The Flawed Social Science Behind Extinction Rebellion’s Change Strategy
Above Photo: Extinction Rebellion
Nafeez Ahmed is an important political analyst on climate, national security, and other issues. In this article, he examines the Extinction Rebellion’s strategy and points out some important flaws that will prevent its success. He looks at two important works on the strategy of nonviolence, those of Gene Sharp as well as Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. He also examines the mistaken application of the strategies of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. He goes below the surface in the strategies of these nonviolence advocates and demonstrates how they are not being properly applied by Extinction Rebellion. Ahmed provides lessons that apply to many movements for transformational change. We rely on these nonviolence advocates in our web-based school How Social Transformation Occurs which we urge all activists to take.
White privilege leads to cherry-picked misreadings of data on worldwide struggles of people of colour (and beyond)
This emergency has been a core preoccupation of my work, increasingly so over the last decade — to the point that all my work now seeks to enhance our understanding of how the multiple crises we are experiencing intersect with one another as symptoms of a deeper, global civilisational crisis.
From this vantage, I am a supporter of Extinction Rebellion, the School Strikes for Climate, the Sunrise Movement, and other mass protest actions aimed at raising consciousness of the scale of the crisis, and galvanising major social and system-wide change to avert our current trajectory.
Yet I’ve long had concerns about XR’s strategy. Having touched on the issue once, I chose not to write again at length about this because, ultimately, I hoped the movement would continue to succeed, mature and listen to constructively critical friends; and I did not want my criticisms to be exploited by the regressive forces driving us toward planetary extinction.
But after the fiasco when XR activists decided to disrupt the London Underground — angering and alienating commuters from East London, where many are black and ethnic minorities in poor housing with low paid jobs and often zero hour contracts — I’ve decided that remaining silent is a mistake.
While it later emerged that the majority of XR activists did not support this action, the movement’s press department doubled down by amplifying the XR brand’s apparent endorsement of the action.
The press statement reiterated the logic of XR’s strategy — the idea that generating ‘disruption’ in the capital city, translates into disruption of the ‘business as usual’ that is driving carbon emissions, which in turn will eventually translate into the national government capitulating to the movement’s demands.
Those demands are as follows: 1. declare a climate emergency; 2. commit to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2025; and 3. create a Citizens Assembly on climate and ecological justice which will in turn create legislation for action on the net zero target (to which parliament will be subordinate).
The movement has also encapsulated these three demands into a proposed Climate & Ecological Emergency Bill, which it is hoped, might eventually be passed in Parliament.
The basic problem with this logic underlying XR’s method is that it is based on flawed science — specifically, demonstrably flawed misreadings of the social science. It’s not that the entire method is wholly wrong; it’s that the failure to grasp its wider context and limitations means that without an upgrade, it will lead to XR’s failure.
This piece is not an attack on XR. It is a call to do better based on critical engagement with the scientific data that XR’s strategists describe as the foundation for the movement’s approach, along with some of their public statements. It closes with four key, constructive recommendations. We cover a lot of ground, and some arguments are repeated in different ways. So if you want to get to grips with the social science on why XR strategy needs a serious upgrade, maybe grab a drink, sit down, and take out some time to digest this.
XR has proven to be one of the most successful, effective and well-organised social protest movements in recent years, and is certainly proving to be one of the most effective on climate activism. It’s definitely doing something right. I believe it is one of the most important movements to have emerged in recent years.
So far, it has brought climate change and the risk of human extinction into mainstream consciousness; it has helped trigger declarations of climate emergencies by the UK Parliament and other political bodies; it contributed, along with other climate protest actions, to the UK government’s unprecedented decision to adopt legally-binding targets for net zero emissions by 2050 (notwithstanding the fact that actual policy remains well-behind the targets, which are also flawed).
Unfortunately, XR is at risk of alienating the mass support it has built up, and aspires to continue to build up, due to a defective theory of change based on limited and selective readings of the relevant social science literature. That theory of change has been derived by arbitrarily lifting particular methods from historically-specific socio-political contexts, the implications of which are largely ignored in the execution.
My conclusion is that, based on a straightforward sociological analysis, this approach creates major faultlines which reduce the likelihood of success; and further, that XR has actually not really understood the research it is relying on. Despite ostensibly being derived from studies of nonviolent movements around the world (overwhelmingly though not exclusively by people of colour), the most important learnings from these movements have been overlooked by XR. And because the resulting active theory of change underpinning XR’s core strategy is so impaired, this strategy is likely to backfire.
Given that XR’s recent Autumn action did not produce the same level of success and change as the previous actions, we now have fairly clear empirical evidence that XR’s present strategy may be reaching its ‘peak’. If it is to continue to scale as a movement, this needs to be confronted head-on. XR now has the opportunity to review and enhance its strategy, and I offer this critical appraisal in that spirit as a humble contribution to augment such efforts.
Mass arrests as the core strategy
In his distillation of XR’s strategy, the movement’s co-founder and chief strategist, Roger Hallam, has specified mass arrests as the principal tactical approach of XR protest actions in his booklet, Common Sense for the 21st Century: Only Nonviolent Rebellion Can Now Stop Climate Breakdown and Social Collapse.
This has been reiterated (though with caveats) by other influential XR activists, such as XR spokesperson and advisor to the group on political strategy, Dr Rupert Read of the University of East Anglia.
In a recent strategy brief and public discussion with Hallam, Read expressed disagreement with several key nuances in Hallam’s approach. Though he continued to put forward the idea of mass arrests as a core tactic, some of the most important themes raised by Read are elaborated on here.
Let me be clear that I am not opposing direct action or nonviolent civil disobedience, including mass arrests; but I am arguing that the specific way in which XR is executing these methods is based on fundamental misconceptions at multiple levels, which will be fatal for the movement unless rectified.
Others have argued that XR’s strategy means black and ethnic minorities facing mass brutalisation from law enforcement will be inevitably marginalised by a movement whose principal focus is ‘disruption’ actions premised on getting arrested; thus erasing minorities and indigenous people from the movement. That raises questions about the capacity of such a movement to reach and enfranchise wide grassroots support in a capital city that is very diverse.
But this valid criticism barely scratches the surface of the problem. We need to go deeper to probe where exactly the idea of mass arrests as a strategy came from, and whether it is really being applied by XR in a viable context.
Both Hallam and Read explain that the strategy of mass arrests was derived from previous highly-venerated social movements for large-scale change, which used nonviolent civil disobedience as their principal mechanism.
Among other movements, they point to the American civil rights movement led by figures such as Martin Luther King, and the Indian independence movement against British rule led by Mahatma Gandhi.
They both also point to recent social science research indicating that when 3.5 percent of a population is actively committed to a cause and participating in nonviolent protests, they are largely guaranteed to succeed in securing political change.
But there are several fundamental problems with this analysis, one of which has been pointed out by Rupert Read — which is that the black civil rights and Indian independence movements were not about pushing for comprehensive system-change, but had more specific goals. This raises questions about how effective it would be to apply such methods today in the context of the climate crisis. I will now explore those questions in greater detail.
Two major movements by people of colour that inspired XR — and why XR has wrongly expropriated them
XR has, in short, failed to understand the movements it draws inspiration from. I will begin illustrating this by first discussing just two of the most iconic historical cases which XR draws inspiration from.
The American civil rights movement succeeded in its strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience precisely because the very black communities rising up were the victims of the racist segregation and institutionalised brutality which they were protesting.
The civil rights movement was therefore inherently grassroots and broad-based, emerging from the institutions of black communities.
Its momentum was built-up over decades through direct, painstaking street-to-street organising, training, educating, network-building, and so on, within affected communities themselves. That is how the movement developed the capacity to eventually mobilise millions of people in repeated protest actions; and that is also how the movement was able to solidify and cement tight-knit networks of support across black communities nationwide. That is also how the movement was able to forge bonds of solidarity with white communities, resulting in peaceful protests involving black and white people.
The goal of the movement was directly related to the suffering of black communities, aimed at ending the segregation, racism, discrimination and constant unmitigated violence committed against black people.
It worked precisely because the people who drove the movement were the very same people who were suffering at the hands of the racist violence they wanted to change. It worked because they themselves were victims of violence, and the movement offered networks for self-empowerment and action against that violence. It worked because the solution was premised on core political changes directly related to the needs of those who wanted change; and disruption actions were targeted precisely at disrupting the system of injustice that was breaching their rights.
Similarly, the Indian independence movement, which had also inspired King and the civil rights movement, was premised on the reality of massive, widespread discontent and opposition to British rule, which was also complicit in routine violence against indigenous Indians. Gandhi’s charismatic leadership channeled this unmistakeable grassroots discontent into mass peaceful protest action, beginning by organising the lower castes. The goal of this action was, again, very specific — to repel British rule.
And once again, Gandhi’s capacity to mobilise millions for successful protest actions was based on years of painstaking grassroots organising, bridge-building between disparate communities and networks with differing theories and practices, and different types of targeted disruption actions which eventually coalesced into mass mobilisations (what Gandhi called ‘satyagraha’, or the application of “truth force”).
These movements were designed to disrupt an existing, highly visible regime of repressive violence, which was actively engaged in violence against the subject communities at the heart of the movement, and which already therefore lacked legitimacy in the hearts and minds of those communities. Both were cases of resistance by people of colour against systems of white supremacism. In both cases, disruption actions aimed at directly increasing the costs of the repressive violence that those communities were resisting.
Hence, they were successful because the institutions they disrupted were precisely the institutions of violence that needed to be overwhelmed by mass disruption in order for them to change, so that the costs of continuing that repressive violence would be increasingly difficult to sustain or justify.
This model cannot be simplistically transplanted to the modern Western context, where structures of power are far more complex, repression more invisible, and the institutions being targeted have no intuitively obvious connection to the demand being made.
In this case, the idea that mass arrests of largely privileged white people will overwhelm the police system — paving the way for the government to capitulate to XR’s demands about climate change — does not follow from the logic of these historical cases.
White people are not being brutalised en masse by a repressive state apparatus whereby, therefore, overwhelming it through mass arrests will force the police and authorities to reconsider their violent tactics; and the police as an institution are not directly involved in determining the climate policies that XR demands, so overwhelming them with costs will have no bearing whatsoever on the fossil fuel system, except in the most indirect sense. Instead, it will invoke the escalation of police-state powers but in a way that could turn popular opinion against the movement, due to its lack of connection with the grievances and challenges experienced by the majority of citizens, white, black, brown and beyond.
In both the American civil rights and Indian independence movements, there was a direct, organic connection between the people protesting, grassroots communities affected by the issues being protested, and the repressive institutions being disrupted through direct action. That is why they were able to build momentum rapidly. This is simply not the case with current XR strategies.
3.5 percent for system change?
A related problem emerges in relation to the ‘3.5 percent rule’ underpinning the wider tactical goal of XR. Hallam cites the work of Harvard social scientist Professor Erica Chenoweth, who concludes that nonviolent protests which engage a threshold of no less than 3.5 percent of the population, invariably succeed in producing serious political change.
Yet Hallam commits a huge, fatal omission in extrapolating from this research to develop his strategy.
Chenoweth’s figure derives from a database comparing nonviolent and violent resistance strategies predominantly aimed at producing “regime change”, largely in conflict settings concerning authoritarian regimes.
The 323 cases studied by Chenoweth involved “resistance to repressive regimes or occupations, or in support of secession” — in other words, they involved resistance to regimes that actively invoked domestic violence against opposition forces, which therefore drew on an already existing groundswell of discontent. Not only did very few of these cases involve overthrow of a democracy, none of them involved successful nonviolent efforts to overthrow or change a Western liberal democracy.
The lifting of Chenoweth’s research out of this context as if it implies a viable strategy to force the neoliberal British state to embark on a path of system change to avert climate doom is far from obvious. We will come back to this point in detail.
There is also a geopolitical context to the ‘3.5 percent rule’ that XR ignores — which is that it was of interest to the US foreign policy establishment in relation to targeting governments the US disliked.
So a very quick detour to understand the context of this research.
Chenoweth’s main contribution to this subject is a book published by Columbia University Press. The book, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, is co-authored with Maria Stephan, who at the time of its publication was lead foreign affairs officer in the US State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO). Her last assignment involved engaging with Syrian opposition groups in Turkey, and she had previously worked in Afghanistan on civil-military planning.
Stephan writes in her foreword to the book:
“Ambassador Mark Palmer, who has been a great mentor of mine, showed me a different side of the U.S. State Department and encouraged me to be a friend of nonviolent-change agents from within the U.S. government. Through his work with the Council for a Community of Democracies, Mark is helping institutionalize global solidarity with those who are fighting against huge odds to defend basic rights and freedoms. I greatly admire Mark and hope to follow in his footsteps.”
Palmer was a co-founder and board director of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) which in the 1980s, according to former New York Times foreign correspondent Stephen Kinzer, “took over many of the tasks that the CIA used to perform”. It’s $170 million annual budget was directed to foment nonviolent movements against almost any government which, in Kinzer’s words, “challenges or defies the United States, questions the value of unrestrained capitalism, limits the rights of foreign corporations, or adopts policies that we consider socialist.”
The major problem here is that because of the ideological focus of Chenoweth and Stephan’s research — to identify the efficacy of nonviolent resistance in the context of its usefulness for American policymakers (the book is impartial throughout but concludes with a handy list of recommendations for US diplomats) — this focus means that the way in which they examine historical cases is often inherently misleading. Instead of trying to understand and study the detail of these cases, the authors seek only to abstract from them the tools they want.
For example, in concluding that Ghana’s transition from a British colony to independence was solely due to nonviolent resistance, Chenoweth and Stephan focuses on Kwame Nkrumah’s fraught but peaceful negotiations with Britain from 1951 to 1957 — yet they ignore the fact that the entire impetus for independence was triggered by the 1948 Accra Riots, which saw a mass violent uprising in response to the murders by British colonial police of three Ghanian World War 2 veterans. Similarly, for instance, the authors claim that South African apartheid was ended on the back of a highly successful purely nonviolent campaign from 1984 to 1994, while carefully sidestepping the preceding two decades of armed struggle which arguably culminated in the apartheid regime agreeing to the talks which began in 1990, when the ANC suspended armed struggle.
The point here is to recognise that these historical cases were complex — and Chenoweth and Stephan’s reduction of them into discrete categories to serve the purpose of quantification is often arbitrary. The focus on trying to identify the core ‘nonviolent resistance’ actions that they want to highlight, often ends up excluding the deeper context of decades-long struggles, community organising, grassroots network building (sadly, frequently coupled with instances of regime violence and opposition counter-violence) which always preceded the eventual success of nonviolent strategies.
And one reason for that is as follows. These scholars have developed their research in an Eurocentric context which has sought to interpret disparate global struggles as efforts to ‘join’ a Western-dominated liberal world system, rather than to resist and subvert it. As a consequence, they fail to learn from social movements across the Global South which have elevated values like human dignity, material self-sufficiency, and local autonomy. Keen to find tools useful for Western foreign policy officials, the grassroots struggles and alternative social visions of many indigenous nonviolent resistance movements are easily overlooked.
This reveals the severe limitations of relying on Chenoweth and Stephan’s work to determine a viable system change strategy for climate change. The cases they studied involved political regime change usually followed by absorption into the neoliberal world system driving carbon emissions, and were obviously not aimed at producing the necessary scale of comprehensive economic, political, and cultural system transformation, encompassing finance, energy, food, water, infrastructure, society, culture, and beyond, to avoid climate catastrophe which in many ways subverts that world system. XR’s aftermath strategy of Citizens Assemblies sounds promising, but still doesn’t come anywhere near encompassing how such transformation would be enabled, a matter we will return to.
The other problem is that Hallam does not really absorb the key lessons that can be found from Chenoweth and Stephan’s findings on the nonviolent resistance strategies they examine. Of the 323 cases they study, all of them involved opposition forces using a wide range of different strategies with mass arrests figuring as just one potential approach — that would only work in the right circumstances. Most successful cases required a wide diversity of strategies building on years of community mobilisation, unlike XR’s current fixation on mass arrests.
Most important is the question of how relevant Chenoweth and Stephan’s work is to the contemporary situation. Due to the cases from which it is derived, the ‘3.5 percent rule’ is only meaningful in application to forms of political resistance against regimes involved in considerable, highly visible, domestic repression, by mobilising communities directly affected by that repression. And there is scant evidence of its effectiveness in the context of Western liberal democracy.
Using this particular route, therefore, XR will struggle to mobilise anywhere near 3.5 percent of the population into active involvement in its movement, because the repression of the institutions it is confronting is not universally obvious, nor does it impact the communities currently being mobilised.
This question is even more pertinent given that Chenoweth and Stephan quote and affirm Rutgers University sociologist Kurt Schock’s conclusion that nonviolent strategies don’t work as well in democracies as they do in non-democratic regimes — a finding largely corroborated by their data.
(It’s important to add that most of the research discussed here is narrow in itself: focused overwhelmingly on the ‘changing/overturning the state’ question, rather than studying the impact of issues-based nonviolent campaigns targeting consumers, social behaviours, or eliciting change from very specific entities such as large companies. It would be a valuable exercise to see whether there is good research on understanding the efficacy of nonviolent issues-based campaigns — which might throw more light on effective change strategies in a neoliberal context.)
The Gene Sharp model and XR’s arrest strategy
Underlying XR’s strategy is the unfounded belief that these nonviolent strategies can be mobilised to effectively “shut down” the capital city until the government is forced to capitulate to XR’s demands. According to Hallam, this view is supported by the distillation of nonviolent civil disobedience strategies conducted by the late Harvard scholar Gene Sharp.
Sharp is renowned for having developed one of the most influential efforts to understand and implement nonviolent strategies for change. His work has become ubiquitous across civil society movements worldwide, and understandably so. But once again, there are inherent limitations in relying on his work.
To grasp that, we need to dive a bit deeper into Sharp’s work.
Sharp’s theory of change was concerned with using nonviolent methods to overturn or devolve centralised states — without, however, offering much to guide what should happen afterwards, a matter he felt should be left open for different movements to decide for themselves. His model rested on the idea that for a government to function, it relied on a baseline of “consent” being dispersed throughout wider society. This would apply in any context, whether democratic or totalitarian. Even dictatorships need the public to engage in normalised modes of “obedience” in order to govern.
Like Chenoweth and Stephan, his work is based principally on the study of resistance against dictatorships (hence the title of his most translated book, From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation).
For Sharp, methods of nonviolent civil disobedience are mechanisms to “disrupt” this fundamental stasis comprised of tacit public consent. By mobilising a mass population to cease their “obedience” to the state, this would increasingly disrupt the state’s capacity to govern. Sooner or later, the state would resort to escalating violence to repress mass acts of nonviolent civil disobedience.
This is where we get to Sharp’s axiomatic adoption of nonviolence. Rather than being motivated by moral reasons, this is an entirely tactical agenda. Sharp believed that the more a state resorts to violence, the more illegitimate it would appear in the eyes of the wider public. Thus, the state’s internal counterinsurgency measures would in themselves accelerate the “disruption” of the tacit consent on which the state’s capacity to continue governing depends. The intensification of police-state power would, therefore, end up collapsing itself.
Ultimately, then, nonviolent resistance in Sharp’s view is about exposing how the existence of the centralised state depends ultimately on its monopoly over the means of violence — when fundamentally challenged, the state has to resort to the escalating deployment of those means of violence. This cycle of disruption drives and accelerates wider and wider public support for the protestors who withdraw consent for the state due to its reliance on excessive force.
Once again, Sharp’s model was not derived from cases involving Western liberal democracies. But his theory explains why XR is so keen to extract sympathies from the police, and fixated on the idea of mass arrests to shut down the capital. It also suggests that XR strategists fully expect the police to escalate its violent crackdown on XR activists, but see this as an essential precondition for victory. The theory advocates that while pursuing disruption actions that destabilise police operations, XR should simultaneously seek to build ties and connections with supporters and potential supporters within the regime, especially among the security forces. The idea is that this will create an exodus of those forces into joining the protest movement, undermining the legitimacy of escalating police violence.
This brings us back to the criticisms above. As with the cases studied by Chenoweth and Stephan, Sharp’s theory of change is focused narrowly on one goal: undermining the legitimacy of an existing overtly authoritarian regime, in order to effect regime change. But there is no evidence that this procedure implies that the British neoliberal state would capitulate in the face of, to quote Hallam, thousands of arrests. Sharp’s work does not prove that such a narrow strategy, absent a context of grassroots community-organising in the city being disrupted, is a game-changer. And Sharp’s case studies confirm that his change strategies can only develop sufficient mass momentum to be successful if the disruption to be executed is embraced as legitimate by the communities impacted by the disruption.
Ultimately, Hallam’s objective of shutting down the capital is based on an unfounded assumption derived from cherry-picking Sharp’s work while ignoring the characteristics of London.
He assumes that simply by stringently adopting nonviolence while provoking the state, any escalating violence from the state will be seen as illegitimate by the general public in the capital, and will end up growing and empowering the movement. But this would only be the case if XR was sufficiently embedded with and mobilised through diverse communities throughout the capital — which it is not.
And this is the key inflection point present in Sharp’s model that is missing from Hallam’s decontextualised selective reading of it – how to ensure that local communities continue to support the disruption action as the state radicalises its responses.
While XR’s approach seemed to work with the Metropolitan Police’s issuance of a section 14 order establishing a blanket ban on all XR protest activity — which was widely recognised as draconian; it backfired badly in relation to the direct actions targeting the London tube system, and related disruptions which affect ordinary Londoners.
And that is because while most people are worried about climate change, most are also unfamiliar with the implications of the latest science, do not grasp the gravity of the situation threatening not just social collapse but even human extinction (potentially within our lifetimes), and cannot recognise that the very system which marginalises, weakens and undermines them today is simultaneously and co-extensively responsible for this extinction trajectory.
XR’s current scattergun disruption strategy has been devised in a silo without consultation with and engagement from London’s communities — completely unlike the historical cases XR claims it is learning from.
It is therefore highly likely to alienate the sources of mass support it needs within the capital, and beyond. The strategy of destabilising the capacity of the security forces only works if it is designed to galvanize a community oppressed by those security forces, but not so effective otherwise.
By myopically attempting to disrupt the capital wholesale while fetishising the police, XR is in grave danger of losing support from across ordinary working people in the capital; and in particular losing support from diverse communities who are frequently targeted by the police in discriminatory ways.
In a diverse capital city where institutionalised police racism is an ongoing issue and inequalities are entrenched, the strategy is likely to lend itself to tabloid criticisms claiming that XR is not actually a ‘mass’ movement, but a parochial one, limited to a specific privileged constituency; disrupt the lives of ordinary working people struggling to make ends meet who will be drawn to agreeing with this critique, rather than sympathising with the movement; therefore potentially reinforce divisions along class, ethnic, racial and religious lines, resulting in the movement being incapable of galvanising mass support in a diverse society.
The result would be escalating disruption, but haemorrhaging support driving an intensification of authoritarian police-state powers with dwindling prospects of XR’s demands actually being implemented.
The race and class privilege of XR
In this context, criticisms of XR’s approach to diversity have far greater import than might normally be assumed. The diversity problem means that the race and class privilege of XR’s core organisers basically means they have very little engagement with the communities whose support they require to be effective in building a mass movement.
This is a fatal flaw. And it is increasingly recognised by people in the movement. XR activist Sam J. Knights has just written a lengthy essay touching on this, pointing out “its complete and utter failure to engage with issues of race.” While acknowledging the “many people of colour in organising roles across the movement”, he adds, “I have also witnessed the exclusion of people of colour from activist spaces” in XR, and describes a number of experiences demonstrating that XR presently lacks the procedures or the structures to deal with attitudes borne of racism, though he says these are not prevalent in the movement.
Knight’s perspective is supported by Professor Julia Steinberger, an ecological economist at the University of Leeds, who tells us, however, that the problem is deeper:
“… several non-white people I know personally have been quite badly mistreated by Extinction Rebellion, in a way quite apart from the experience of white activists. They have been ignored, dismissed, belittled, viewed with suspicion — their work, experience and contributions negated. This is the fault, not just of individual Extinction Rebellion members that they came into contact with, but of the culture of the organisation as a whole, otherwise their experience would not be so pervasive. One of my friends, a veteran activist and genius campaign theorist was continually neglected and ignored, but then contacted again ‘because we have been told we need more brown faces.’ Such mistreatment cannot be erased as a case of a few bad apples: it has to do with an organisation taking on the rot of the society around it, because it has been unwilling to do the necessary work of anti-racism and decolonisation.”
All this poses a major obstacle for XR’s capacity to succeed, because if it is going to organise effective disruption events in capital cities like London which kick-in mass support, it’s going to need to do so with the support of Londoners. And London is one of the most diverse and unequal cities in the world.
XR needs to realise that some 44 percent of residents in London, the main capital city it is aiming to disrupt, are ethnic minorities. In fact, many of the major capitals around the world where XR seeks to escalate its disruption actions are also home to very diverse populations.
XR needs to remember that London is the most unequal region in England according to Trust for London, with the highest rate of income poverty. It has the highest proportion of households in the top tenth of incomes nationally, and the highest proportion in the bottom tenth. Poverty, poor housing, ill-health and so on cut across ethnic lines.
XR needs to recall that ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected by particular challenges. The Runnymede Trust finds that ethnic minorities “experience employment and housing disadvantage in every London borough.” For instance, around “two in five Black African (40 percent) and Bangladeshi (36 percent) people live in overcrowded housing.” And 46 percent of London employees of Bangladeshi and Pakistani ethnicity are paid below the London Living Wage, double the rate for white British employees.
The same system which is responsible for our extinction trajectory is also hiking up poverty, inequality and structural racism. Diversity is not one of those nice but minor progressive issues that can be dealt with after we prevent extinction. It is a critical precondition for XR growing and sustaining its capability to mobilising the masses.
In my view, XR’s diversity problem is not just a structural problem symptomatic of the wider racism in society; it is the result of an insular outlook at the top of the movement, requiring some serious soul-searching and concrete action to address it.
For instance, in response to one media outlet’s questions about XR’s lack of diversity, a spokesperson issued this statement: “There’s a historical problem with the environmental movement and XR is not separate from that. We’re also not separate from the rest of society which is structurally racist. There’s a lot of people of colour working within this movement in ways which are having an influence.”
Imagine if the Metropolitan Police’s answer when accused of institutional racism was simply ‘yeah, but society is institutionally racist and we’re not separate from that, so, bear with us, ok? And we have some black police officers bruv’. Oh wait.
Despite numerous points of criticism received by XR from groups representing people of colour, in the latest version of his XR booklet, Hallam makes only sparse reference to these issues, in a way that illustrates my point. My discussion below is not meant to imply anything about Hallam as a person, but simply to critically assess some of the counterproductive thinking around identity issues holding the movement back.
“Poorly constructed messaging will put off new people from another identity not least because of the prejudices of the people receiving the message. Some of this may be unavoidable,” he writes. As his main example of this dynamic, Hallam says:
“For instance, a black woman came to an Extinction Rebellion meeting and left afterwards intending not to come back because there ‘were too many piercings’.”
This is an odd statement for two main reasons. Firstly, there is Hallam’s apparent belief that it was this woman’s “blackness” which ‘obviously’ explains her dislike of piercings.
Secondly, there is the worrying subtext of why the story of “a black woman” coming to an XR meeting is somehow a stand-out event worth noting, that clearly indicates how infrequently black people attend such meetings.
Hallam then goes on to provide a perfect illustration of the ideological underpinnings of XR’s structural white middle class privilege, when he advocates that the structural solution is not to have minorities and working class people fully integrated into the core organising groups of XR, but to instead segregate those groups into autonomous spaces of their own, thus potentially dividing XR up according to class and race identities:
“The structural solution is then to create different spaces for various different groups. For example, working-class mobilisations are organised by working people themselves (as opposed to middle-class groups that claim to speak for them). Similarly, people of colour can organise in their own spaces. People should therefore be encouraged to set up their own groups which agree on basic red lines such as nonviolence but are able to promote their own cultural identities.”
The absurdity of this prescription can be understood if I put it as bluntly as possible, no disrespect intended: we have a white man claiming to want the support of 3.5 percent of the population — citing inspiration from campaigns like the American civil rights movement which he examines rather poorly — putting forward a vision in which white middle class people are structurally prefigured at the centre, with “people of colour” and “working class” people segregated off as optional appendages granted gracious permission to “set up their own groups”.
I am not at all suggesting that XR has a deliberate policy of excluding people of colour or working class people from its movement generally, or from any of its groups specifically. And fully acknowledge that many of its core organisers are not simply white or middle class. But there is clearly a reason for the severe failure of representation going on here.
It is one thing to suggest that anybody can organise into different XR groups around different issues, and quite another to recommend that people of colour should ideally create separate spaces for themselves as people of colour (unlike white people who it is tacitly assumed will of course simply do the former and don’t need to be singled out).
The palpable dangers of the slippery slope which this tone deafness leads to, can be seen in the way XR’s insistence on being ‘apolitical’ ends up with some of its leadership unconsciously fetishising the extreme nationalism and deceptive tactics of the far-right.
In a recent video, XR’s General Election strategist Ronan Harrington advocated in all sincerity that the movement should learn from the tactics of Nigel Farage — a man with a long history of using anti-Semitic tropes, forging alliances with white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups, and whipping up anti-Muslim hatred.
Harrington advocated that XR should “learn from Farage to honour and defend this way of life” (whose way of life? and “defend” it from attacks by whom? Muslims? Migrants?); build on Farage’s narratives of “economic betrayal, political betrayal and cultural betrayal” (how exactly have Britons been “culturally” betrayed, by which ‘foreign’ cultures, and why is XR lending credence to such dangerous mythologising?); and to ditch “fear of being labelled a racist” when criticising “leftwing orthodoxy” (it is not the label of racism that should be of concern, but the complacent assumption that there is no need to reflect on potential latent and structural racism that illustrates the problem).
After the publication of this article, Harrington emailed me to clarify that he felt the paragraph above misrepresents what he is actually saying. I would like to make clear here that the rhetorical questions I pose above in brackets should not be taken as representing Harrington’s own personal views. That was not the intent of those questions. Harrington has made clear that he does not support Farage’s politics, and I do not doubt this. In this email, Harrington explained as follows:
“In more detail. ‘Honouring and defending this way of life’ refers to a working class lifestyle that ‘we’ middle class metropolitan liberal lefties have disdain for. I’m not talking about defending views on immigration but you imply this. The ‘betrayal’ I refer to has nothing to do with foreign cultures, it’s to do with being abandoned by UK elites politically, economically and culturally.
I do not say or suggest that we ‘ditch’ the fear of being a racist. I say it’s difficult to critique left wing views because it’s often equated with being racist in our current political culture. This again sounds like I’m saying we should ditch intersectional activism and care less about what they think. That is not true and I don’t imply it in my video.”
I also understand by this that, of course, he is not deliberately trying to legitimise Farage’s politics, but to use compassion to understand the dynamics of Farage’s movement. Though that is a valid exercise, it should be undertaken responsibly and based on conversation with the communities endangered by Farage’s politics. It also, of course, needs to be done in a way that is actually aware of the empirical and historical reality of Farage’s politics.
In my response to Harrington, I wrote: “…. your language simply reinforces a wider metanarrative promoted by Farage and the far-right about the need to ‘defend’ a way of life. All of this comes from far-right tropes which actually have their origins in anti-Semitic discourse about the so-called ‘metropolitan elite’. That exact phrase about the metropolitan elite is precisely a longstanding anti-Semitic trope. It’s also language that is precisely used in the context of attacking so-called mass migration to Britain. Whether you intended to or not, your language buttressed that metanarrative, especially given that Farage himself has courted white genocide theory: the conspiracy theory that liberal elites, often powerful Jews like George Soros, are orchestrating mass Muslim migration to Europe to overwhelm and replace white people.”
And so, the biggest problem with Harrington’s approach was his complete but inexplicable erasure of the racist, xenophobic nature and context of Farage’s politics. And without the clarifications he provided over email, his video was open to an interpretation which seemed to essentially give succour to that fundamentally racist and xenophobic agenda.
As a result, by proceeding as if the racist context of Farage’s agenda doesn’t exist, Harrington unwittingly offers a tacit glorification of Farage’s Brexit Party success in the European Parliamentary elections in May, which is deeply ignorant of the historical, empirical and sociological context of this victory. He fails to scrutinise the alarming dynamic of how and why Farage’s brand of xenophobia has become increasingly mainstream precisely by attempting carefully to conceal and normalise it (which is what his own poor language ends up unwittingly doing).
Racism and xenophobia are rising in the context of a deepening socio-economic and political crisis, unaccountable dark money, voter manipulation and massive targeted propaganda. And Farage himself has a chameleon-like ability to rebrand himself as someone opposed to Islamophobia in order to mainstream his reach, despite his long track record of anti-Muslim and anti-migrant dog-whistling. None of which is mentioned by Harrington, who in the final analysis focuses purely on how XR might calibrate messaging to — in effect — capitalise on rising xenophobia and extreme nationalism rather than combat it.
The main lesson from this, for me, is that XR as an institution needs to engage with, learn from and actively listen to minority communities. When those communities recognise something as racist, it is important for white communities to hear.
It has also emerged that XR’s political strategy group decided during a planning meeting to attempt to connect with Nigel Farage. Minutes of the meeting are quoted:
“Nigel Farage may have moved a bit from his climate denial stance, we may be able to influence him. Team agreed we should approach Brexit Party.”
I asked XR spokesperson and strategy advisor Rupert Read — whom I had the pleasure of sharing a platform with on XR’s Rebel Rebel stage at the Byline Festival this summer — about this over email and he pointed out that while XR had reached out to the Brexit Party, no meeting had actually taken place. He provided the following explanation of the rationale:
“Whatever we think about Farage et al, we can’t ignore the massive vote for the Brexit Party in May’s elections. If we sought no contact with his outfit, we’d be accused of political bias. This is particularly sensitive given that we are seeking to remain studiedly neutral on Brexit; we are ‘beyond politics’.
I despise Farage. I refused to debate with him during the Rebellion when LBC pitched for me to do so;… he is still a climate-denier. And I personally have a well-known public policy (which I invite others to adopt too) of disdaining to debate with climate-deniers. So I refused to come on his show. But: he is less of a full-on denier than he was; his stance now is to listen to ‘both sides’, which is less bad than the full-on denial of a few years ago. We — the XR national Political Liaison team, who are sort of XR’s equivalent of the diplomatic service — reached out to the Brexit Party to seek to have some Political Liaison with them, just as we have already had with all the other parties represented in the British Parliament / the European Parliament from Britain. That reaching out hasn’t gone anywhere; discussions about having discussions broke down. So in fact we haven’t met with the Brexit Party at all.”
I understand the apolitical logic of this rationale. I understand that Rupert and his colleagues mean well, and are not attempting to endorse the politics of Farage. I accept at face value that he and his colleagues reject this politics and despise its racist roots. And to his credit, I should note that Rupert himself strongly and helpfully recognises the need for a wider strategy, one that enfranchises “the 99 percent” and connects XR’s demands with the issues facing the British people across the board.
But I must offer the following observations as a person of colour who has experienced racism growing up, bringing up a family in London at a time when racism is resurgent and bigotry is becoming normalised.
The logic put forward here is deeply irresponsible. It is a faux white-privileged ‘apoliticism’ that would see the rise of a proto-fascist party as ‘par for the course’ and perfectly fine for XR to engage in the name of supposedly being ‘beyond politics’. Only a race and class privileged group can, on the basis of claiming to be beyond politics, contemplate working with a politician who has not only risen on the back of support from white supremacists, but has calculatingly courted ‘white genocide’ theory, yet used propaganda and deception to mainstream his public branding as an anti-racist.
The vast majority of the Brexit Party’s supporters seem to hold alarming xenophobic views that if ever legislated for would pose a serious threat to minority communities in the UK. Is XR really of the view that being ‘beyond politics’ means it will engage with any political party at all with a parliamentary presence — if the neo-Nazi BNP became a political force, would XR suddenly feel obligated to be all ‘non partisan’ and open up diplomatic discussions with Nick Griffin? Do XR’s groups based in Europe now have carte blanche to reach out to the myriad neo-Nazi political parties gaining strength across the continent, because they are ‘beyond politics’? Do I really need to remind XR that Hitler rose to power through the parliamentary system? What happened to the precautionary principle when it comes to political engagement?
XR’s inability to integrate the intersection of race, class and ecological justice into its judgement on such issues is not just a matter of theoretical debate. XR’s too narrow disruption strategy, simplistic ‘apoliticalism’, chronic failure to integrate the concerns of minorities and people of colour, are all part and parcel of the reality that such stances are hopelessly conditioned by a form of race and class privilege that is inhibiting it from fulfilling its momentous potential to build an inclusive mass movement capable of spearheading the system change we desperately need.
If XR carries on like this, the movement will go extinct long before it has the chance to help humanity stave off climate extinction. Or worse, there is a real risk that it unwittingly contributes to the mainstreaming of xenophobic tropes within an already institutionally racist environment movement.
XR has a major opportunity for course correction. This means recognising the limitations and nuances of the data being used to develop the strategy, and prioritising new approaches accordingly. It also means eating a bit of humble pie: owning the reality of its cultural and ideological limits, because its core organisers come from a small cross-section of the human species that they want to save.
Here are some suggestions for how XR can resolve the problems described above.
1. Diversifying XR from the top down
XR is a decentralised organisation but that doesn’t mean it has no ‘centre’. It has been founded, led and designed by a small number of people who are predominantly (though not exclusively) white and middle class. There is nothing wrong with that in itself— the problem arises when a group which suffers racial and class insularities in this way does very little to ensure that it resolves this insularity by then proceeding to change by cementing diversity at its core, and then throughout its operations.
XR’s biggest challenge is that it will fail utterly to build a global mass movement if it does not build out its internal capacities to connect with the wide diversity of people it hopes to enfranchise. That means the biggest priority is to ensure that organisationally — and this includes the core leadership, strategy and other design and decision-making groups — XR needs to actively diversify so that it is a more representative organisation.
If XR is serious about executing a strategy derived from the work of Gandhi, King, Sharp, Chenoweth and Stephan, and so on, it should do so in a way that takes account of the full implications of that work. That requires an approach targeted explicitly at diversifying the support base for XR, and especially requires the movement to overcome its tone deaf approach to racial, ethnic and religious diversity.
According to Chenoweth and Stephan: “More diverse campaigns, which include multiple age groups, classes, occupations, ideologies, and genders, are likelier to have links to members of the regime, such that opportunities to create divisions within the regime become more ubiquitous.”
People of colour and working people need to be integrated directly into XR strategy and decision-making processes, not just permitted to get involved in a tokenistic fashion incapable of acting ‘upwards’ on how XR as a whole defines itself, understands the crisis, and formulates change actions.
That has to come part and parcel with a concerted community-organising strategy that involves adapting to, consulting and engaging with individuals, groups and networks that can allow XR to reach across social, cultural and class divides, to enfranchise diverse communities — especially in cities, localities and nations where XR is planning or organising disruption actions.
That also requires diversifying the range of nonviolent strategies adopted. ‘Mass arrests’ is only one very specific tactic relevant to particular circumstances. Hallam has offered his scholarly opinion. Here’s mine: XR’s fixation on achieving mass arrests as the singular strategy to cause the British neoliberal state to capitulate has no historical precedent and no basis in the scientific literature.
This does not takeaway from Hallam’s central insight that the mainstream environment movement’s traditioal strategy of incremental change is a bankrupt failure. He is absolutely right that drastic action is necessary. There is no reason to exclude mass arrests as one strategy among many, but there are strong reasons to ensure that the approach is far wider than that.
The American civil rights and Indian independence movements deployed a multitude of different strategies, only some of which were aimed at getting arrested, and even then in particular circumstances which have not been reproduced in neoliberal London.
Gene Sharp derived hundreds of other nonviolent strategies which can be deployed to maximise the movement’s capacity not just to target and disrupt different sectors, but to fully enrol minority groups in designing and engaging in successful high-impact public actions. Many of these strategies could have far-reaching and more powerful impacts, while also being inclusive and enfranchising a wide variety of communities.
2. Connecting the climate crisis to class, race and beyond
Enfranchising communities on this scale is only possible by connecting their concerns, grievances, struggles and aspirations with the climate crisis. That requires communicating a systems-grounded narrative, recognising that the crisis of planetary extinction exemplified in escalating carbon emissions is integral to a broader economic and political system responsible for the challenges and obstacles people face here and now.
This also means that XR’s demands should be fleshed out economically and politically, drawing on the scientific literature — not in a fixed ideological way but certainly in a way that is open to iteration, feedback, critique and improvement — in order to ‘tell the truth’ about what needs to be done.
Why only ‘tell the truth’ about the climate science? XR should seek to connect itself with and thereby ‘tell the truth’ on the science around the system change necessary to avert extinction; as well as the opportunities for a better world offered by such system change. And it should engage in that truth-telling regardless of ideological political preferences; even if doing so leads to a sustained and probing critique of the status quo.
In this way, communities across society will be empowered to envisage how the great societal and civilisational transition necessary to avoid extinction is also the only crash programme that will stave off catastrophe in the future, as well as here and now transform their lives for the better, put food on the table, allow them to enjoy healthy working lives, free them from fear of draconian policing, give all people equal opportunities no matter their background, ethnicity, faith, gender, disability or whatever, and allow them to provide the best for their families.
The threat of extinction needs to be brought ‘down to earth’. In this way, the platform that XR is offering becomes meaningful for people of colour and working people, who are struggling right now in ways that white middle classes worried about extinction tomorrow can barely imagine. In this way, XR can begin to bring people together across race and class lines on a common platform.
Building on the first suggestion, this further means that the diverse communities XR is aiming to enfranchise will be engaged from the beginning in the internal processes designed to develop this envisioning, not as an afterthought to hit a diversity-perception target.
3. Connecting with critical sectors
It is paramount that XR connects directly to individuals and groups involved in all critical sectors that need transformation to avoid, mitigate and adapt to climate catastrophe. In this sense, XR needs to explicitly and systematically broaden its conceptualisation of “the regime” which it is disrupting far beyond that of the state.
This is especially because a vast body of data shows that the modern Western democratic state is not actually the locus of power and political decision-making, and therefore choosing to focus on disrupting that state is likely only to trigger those wider networks of power to radicalise and militarise the state, while deploying propaganda to legitimise that radicalisation.
And it should be immediately recognised that the last several decades of consistent state militarisation (vast accumulation of policing and surveillance powers which impact all, but are usually highly discriminatory toward minorities) has already occurred without significant public opposition.
Going beyond the Sharpian model, avoiding extinction requires transformative changes across all social, economic, cultural and political systems. This level of change is simply unprecedented, and drawing solely on the model of achieving regime change by disrupting a centralised state is unlikely (based on that past precedent) to produce a type of politics capable of engendering the system-wide changes required. And it is irresponsible to assume that Citizens Assemblies alone would possess the capacity and acumen to devise effective strategies for full-scale system transformation, without an organised mechanism for harnessing and applying relevant cross-sector multidisciplinary expertise.
In order for that transformation to take place — whether or not it is legislated for via Citizens Assemblies — the necessary systemic changes across energy, economic, food and other systems are unlikely to be able to surface, unless people, practitioners, experts, etc from across all relevant sectors have already been deeply, collectively engaged in exploring the options and strategies for system change in the contexts of their sectors across energy, finance, agriculture, and so on.
Therefore, that process of building a new capacity for public networked intelligence needs to begin now so that it can support democratic institutions (whether parliament, Citizens Assemblies or whatever). XR is in a decent position to spearhead this given that it is already attracting people from multiple professions and sectors — such as medical doctors, scientists and lawyers — and has set-up a business engagement platform.
This should not be left up to an ad hoc process, nor relegated to a ‘side issue’ to be pursued by one small XR group, if it wants to.
Rather it needs to be pursued strategically as a core XR action to ensure that all critical sectors are engaged with a view to engender support for transformative climate action by relevant firms, nonprofits and institutions in those sectors. Fossil fuel companies, banks, IT businesses, agribusiness and so on should all be targeted via engagement actions designed to forge channels of communication and education (this is a separate track to disruption — see below).
According to Chenoweth and Stephan, the failure of a nonviolent campaign “to develop and exploit ties within the regime, and to attract sufficient support from potential external allies” would cause “the campaign to expire before achieving its ultimate aims.” (p. 215) They also emphasise that nonviolent campaigns need to be highly agile in order to ensure they capture and engage with public sentiment: “Campaigns that constantly update their information, adapt to conditions, and outmaneuver the adversary are more likely to succeed than campaigns that expect to succeed merely by virtue of their causes and methods.” (p. 221)
Here, we need to remember the limits of this literature and replace the concept of “regime” with the wider neoliberal “system” that needs to be transformed.
In short, this indicates that XR should prioritise cultivating direct sympathetic ties with the most critical sectors of the existing system which XR wants to change. This is so that channels of communication offer opportunities for education, sympathetic defection, and thus opportunities for those who ‘defect’ to not simply ‘join XR’, but — even more effectively — to do so while remaining within their institutions and working to transform them from within through internal actions which can also be supported by wider XR platforms.
System change can come when key nodes within the system responsible for its structure, begin to reorganise that structure. Pressure to do that can be exerted from outside, but it can also develop from within.
4. Targeted disruption against pivotal leverage points in the system
A scattergun approach to disruption actions designed to simply “shut down the capital” will not work for the reasons described above, but will end up sowing divisions and animosities among the constituencies required to support mass disruption actions. Instead of accelerating the growth in support to build a mass movement, this will slow that growth if not potentially hemorrhage support.
Therefore, these strategies need to be deployed in a targeted way based on understanding the key leverage points in the existing system — that means focusing actions on disrupting the powerful, not the powerless, with an emphasis on the primary centres of power driving the climate crisis.
These are the same centres of power deepening inequalities, debilitating public services, sowing divisions, and essentially destabilising human social, political and economic systems.
This should be a research-based exercise based on analysing not only those institutions and agencies most directly complicit in our extinction trajectory, but also accounting for the impact of disruptions so that they are designed to cement and solidify mass support, while focusing public attention on the nature of the system of injustice that is both repressing people today, and rendering climate catastrophe virtually inevitable.
In some cases the same fossil fuel companies or banks with which backchannels of communication have been opened to accelerate attrition as employees wake up to the scale of the crisis, could be accompanied by public disruption actions channeling mass mobilisation into public pressure to change course. As noted, Rupert Read has already made a compelling case for XR to refocus its strategy on disrupting institutions of power, thus situating the movement within the concerns of the 99 percent.
This means that XR can become a locus point for two types of activity: disruption actions, as well as engagement actions; all of which need to be carefully directed at key system leverage points — and in a way which galvanises diverse grassroots communities especially in the cities where actions are organised.
Only such a multi-pronged approach can accelerate the prospect of system change, by ensuring that XR is capable of evolving into a genuine and organic people’s movement.
The stakes could not be higher. Every week, new evidence emerges of how our civilisation is systematically destroying the fabric of the ecosystems which underpin it. XR is among the last great social movements with a chance of helping us turn this around.
Some of my criticisms may well seem harsh. And they are: because looking in the mirror and doing the work, listening to people who love you but need you to take on board their heartfelt feedback, all of that is hard. And I imagine that many will be upset, if not outraged at this analysis. But we are at a point where we simply have no time to pussyfoot around the issues. None of this is as hard as going extinct. And we need to get this right.
XR has taken on a momentous responsibility to become a vehicle to save the human species. It can’t do this if it isn’t in and of that species. If XR’s going to have a serious chance of success, it has some growing up to do. We all do.
Dr Nafeez Ahmed is an award-winning investigative journalist, change strategist and systems theorist. He is editor of the crowdfunded investigative journalism platform, INSURGE intelligence, and ‘system shift’ columnist at VICE where he reports on ‘global system transformation’. Previously a Guardian environment blogger where he covered the geopolitics of interconnected environment, energy and economic crises, he is a former Visiting Research Fellow at Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute, which supported his research to produce his latest book, Failing States, Collapsing Systems: BioPhysical Triggers of Political Violence (Springer, 2017). He is a Research Fellow at the Schumacher Institute and a Fellow at the Royal Society of Arts. He is the winner of the 2010 Routledge-GCPS Essay Prize and 2015 Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism, and has been twice listed among the Evening Standard’s top 1,000 most influential Londoners.
*This article was amended on 28th October 2019 to specify that the ‘flawed science’ referred to in the title is ‘social science’.
**This article was amended on 28th October 2019 to correct discussion of Rupert Read’s approach to XR strategy, and his role in XR’s political strategy meeting where it was decided to try to meet with Nigel Farage.
***This article was amended on 29th October 2019. A paragraph was added to note that more research on nonviolent issues-based campaigning is needed; and some nuance was added to the discussion of Ronan Harrington’s arguments about learning from Nigel Farage.
****This article was amended on 30th October 2019 to acknowledge clarifications received from Ronan Harrington regarding his personal views and the intent of his video, as well as to capture the essence of the ensuing email exchange.