Extinction Rebellion draws on a radical lineage that brings together a range of beliefs and ages.
The criticisms of Extinction Rebellion fit a well established pattern: indulgent, middle-class crusties slumming it; naughty children revolting for their own entertainment. Then there are the takes on its tactics – too disruptive, too naive or too disrespectful and miles away from the actual concerns of “real people”.
Extinction Rebellion will be assessed and evaluated against criteria its activists did not ask for. Its tactics will be compared and contrasted one against the other, with different strands of the movement categorised accordingly. Good tactics will be those that are lawful, unobtrusive and polite and don’t really get in the way of other people’s daily lives. Whereas lobbying for reform, politely asking politicians to change their priorities, will be judged respectable, but pointless.
In a hierarchy of need, worrying about the environment is framed by some as a luxury compared with poverty, homelessness and the cuts that austerity has brought across communities. The radicals will be set up against the realists. For some, Extinction Rebellion activists will lose support at the point they transgress the law. For others, the moment that the mass arrests began turned Extinction Rebellion into civil-rights heroes and heroines.
Perhaps instead of this mania for categorising, we can allow all the flowers to flourish.
History shows us that it takes many different approaches to make change happen. The tactics that each group chooses are not a matter of personal taste but solutions to a particular problem. Too many years spent failing to make radical change happen can turn energies to smaller, achievable, single-issue campaigns. Conversely, the limits of reform push people and movements to revolt.
Campaigners for homosexual law reform in the late 1950s and 60s, for example, did not see legal change as the end goal. For them, legal change was a route to expose the limits of the law and the structural inequalities beneath it.
Furthermore, what starts as one type of campaign will change in response to its reception. Many activists have changed their feelings about the police or their attitude to violence as a result of personal experiences on a demonstration.
Extinction Rebellion has an impressive family tree. It might be a dysfunctional family, but diversity and incoherence can be a strength. In the 50s and 60s, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament’s mass meetings and marches brought together pacifists, priests, communists, anarchists, the Labour movement (sometimes), undercover civil servants, war veterans and students. Alongside long-time pacifists, “middle-class radicals”, as the sociologist Frank Parkin called them, produced new identities for themselves as they went to meetings, came up with slogans and wore their CND badges with pride. They were the generation who had supposedly benefited from postwar affluence and used those benefits to bite the hand that fed them.
In the 80s, the Greenham Common protest against the US Air Force base that housed nuclear weapons became synonymous with a particular type of feminist peace politics. Living collectively, Greenham women turned the domestic – the basics of everyday eating, sleeping, cooking – into a political act. Greenham women performed their domestic politics collectively and very publicly. Like the Reclaim the Night marches taking place against sexual violence and harassment on the streets around the same time, Greenham saw women taking up space as a political act in itself.
Greenham recognised that unity was built from many strands. Different camps around the base were named after colours of the rainbow. Each signalled an identity. Turquoise Gate camp was more new age and vegan, while Violet was more connected to organised religion. The coloured gates represented the elements of building a utopian community.
Maybe the most radical act of all is to accept that other people’s tactics are not the problem. Different approaches – mass arrests, blockades, citizens’ assemblies, carnivals – are all ways to imagine a different world, a world in which young people are taken seriously rather than managed.
Youth is also a political tactic, publicly associated with Greta Thunberg and triggered for many by the wave of school strikes. But this is more than a generational coincidence – it is a tactical match with the movement’s goal. Childhood and youth combine the practicality of having energy and time to act with a symbolism that is simultaneously innocent and rebellious while embodying the future.
A generation that has been derided as apathetic, selfie-obsessed consumers has walked out of schools and colleges and taken over the streets, using social media channels to fill the gaps in mainstream media coverage. This generation’s life cycle maps the trajectory of environmental decline. For these activists, the ecological threat is no longer set in an abstract future – it will be in their lifetime.
Extinction Rebellion has learned some useful lessons from the past. It has also reanimated adults who have been there before, at Greenham, in the anarcho-punk and free party scenes, at anti-road protests, as well as more recent campaigns against fracking.
All of these, like Parkin’s middle-class radicals, sought to protect the world rather than defend their material interests – perhaps because they didn’t need to, perhaps because they had no choice. One thing that the outgrown activists could help with is some honest advice: “Whatever you do, it will be wrong” and: “Don’t do what you are told”.
Lucy Robinson is professor in collaborative history at Sussex University
This article was published by The Guardian on the 13th of October 2019.