhaustion and burnout that followed the intense rush of the action. After IR1, at least in Scotland, there was a big influx of new people coming into the movement, which we didn’t really have the capacity to deal with; but after a few weeks we got back into our stride, and went on to organise our biggest action to date: the five-day Holyrood Rebel Camp outside the Scottish Parliament, protesting against Scotland’s weak Climate Bill while exploring positive alternatives for a better future. After IR2, on the other hand, there was plenty of burnout, worse if anything than IR1, but little in the way of a membership surge. The next few months saw some local action in Scotland, as well as advance planning for COP26, which was scheduled to be held in Glasgow in November 2020. Then the pandemic threw a massive spanner in civilisation’s works, COP26 was postponed for a year, and the movement, like so much else, fizzled into lockdown.

So we come to the present day and the September 2020 rebellion. This time round, XR Scotland rebels voted overwhelmingly (in an online poll) to stay in Scotland and run our own rebellion instead, on our own timetable — though of course individuals are still free to go down to London if they wish. I can’t speak for anyone except myself, but I feel that this decision by XR Scotland to stay away from IR3 reflects, not only the different situation in Scotland, but also a general scepticism about XR-UK’s strategy.

The XR Theory of (Sea-)Change

To speak first about the XR theory of change. The study by Erica Chenoweth that gave rise to the 3.5% figure was talking principally about liberation movements against dictatorships — not about movements based in Western democracies, and not about movements seeking the kind of profound economic and political transformation, a sea-change in the global order, that would be needed to tackle the climate and ecological emergency. (Never forget that climate is only one aspect, a symptom even, of this broader emergency.)

Then again — with the best will in the world — there’s no way XR can mobilise anywhere remotely close to 2 million people across the UK. The ecological crisis just isn’t that high on most people’s political agenda. They’re preoccupied with much more immediate issues (housing, health, social welfare), which helps to explain why the climate movement generally, including XR, is predominantly middle-class and likely to remain so.

It’s often been pointed out (just recently, for instance, by Alastair McIntosh in his book “Riders on the Storm”) that XR’s perception of the threat of climate change goes far beyond the scientific consensus given by the IPCC. The XR demand for “zero carbon by 2025”, in particular, is much more radical than what mainstream climate science deems necessary to limit the risk of climate change. It’s justified, therefore, to call XR “alarmist”, and this, no doubt, is one reason why more people don’t join the movement.

Personally, I can see many reasons for thinking that the IPCC errs on the conservative side, and that the situation is likely to be worse than they say, and few reasons to believe the opposite. Also, it’s clear to me that, even if you accept the scientific consensus at face value, it still implies a need for a fundamental transformation in our global economic and political system to avoid disaster; business-as-usual-with-solar-panels just isn’t going to cut it. This being the case, I’d say it’s a bit of a moot point whether XR is being alarmist or not, whether you think 2025 is essential or extreme; but not everyone is going to see it that way. Waiting until the climate crisis becomes so catastrophic that the majority are forced to take notice doesn’t seem like a pathway to a better future, either. So for all these reasons, I think a theory of change that’s based on getting millions of people on the streets under the XR banner is just a wee bit unrealistic.

New Battlefield, Same Battle Plan

In the context of the latest rebellion, it seems to me that the XR-UK strategy of mass urban occupation, based on this theory of change, while initially very successful (up to April 2019, at least), was less so by October and has failed to adapt to a context that’s changed radically since then.

  • Just for starters, we’re in a pandemic! The UK is struggling to emerge from lockdown without triggering a second wave of infection, as has happened in Spain, for instance. Is it really a smart move to hold mass urban protests / occupations right now?
  • There are many other important targets for direct action now: in England, first and foremost, the HS2 mega-project, which is destroying ancient woodlands and other irreplaceable ecosystems, and which will not achieve carbon neutrality within the next century.
  • In October we effectively had a hung parliament in Westminster, with a socialist opposition leader and constitutional chaos over Brexit and prorogation. If the tantalising possibility of real change through parliamentary means existed then, it was snuffed out in December’s general election. We now have the most right-wing government in recent history, with a working majority of 80, and a hard Brexit due to kick in within months. Sure, it might be nice if the CEE bill were to pass (Rob Hopkins, cofounder of the Transition Movement, has written optimistically that it could lead to a “revolution of the imagination”); but we need to accept that under any Tory government, including the present one, it certainly won’t.
The “Burning Pink” twitter feed, August 2020.
XR-UK’s website, August 2020.
  • Roger Hallam has founded a new splinter group (or “political party”), appropriating XR’s slogan “Beyond Politics”, their use of the colour pink, and the look and feel of their online presence. XR-UK have stated that this new “party” has nothing to do with them, but are unable to stop it. XR continue to use the Beyond Politics slogan in their own publicity, and to prominently feature Hallam on the XR-UK website, despite his no longer holding any formal role in the movement; so a casual observer would be hard pressed to tell the difference. Hallam himself is now on remand for conspiracy, but his group will be present during IR3, seeking to blur the distinction between themselves and XR as much as possible; which XR needs to challenge unless they want to be associated with whatever far-out nonsense Hallam comes out with.
  • On the positive side, perhaps, there’s a big groundswell of anger against Boris Johnson’s government for its incompetence, corruption, and mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis. Ironically for XR, maybe, the hashtag #3point5percent seems to be trending among people seeking “regime change” in the UK of the kind Chenoweth was talking about. This could mean there are many more “rebels” on the street come September than XR could mobilise by itself; whether that means there’s a chance of building coalitions is another strategic question that XR needs to consider.

The Tyranny of Structurelessness

Given all this, and with the greatest respect for their dedication to the cause, I think the core decision-makers of XR-UK start to look like generals trying to win the next war with the same strategy that lost them the last one.

But hang on a minute: what’s all this about generals and decision-makers? Isn’t XR meant to be a leaderless movement that runs on sociocratic principles?

Well, yes, in theory. But in my experience, what that really means is just that XR lacks clear, effective, democratic, and transparent decision-making structures. Not that it lacks structure per se; in fact you could say it has a surfeit of structure. XR looks (to an outsider, at least) like a tangle of circles within circles, constantly changing and evolving with each internal reorganisation, but without clear lines of authority and accountability.

To an extent this is understandable: after all, this is a movement composed of rebels who are wedded to autonomy. Nobody likes to feel they are being told what to do, or left out of the decision-making process. But, as was pointed out already in the early 1970s, the result of this “Tyranny of Structurelessness” in social movements is that real decision-making happens via informal networks of insiders, in a largely unaccountable way.

And so it is in XR. Clearly there are some people at the core making the decisions, but it’s not obvious who or how, and there is little or no accountability, no effective way of holding leaders to account if they get too big for their boots.

(I’m not saying XR Scotland’s much better than XR-UK in these respects. We too lack effective structures for national decision-making and accountability, though we are now in the midst of a strategic review that hopefully will improve this. But I think there’s less of a problem up here than in XR-UK, mainly because we’re a smaller movement with far less power and money, so insiders aren’t as isolated from the base; and we don’t really have any charismatic founder figures.)

Don’t get me wrong. There are many good things about XR. At root, it’s a movement based on a valid and necessary idea: that autonomous, non-violent direct action can be an effective strategy where conventional environmental campaigning (marches, petitions, etc.) alone has failed. It’s mobilised an unprecedented amount of energy and imagination, and raised the alarm about the global climate and ecological emergency. It’s always had a tendency towards the politically naïve, especially in its attitude to the police, but more recently it’s made a big effort to educate itself. It has a lot of valuable, unique assets — like its distinctive look-and-feel, art and media, and its principles based on autonomy, regenerative culture, non-violence and self-organisation. However, it’s lost its initial momentum and failed to develop the structures that would allow it to become a truly powerful mass movement. In short, I feel like, since its initial meteoric rise, XR has grown without really growing up.

Making Salt: Getting to the Heart of Direct Action

To get back to the question I started with: Where next for Extinction Rebellion in the UK?

I’m predicting that the September rebellion will be chaotic and costly without any major achievements, the CEE bill won’t get passed, and the government won’t collapse (unless there’s general mobilisation outwith XR, when all bets are off).

In which case, XR-UK will need to live up to its own principle of “Following a cycle of action, reflection, learning, and planning for more action”, enter a period of soul-searching, and try and reinvent itself based on its core values as a direct action movement.

Disruptive and Prefigurative Action

It’s been said that direct action has two key elements: the disruptive and the prefigurative. The disruptive part is obvious: you have to stop the machine, halt the cause of the problem, whether that means lying in a road or sitting in a tree. But in doing this, you create a temporary space free from the normal rules. What you do in that space is the real content of your action. In the best case, you use it to imagine, to “prefigure” a better world, and in doing so, help bring that world into being.

Prefigurative action is, above all, empowering. If it’s not, you’re not doing it right. It generates what Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone call “active hope”: not a vague hope for the best, or that the worst won’t happen, but “something we do rather than have, which involves being clear what we hope for and then playing our role in the process of bringing that about.”

I’ve heard activists say things like “we’ve been driven to direct action because other forms of campaigning don’t work” — implying that if only the state would sort out the problems we’re complaining about, we’d go back to sitting at home like good little citizens. But I think most activists, if we’re honest, do direct action first and foremost because we hunger for real life, real experience. I know I do.

And while disruptive action is clearly necessary, unless it goes hand-in-hand with prefigurative action, it can be very debilitating. So:

Let’s make our actions as disruptive as they need to be, and as prefigurative as we can

I see the idea of prefigurative action as very similar to Gandhi’s principle of satyagraha (“holding to truth”). The classic example of satyagraha was the Salt March of 1930, in which he and thousands of Indians marched to the Indian Ocean and made their own salt, in defiance of the British monopoly. They protested by exercising non-violently the very right for which they were fighting — their right to the fundamental necessities of life, represented in this case by salt; thus prefiguring a world in which they would be free to do so without hindrance. Other examples of prefigurative action could include the Kinder Scout mass trespass of 1932 (claiming the right to roam the hills freely), or the bus and restaurant sit-ins during the Civil Rights era (claiming the right for black people to go about their business on an equal footing with whites.)

So what is XR’s salt? Where can we go to make it? And how does it tie in with the structural, organisational, and strategic issues I’ve mentioned?

Salt of the Earth: The Idea of a Deliberative Assembly

I think our salt is the idea of a deliberative assembly which includes everyday people (the “salt of the earth”) in decision-making. Whether that means a People’s Assembly (informal, self-selected, consisting of those who turn up to talk about a particular topic) or a Citizens’ Assembly (a formal body selected by a process of sortition among randomly chosen ordinary citizens), the idea of getting together in a circle to hash out the solutions and talk as equals — with full information and effective, neutral facilitation — and having the results actually mean something: this is one key element of the future we’re trying to bring into being, and it’s the one most closely associated with XR.

In 2018, at least in the UK, Citizens’ Assemblies still seemed like a truly radical idea on the political scene. Since then they’ve been effectively normalised by XR’s actions, and implemented (with more or less success) in numerous different local and national contexts; including, in Scotland, a Climate Citizens’ Assembly, which was passed into law in September 2019 as a result of the aforementioned campaign of direct action.

One of the keys to that campaign was the idea of prefigurative action. When we occupied the Scottish Parliament on Burns Day in January 2019, and then in June, camped outside it for five days, we weren’t just demanding a Citizens’ Assembly — we symbolically held our own deliberative assemblies at the nerve centre of political power in Scotland, thus helping to bring into being a future in which assemblies like these would happen and would have real power.

Launch of the Climate Citizens’ Assembly campaign at Holyrood Rebel Camp, June 2019.

But as always, the devil is in the detail. Not just any old deliberative assembly will do the job. If an assembly isn’t empowered and isn’t given the right questions and the right information, it can be just a forum for fruitless chit-chat, allowing those in power to give the appearance of consultation. We need the right answers to key questions like:

  • What’s the question we’re trying to answer?
  • Who’s in the assembly and how are they selected?
  • Who’s facilitating and how are they selected?
  • How and from whom do we get our information?
  • What processes do we use to reach a decision?
  • And when we do, what power does that decision have?

(With the Scottish Climate Citizens’ Assembly, at the time of writing, two XR representatives on the Stewarding Group are hashing out these details with a broad, though not broad enough, selection of representatives from across society, including MSPs and civil servants.)

The leading question I’d like to ask is this:

If XR are asking the government to create deliberative assemblies with decision-making power, selected by sortition, shouldn’t we be using them to make our own strategic decisions on a permanent basis?

If we believe enough in the idea of a Citizens’ Assembly that we’ll ask the government to set them up, why isn’t there a fully empowered “Rebel Assembly” — selected from among all rebels, by sortition — at the heart of XR itself? (I’ve already proposed to create a Rebel Assembly for XR Scotland, as part of the XR Scotland strategy review process.) The decisions of this Assembly could be ratified by an online vote of all rebels.

To be fair, XR-UK does (since May 2020) have an assembly, called the Rebel Hive, consisting of all the external coordinators of local and regional/national groups that comprise XR-UK, with the stated aim to “Hold XR UK’s shared purpose within the global XR movement”. But it’s hard to say how empowered it is within the movement (my guess is not very), or even what it decides and how: the full minutes of Rebel Hive meetings aren’t made public, despite XR’s Self Organising Systems guidelines which state “Minutes, projects, and other relevant documents should also be transparent, so the whole organism has insight into the history of each part.” Nor is the Rebel Hive necessarily representative of rebels as a whole; the coordinators in any XR group, in my experience, tend to be simply whoever has the time and energy to do it and isn’t opposed by others in the group.

In my opinion, effective internal democracy isn’t just a nice ask, it’s 100% necessary for the movement to grow and thrive. XR needs an empowered assembly that will cut through the informal power networks, with some kind of fair and transparent selection, and with ratification of its decisions by the whole movement.

Abandon Lightship! (But keep hold of your lifebelt)

To become aware of the planetary emergency is to invite deep grief and existential fear into your life as permanent residents. Every XR rebel has faced this grief and fear. It’s a profoundly uncomfortable experience. In the emotional storm that this awareness brings, we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t try to cling to some lifebelt, or to find some light to navigate by.

For myself, the lifebelt I cling to — what keeps me from slipping beneath the waves altogether — is a faith in the healing powers of nature, if only we can get out of her way. But as for a light to navigate by, that’s harder.

XR’s theory of change — that if we just get enough people on the streets, we’ll magically bring a restorative world into being — is a light many of us have been following for some time now. But for all the reasons I’ve given, I think it’s time to abandon it before it leads us onto the rocks.

Suppose we do. What next? This isn’t a rhetorical question. I don’t know the answer. Nobody does. Nobody could, because we have never faced a situation like this, in the whole history (herstory, ourstory) of humanity. All I know is that we need to sit with that uncomfortable truth, come to terms with it, then stand up and keep walking, even if we don’t know the way. In the words of the Spanish poet Antonio Machado:

Walker, in your footsteps is the only path;
Walker, there is no path, you make the path by walking.

writer, ecodesigner, XR activist