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Extinction Rebellion: why the mockery?

On 7 October the environmental activist group Extinction Rebellion (XR) launched an ‘International Rebellion,’ its second campaign of mass civil disobedience of 2019. Almost simultaneously, the criticism of the group’s actions began, led by Boris Johnson. The Prime Minister commented that protestors were ‘uncooperative crusties’ who should remove their ‘hemp-smelling bivouacs’ from roads.

Johnson was just one among many prominent voices criticising the tactics of XR and undermining their status as a valid movement. Yet XR claims to be following in the footsteps of civil rights movements led by Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Why, then, when the majority of even staunchly right-wing commentators accept that climate change is a real and substantial threat (although some don’t), do many voices in the media criticise Extinction Rebellion for protesting against it?

Extinction Rebellion’s tactics are based on research suggesting that non-violent civil disobedience, mobilising around 3.5 per cent of the population, was the most successful approach in the overthrow of oppressive systems throughout the twentieth century. Their methods, including ‘die-ins,’ mass demonstrations and occupations of buildings, are clearly partly inspired by previous successful civil rights movements, such as the UK female suffragists’ campaigns in the 1910s, and the campaign for African Americans’ civil rights in the 1960s. There are even suggestions that the next wave of actions will include hunger strikes, which echo the most desperate actions of those involved in struggles from historic protests in India and Ireland to those continuing in modern times.

However, critics have not conflated these actions with those of activists of earlier times, and feel that the disruption to normal people’s lives is unjustifiable. Preceding his comments this week, the Prime Minister had criticised Extinction Rebellion activists  for ‘paralysing public transport’ in his former Daily Telegraph column during the April protests. Johnson declared the UK ‘a world leader in reducing the greenhouse gases that are associated with climate change’ and that activists should focus on heavy polluters like China.

A great deal of the criticism seems to be targeted at the apparent hypocrisy of activists. During the first few days of the October action Extinction Rebellion members were branded ‘McHypocrites’ because activists were seen ordering food at McDonalds. The Good Morning Britain presenter Piers Morgan went viral for laying into XR spokesperson Skeena Rathor for ‘not practising what you preach’ because she travelled by car and owned a television.

Claims of hypocrisy deny the fact that individuals have little choice but to partake in consumerism, and that corporations, rather than individuals, are responsible for the majority of emissions. Yet these criticisms go hand-in-hand with the perception that Extinction Rebellion are overly sanctimonious and do not take account of the circumstances of ordinary people’s lives. One Daily Telegraph columnist, Allison Pearson, commented that ‘if Extinction Rebellion cut the dreadlocks, they would get their message to more people.’

Criticism of Extinction Rebellion’s alienation of normal people are also echoed by those on the left. Critics of XR’s central aim of mass incarceration of its activists say that it appears to be ignorant of the threat this tactic poses to people of colour. XR’s rhetoric has also been called up for being insensitive to people who do not fit the middle-class archetype of an Extinction Rebellion activist. 

An Edinburgh-based Green Anti-Capitalist Front member commented, ‘In movements, such as the civil rights movements in America or the anti-apartheid movements of South Africa, activists were prepared to get arrested, but this wasn’t their main goal. This tactic of getting large numbers of arrests […] does nothing but land devout, but often young and unprepared activists in prison.

‘I respect what Extinction Rebellion stands for, but cannot [support the movement] until you a) make your movement inclusive to everybody […] and b) recognise capitalism as the core cause of climate change.’

Extinction Rebellion have previously tried to avoid directly political statements and have thus been declared not sufficiently anti-capitalist by environmental groups on the left. Yet their website explicitly states that its successful mobilisation of the population would be ‘preventing a rich elite from perpetuating a self-serving ideology.’ Signs and chants proclaim activists’ wish for ‘System Change, Not Climate Change!’ And it may be this which explains many right-wing commentators’ animosity towards protestors.

A Daily Telegraph editorial declared in October that Extinction Rebellion is essentially a front for a sub-Marxist, anti-capitalist, anti-growth movement,’ and Daily Mail columnist Douglas Murray claimed that Extinction Rebellion want to ‘immiserate’ the UK by ‘destroying’ the ‘system of economic growth.’ There have even been claims that Extinction Rebellion’s actions are akin to terrorism

This is not the first time that radical groups have come under such stinging rebuke: Margaret Thatcher once commented that the actions of the anti-apartheid ANC were those of ‘a typical terrorist organisation, although she later praised the end of apartheid. Thus, it seems that critics of activist movements, while retrospectively in favour of their cause, find it hard to stomach the assault on the status quo that their tactics entail.

Figures such as the Prime Minister and corresponding right-wing journalists agree that climate change is a problem, and even justify their own responses to it. Therefore, it seems that their virulent backlash against Extinction Rebellion stems not from a denial of the issue raised, but from a fear that the solution the protestors call for may threaten their ideology and way of life.

Image Credit: Julia Hawkins via Flickr