Interview: Conversations with Extinction Rebellion

Image courtesy of Extinction Rebellion | Facebook

“We act in peace, with ferocious love of these lands in our hearts. We act on behalf of life.” - Declaration of Rebellion, Extinction Rebellion (XR).

XR started in May of 2018 and has been in open rebellion against the United Kingdom government since October 2018. InQuire met with members of (XR) at the University of Kent, to understand the reasons why they have turned to XR, what the group is and what is does.

We sat down with Eske Eilts and Joel Helbling, both activists in XR Youth Canterbury. The first XR Youth group was formed in July 2019.

The branch’s main goals - besides fighting for climate action - are climate justice, focusing on the Global South and indigenous people.

A youth movement concerned with social justice

Critics have called XR out on being a white-centric, metropolitan, middle-class movement. Op-eds written on the environmental movement’s lack of diversity are countless.

“The question right now is of how whitewashed XR is. We obviously want to talk about it and acknowledge problems of racial justice within environmental justice groups,” Eske told us.

“We really try to work towards more inclusivity and intersectionality. This is such a global problem that it cannot exclude major parts of the global population. We want this to be an inclusive, welcoming space for everyone because it is everyone’s problem.”

The XR Youth group in Canterbury has around twenty to thirty members, about fifteen of which are active. It was created only a couple months ago and is meant to include people up to thirty-years-old, concerned about climate change and environmental justice.

At the University of Kent, XR is a micro-group embedded within the Environmental, Conservation and Sustainability Society.

Eske told us about actions that were planned on campus from 11 to 15 November, including events around diversity within the movement, and a strike on campus on 14 November.

She also mentioned the next global climate strike on 29 November, which XR Canterbury will partake in.

With no identifiable leaders, XR advocates direct democracy. By not selecting leaders for the group, XR wants the public and the media to solely focus on the demands they put forward, rather than on one potential leader’s charisma.

Like Occupy Wall Street in the United States, the Indignados in Spain or Nuit Debout in France, XR shifts from traditional hierarchical activism and speaks out as a group, rather than having an individual be their spokesperson.

In that sense, Eske and Joel are not XR leaders and are entitled to their own opinion. The comments made during our interview only represent their opinion and do not officially speak for XR.

Tell the truth, Act now, Beyond politics

These are XR’s three demands.

“Tell the Truth is about how the government has to tell us what is actually happening, the media has to take its role in reporting what’s happening,” Eske said.

“Act Now is, in conjunction with Tell the Truth, calling for the recognition that change regarding global warming needs to happen now one way or the other. XR is not providing solutions, we’re urging the people in power to focus their attention onto these areas,” Joel highlighted.

On XR’s website, the Act Now demand encourages the government to aim towards net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025.

On 1 November 2019, the British government bowed to XR’s Beyond Politics demand regarding a citizens’ assembly. 30,000 invitations were sent out to citizens all over the country.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction. It is encouraging for people of the general public to go there and actively be part of politics. Having inclusivity can bring a solution that fits all the needs, is realistic and yet will reach the best solution for most people,” said Joel.

Eske added: “Citizens’ assemblies aim to be as inclusive as possible, getting people from the general public, not just the Greens. This is about respecting democracy. This is a movement of ordinary people. We can’t trust the people in power, the ones with financial connections and resources anymore. They broke our democratic contract by not giving us climate security, so now people have to take it in their hands to create change.”

The announcement came after a two-week-long protest held in London - called the International Rebellion- organised XR urging the British government to take urgent actions against climate change.

Controversial modes of action

One of XR’s leading principles, as Joel told us, is "no blaming or shaming". XR insists that no single government or person is to blame.

“We let the system develop to the toxicity that it is now. What XR is urging for is for those systems to change, to try and prevent what is preventable,” Joel described.

XR, like many groups did before them, promotes non-violent direct action to fight climate change. This includes strategies such as protests, disruption or boycotts.

While controversial in its form - direct action is meant to disrupt everyday life - XR’s way of justifying it is the historical precedent set by many activist groups.

The Civil Rights movement in the United States, Gandhi’s non-violent uprising in India - all used some methods of non-violent direct action to implement change.

Chances are many people in the United Kingdom have come across XR in some form. Either they were in London during the protests in October and noticed it, or they saw headlines and videos across social media platforms advocating for or against the direct-action group.

During the weeks of protest in London earlier this year, a video circulated showing XR activists targeting a London Ttube during rush.

The incident caused an outcry against XR on a national level, shifting the discussion to what was acceptable and what was not, the limits of direct action, and the legitimacy to disrupt everyday life of commuters trying to get to work.

A video published on Youtube by Sky News, titled “Is the public losing patience with Extinction Rebellion protests?”, garnered over 240,000 views and showed the uncertainness around XR’s mode of action.

When the action on the London Ttube came up during our interview, Eske explained that the nature of XR - being a decentralized action-based movement - made it hard to stop people from taking part in that kind of action.

“I generally disagree with it. Focusing on the Ttube in general, it’s the sort of infrastructure that we should really be encouraging. I’m against actions on the Ttube, but especially with everyday people trying to go to work and support their families, it was very unfortunate,” Joel mentioned.

“With XR Youth in Canterbury, we were quite shocked about it,” Eske told us.

“The aftermath of the Ttube action and of the protest ban were sort of a sour after-taste,” Joel said.

A Pew Research Center poll showed 66% of Brits named climate change as the biggest global threat.

Despite that, an opinion conducted on 15 October 2019 found that 54% of respondents opposed the idea of ‘shutting down London’, and by extension opposed XR’s tactics.

Evolving societal concerns

Boris Johnson famously called XR activists “uncooperative crusties”, and called for “importunate nose-ringed climate change protesters” to leave London’s roads.

Joel mentioned that the upcoming general election could lose sight of the urgency of the climate situation and focus on seemingly more pressing issues.

“The UK is focused on Brexit. Lots of people will vote out of anger and frustration towards Brexit, the issue of climate change might be lost within that. This is where our role is important, especially in the next few months. We need to bring attention back onto climate and not just on Brexit.”

When we asked Eske and Joel why they thought XR was getting so much media attention, they mentioned the group’s unconventionality in terms of forms of action, but they also talked of a shift in public opinion.

To them, the attention carried to Greta Thunberg, to XR or to climate strikes speaks of a waking up of consciences within the population.

“The urgency of the situation is getting louder. We are not a movement out of the blue, we come from thirty years, fifty years of denial and inaction,” Eske told us.

“It’s about awareness, and we try to raise awareness with our action. Maybe people might see that as very radical, but it is also radically scary to see that we only have 10.5 years left.”

“I am scared, and this is why I want to take my fear and transform it into action. Hopefully it wakes people up.”

This article is part of our one-off edition of IQ Magazine, out from November the 29th 2019. Pick up the magazine on campus in our InQuire distribution bins in Keynes, Co-op, the Templeman library and other locations on campus.