Why is Extinction Rebellion quitting?
At the end of 2022, Extinction Rebellion (XR) sensationally announced it was quitting the disruptive tactics that have made it so successful (and controversial). TTL asked Lewes member Mark Engineer what this means, the need a new ‘moderate flank’ – and why we should all be inking Friday 21 April into our diaries.
TTL: Happy New Year Mark! So you’re giving up gluing yourself to stuff for 2023?
Mark Engineer: Happy New Year! Personally, I’ve never glued myself to anything. But we’ve called a temporary halt to disruptive action, yes.
TTL: So you’re giving up?
ME: Absolutely not. We’re evolving, as all successful organisations must. It’s a strategic shift, that’s all.
TTL: What’s the new strategy?
ME: To get 100,000 people to surround the Houses of Parliament on April 21st this year, and demand a fair society and a citizen-led end to the fossil fuel era.
No glue, no locks, no lying down in roads. Just a critical mass of raised, peaceful voices demanding real, meaningful, and swift change.
If you’re reading this, come! Just give up that one day. Book it off now. Make no mistake, you’re needed. We’re all needed.
TTL: What’s the thinking?
ME: A gathering of 100,000 would be the biggest climate protest the UK has ever seen. It would send an extremely powerful message to those in power – that they are failing us all at our time of most desperate need. A message that would be impossible to ignore.
It’s really important to say although this is XR’s idea, it isn’t an ‘XR action’. It’ll be a broad coalition of groups and individuals who want to make change happen. Prioritising participation instead of disruption and arrest will make it more inclusive. And that will give many, many more people a voice – ordinary people who are terrified about the climate and environmental emergency (CEE) but would never dream of taking part in disruptive action.
TTL: Sounds ambitious! Can you do it?
ME: Absolutely! There’s never been a more opportune moment. More than ever, people understand how bad the situation is. There’s also a growing understanding that the CEE and cost of living crisis are linked. Polls show more and more people support direct action. And we have a government that talks about an emergency while granting new fossil fuel licences and rolling back environmental protections that were already inadequate.
Even the National Trust is threatening to take to the streets! Put simply, people are unhappy. That’s not a good thing in itself, but it means we’re in a time of great potential.
TTL: Does this mean your old tactics have failed?
ME: Yes and no. In April 2019, after our first major rebellion, Parliament declared a climate emergency. The UK Government was the first in the world to pass a Net Zero carbon emissions target into law. They’ve created a Citizen’s Assembly on the CEE – one of XR’s core demands. These aren’t nothing. They are wins. And perhaps most importantly, since the rise of XR, the school strikes and other groups, the conversation around the CEE has completely changed. People now talk about it all the time – in government, in business, in the pub and in the street. It’s a huge shift.
But the Government’s Net Zero target is 2050 – that’s far too late, and allows them to keep right on with ‘business as usual.’ The decisions of the climate Citizen’s Assemblies are not legally binding, and can be ignored. Most of all, emissions have continued to rise, and precious biodiversity and natural habitats continue to decline.
So, in the most important sense, XR has failed. That’s a bitter pill. But we’ve got to swallow it.
TTL: Why hasn’t it worked?
ME: Good question! Put simply, we haven’t had the numbers. There are various reasons for that. But I think the main reason is most people just don’t want to participate in disruptive or arrestable actions. They aren’t for everyone, and I completely get that.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been told “I agree with your aims, but not your actions.” Well, if that’s what you think, now’s your chance to prove it!
TTL: But won’t 100,000 people around Parliament cause disruption anyway?
ME: I guess there’s a difference between deliberately being disruptive, and the natural disruption that’s caused by a major event. You could just as easily say the Queen’s funeral or the London marathon are disruptive. No reasonable person would say the marches against Iraq or Brexit were disruptive or illegitimate.
TTL: Some newspapers have suggested this piles pressure on the likes of Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain to follow suit. Do you agree?
ME: No. They’ve already vowed to continue being disruptive – and even escalate if needs be.
The most effective movements need a “radical flank” – those whose actions are generally seen as extreme, making other groups look like sensible, reasonable people who you can negotiate with. The most famous example would be the civil rights movement, when Martin Luther King told the US government if it didn’t agree to his demands, it would have to deal with the Black Panthers. XR was once the radical flank, but has now been superseded.
Ex XR-spokesman Rupert Read has argued for the need for a “moderate flank” – the sort of inclusive mass movement we’ve been talking about. If that’s what XR morphs into, I for one am completely relaxed about it.
TTL: How has the media reacted to the announcement?
ME: We’ve had quite a bit of media coverage, from quiet approval to gleeful triumphalism. The latter outlets have chosen to ignore that we’ve only said we’re temporarily stopping disruption. But you’d expect that.
TTL: So what would you say to our readers?
ME: To come to London on Friday 21st April, of course! And in the meantime, tell everyone. Family, friends, colleagues. Groups you’re active in. Other groups.
TTL: So that’s covered XR’s New Year’s resolution. What about yours?
ME: Haha! Too many to mention, and I’ve already broken most of them.
But most, of all, to never give up. To quote Beckett, to fail better.