Extinction Rebellion: Insights from the Inside

July 7, 2020

Ed. note: This is an excerpt from the new book Extinction Rebellion: Insights from the Inside, by Rupert Read. Edited and with an Introduction and Postscript by Samuel Alexander. The paperback is available here (or search your favourite online bookstore). The Kindle is available here. The pdf is available on a ‘pay what you can’ basis here, with Rupert donating profits to XR (and with Samuel doing the same for this book of his).

book coverPreface by Rupert Read

On Extinction Rebellion 1.0

Extinction Rebellion (XR, for short) is an emergency response. Politics as usual, governments as usual, have let down the peoples of the world in an extreme way: we are on course for eco-driven societal collapse, and we are extinguishing other species very rapidly. We could even end up making ourselves extinct. XR suggests that when your government is driving you and your family over a cliff, it is no longer a legitimate government. Rebellion against it is permitted – indeed, it is required. But XR is insistent that such rebellion must be nonviolent. Not only because hurting people isn’t nice, but also because there is good reason to believe from the historical record that nonviolence is frequently more effective than violence in transforming society. XR asks people to be willing to be arrested, in unprecedented numbers, to leverage such deep, rapid change. Those of us willing to do this are called ‘arrestables’.[1] The arrestables are then supported (whether in very practical ways – legally, financially – or simply with vital moral support etc.) by a much larger cohort of non-arrestable sympathisers.

We humans are vulnerable as never before to existential threats resulting from our way of life and in particular from how elites have structured that way of life. In this terrible context, XR has three demands. First, to tell the truth. The full truth needs to be told about the emergency that we have allowed to be created. Secondly, once that truth is told (by the media, by government, by us all) and understood, it will be possible, as it is necessary, to act now to remedy the situation. In concrete terms, this means rapid precautionary, mitigative, and restorative action in the next five years. Rich countries need to lead the way on this: for us to be globally safe, we in such countries need to aim to achieve zero-carbon and zero-biodiversity-destruction by 2025. That is, we need to ‘be realistic’, as the phrase goes, and ‘demand the impossible’. This can be made possible by our unprecedented change-making. Thirdly, how to achieve this eye-watering goal should be decided, not by a representative democracy (which has patently failed), but by citizens themselves: we need Citizens’ Assemblies. This emergency takes us into a place beyond party politics and beyond ideologies. It is now about survival, and to survive we are going to have to learn a new way of flourishing together. To construct and enact a new, regenerative vision. Assemblies of citizens, well-informed by the best experts, deliberating together, are the best bet for how we could agree to enact the second demand, of acting now, fast and deep enough to save the future.

Why did I choose to work with Samuel Alexander to bring together this material on XR? And why now? There are several reasons:

  1. The story of XR is a great story. I am not one of the co-founders who dreamed up XR, but I’ve been involved since before XR emerged onto the public stage. When I watched Gail Bradbrook’s epochal video ‘Heading for Extinction and What to Do About It’, it reflected back to me many of the things I had been saying in talks in the previous couple of years about how desperate our situation had become. What was different was that this newly forming group, XR, had a plan for what to do about it. This gave me a glimmer of real hope for the first time in years. I tracked Gail down, phoned her that same day, and, after a wonderful, lengthy conversation, I threw myself into the embryonic movement. I have tried to serve the movement in various ways, from those beginning days onward. I co-organised and co-wrote the multi-authored letters that were XR’s first ventures into the public domain, which are included at the start of this book. I co-MC’d the launch of XR with Gail Bradbrook in Parliament Square on 31 October 2018, including from a soapbox in the middle of the street outside parliament – our first major direct action, when hundreds of us blocked access to parliament. This book offers an account of my personal journey, as someone who has found their life’s vocation in public-facing, strategic, and political roles within XR since before its launch, and whose life has been completely changed (and completely enriched, made more meaningful and more hopeful) by it. This book doesn’t pretend to be anything more than my story inside XR, and therefore it tells very little of the inspiring story of XR outside the UK, although the insights offered will be relevant to XR more broadly). The XR story is a great and necessary one, and I hope that my ‘take’ on it as laid out here may prove of some interest.
  2. I hope it may also prove of use. There is a huge amount to be learnt, I believe, from the success of XR, which catapulted real, rapid change in public attitudes to climate and ecology in the UK and to some extent around the world, as well as in the areas corresponding to XR’s three demands. If XR itself and other movements can benefit by understanding XR’s story somewhat better, then my own telling of that story may be of real use.
  3. Now is a great moment to look back at the first two years of XR UK – the first full phase of the movement: XR 1.0. Covid-19 marks a historically decisive inflection point in the history of emergency activism, and indeed in the history of humanity. Our previously under-acknowledged common vulnerability to existential threats is now present, lived, acknowledged. The vulnerability ‘story’, focally present in much of this book and especially in the appendix, ‘Rushing the Emergency, Rushing the Rebellion?’ – the story that needs to land with the majority of us if we are to have any chance at all of not crashing civilisation – now finally has a real following wind. Like the virus itself, it has suddenly leapt from the periphery to centre stage. The final chapters in this book document the moment of this virus’s epic, deadly, and scary arrival in our lives – and dare to look beyond its dominance. If XR can resonate with the felt vulnerability that has traversed the world in the last weeks and months, that will matter more than any direct ‘actions’ it can take at the moment. I write from my home in Norwich, England, in late Spring 2020. Under coronavirus lockdown. But I can communicate with Sam in Australia, and with others all over the globe. The shared experience of vulnerability, of existential threat, that is tearing through many humans and communities, especially in the ‘Global North’, for the first time in the living memory of most of us, is something which, if it can be extended to other longer, tougher emergencies, will change everything. Thus, in the midst of the awful, avoidable tragedy of Covid-19, I have more hope than I have had for years about the awful, avoidable mega-tragedy of climate and ecological breakdown. The birth of XR gave me hope when I had had virtually none; paradoxically, the corona crisis is refuelling that hope. XR from now on will be very different, for a host of reasons implicit in what I have just written: right now, because of the domination of public attention by the virus and because locking down makes most direct action impossible; and, as we go forward, because, after this enforced pause everything can be different, as I describe in my final chapters in this book. At the time of writing, XR UK had recently decided temporarily to pause most of its physical activities, during the height of the corona crisis; wisely, in my view. All of this adds up to why many of us are speaking of this as the moment of birth (or, at least, of conception) of XR 2.0. Which will be a different story, suitable for telling years from now. Assuming, as I hope and believe but cannot take for granted, that most of us will be (t)here to tell that story.
  4. Last but not least, XR needs money: now more than ever, in a more stretched, poorer world whose attention has been dragged (and not wrongly!) to something nearer at hand. After covering costs, all proceeds I make from this book will go to XR UK (and part of XR UK’s income goes to XR International). If I can help leverage a little cash for this amazing movement, which has achieved so much on a shoestring compared to established NGOs, then so much the better.

I want to offer now my deep thanks to those who have co-authored certain of the pieces brought together in this book with me: Jem Bendell, John Foster, Marc Lopatin, Skeena Rathor, Dario Kenner, Frank Scavelli, Alison Green, and Richard House. Thanks too to the far larger group who have inputted into many of these pieces in one way or another; and to those hosting the venues where some of them were first published. Thanks to Atus Mariqueo-Russell, Treve Nicol and Josie Wilson for assistance in helping research some of these pieces. Deep thanks finally to Antoinette Wilson, a superb copyeditor, and of course once again to Sam Alexander, a brilliant interlocutor and guiding editorial presence.

This book is written in service to the cause of averting extinction(s), and in humble awareness of the far larger organism of which I am but one interwoven strand. This book obviously had no possibility of existing at all without the willingness of thousands upon thousands of rebels to be arrested in this greatest, most necessary, hardest of causes. If I can see anything clearly as attested in these pages, it’s because of these Extinction Rebels and the many thousands more standing behind them. If you are one, then thank you. (If you are not, then perhaps you might just be, after reading this book.) I stand with you all, arms locked together virtually for now and in reality again one day soon. I stand with you and I salute you.

– Rupert Read, Norwich, England, May 2020

[1] See Jeremy Harding’s very useful article ‘The Arrestables’ in London Review of Books, 16 April 2020, https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v42/n08/jeremy-harding/the-arrestables

Introduction: Batshit-Crazy Times by Samuel Alexander

If there is one thing a virus cannot kill, it is a rebellion. Nevertheless, there is no way to begin this collection of essays on Extinction Rebellion, at this time, other than by acknowledging the remarkable, mind-bending moment at which these words are written. It is a time of pandemic, one destined to shape the future of human civilisation for years if not decades ahead. In Australia, from where I write, the economy has all but shut down, with little open for business besides medical centres and hospitals, supermarkets and food outlets, and a very select number of other essential services. Against every ideological bone in its body, our conservative government has announced unprecedented stimulus packages, to avoid masses of people in our affluent nation from falling into destitution.

Because so many people have lost their livelihoods from this unexpected suspension of capitalism, banks have had to freeze mortgage repayments for six months and rental evictions are currently prohibited. The national and state borders have been closed, and public gatherings of more than two people are prohibited. Someone in Australia was recently fined for eating a kebab on a park bench. All of this was unthinkable a few months ago. Today it is normal.

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This is the stuff typically reserved for dystopian fiction, not real life, but many other nations around the world are in a similar position to Australia, with more destined to follow as the Covid-19 virus continues its extraordinary disruption. I look at the date on my computer and see that it is April 1st, usually a time for jokes and pranks. I hesitate for a moment: is this for real? Surely someone is playing us for fools. But this is no joke. These are truly batshit-crazy times and I certainly won’t pretend to fully understand what is happening, and none of us could know what lies ahead. For all I know I am writing from within a relative calm that could yet prove to be the eye of an even more transformative hurricane. For now, all I can do is nod approvingly at the words degrowth scholar Jason Hickel recently cast out into the Twitterverse: ‘Capitalist realism is over. Everything is thinkable.’

Indeed it is. At the same time, tragic though the pandemic is, we need to remember that Covid-19 is a crisis within a broader ecological and humanitarian crisis. It was only three months ago when my home nation was ablaze, suffering a devastating fire season drawing international attention, owing to conditions that were exacerbated by global heating. It is estimated that over one billion animals perished in the furnaces – one billion! Who has the emotional capacity to understand that statistic? And what does next summer bring for our shared Anthropocene? What the coronavirus shows, however, is that we really can act as if the house is on fire, when we feel it is urgent enough.

Therein, of course, lies the catch: when we feel it is urgent enough. Does it follow that our politicians and the dominant culture did not yet realise that climate change, species extinction, topsoil erosion, deforestation, pollution, resource depletion, population growth, poverty, and inequality were real problems of equal or great urgency? Regrettably, that seems to be the case. The world knew enough about the science of climate change in 1988 to establish the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). And yet, last year carbon emissions continued to rise, over thirty years after the IPCC was established to warn and guide us.

In the midst of the current pandemic, which is causing so much human suffering, it is clear that shutting down the aviation industry and much of consumer culture is allowing a moment for the planet to take pause from the onslaught of global industrialism. For so long we have been told that it was not possible. And yet here we are, albeit by disaster not design. As French philosopher Bruno Latour recently commented: ‘Next time, when ecologists are ridiculed because “the economy cannot be slowed down,” they should remember that it can grind to a halt in a matter of weeks worldwide when it is urgent enough.’ In particular, let us remember this capacity to swiftly downshift the economy, should critics assess Extinction Rebellion’s demand of decarbonising by 2025 and casually dismiss it as non-viable. It will certainly be non-viable if we do not try.

Still, if national and international public discourse is anything to go by, it seems the primary goal of politics in this time of disruption is to ‘bounce back’ to where we were before the pandemic. Of course, all the evidence suggests that bouncing back would be no solution at all. We must not bounce back. We must bounce otherwise and elsewhere. The key question, then, is: bounce back to where and how?

What is most disturbing about the current pandemic is how quickly everything else gets erased from our attention. In Australia, the media has all but forgotten about the bushfires. How short our memories are. But these issues – climate destabilisation and all the rest – have not disappeared. We live in the same Earth system, only one currently under the duress of a virus. As if we did not have problems enough already! For the moment, perhaps, people have even forgotten about Extinction Rebellion. But if there is one thing a virus cannot kill, it is a rebellion.

*   *   *

At base, Extinction Rebellion is about mobilising people for collective action, with the goal of producing a just and sustainable world through various practices of nonviolent civil disobedience. Given that Covid-19 has meant that Extinction Rebellion is, for the time being, unable to take to the streets in rebellion, Rupert Read and I decided to continue our participation by working from our homes on this book.

It is my honour to be editing this book of Rupert’s essays on Extinction Rebellion and contributing this introduction and an extended post-script essay, ‘The Rebellion Hypothesis’. Rupert is an activist-academic with the Department of Philosophy at the University of East Anglia, UK. That may position him as an unlikely figure to feature so prominently in one of the most disruptive environmental movements on the planet right now. After all, philosophers aren’t normally the ones taking to the streets in rebellion. But then again, at least one great philosopher has encouraged us not to merely interpret the world, but to change it. It is a lesson that Rupert has taken to heart.

Even to call Extinction Rebellion a ‘movement’ is somewhat misleading. It is a rebellion – a global rebellion, fast becoming a movement of movements. Currently it is simmering in cyberspace during the physical distancing enforced by the pandemic, waiting to remerge, I suspect, with more energy than ever. It will be interesting to see how the Citizens’ Assemblies upheld by Extinction Rebellion will address the key issues of this moment in history – this turning point, perhaps – including: how to manage protective contraction of the economy in the future, and how best to build a more resilient, just, and sustainable society in the wake of Covid-19. In this book you will learn much about the movement’s history and mission, and some thoughtful reflections on where it may move next.

As indicated in the preface, we offer this collection of Rupert’s writings as an ‘insider’s perspective’ on the first two years of this fast-emerging and evolving rebellion. One person’s angle on this movement will inevitably be limited by the narrowness of personal experience. But that narrowness can also be enriching and full of insight. No doubt by the time this book goes to print the story of Extinction Rebellion will have undergone further twists and turns, with more in store. That is how it will be, and that is how it should be. So watch this space, or better yet, help shape it.

While I don’t always agree with everything Rupert says, for years I have been part of a growing audience enriched by his provocative writings, lectures, interviews, and public talks. His work on Extinction Rebellion is particularly good, justly receiving a huge amount of attention, with qualities that transcend the content, namely, the qualities of honesty, clarity, and depth.

You too may come away from this book with questions or criticisms of Rupert’s work, but he would both invite and celebrate this critical engagement. Indeed, it is one of the primary reasons we publish this book: to provoke further debate and discussion of Extinction Rebellion and related movements. Our goal is certainly not to get everyone to think the same thing. Far from it. The goal is to foster and exploit the diversity of human ingenuity by fuelling the fires of public discourse, in the hope that this better enables us all to respond to the variety of civilisational problems that will demand many knowledges, insights, and practices if they are to be tolerably addressed.

Beyond his writing and scholarship, Rupert deserves credit for walking the talk in a way that is challenging in the best sense of the term. It seems that at every opportunity Rupert has put down his metaphorical pen and left his desk to participate in the various uprisings of Extinction Rebellion (primarily those near his base in Norwich). I am sure this active engagement is part of the reason why his writing and talks have had the reach and impact they have: they are authentic.

My formal collaboration with Rupert began with the publication of our book This Civilisation is Finished: Conversations on the End of Empire and What Lies Beyond, published in English by the Simplicity Institute in 2019 (and currently under translation into German, Spanish, and French). That book was a collection of conversations between us that explored a wide array of issues, ranging from future scenarios for globalised capitalism, pessimism over technological solutions, alternative conceptions of progress, political activism (including Extinction Rebellion), the role of a teacher in a dying civilisation, among many other ‘big picture’ topics.

To our surprise the book quickly moved thousands of copies, which is unusual for books by academics. This cultural reception suggests to us that there is a growing desire for societal commentary that aspires to truth-telling without censorship or sugar-coating. You will find the same spirit of uncompromised honesty shaping the following pages.

This book chronicles the period from before XR’s launch to the final phase of ‘XR 1.0’, marked by the coming of the coronavirus; that is, starting in summer 2018 and going to Spring 2020 inclusive (Northern hemisphere). And towards the end of the book Rupert starts to look forward to XR 2.0, reflecting on how the experience of shared vulnerability and emergency from the coronavirus might reshape the historic task of XR: waking the world up at last to the true gravity of the climate and ecological emergency, and shifting from warm words to sufficient action.

The chapters of this book speak well enough for themselves, so there is no need for an extended overview of the content, and each chapter is introduced by Rupert with a few sentences of context. While the book was designed to be read from front to back, readers should feel free to consult the Table of Contents and dip into the book and jump around as they see fit. For now, suffice to say that this anthology collects together the wide range of thinking and writing Rupert has shared over the last couple of years, as he has sought to understand and guide Extinction Rebellion. Many have been published before, some are appearing here for the first time. The diverse contributions include introductory essays, longer reflections, short articles or pamphlets, transcripts of interviews, conversations with other activists and scholars, theses on Covid-19, among other topics and forms. We bring them together here for convenience and provocation. But, of course, this is not the end of the story. It is one perspective on, and experience of, the story’s beginning. The future of Extinction Rebellion is unwritten. This book is an invitation to help write it.

*   *   *

As the Covid-19 pandemic deepens or exacerbates the range of pre-existing crises, it seems that our collective task now is to ensure that these destabilised conditions are used to advance progressive humanitarian and ecological ends, rather than exploited to further entrench the austerity politics of neoliberalism. I recognise, of course, that the latter remains a real possibility, as did the arch-capitalist Milton Friedman, who expressed the point in these terms:

Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.

I’m not often in complete agreement with Milton Friedman, an ideological nemesis, but on this point I am. For those who recognise the potential in this moment to think and act differently, our basic function is to keep hopes of a radically different and more humane form of society alive, until what today seems impossible or implausible becomes, if not inevitable, then at least possible and perhaps even probable. It is through crisis that citizenries can be sufficiently perturbed that the sedative and depoliticising effects of affluenza and apathy might be overcome.

Indeed, I cautiously suggest that it is better that citizens are not in fact protected from every crisis situation, given that the encounter with crisis can play an essential consciousness-raising role, if it triggers a desire for and motivation towards learning about the structural underpinnings of the crisis situation itself. I believe social movements, including Extinction Rebellion, should be preparing themselves to play that educational and activist role, and in fact it is heartening to see this already unfolding in the many inspiring social responses to this time of pandemic.

While Covid-19 is currently demanding physical distancing, Extinction Rebellion continues to organise online. More broadly, during these turbulent times we see communities being there for each other, in mutual aid and support. And, in the wake of Covid-19, Extinction Rebellion will be back on the streets en masse, because our work is not yet done. Until then, and beyond, we hope you find this book fuel for the fire of ecological democracy.

Rupert Read

Rupert Read is an Emeritus Professor at the University of East Anglia and Co-Director of the Climate Majority Project. (www.climatemajorityproject.com)