Ruth Mayne, co-founder of LCWO, activist and action-researcher on political and social change, summarises and shares her reflections in a personal capacity about a recent strategy debate organised by Extinction Rebellion (XR).
Oxford Extinction Rebellion (XR) members recently organised a strategy debate between two of their big cheeses – co-founder and organic farmer Roger Hallam, and Rupert Read, XR spokesperson and reader of Philosophy at the University of East Anglia. With the next big XR action in London planned for early October it was a timely debate with lots to discuss.
Both speakers agreed with XR’s overall approach and change strategy i.e. the effectiveness of mass non-violent civil disobedience. Research shows that it takes around 3.5 % of the population actively participating in protests to ensure serious political change. But there were some differences about what is needed to bring about wider system change, what approach XR should take to climate justice and linked to that which targets XR should focus on and what type of disruptive actions are most effective.
On system change, Rupert argued that getting 3.5 % of the population out on the street will not be enough to get the far-reaching system change we need. The strategy worked in the past for suffragettes, civil rights and the anti-slavery movements but they were mainly struggling for increased rights within the system – not seeking to change it. He argued that to avert the climate crisis we will need to win over far greater numbers and therefore need far more truth telling and awareness raising than has been done to date.
Roger Hallam agreed that we are dealing with a complex system and that it is difficult to predict the outcomes of any particular strategies. He said we therefore need to think about the probable outcomes of different strategies and actions i.e. which ones are most likely to achieve the change we seek.
On climate justice Rupert argued that if XR wants to win over the public, it needs to ensure that its actions are fair. Rather than disrupting ordinary people’s lives with actions at Heathrow airport they should target big emitters with their actions, such as City Airport, which is mainly used by rich business men, or bring the City or Stock Exchange to a halt.
Roger agreed that we need to build a just transition and suggested that Citizens’ Assemblies are the place to deal with those issues. But he argued that we need a universalist frame based on community, family and our nation rather than one about inequality. He said it was catastrophic that tackling climate change has become perceived as a left-wing issue. It would be more effective to use universal moral frames e.g. focusing on the effects of the climate crisis on people’s children. He added the biggest thing we can do for inequality is to reduce our emissions in the north.
On tactics and targets Roger argued that because climate change is a universal and existential issue XR activists don’t need to worry about alienating people. Rather using highly disruptive actions targeted at national institutions like Heathrow airport make people realise that the climate emergency is real and therefore will raise awareness and attract more people to the cause. They also force a cognitive response in people as they have to ask themselves whether the actions are right or wrong. Some will be annoyed but many will agree that the seriousness of the issue merits serious action.
In response to questions Roger also talked about the need to use emotion not just information to win people over to the cause and the need for a movement of movements that goes beyond the normal suspects and engages farmers, small business, faith groups and others who are able to bring real change.
My reflections: I think it is crucial that both the transition and XR’s actions are fair. The desire for fairness is a universal and deep instinct. Lack of fairness is likely generate public resistance and backlash, slowing the pace of change. A lot more thought, discussion and action is needed if we are to achieve both a fast and fair transition.
I agree with Rupert that system change is going to require more than mass civil disobedience. Far-reaching socio-technical, cultural and lifestyle changes are also needed. But getting governments to act is a crucial part of that.
On framing and engagement, it is important to both speak the truth about the climate crisis and to create a positive vision of a zero-carbon future. There are multiple environmental, economic, health and wellbeing benefits (‘co-benefits’) to be gained from reducing our carbon emissions and evidence shows that these outweigh the financial costs of action. We could also do more to identify, support and promote examples of where positive change is happening already.
Finally, building a movement of movements will require XR leaders like Roger need to respect and learn from other social movements and campaigns around the world, both now and in the past, on which XR’s activism and successes build.
Whatever one’s personal take on the issues raised, XR is making an important contribution to achieving the change we so urgently need. Plus one of its great strengths is its strongly value-driven approach based on love for each other and the planet.
(This blog is based on my notes from the meeting: apologies for any errors of fact or interpretation)
To find out more and get involved in Extinction Rebellion Oxford, head this way: www.xroxford.org
Lots of great training and events coming up, including this weekend’s Art-Science Extravaganza at the Natural History Museum.
If you missed the event, you can watch it here online: