This is the second installment of Kristy Leeds’ climate crisis series, where she seeks to challenge the norms and practices of climate emergency activism. This time, she examines the lack of consideration for the working-class in Extinction Rebellion’s activism.
Since the formation of the global environmental pressure group, Extinction Rebellion has been the public face of climate crisis activism. Their disruptive protests and creative stunts often dominate climate media coverage. Recently, instead of the usual support, there is a shared feeling that Extinction Rebellion is completely missing the mark. It has become obvious, especially over the last few weeks, that Extinction Rebellion reeks of privilege; completely failing to consider class in the battle against climate change. For climate justice to be achieved, everyone must demand it. To achieve the seismic change in public opinion they demand, Extinction Rebellion must stop being so divisive.
Extinction Rebellion (XR) was created to pressure the government – through the most publicly disruptive means possible – to declare a climate emergency, be net zero by 2025, and to hold a citizens assembly on climate change. Their first protest blockaded six London bridges, attracted international media attention, and garnered public support. Several similar, high-profile stunts followed this, and before long, XR had grown a large public platform and had many subsidiary groups in regions of the UK.
XR is a grassroots organisation, started by a small group of activists. Since their rise to public prominence, the demographics of those activists have shifted. Now XR attracts students and retirees, often with two things in common: being White and middle class. Movements for climate justice must include everyone for real change; White middle-class people should be part of this, but being the only visible group of activists the group has is problematic. It can be difficult to relate to or empathise with the cause at the core of the organisation when it appears there is no space for you in the ranks.
So why is having White middle-class activists at the centre of your protest a problem? Only people with immense privilege and ignorance could think it’s a good idea to glue themselves to an underground train in the very working-class area of Canning Town in rush hour. This stunt, as part of International Rebellion Week 2019, was the first XR stunt which really exposed their complete lack of interest in both class and common sense. Why were White middle-class people preaching to working-class people who are already using public transport, making many late for work at the risk of penalisation? What a privilege it is to have the time to glue yourself to a train during rush hour instead of commuting into work yourself. It is obvious these XR activists did not consider their privilege, otherwise the stunt wouldn’t have been pulled. Interestingly, working class people are more likely to use less household electricity, gas, heating and have lower transport emissions, often opting for public transport or walking. Working class people also tend to travel less internationally.
By staging protests like that of Canning Town, and failing to recognise class issues in their protests, Extinction Rebellion are alienating the people they need most. Their severe lack of class consciousness was best illustrated by a recent tweet in which they claimed: “we are not a socialist movement”. How can an organisation with aims as radical as XR function without being socialist? Who, if not a government, is going to implement and fund the changes you want to see?
Extinction Rebellion needs to put the focus back onto their grassroots efforts; it is where they do their best work. Many XR groups have their own agendas and principles, and enact positive changes in their local communities, whilst still being forceful advocates for environmental change in their local area and institutions. Glasgow University’s own XR chapter has joined with the Glasgow University Arms Divestment Coalition to pressure the University to stop investing in fossil fuels. This kind of activism is a more accessible and less alienating way to diversify and include everyone in the plight for climate justice, rather than performative stunts in London with Emma Thompson.
Extinction Rebellion’s recent stunts have proved to be nothing more than performative and alienating. Many people fail to find anything in common with the White middle-class faces they see standing on the roofs underground carriage or pulling equally irresponsible stunts. XR must recognise their privilege, pivot, and prioritise becoming a tool for local education and advocacy. It’s all of us v the establishment; it’s time for Extinction Rebellion to act like it.