It’s now nine months since Extinction Rebellion (XR) first declared the beginning of a rebellion to save our planet from devastating climate change.
In that period, tens of thousands of people have flooded onto the streets to stage occupations demanding a change to “business as usual”.
There’ve been countless other smaller demonstrations, and an endless stream of protesters ready to die-in, lock-on or glue themselves to gates, windows and trains.
Activists have poured into local XR groups inspired by radical demands.
A new anthology written by XR activists, economists, authors and climate scientists looks at the politics and strategy of the movement.
This Is Not A Drill promises to be a “book that will compel you to join the rebellion in whatever way that means to you”.
It combines two central pillars of XR’s appeal. The first half deals with the specifics of climate breakdown.
The second has activists reflecting on their experience, alongside advice on how to organise an occupation, block a road and so on.
Roger Hallam, an XR founder, sets out the organisations’ “civil resistance model” which informs their strategy.He argues for action of 50,000 people to create “the social tension and the public drama which are vital to create change”.
And Ronan McNern from XR’s media team agrees—he said that “to achieve social change the active and sustained participation of just 3.5 percent of the population is needed. It is that 3.5 percent of the population that we want to engage.”
Their arguments help explain why the “International Rebellion”—ten days occupying five of London’s busiest areas—took the shape it did.
Over 1,000 people got arrested, and the action pushed climate change right to the top of the news and political agenda.
The British government became the first country in the world to declare a “climate emergency” shortly afterwards.
“Breaking the rules gets the attention and shows the public and the elite that you are serious and unafraid” explains Hallam.
“It creates the necessary material disruption and economic cost which forces the elites to sit up and take notice.”
Mass arrests, disruption and other acts of civil disobedience are the central plank of XR activity. One activist, Cathy Eastburn, describes how she felt “relieved” when Extinction Rebellion came along.
“I wasn’t sure whether non-violent direct action would have any impact, but it seemed the only thing I could do.”
Cathy was one of three activists who glued themselves to a DLR train in east London during the International Rebellion. But unlike hundreds of other arrestees, Cathy was denied bail and sent to prison.
She describes “the shock as physical. I was terrified.”
The relationship between XR and the police has been criticised by the left and the right.
Some newspapers blasted the Met police for being too soft on protesters. Meanwhile, other environmental campaigners are highly critical of XR’s analysis of the law.
A chapter written by XR’s legal team attempts to addresses these arguments head on. It opens with a statement that the police are “structurally racist, unjust and violent, particularly towards oppressed groups.”
Yet a few short paragraphs later it is advising protesters to “approach security forces with determination and compassion in mind—offer them flowers and speak of the joint efforts needed to protect life on this planet.
There’s a fundamental disconnect between XR’s acceptance of the police as racist and unjust—yet open to accepting bouquets of flowers and speeches about climate change.
Jay Griffiths is one activist who chose to be arrested during the International Rebellion.
She said that making that decision meant that “the sting is gone. So is the fear, because the way to stop being scared of something is to actively attempt it.”
Far away from the prison cells of London, the reality of climate change is brought to life in chapters from environmental campaigners from poorer countries.
A powerful interview with Kamla Joshi and Bhuvan Chand Joshi, farmers in the Almora district of the Indian Himalayas, shows how their daily lives are already devastated.
Heavier monsoons and increasingly unpredictable extreme weather means they are unable to farm as generations have done before.
A harvest produces a third of what it had before, as wild animals increasingly attack their land and diseases rip through the region.
“We are not able to prepare much for this,” they said.
“We don’t have a good way of protecting ourselves from the weather. There is no way to save our crops, nor do have the resources.”
While most chapters don’t talk specifically about capitalism, themes of inequality run through the text.
One memorable chapter by writer Douglas Rushkoff explores how the concerns of rich people amount to building bunkers and fortifying their private wealth.
He explains how, instead of fighting against societal collapse because of climate change, the rich are putting their hope in “lifeboats for the elite”.
“We get tech billionaires launching electric cars into space—as if this symbolises something more than one billionaire’s capacity for corporate promotion” said Rushkoff.
Others believe it is simply too late to stop devastating climate change. They say focus must be on preparing for famine, extreme weather and an increasingly volatile world.
“We should be preparing for social collapse” argues academic Jem Bendell. He argues for “deep adaptation” to upcoming climate catastrophe because “any talk of prevention is actually a form of denial of what is really happening”.
Bendell wants governments to start preparing for food rationing, development of an alternative monetary system, migration in-land and “giving up certain types of consumption”.
Writers, academics and economists of various hues contribute many chapters to the book. Green MP Caroline Lucas and Labour MP Clive Lewis have both written chapters.
Hearing more voices from international communities, striking school students or other groups of workers would have enriched the text and helped to expand the political horizons of XR.
Despite calling for a “movement of movements” very little mention is given to other strands of the climate justice battle.
There are only two mentions of the school student climate strike in the entire book—a movement that has seen millions of school students walk out in coordinated action.
Lucas writes, “If we are to have any serious chance of implementing the radical policies needed to tackle the climate crisis, we must apply the same boldness and urgency to transforming our political system”.
And Lewis dedicates his chapter to arguing for a Green New Deal—a programme of radical reforms to tackle climate change.
He talks of “our collective failure to confront capitalism’s financial and political power and its commitment to exponential increases in rates of consumption, fuelled by carbon.
But what’s the solution? Lewis calls for the government to cooperate with the Bank of England and the private sector to
“mobilise financial resources to support the most urgent of society’s missions”.
But some within XR admit it won’t be as simple as that.
Climate lawyer Farhana Yamin argues, “The reality is that politicians and powerful elites who benefit from ‘business as usual’ are not going to stop their destructive practices or loosen their grip on the financial and economic levers.”
Fossil fuel bosses who wield enormous economic weight and political influence aren’t simply going to sit back when their profits are threatened.
They will use every tool at their disposal to retain exactly “business as usual”—which means catastrophe for the rest of us.
For everyone who wants a fundamental change in society, XR represents a beacon of hope.
It has sparked huge interest in questions about the future of the Earth, and fed into a desperate mood for urgent action.
There’s much in This Is Not A Drill that revolutionary socialists won’t agree with—especially on the scale of the movement that’s needed, or the role of the working class.
But in mass movements, there is always a huge difference in politics, expectations and experiences.
Every contributor to the book, and every activist in XR, believes that it is necessary to fundamentally change society.
This infectious optimism shines through despite climate horror.
As Hallam said, “The lesson then is that you don’t wait until everybody is ready, because you’ll be waiting for ever.
“You just need to go out and do it.”
Activists on the fight to save the planet
Our economies are politically addicted to growth because pension funds and the job market have become structurally dependent upon it. What’s more, no government wants to lose their place in the G20 family photo.
But if their economy stopped growing while the rest kept going, then they would likely be booted out by the next emerging powerhouse.
Kate Raworth, economist
Climate change is often something abstract for the inhabitants of rich countries. But not for us. For us, it’s a reality. A reality that comes from elsewhere. We are witnesses of the consequences without being able to act on the causes. Yet we do not want to resign ourselves to seeing nature die before our eyes. Because nature is our life. Because nature is our identity.
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, environmental activist, Chad
If you’re a millionaire in Malibu, you can rebuild. But communities like Paradise [a town swallowed by a fire in December 2018] are mostly older, retired, working class folks. They can’t afford to bounce back. To put this into perspective, the 2017 Thomas Fire in Ventura, California, burned two thousands homes. It was the most destructive in our history. In the last two years it has been surpassed four times.
If the corporations have their way, our fragile web of life will be poisoned and broken, species will be driven to extinction, people will lose all their freedoms to their seed, to their food, to their knowledge and decisions, and all social relations will be ruptured and broken.
Vandava Shiva, environmental activist, India