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Devil's Advocate: Are the XR Rebellions Worth the Hassle

Yes!- Kate Lau

Living in London, it’s been fairly difficult to muster up enthusiasm for Extinction Rebellion (XR). Their acts of “non-violent, disruptive civil diso- bedience” are just that – a bit loud, a bit messy, and definitely disruptive. Piccadilly Circus, one of my favourite places for an easy afternoon out, also happens to be XR’s favourite demonstration locales; the Circle and District lines, already notoriously un- reliable, have yet another excuse to make commuters extraordinarily late.

Despite all that, XR’s aims are, in the most basic of senses, unde- niably good. XR wants the government to declare “a climate and ecological emergency: and to act accordingly: legally committing to achieving ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions by 2025, and to form a citizen’s assembly to both put pressure on, and provide political cover for politicians to do the right thing”. This is probably a good thing, since most researchers reckon we’ve already crossed some thresholds of irreversible ecological damage. While systemic efforts are being made, they tend to be slow, and somewhat lack- adaisical. Granted, the environmen- tal crisis isn’t at the bottom of the government’s priorities, but it’s also nowhere near the top – and it really ought to be, given how dire things are. As with all things, whether an end justifies its means will always differ with each individual. In this case, XR’s rebels are evidently prepared for the collateral damage of alienating the masses. Their disruptions aren’t really directed at normal people like people like you and I, whose sympathies for the environment run towards the abstract: we likely aren’t vegan, but are keen recyclers; drive petrol cars, but religiously turn our lights off. However, while XR’s target is evidently the government, to spur the comfortably ambivalent into action likely also constitutes a small part of their aims. What sort of action specifically, I can’t be sure, even having involuntarily witnessed several of their protests. But now, at least, I have given the issue some serious thought, studied up on the climate crisis... and have written this very article in support of the movement.

Disruption of the status quo is never comfortable, especially when it is in favour of something we can- not yet perceive. All similar reforms in the past have come at a cost, but few people these days are willing to paint, say, notorious suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst as a villain. One would have to be extraordinarily small-minded to dismiss these protests at their face value (pretty annoying) instead of at least considering the So what I’m trying to say, I suppose, is that the potential salvation of the Earth itself probably justifies XR’s means. I don’t think their goals are necessarily achievable – with the lack of a suitable replacement for fossil fuels and XR’s impudently imminent deadline of 2025 – but I certainly can’t fault them for trying.

No! Alex Beckett

I empathise greatly with those who partake in social movements working to stop climate change. Be it Extinction Rebellion or the school strikes that took place across Europe in the years pre-COVID, I have a deep respect for such collective action. It’s testament to the fact that young and middle-aged people are becoming more and more anxious about what a future plagued by climate change may come to resemble. And frankly, it doesn’t look pleasant.

Yet, as is so often the case, I find myself criticising those whose inten- tions I actually agree with, given that I too find death by evitable flood, heatstroke, or forest fire, to be quite off-putting. And I criticise them because their methods are simply bonkers. No wrong can be found in young people marching with placards down the street, nor in normal people handing out informative leaflets. My gripe is with the irresponsible stunts pulled to try and attract some sort of Thunberg-inspired fame, or a fanciful newspaper headline, and I hold this gripe principally for two reasons. Straight away, the idea that such stunts are for “exposure” and are to wake people up to what is going on, is nonsensical. The standout feature of climate change is that we can actually feel it, without being told what is going on by social media activists and street-disruptors. If you watch the news, or work in an office, or even listen to podcasts, I struggle to see how anyone of the modern epoch doesn’t become aware of the floods in Belgium and Germany, or the forest fires in Greece and California, or the British Isles’ record-breaking temperatures. Those who haven’t already got the gist probably aren’t going to get much from oddities such as gluing yourself to the road or spraying fake blood at the Treasury. And secondly, what would it matter if they did? The ordinary people whose trains are halted and flights grounded by Extinction Rebellion often aren’t the mass polluters. The mass polluters are the oil companies, the companies encouraging deforestation, and today’s culture of permanent production and consumption. Harassing commuters only to be dispersed at the expense of the police’s time is both unnecessary and ineffective; more fundamental action is required, entailing palpable political and societal change. Something akin to a year-and-a-half global lockdown may just do the trick. Anyone willing to give it a go?

Image 1: Garry Knight

Image 2: Garry Knight

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