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Protesters in blue dresses march down Westminster Bridge in London, UK.
Activists dress in blue to raise awareness of marine species extinctions. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

Extinction Rebellion: why disavowing politics is a dead end for climate action

Since emerging in 2018, the same year that the IPCC warned humanity had 12 years to avoid climate catastrophe, Extinction Rebellion’s disruptive campaigns have helped push the UK government to declare a “climate emergency”. Governments and local councils in over 30 countries have since followed suit.

More recently, XR activists blockaded two newspaper printing plants owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, disrupting overnight deliveries of The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Times and The Daily Telegraph. Once activists were in place, a press release from XR declared its desire to challenge Murdoch’s “vast political power”, which they argued “he has used to undermine our democratic system”.

But an earlier statement from Extinction Rebellion UK affirmed that it is not itself political. XR does not align itself with any ideology, according to the statement, and one of its core aims is to “go beyond politics” and bring about unity through mass mobilisation.

Yet the climate and ecological crisis, and the transformations needed to address it, are fundamentally political. Any social movement seeking to avert climate and ecological breakdown cannot simply transcend the political reality of the crisis. And without a political analysis of the problem, XR risks leading a mass of motivated people nowhere.

Two protesters are suspended in bamboo towers erected in front of a newspaper printing plant.
XR activists blocked the entrance to this printworks in Broxbourne, Hertfordshire. Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images

Citizens assemble

During my research, I’ve found that ethical and political question are central to the making of radical environmental activists. Ethics determine how we ought to relate to one another while politics is about who gets what and why, and how we organise society to enable all – both humans and non-humans – to enjoy a good life.

Many activists that I’ve spoken with regard their role as a catalyst for new social and political systems that are fairer and more respectful of the non-human world. Regardless of XR’s official position, it’s likely that politics played a big role in guiding many of their activists towards the organisation in the first place.

As XR itself noted, a small fraction of extremely wealthy people and organisations exercise control over much of the planet’s resources and enjoy substantial political power as a result.

XR calls for a rapid decarbonisation of the global economy. But this is not a technical problem – it is a distinctly political one that requires a breakdown of existing inequities in power and access to resources. If control of the world’s fossil reserves lie with powerful oil companies, then surely decarbonisation must involve challenging that power.

And whether people involved in it realise it or not, XR is trying to gesture towards radically new ways of organising and living. Its call for citizens’ assemblies to deliberate over solutions to the climate and ecological crisis is a case in point. These attempts at direct democracy are supposed to dismantle structural inequalities by bringing together ordinary citizens as representatives of each country’s diverse body politic. Trying to deny the ideological roots of this approach isn’t honest or helpful.

Activists stand in Trafalgar Square holding a banner reading 'Citizens' assembly is the answer'.
XR has called for citizens’ assemblies to decide how to address the climate crisis. EPA-EFE/Facundo Arrizabalaga

While binary left versus right categorisations tend to obscure the complexity of political parties and movements, refusing to engage with the political spectrum denies the movement allies, and opens the door to co-option by potentially harmful forces. Far-right movements have infiltrated environmental movements before. Experts argue that the climate crisis – and an ensuing refugee crisis – will provide ample opportunities for the far right to organise for their racist agenda, unless environmentalists can articulate a political alternative.

Read more: Beware far-right arguments disguised as environmentalism

Left out

Although XR declines to associate itself with a particular political orientation, the changes that it acknowledges as necessary for averting climate and ecological breakdown have frequently been championed by those on the left. For example, prominent US politicians Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Ed Markey and Bernie Sanders, and the UK Labour Party, have advocated for a “green new deal” in their respective countries. This would attempt to tackle the climate emergency through large government programmes and wide-ranging political and economic reorganisation that echoes XR’s own calls for democratisation and social change.

Read more: The Green New Deal is already changing the terms of the climate action debate

Four activists hold a banner reading 'Beyond Politics - Extinction Rebellion' in a town square.
Extinction Rebellion has repeatedly declared its independence from political ideology. Amani A/Shutterstock

Meanwhile, the environmental records of modern leaders on the right speak for themselves. US President Donald Trump’s dismantling of environmental legislation and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s aggressive campaign to deforest the Amazon are notable examples.

Contrary to what XR suggests, there is no such thing as a world “beyond politics”. We have the knowledge and the technical means to achieve global carbon neutrality by 2050, if not sooner. What’s needed instead is a radical rethink of key political questions. Who ought to have access to what? And where does the power reside to make key decisions about the future of life on Earth?

Extinction Rebellion, and other movements fighting for a socially and ecologically just future, would do well to join forces with like-minded political forces. The transformations needed are well within reach, through collaboration and collective action, as XR continuously reminds us.

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