The climate crisis as a political issue is especially relevant to us in Glasgow given that our city will be hosting the UN COP26 (Conference of the Parties) climate change summit in November of this year. As we near a climate crisis “tipping point”, the 2020s are the prospective decade for popular outcry. Protests and strikes demanding active government responses to the climate crisis are already taking place exponentially, a prime example of this being the recent Global Climate Strike movement. Environmental activism is becoming an essential component of the response to the climate crisis and new responses, especially Extinction Rebellion (XR), have gained traction and popularity.
In response to this increased attention, there have been some well-grounded criticisms of environmental activism in Britain. Anxieties that the activist response to climate change in the UK is not fully representative or inclusive of the national population have been raised by both participants and onlookers. As well as this national angle, another consideration is the inherently multifaceted nature of climate issues due to the diversity of those affected across the world. How environmental activists address race, class, and gender, both within the UK and on a wider, international level considering global inequality, are vital considerations for planning and implementing action.
XR is a movement that began only two years ago in 2018 in the United Kingdom, and since then has amassed a multitude of global chapters, members and supporters, including Glasgow XR and a Glasgow University-specific XR chapter. The aim is to protest the non-response to climate issues through “non-violent civil disobedience”. XR’s stance of challenging authority is evidenced by their tag line: “Join the Rebellion”. The intrinsic dissent of the movement can be seen to present significant challenges to the participation of certain groups, primarily BAME (Black, Asian & minority ethnic) population and the working class. The main criticism is that XR does not accommodate for the unequal ramifications that may be experienced through protest and rebellion by these groups in comparison to the White middle-class protesters that make up its majority.
XR advocates for arrest and jail time as tactics to protest for climate action. These processes will clearly affect participants differently and are exclusionary of many people, due to the expense that they require financially and in terms of the welfare of dependents, immigration status, as well as the repercussions and technicalities of criminal records. In the currently available XR “Guide on Police and Prisons” information on legal processes is presented, including a “Reality Check” which states: “Prison is not to be taken lightly” which is a basic consideration. Their previous, more controversial “Prison Guide” was almost satirical in how it addressed prison time. It was discussed from an angle of privilege, directed at people with a lifestyle focus on mental wellbeing and with interests in art, yoga, and literature. The quickly retracted guide even stated: “you can take as many naps as you want!”. Institutional racism underpins both policing and the criminal justice system, and XR fails to address how this shapes responses to civil disobedience advocated by the movement. Last year, XR London tweeted that legal focus should focus on “knife crime” rather than focus on their protesters. These examples indicate that the way XR operates must be addressed if it is going to build accountability as an environmental movement that is accessible alongside using arrest and prison as ways to bring attention to the seriousness of protesters.
Recent headlines have seen Police Scotland criticised for listing XR in a document used as part of the wider Prevent strategy of the UK counter-terrorism response CONTEST. The police defended the document, although it responded: “Lawful protest is a fundamental right for everyone in this country”. Officials cited the need to share information like this to allow police to facilitate non-violent protest. However, their inability to distinguish as clearly as possible the difference between XR and terrorist organisations could be perceived as a threat to the democratic act of nonviolent protest. Reception of XR by the authorities, specifically the Metropolitan Police in London, is that police powers need to be expanded to deal with the “public nuisance” they classify XR protests as. This will continue to affect XR and other environmental protest groups as they grow in numbers and their need for a unified front continues to increase.
Environmental coalition Wretched of the Earth were formed in 2015, and part of its aim is to represent the global South in British environmental activism. The group wrote an open letter to XR regarding privilege in activism and the need for more acknowledgement of the actions and power of the global North in relation to the global South. They stress the importance of acknowledging and learning from past experiences, and the need for decolonisation for successful response to the climate crisis. Black Lives Matter UK has also responded to how climate change will overwhelmingly affect the global South. This can be linked to problematic class inequality in environmental activism. XR Glasgow University has organised Go Green Week this February, which features a guest talk from activist Jonathon Shafi on Climate Colonialism.
Action taken by working-class communities both in the UK and worldwide against environmental injustices is often quashed, and there is pressure exerted on the working class to change their behaviour alongside not having their basic needs met. Global development and industry are blamed for causing a problem which is aided and encouraged by economies like the UK. Remaining educated and aware of these inequality problems in both race and class is necessary for the success of the environmental movement and needs to occur if there is to be inclusion in a large-scale radical response to the climate crisis like XR are aiming to ignite and sustain.
More information from Wretched of the Earth can be reached through their FB page.
To follow the work of XR on campus, their FB page is Extinction Rebellion Glasgow University and look out for the Go Green Week this week February 9-14.