If someone told you the world was going to end, you might run out into the streets and start screaming. Well, that’s actually what the United Nations did tell us, and that’s just how a group called Extinction Rebellion responded.
The protests that have happened over the last month saw members occupy the headquarters of Greenpeace UK, glue their hands to the United Kingdom's Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, clog traffic throughout the UK via dance parties and road blocks, and prevent access to the offices of the British prime minister. The protests culminated on November 24, in a funeral march that led to Buckingham Palace where activists read a letter to the Queen demanding that the UK drop emissions to zero by 2025.
So far the actions seem to have achieved some level of success, in that they have spread globally and gained some well-known followers, such as Guardian journalist George Monbiot and almost 100 academics, including members of British parliament and the former archbishop of Canterbury. Now, Extinction Rebellion factions can be found not only throughout the UK, but in in Los Angeles, Seattle, Washington, D.C., Vancouver, Canada, Paris, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic.
The organized disorder being thrust into the daily lives of Londoners and others is from a brain trust of “thinking activists,” as Extinction Rebellion co-founder Roger Hallam calls them. The social justice group called Rising Up! consists of a number of academics with a focus on bringing radical change to the political and economic system. Rising Up! has been performing various forms of activism in London since 2015, bringing attention to such issues as economic reform by educating the public, participating in marches and creating artistic interventions. Their spin-off, Extinction Rebellion, is a campaign six months in the making aimed at saving us from the climate catastrophe and resulting social collapse.
Hallam attributes the surge in attention Extinction Rebellion has received in part to innovations in social movement design, including an an alternative to either the traditional top-down or completely horizontal approaches to organization. In early 20th century Soviet Russia, Vladimir Lenin saw a powerful vanguard as necessary to guiding the masses in a movement, whereas groups like Occupy Wall Street sought a complete consensus among its members. The former has the advantage of potentially efficient leadership, but problematic ethics related to authority and why one member or group should be in charge of the rest. The latter has the legitimacy of democratic participation, but can be very inefficient.
Extinction Rebellion relies on a governance system known as holacracy, which was developed by a company called Ternary Software in Pennsylvania. In holacracy, a coordination group made up of eight to ten members orchestrates autonomous working groups dedicated to different efforts: direct actions, logistics, outreach and media, among others. The groups make their own decisions, possibly based on advice from other members of the larger system, while adhering to clearly defined basic principles held by the organization as a whole. Each working group has a similarly flat design, with members taking on different roles and responsibilities that they can perform autonomously. This allows democratic participation, while also enabling efficient decision making.
Hallam has been an activist for the past 35 years, and, for the last four years, has been a Ph.D researcher in social movements in the digital age at Kings College. Last year, Hallam and other activists sprayed chalk graffiti throughout the school’s main hall in an act of protest against the over £8 million Kings College invested in fossil fuels. Hallam was expelled for two weeks, at which point he went on a two-week hunger strike until the college finally caved and announced that it would divest from its fossil fuel investments by 2022 and become a carbon neutral campus by 2025.
“Most divestment campaigns, if they do win, tend to win in three or four years using conventional methods,” Hallam told me. “We won the campaign in eight weeks. The campaign was extremely successful because it used innovative tactics which the college couldn’t cope with.”
Hallam and the Rising Up! crew have launched what they believe is the first robust direct action campaign to fight climate change. Extinction Rebellion began with, and continues to involve, local town hall meetings meant to teach people the severity of the climate crisis using objective science.
“The climate change movement doesn’t tell people the truth. It tells them what they think they can cope with,” Hallam said. “People think that if you tell people the truth you’ll disempower them because obviously the truth on climate change is beyond catastrophic. The traditional strategy is to make donations to Greenpeace or have a one-day march and the rest of that. That isn’t going to work.”
The group argues that non-violent direct action is likely the only way to change the system sufficiently to avoid an apocalypse.
“People get very upset because they haven’t realized how bad it is... if you don’t have a pathway to action, people become very depressed and they continue to be very depressed,” Hallam said. “If you don’t create emotionality… [it] just becomes immutable to so much noise,” Hallam explained. “The main mechanism of mobilization is for them to get very upset about the issue and then have a pathway to actually act upon that emotionality.”
One key to gaining attention through nonviolent protest from the world is getting arrested, according to Hallam, sent to jail or even prison, which is an approach that has been used before in numerous social movements, perhaps most notably during the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. At town hall meetings, participants are invited by Extinction Rebellion to perform direct action so they can learn how to break the law non-violently, with the possibility of being arrested. They then break up into support groups and begin preparing for action.
Direct action isn’t always the proper tool to attain a given outcome, according to Hallam, but when it comes to stirring the bureaucracy of the state to fight climate change, Extinction Rebellion hopes that it is. There are some caveats, though. For instance, Hallam recommends approaching opponents with “an explicit orientation of respect.” Hence the use of water-soluble spray chalk, swarming roadblocks that last only seven minutes at a time, and warning the city police in advance of the protests.
“A major dynamic is to carry out the direct action with an explicit orientation of respect toward the other side because that enables them to not feel psychologically alienated from what you’re doing and it’s easier to negotiate,” Hallam said, citing Gandhi’s influence.
“It's a little bit chaotic from a control freak point of view but it seems to work,” Hallam said. “If someone in town wants to start an Extinction Rebellion, they can, but they can’t just do anything. They have to be trained properly. Understand the aims and principles. Can’t have people throwing stones at policemen, that’s a no-no. [But]If they decide they want to produce a particular poster to hang around Manchester, they don’t have to check with a bureaucrat in London to see if it’s politically correct or whatever... If they do something a bit silly, we get on the phone with them and sort it out.”
“If you want to encourage people to participate in political movements, you have to replicate the most enjoyable form of social interaction, which is sitting around a table with people you respect and love, not more than about six, and have a laugh and get things done. That’s what we’re hardwired to think. Why mess around with it? That’s the optimum creative space,” Hallam said.
The democratic values of the group have carried into its core demands as well. In addition to urging British decarbonization by 2025 and an official recognition of a climate emergency, Extinction Rebellion wants climate policy to be determined by a citizen assembly. The assembly would be organized using sortition, the random selection process by which citizens are invited to participate in the judicial process. In this case, people throughout the UK would be chosen by chance to determine policy related to cutting emissions to zero by 2025. Hallam points out that research suggests that such processes tend to instill those who are selected with a sense of responsibility. If that’s the case, the assembly would constitute a true representation of the diverse views of the whole society.
It’s not clear how successful a citizens’ assembly would be for determining crucial policy, particularly given the lack of media coverage on the topic of climate change. Citizen assemblies have been used in a handful of government settings, with mixed results: In Canada, committees were created to draft policies on electoral reform in British Columbia and, later, in Ontario.A “learning phase” for the committees lasted 12 weeks and involved presentations from experts, group discussions, and source materials. The committees got two different forms of rank choice voting on ballots during province elections, but the proposals were defeated.
Before seeing if they can make sortition work, the organization has to succeed in capturing the attention of those in charge. The group has already sent letters to the Prime Minister Theresa May and Queen Elizabeth officially declaring a rebellion if they do not act on behalf of their subjects to intervene in the destruction of the species and they planet.
“If the governments are still refusing to significantly reduce climate emissions, then they’re obviously committing a crime against humanity by any reasonable definition of that term,” Hallam said. “They fulfill a social contract to protect the people from harm's way. If they fail to fulfill that obligation, they lose their legitimate authority and so it’s totally justified to correct the law in those circumstances.”
As Extinction Rebellion wraps up its month of organized chaos, they will regroup in order to integrate the 50,000 people who want to join, according to Hallam, and to strategize the next steps. This will involve performing trainings, creating educational media, and sharing best practices among various local sects. Having shut down parts of London, Extinction Rebellion has set its sights much higher.
“Hopefully we’ll come back and do a close-down of all the major cities in the UK. We’ll work on being increasingly coordinated internationally with a shut down of DC or other cities in America in the new year,” Hallam said. “Then we go out and roll the dice and see whether that’s gonna save humankind or not.”