Unpacking Extinction Rebellion — Part II: Goals and Tactics

27 09 2019

Kim Hill

Kim Hill, Sep 19 · 16 min read

In Part I, the rebellion’s goal of transitioning to net-zero emissions was exposed as a campaign to save the capitalist economy and the fossil fuel industry. In Part II, we look into Extinction Rebellion’s demands for truth from government and a Citizens’ Assembly, their tactics, and the proposed solutions to the climate and ecological crisis.

Demand 1: that the government tell the truth about the climate crisis

What is the truth about the climate crisis? There are so many theories, debates and agendas regarding the significance of climate change, what caused it, and where it could lead, that it isn’t possible for anyone to make any claim to truth. Demanding truth from any government about such an abstract issue could lead to a propaganda campaign presenting only one side of the story, and the shutting down of debates and discussions that don’t align with the government’s version of the truth.

Governments don’t exist to serve the people and tell the truth. They exist to serve those in power, and lie. If elected representatives genuinely represented the people, the conditions that led to this point would never have happened, and there would be no need to make demands.

XR makes no demand to tell the truth about the causes of climate change and ecological collapse: endless economic growth, industrial agriculture, empire, wars, the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. It’s as though climate is a completely separate issue, which can be solved with some truth-telling and new technology that will allow all these industries to continue unabated.

Demanding “tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency” doesn’t make sense. Simply stating there is an emergency going on doesn’t lead to a spontaneous outburst of truth. More likely the opposite is the case: giving governments emergency powers leads to repression, and the silencing of inconvenient questions and truths.

This demand was changed in April, to include declaring a climate emergency, at around the same time the declaration was made in the UK. This suggests that the demands are fluid and can be adapted according to outside circumstances, and are being influenced by government policies. The core goals are not clear.

“Communicate the urgency for change” doesn’t specify what change. Again, the demand is vague and can easily be re-directed to mean anything at all. If the demand is to stop extracting fossil fuels, and stop land clearing, then it needs to say that. Communicating the urgency of reaching an unspecified goal sounds like an invitation for governments (and the corporate lobbyists in ‘the media’ and ‘other institutions’) to manufacture a crisis, create a state of panic in the populace, and take advantage of the chaos for profit. A well-documented tactic known as disaster capitalism, or the shock doctrine. As we’ve seen in Part I, this is exactly what has happened. The question of enabling the shock doctrine is raised, but not adequately addressed, on XR’s FAQ page. (The FAQ page has since been updated, with this question removed. The earlier version can be accessed at archive.org and some of the questions included, and the less-than-reassuring responses given, are quite revealing as to the true nature of the rebellion).

In a political environment where telling the truth about the government, or the ecological crisis, can get you thrown in jail, tortured or killed, demanding truth from government is naïve at best.

My main concern with this demand is that it is directed at the government. Is this really who we want to put our faith in as the authority on truth? This worldview, that we need to trust the government, rather than our own direct experience, leads to learned helplessness, disempowerment, total dependence on some higher authority. Given the lengths that governments are willing to go to hold on to power — violent repression of protests, unnecessary wars as a show of force — surely we’d be better off finding our own truths, through inquiry and discussion, rather than depend on any government to guide us.

There’s something Orwellian about this, it’s like a demand for a Ministry of Truth, that can give a government such power over our beliefs about ourselves and the world that we can really be convinced that Big Brother loves us, that net-zero emissions will save the planet, and that 2+2=5.

Virtue ethics

XR’s FAQ states: “Ultimately though, we are doing this because it is the right thing to do, in part we remain unattached to outcomes, meaning that although we hope we can save something of life on earth we try to stay motivated by action being the right thing to do (virtue ethics) rather than taking action because we think it will work (utilitarian ethics).”

So there is no goal, and no belief that the actions will be effective. Basically a way for people to feel like they’ve expressed their concerns, without actually changing anything. Compare the above quote to this one from Stratfor, a consultancy firm that advises governments on how to quell social movements: “Most authorities will tolerate a certain amount of activism because it is seen as a way to let off steam. They appease the protesters by letting them think that they are making a difference — as long as the protesters do not pose a threat. But as protest movements grow, authorities will act more aggressively to neutralize the organizers.” XR’s leaders have studied social movements, so should be well aware of this strategy. It’s almost as if the rebellion has been intentionally designed to be ineffective.

The decision to hold the largest protests, supposedly intended to disrupt business as usual in London, over Easter weekend, when absolutely no government business was taking place, further demonstrates the virtuousness of creating a spectacle rather than engaging in targeted and decisive actions.

Check out this grab from a live interview with XR founder Gail Bradbrook, on Sky News during the Easter weekend protests:

Bradbrook: “…the politicians, behind the scenes, including this current government, tell us that they need a social movement like ours to get social permission to do the necessary… We need people to focus on this emergency, and we need really big action.”

Interviewer: “Let’s be clear, you say that government politicians are saying to you, we need you to come to London [to protest]? You’ve got government ministers telling you that’s what they want?”

Bradbrook: “…I’ve met a couple of people who’ve talked with Theresa May’s advisors, and they’ve said, they do know how bad it is, and they need you guys to help. So, basically, we’re doing the job…”

So we have the government making demands that the rebels make demands of the government. The government leading a rebellion against itself. Is this a rebellion, or a government propaganda campaign? Who’s pulling the strings here?

Lack of goals might be virtuous, but it leaves the movement wide open to be used for the goals of whoever has the most power.

Proposed solutions

XR’s website offers a number of possible solutions to the ecological crisis. Let’s unpack what they each entail.

The Climate Mobilization (TCM, based in the US) advocates “an emergency restructuring of a modern industrial economy, accomplished at rapid speed. It involves the vast majority of citizens, the utilization of a very high proportion of available resources, and impacts all areas of society. It is nothing less than a government-coordinated social and industrial revolution.” This is a plan to expand the industrial system and increase resource use, requiring the government to give money to private interests, and clearly not planning to shut down the industries that are causing extinction. There’s nothing here about protecting nature, reversing economic growth, defending human rights, reducing consumption, or breaking corporate dominance. Everything TCM advocates is the exact opposite of what’s needed.

This plan will likely require people to work longer hours for less pay, accept higher taxes, reduced services, and increased government control of citizens, leading to a greatly reduced quality of life. The level of austerity inherent in “the use of World War II–type policy instruments to transform the economy on an emergency basis, including a substantially increased federal government role in planning and steering industrial investment, providing jobs, allocating energy and materials, and managing demand” when a large part of the population are already suffering unbearable levels of poverty, trauma, ill-health, violence, repression, and soul-crushing bureaucracy, could lead to a complete collapse of the social order, to the point of civil war.

If I’m going to live through a revolution, I’d prefer one that overturned the entire political and economic system that the US empire stands for, and definitely not one that has the faceless bureaucracy of the US government leading it. I can’t imagine anything worse. This is the same government that is on track to achieve ‘full spectrum dominance’, meaning total military control of the entire planet — land, sea, air and space — in service to corporate profits, by 2020.

TCM’s report Leading the Public into Emergency Mode claims that “The climate crisis is, far and away, our top national security threat, top public health threat, and top threat to the global economy.” So the US military, one of the most environmentally destructive forces on the planet, which burns through more than 10 million gallons of oil every day, and $1.7million every minute, and the economy, which is the process of converting the living world into disposable commodities, are apparently under threat from the devastation they caused. The Climate Mobilization takes the side of the military and the economy, and advocates economic and military expansionas an appropriate response. Instead of acknowledging that industrial activity is damaging the natural environment, we’re redirected to believe that natural forces in the form of changing weather patterns are damaging the economy. Nature becomes the feared and hated enemy. This is the opposite of environmentalism.

The rhetoric seems to be calling for war, but war on who, or what? Clearly not on the industries that are burning the planet. And the changing condition of the atmosphere does not make for a tangible adversary. Given that the military and economy exist to maintain the power and control of the wealthy, at the expense of the poor and the natural world, this leaves the victims of imperial wars and the capitalist system, and the living world itself, as the enemies to be defeated. Analysis presented in the video Selling Extinction suggests that initiating wars to maintain the global economic dominance of the US is indeed the goal of TCM.

“We are calling on America to lead the world in heroic, world-saving action!” Given the history of what happens when the US claims to be heroically leading and saving the world, I’d really rather you didn’t.

The parallels between TCM’s rhetoric and this definition of fascism are alarming. “Fascism is a political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.” (Merriam Webster)

Extinction Rebellion distributes a proportion of the money it receives in donations to The Climate Mobilization.

Beyond Zero Emissions claims that “all sectors of the Australian economy can decarbonise, repower and benefit from the transition to zero emissions.” Economic benefits again. No environmental benefits. Again.

“Manufacturers can replace fossil fuels with renewable electricity and eliminate up to 8% of Australian emissions,” which seems hardly worth the effort, given the emissions from manufacturing the new infrastructure required for the transition probably more than makes up for the reduction. Even if it was possible to eliminate emissions from the process entirely, the manufacturing of cement, plastics, chemicals, and all the other unnecessary toxic crap continues, and continues polluting and driving extinction.

A shift to 100% electric vehicles would eliminate at least 6% of Australia’s greenhouse emissions.” Or just stop making cars.

And also, why is a rebellion against the UK government that claims to be concerned about extinction, endorsing a think-tank associated with the Australian manufacturing industry? How is that even connected? Of course it’s not going to state the obvious solution to the problem, which is to stop manufacturing stuff.

Green New Deal Group lists as its first principle “A massive environmental transformation of the economy to tackle the triple crunch of the financial crisis, climate change and insecure energy supplies.” The primary concern here is saving the economy, and supplying more energy to industry. Not about protecting the natural world. Rapid Transition Alliance and One Million Climate Jobs also promote the economic growth agenda, and also have nothing to say about reversing the trend of environmental destruction.

The Breakthrough Institute is where the proposed solutions get even more disturbing. “The Breakthrough Institute is a global research center that identifies and promotes technological solutions to environmental and human development challenges.” It advocates for nuclear power, fracking, and increasing gas extraction (collectively referred to as ‘clean energy’), genetic modification, lab-grown food, “significantly higher levels of energy consumption,” urbanization, and economic growth. It promotes technology-dependent, large-scale industrial food systems, increased use of pesticides and synthetic fertilisers, and moving rural people off their land and into service and manufacturing jobs (where I guess they’d be making the chemicals to poison the land that’s been stolen from them). Basically severing humans from any relationship with the natural world. And accelerating the process of destroying every living being. And no I’m not making any of this up. It’s all listed on their website.

This is the future that Extinction Rebellion is envisioning. These are the solutions that millions of people around the world have been marching in the streets to demand of their governments. Not to cut back on fossil fuel use. Not to protect wild nature. Not to repair and regenerate the land. Not to do anything at all to address the causes of climate change and extinction. Instead to save the very system that continues to wreak havoc on the land, sea, and air, and kill us off at a rate of 200 species a day.

You might want to take a moment to let that sink in. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling the need to go outside, and scream.

Not one of these proposed solutions contains any mention of the causes of extinction and climate change, or any plan to address these issues at all. The main drivers of extinction are war, forest destruction, pesticide use, toxic chemicals, plastics, mining, road building, synthetic fertilisers, broad-scale agriculture, industrial fishing, dams, and urban sprawl. In the plan for economic transformation, decarbonisation, and green growth, these processes are not just allowed to continue, but ramped up. There’s no mention of indigenous sovereignty, rights of nature, human or environmental health, resilience, autonomy, democracy, community. These concepts have no place in the New Climate Economy.

Something worth noting about these proposed solutions is that they are completely out of touch with the reality of the world we live in. None of them address any of the predicaments that are interconnected with the climate issue they claim to solve (and they’re not even addressing that one). Millions of refugees are fleeing conflict zones. Factory farming and animal testing enslave living beings. Propaganda, surveillance and censorship are instilling fear and unravelling our communities, our autonomy, and our ability to think. Addiction, violence, household debt, homelessness and chronic illness impact more and more people, disproportionately affecting women, people of colour and the poor. 45 million people are in slavery. Free trade agreements give corporations power over sovereign nations. Six men have as much wealth as half the world’s population. Indigenous people continue to be massacred and forced to leave their homelands. Many people in Western society are so severely traumatised by this culture that the resulting anxiety and depression leave them barely able to function.

Under XR’s proposed plan, all of this, all of us, the entirety of life on this planet, is nothing but carbon, nothing more than a business opportunity, a resource to be traded, and converted into money.

Demand 3: A Citizens’ Assembly

A citizens’ assembly. A way to bypass the democratic process so the net-zero plan can be enacted without deliberation by our elected representatives. Extinction Rebellion claims that we can’t trust the democratic process because it is corrupted by corporate influence. Yet they want to keep it in place, and allow the corporate corruption to continue.

A Citizens’ Assembly is no less corruptible than the current system. The assembled citizens are not a blank slate, open to all possibilities. They don’t have magic powers that can solve all the world’s problems. They have been exposed to as much propaganda and marketing as everyone else. And they definitely won’t be given the opportunity to discuss any possibilities that aren’t in keeping with the corporate-led plan that is already unfolding.

The experts advising the citizens will quite likely be the same people who have already been advising the government on the transition. They are engineers, energy industry experts, economists, and representatives of the fossil fuel and finance industries. Not conservationists, farmers, land defenders, community activists, or people who will be affected by the new industries. Definitely not anyone who speaks on behalf of nonhuman life and future generations. This is because the transition to net-zero is all about expanding the economy and the energy industry. It’s not about addressing ecological collapse. The assembly won’t be advised by experts in land regeneration, human ecology, indigenous lifeways, permaculture design, decolonisation, de-growth, mutual aid, alternative economic and political systems, autonomous development, or participatory democracy.

The plan on how the UK will achieve the transition to net-zero has already been set, and was discussed in Part I of this series. You can read all 277 pages of it here. It makes no mention of being thrown out so these decisions can instead be made by a bunch of randos. The Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy Committee has suggested that this plan “is likely to form the basis of the Citizens’ Assembly discussions,” which doesn’t give the citizens any space to suggest anything outside of these parameters. And yes, the Citizens’ Assembly is led by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee, because, yes, it’s all about business, energy and industry. Not climate. Not extinction.

“The BEIS Committee has recently held evidence sessions (on Tuesday 18 June and Wednesday 8 May) with witnesses including Extinction Rebellion, WWF, Committee on Climate Change and other stakeholders on the net zero target and actions needed to achieve net zero emissions. The hearings are part of the Committee’s ongoing work on the Clean Growth Strategy and complement its current inquiries on financing energy infrastructureand on energy efficiency. The Committee has also carried out inquiries on Carbon Capture Usage and Storage and on Electric Vehicles.”

In case you weren’t clear on what all this rebelling is for, it’s growth, finance, infrastructure, efficiency, carbon capture, and cars. The XR representatives are more than happy to be consulted and included in these plans. So much for ‘rebel for life’.

The only concerns expressed by XR leadership about this proposal are that it isn’t legally binding, and doesn’t let the citizens set the timeline for the transition. They have made no objections to what the plan actually involves.

It’s remarkable that XR’s website goes to great lengths to describe the sortition process, and their vision for how the assembly will be run, but says absolutely nothing about what net-zero means or how it might be achieved. What isn’t said tells you a whole lot more that what is.

A mass movement of this scale has the capacity to overthrow the existing system and create a genuinely equitable, sustainable and eco-centric society in its place. But it’s not doing that. It’s instead handing over more power to governments and corporations, with the small concession of giving citizens some limited say in how this happens.

An outcome of the Citizens’ Assembly will be general public acceptance of the decisions made. This will effectively shut down any further debate on the issue, or any consideration of alternative plans, as the citizen delegates represent all of us. Resistance is neutralised.

Demanding government leadership and co-ordination takes away power from communities to make their own decisions and plans. The rebels could, if they chose, hold their own Citizens’ Assembly, or many regional assemblies, with no input from the government, and implement their own plans. This would take back power from government and corporations, and put it in the hands of the people. Yet XR has made a statement actively discouraging regional assemblies, wanting to instead focus on the national assembly.

The rebels could be engaging in prefigurative politics and municipalism, and working towards secession for regional independence, building the local structures of participatory democracy, mutual aid and local economies that can take the place of the global capitalist system. The rebellion could join forces with Symbiosis, “a confederation of community organizations across North America, building a democratic and ecological society from the ground up.”

This brings us to the aim of rebellion: to gain concessions from those in power, rather than to overthrow the entire system. A movement that aims to keep the economic system in place can never address the root cause of ecological collapse, because it is the economy itself that needs to go. A transition to a new structure, that allows business as usual to continue under a new banner of decarbonisation, has about as much effect as covering the industrial system in a layer of green paint and calling it eco-friendly.

Here’s a couple quotes from old dead dudes to help guide the rebels into doing something more useful.

“This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing Government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it.” — Abraham Lincoln

“We need a revolution every 200 years, because all governments become stale and corrupt after 200 years.” — Ben Franklin

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Part III will explore the history and corporate manipulation of the climate movement, and the endgame of climate action: The Fourth Industrial Revolution.


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One response

27 09 2019
DON OWERS

The world cannot support 9 billion people. Australia cannot support our current population let alone a population growth. But curbing growth would be bad for the economy so we are dying for the economy.

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