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Money Rebellion: a step too far for XR?

Extinction Rebellion is an organisation with civil disobedience at its core, and their latest campaign is arguably their most direct. Many people take issue with civil disobedience, arguing that it does more harm than good, and that there are ways to make a difference without breaking the law – but this is completely missing the point. The climate crisis is a crisis like no other – without action, our environment is deteriorating rapidly and without large-scale governmental action soon, things may become beyond repair. It is with this in mind that XR have started their latest campaign of civil, and this time financial, disobedience. They believe that desperate times call for desperate measures.

Civil disobedience is by its nature illegal. Mass protests are effective, and a major part of XR’s repertoire, but civil disobedience has its own advantages. Thousands of people publicly breaking the law not only attracts attention for the cause, and creates an atmosphere of rebellion that shakes up authority, but it forces that authority to take note. By getting thousands of people arrested and brought before court, you are forcing your cause to be heard, and hopefully dealt with, at the highest level. The government cannot ignore jail cells being clogged up with all those inside shouting the name of Extinction Rebellion. 

Another crucial aspect of civil disobedience is that it is not a revolution. XR are not trying to reject the system, but rather to use the system to their advantage, by changing it. An overthrow of authority is not the idea – they know that it is within the government’s capabilities to be carbon neutral by 2025 (XR’s idealistic aim), and they are just trying to persuade them to do so.

This latest campaign is Money Rebellion. The idea is to target the large banks that are funding the destruction of our environment. Their biggest target is Barclays, who gave $118 billion in fossil fuel funding from 2016 to 2019, and is the globally the worst bank for funding oil and gas. XR also cites Barclays’ tax dodging in their rationale – the trillion pound bank only paid £82 million in corporation tax in 2012.

And so, XR is calling on their supporters to take out a loan from Barclays Bank and give it to any organisation that is helping to undo the environmental harm that Barclays is funding. As well as not repaying these loans, XR is also asking any of their supporters to refuse to pay back any pre-existing debts to Barclays. This is an attempt to highlight their wrongdoing and force Barclays to take action, either by wiping the debts or putting an end to their funding of fossil fuels.

This approach is already creating thousands of donations for the charities fighting for the environment, and will no doubt cause some kind of response from the banks. However, it has its drawbacks. XR have published a legal toolkit with advice on how to manage all this, as they are well aware of the major legal risks to both those donating, and the organisations receiving their donations. There has always been criticism of XR being too upper and middle class, and asking those already in debt to their bank to refuse to repay is surely ignoring the major penalties this could incur for those who may not be able to financially recover. 

While this approach will certainly do some harm to Barclays – protests against Barclays’ activity in apartheid South Africa in the 1980s led to its share of the UK student market to drop from 27% to 15% – this style of financial rebellion is reasonably new for XR and it is uncertain how the banks will react. Though risks definitely need to be taken, how safe is it to play with people’s financial security? 

However, this is perhaps unnecessary criticism as XR are only asking for very small loans to be taken out to begin with – they suggest £20. With enough support, I think this can only benefit their fight to get our biggest institutions to start taking this climate crisis seriously.

Image: Vladimir Morozov via Extinction Rebellion