World View: Extinction Rebellion’s lure is clarity and method

Apocalyptic imagery, situationist mockery and disruption are very potent tools

“What drove you to join Extinction Rebellion?” I asked one of its activists this week outside a yurt at their camp in Merrion Square. The shocking Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year, she replied.

The opening sentence of its summary, dated October 8th, reads: “Limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”

That report is quoted prominently in a letter signed by more than 150 academics in support of Extinction Rebellion Ireland on their website. They come from a very wide spectrum of disciplines – engineering, architecture, earth sciences, botany, health systems, political science, geography, environment, philosophy, sociology, communications, physics, psychology among them.

The organisers felt conventional environmental campaigning based on lobbying and petitioning had failed

They bluntly commit themselves thus:


– “We will not tolerate the failure of this or any other government to take robust and emergency action in respect of the worsening ecological crisis . . .”

– “Humans cannot continue to violate the fundamental laws of nature or of science with impunity. If we continue on our current path, the future for our species is bleak . . .”

– “The Irish government is complicit . . . in failing to acknowledge that infinite economic growth on a planet with finite resources is not possible . . .”

– “When a government wilfully abrogates its responsibility to protect its citizens from harm and to secure the future for generations to come . . . it is . . . perfectly reasonable that concerned citizens would bypass the government’s flagrant inaction and rebel peacefully to defend life itself.”

Their letter and similar statements from scientists worldwide underpin the three demands of Extinction Rebellion (XR) here and elsewhere: government and media should tell the truth about the climate emergency; we must act now to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2030; a just transition is essential for poorer people and the global south.

Exponential growth

The movement’s exponential growth since its “Declaration of Rebellion” was launched  in London on October 31st last year has lots to do with this clarity on why it exists. How it operates is equally important.

Two of its leading figures, one practical and the other theoretical, help us understand that.

Roger Hallam, a grassroots organiser, organic farmer and doctoral student of radical direct action organised Extinction Rebellion in the UK with Gail Bradbrook, a molecular biologist and fellow social activist last year.

Others criticise XR's middle-class and white composition

They felt conventional environmental campaigning based on lobbying and petitioning had failed. The world emitted as much carbon since the early 1990s as in the previous 200 years. As an environmental scientist I met this summer put it when asked what went wrong: “We started 20 years too late.”

Hallam told the New Statesman last week that mass, non-violent civil disobedience is required to confront the environmental crisis, based on three principles: disruption to break laws; willingness to sacrifice in being arrested; and non-violent respect for the public and police.

The movement’s use of apocalyptic language and imagery, confrontation of consumerist spectacle with situationist mockery and disruption of everyday routine brings its message home far more effectively to governments, media and citizens.

Shocked and concerned

Hallam comes from the left but is wary of the purist methods on its most radical fringes. He uses three intersecting circles to illustrate his case that in order for the first tiny one of committed and informed activists to make contact with the much wider circle of shocked and concerned citizens it is necessary to bypass or avoid the small left-wing ones also stuck in a political and organisational cul-de-sac.

Left-wing environmentalists like the veteran US activist Cory Morningstar respond by criticising how readily movements like Extinction Rebellion and the school students led by Greta Thunberg can be co-opted by celebrity groups seeking to perpetuate a now environmentally unsustainable capitalism.

Others criticise XR’s middle-class and white composition. It is a lively and instructive exchange, now based on a genuine worldwide movement.

The dynamics of such movements are illuminated in research by Erica Chenoweth of Harvard university, who has influenced Hallam and fellow XR activists. Based on a worldwide data set of 323 campaigns for regime change from 1900 to 2006 she concludes that non-violent ones like Gandhi’s were twice as effective as violent ones, with terrorism scoring only 7 per cent success.

As important, she shows an average threshold of 3.5 per cent of a population actively involved is historically needed to achieve regime change. That would be 11 million in the US, 2.36 million in the UK – and 233,450 in all of Ireland.