The future of Extinction Rebellion is not as extreme as its previous actions, according to Rupert Read.
Co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, Gail Bradbrook, has been convicted of committing an act of vandalism. She shattered a window at the Department for Transport in a demonstration against HS2 that was driven by environmental concerns in 2019.
Bradbrook’s verdict comes at a particularly ironic time. It has been five years since Extinction Rebellion first began in Parliament Square. At the time, the main criticism against XR was that it was too “alarmist”. However, looking back now, it is clear that this was not the case.
Recently, there has been a significant increase in the rate of climate change, surpassing the predicted worst-case scenarios outlined by climate models. It appears that we are quickly approaching a global temperature increase of 1.5C, much earlier than previously anticipated by those who are knowledgeable on the subject.
Despite this, the climate protest movement in the UK is currently not powerful enough to cause a shift in direction. XR’s warnings about the critical danger we face have been proven correct, but their reputation has not fully recovered from the Canning Town incident in October 2019. This incident involved rebels stopping underground trains, which received widespread criticism from the public. As a result, XR has faced challenges in establishing itself as a reliable means of large-scale mobilization.
Numerous influential organizations and movements have surfaced in its aftermath. The most noteworthy ones have been from the recent, more radical faction of the UK’s climate movement – first Insulate Britain and then Just Stop Oil – who have obstructed the M25, halted test matches, and more. In my opinion, these activists are clearly aligned with the right side of history. However, many within the broader climate movement now believe that disruptive actions that affect the general public have become counterproductive – as XR has come to realize. Citizens are already aware of the urgency of the situation. Instead of further reminders, they need a journey towards positive and impactful action that involves them.
In 2020, I left XR because I believed that it had already accomplished its main goals, such as increasing awareness about climate change and influencing government actions. However, it has become clear that XR’s greatest impact may be creating an opportunity for a more moderate faction to emerge in the climate movement.
XR successfully dragged the whole eco-agenda into the light of day, and this has made it both necessary and possible for a wave of novel organisations and initiatives to fill the vacuum; groups such as Wild Card, Community Climate Action, Lawyers for Net Zero, Purpose Disruptors and Zero Hour. Indeed, many of the successes of historical movements that inspired XR (the Suffragettes, for instance) followed a similar pattern: an agenda-shift prompted by radical-flank initiatives paving the way for actual political success by more moderate agents of change.
Since the launch of XR, it has become evident that in order to effectively address the dire situation we are facing, movements must come together and mobilize people through campaigns that they can actively participate in. This involves collaborating with others in their local communities, workplaces, or places of worship, while also adhering to legal boundaries.
The organization XR recognizes that this is the most effective direction to take and has learned from past errors. Starting in 2023, it will no longer cause disruptions for the general public. XR’s new plan, optimistically named “Here comes everyone”, aims to build upon the movement’s greatest achievement thus far. In April, it successfully mobilized approximately 60,000 individuals – a significant increase compared to previous demonstrations – in a peaceful march to address the climate crisis. However, XR still has a long road ahead as it works to improve its reputation. The greatest potential for a resurgence of XR lies in the possibility that impending climate disasters may lead to an increase in members and revitalize the organization.
Those of us who stood up and were counted at the launch of XR can be justly proud. But of course, it’s not as if XR’s main objectives were actually achieved (XR’s second demand was for carbon net-zero by 2025). If there is to be any chance of achieving a transformative adaptation to the self-imposed threat of ecological collapse, it’s going to require not just a minority, but most of us, to step up.
In the future, the main question our children will be curious about is: with a better understanding of how to bring about change, what actions did you take? And once you were aware, what steps did you take?
Rupert Read is the author of Extinction Rebellion: Insights from the Inside and Co-Director of the Climate Majority Project