People who, like me, have moved to London in September to start a new chapter in their lives have been greeted by a city that seems more tumultuous than ever. In the one month that I have been living here, I have seen an absolutely unexpected amount of marches, protests and sit-ins. One of the major actors in this lively scene of social unrest was the Extinction Rebellion movement.
A relatively young movement, Extinction Rebellion was founded in May 2018 in the UK and rapidly gained popularity. According to their own website, the aim of the organisation is to fight against the incumbent climate catastrophe, but also to oppose oppression and patriarchy. Extinction Rebellion’s strategy is based on the principle of non-violent civil disobedience, meaning that many of its events feature the participation of citizens in occupations, sit-ins, and other actions which may disrupt public services.
Even though it is a global movement, with local branches scattered all over the world, Extinction Rebellion’s British groups are by far the most active, and especially in London, they have been able to achieve their best results in terms of numbers and visibility. Indeed, the UK capital has been the theatre of the two most crucial protests staged by XR, held in April and more recently in October 2019. During both of them, activists successfully managed to occupy crucial locations in the city centre, staging assemblies, performances, and disruptive actions in some of the capital’s most iconic sites.
However, now that the two weeks of ‘permanent mobilization’ have ended, it’s time to draw some conclusions regarding the protest’s impact, its outcome, but more importantly, the continuing validity and effectiveness of the movement itself. Let’s start by taking a look at the movement’s demands. The UK branch has three demands, which haven’t changed since the major protest in April. First of all, the movement wants the Government to ‘tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change’. Secondly, the Government should ‘act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2025’. And thirdly, it should ‘create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice’.
The first appeal is arguably the one which has achieved the most success. The UK Government has indeed declared a climate emergency in May, and many MPs are aware of the ecological crisis unfolding. At the same time, however, the declaration of emergency doesn’t have any legal implications, and many activists sustain that politicians are still systematically downplaying the gravity of the situation.
The ‘zero-emissions goal’ set to 2025 is probably the most unrealistic. While the UK has a plan to reduce carbon emissions, the target is a cut by 80 per cent and the date set is 2050. Achieving a net-zero result would require a complete reorganization of the economy and of services, which seems fairly implausible to achieve in less than six years. While it’s true that many movements have dared to ‘ask for the impossible’ — exploiting their own boldness to attract supporters and to gain significant successes — demanding practically unachievable results can draw a great deal of criticism, or make protesters sound disconnected from the factual reality.
The idea of a Citizens’ Assembly is much more pragmatic, and XR has put much emphasis on the fact that such an organ has been implemented in other countries. In Ireland, for example, an assembly of this kind has debated the issues of same-sex marriage and abortion. However, while Irish nationals discussed themes like morality, human rights, and social change, UK citizens would have to deal with the much more technical problems related to the climate emergency. It is one thing is to create an assembly to discuss fairer electoral systems (as it happened in Canada), or issues of social security (Belgium), but quite another to try and tackle the environmental crisis at a national level by selecting random people who could prove incompetent on dealing with the matter. It would definitely be useful to ‘cut through party politics’, as argued by XR, but it would also be an extremely complicated process — one that is likely to delay the target goal of cutting emissions.
While XR has undoubtedly achieved some impressive results — at minimum, by having mobilized hundreds of thousands of people from all generations and having kept the climate emergency under the spotlight — the movement is not making progress regarding its demands, and has started to encounter increasing controversy. For instance, a clash had erupted between commuters and activists who tried to stop the tube during rush hour by climbing on top of the train. And on Tuesday the 15th, the Met Police banned XR protests and dismantled the Trafalgar Square occupation, lamenting the heavy cost of the policing operations. However, I believe there is a much greater problem regarding Extinction Rebellion; namely, that despite its great success in terms of popularity and visibility, it lacks a defined and articulated strategy.
With its ‘October Rebellion’, the movement has proved once again to have surprising coordination and organizational skills, as well as unity and a shared sense of solidarity. As a consequence, many expected it to take advantage of the visibility to advance more specific claims, to position itself politically, or to draft a more elaborate program for its future. Instead though, XR has basically repeated what it had already successfully organized in April, namely, a huge and scenographic protest. No matter how much praise and support it has received, to gain concrete influence and to attract the rest of the population, Extinction Rebellion must go beyond the sheer power of numbers and evolve tactically. Otherwise, it is very likely to follow the same trajectory of movements as ‘Occupy Wall Street’, which managed to organize impactful marches (including the occupation of the Zuccotti Park in New York, in many ways similar to the one of Trafalgar Square), but ultimately failed to have a meaningful impact on the system.