The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

You Say You Want a Revolution


A photo of a protest march through the streets of a city. The streets are broad, the buildings relatively low, and the sky is a mix of blue sky and cloud. Very few people are in the shot as they are marching widely spaced. Some of them carry flags with Extinction Rebellion symbols on them. Two carry between them a wide black banner that reads "life or death extinction rebellion" in bold white letters. One of the buildings they are passing is partially wrapped in a giant rainbow flag.

A march in Cardiff. Photo by David France, published in the Extinction Rebellion newsletter, used by permission.

News reports (like this one and this one) are beginning to trickle in to the effect that rebels have taken to the streets in the UK. I can’t say I’m surprised, as I happen to know some of the participants—anyway, the plans for the major demonstrations have been public for some weeks, now. Most of it is legal, or not very illegal, anyway. They aren’t rebels in the sense of Guy Fawkes.

More like V for Vendetta, maybe.

It’s not what they want to change that’s the issue. It’s what they want left unchanged; the climate of Planet Earth.

The Who, What, Where, When, and Why the Hell Not

This is Extinction Rebellion, and the language of rebellion, the practice of referring to participants not as activists or protesters but as rebels both is and is not meant to be taken literally. Yes, the group’s primary tactic is a form of non-violent civil disobedience. As of the publication of that BBC article I linked to earlier, 90 people had been arrested by the end of the first day. More will follow. For some rebels, especially in earlier actions last year, getting arrested was part of the point, a deliberate tactic. And it’s true that they are attempting to dictate policy to Parliament, something that would indeed have been considered rebellious in a less-democratic age. But this is not a revolution in the traditional sense of the word; it’s not the British government these people are rebelling against.

They are rebelling against extinction. Quite simply, these are people who don’t want to die of climate change.

Do you?

A photo of a group of people holding a pink banner that reads "we want to live" in black lettering and also has heart-shapes and the Extinction Rebellion symbol (a stylized hour glass) on it. Several people in the crowd also hold colorful flags with the Extinction Rebellion symbol on them. There are trees and buildings in the picture, too--the setting appears to be a leafy urban area--and there is a lot of sunlight but also smoke or fog. The image looks very up-beat, serious yet playful.

Photo by Marina Illiara, published in the Extinction Rebellion newsletter, used by permission

The History of XR

There is a wonderful article on the history of Extinction Rebellion (fondly referred to as XR by its members and friends) here. I recommend reading it. In the meantime, here is my somewhat shorter version of the story—unless otherwise stated, my sources are that article and the individual rebels I know.

XR grew out of conversations within a loose group of experienced British environmental activists who had been winning small victories but were frustrated by the lack of overall progress. They felt the need to scale up. In 2017, those conversations created a loose network of activists interested in non-violent civil disobedience—the group called itself Rise Up (the same name belongs to a Ugandan-based group, and I am currently unclear as to what the relationship between the two is. They may or may not be the same. I need to do more research, but not today). Early in 2018, members of Rise Up created Extinction Rebellion as a decentralized movement fighting climate change that would appeal to people across the political spectrum.

XR invested itself heavily in outreach, and very quickly got very big.

In October and November of 2018, brief, largely symbolic actions drew thousands of participants to block roads and bridges, briefly shutting down parts of London in support of meaningful climate action. In April of 2019, XR declared its first “rebellion,” demonstrating across London for two weeks. The rebellion was quite successful, inspiring wide-spread public support and the ear of government officials, who began talking about the climate crisis in a way they hadn’t before.

A second period of rebellion occurred in October, but problems occurred. Some of the actions interfered with working people’s lives a bit too much, triggering backlash. Also, many people of color felt excluded from XR by strategies that centered around provoking mass arrests; while white, middle-class people can get arrested for minor issues (such as disturbing the peace) without serious long-term consequences, non-white people usually can’t. The perception that XR was for and by those with a certain privilege further cost the movement public goodwill. Meanwhile, serious internal disagreements over strategy cost the movement some of its focus.

Over the following months, XR continued to cope with internal disagreements but tried to learn from its mistakes and honor the criticism it had been given. A third rebellion was planned for May, 2020, but COVID-19 happened, instead.

The current rebellion has as its stated aim to force Parliament (which began its new term yesterday) to consider certain demands–essentially, meaningful climate action immediately. COVID-19 hasn’t gone away, but organizers are encouraging everybody to wear masks, practice social distancing, and stay safe. Anyway, since climate change is still here, too, the general feeling seems to be it’s time to get back in the saddle and ride.

Identity and Structure

XR isn’t an organization, it’s a movement.

One doesn’t join XR in the sense that one can join, say, the ACLU or the Democratic Party. There are no membership lists. There are no authority figures—if you and a few friends want to stage an XR action you can go ahead and do so, provided you operate within certain ethical precepts. You do not need permission, and there is no one to ask permission of.

At the same time, XR obviously is an organization, because it organizes things.

A group of people dressed in simple white clothing stand well-spaced in a plaza in front of a large building. There is a tree in the background. Several of the people are holding up a giant puppet that looks like a yellow bird with a brown, human face--a bird beak sticks out above the face--and the branches of an orange tree spreading across its front. The birds wingspan is about 20 feet.

An action in Manchester. Photo published in Extinction Rebellions newsletter. Used by permission.

Thousands of people do not all suddenly begin a series of coordinated events across multiple British cities without some group decision-making process. These are not simply public gatherings, either. Many actions are complex performances of street theater, complete with costumes, props, and choreography. Others are sophisticated non-violent attacks on infrastructure, temporarily shutting down roads, airports, meetings, and other instances of business-as-usual (these tend to also include street theater). Big actions come complete with medical staff, food service, toilet facilities, and internal but serious journalism. There is a helm, and somebody is at it.

This paradoxical organization/non-organization is because while XR lacks the kind of top-down control structure many of us take for granted, there are other ways to organize things.

XR is a network of interacting cells or groups, some of which further subdivide into smaller groups. Each group has its area of focus (such as maintaining the website or providing legal help), and each is run by consensus through one or more coordinators who serve rather than govern. Although the groups themselves are autonomous and sometimes rather isolated (to the point that some members of one group might not know another group even exists), people move fluidly from group to group as their interests and abilities shift. Information and resources flow, too, with each group working with and serving the needs of those other groups with related tasks. For example, groups charged with drafting strategy pass guidance along to action organizers, who in turn pass information about their actions on to groups charged with creating newsletters and blog.

Cutting across this network of networks is the fact that XR is, as rebels put it, a “movement of movements.” Many countries all over the worlds have their own XR groups, plus there are local XR chapters, a youth wing (for young adults and teens), a family wing (for families with young children), and semi-distinct XR movements with more specialized concerns, such as the environmental health of oceans. And there are allied groups, such as Black Lives Matter, the school strike movement, Beyond Politics, and others that do not use the XR name but do share similar tactics, philosophies, and at least some goals. All of these groups both work independently and cooperate on actions. Or don’t cooperate. Sometimes they argue, split, merge, inspire each other, cause problems….

Photo by Gareth Morris, published in the Extinction Rebellion Newsletter, used by permission.

XR is not really a movement—it is an iteration of, or a corner of the activist wing of the environmental movement itself (an earlier generation of which founded such groups as Green Peace, Sea Shepherd, and Earth First!), which in turn has ties to the Civil Rights movement, the Labor Movement, and others. There are no hard boundaries, and little that is radically new–only new approaches to older ideas and concerns. 

What all this suggests to me is what my grad school professors would call a self-organized, complex system. That is, it’s structure is close to that of an organism or an ecosystem–and thus able to grow, repair, and direct itself, of itself. As such, it could prove both more stable and more resilient than simpler systems with the command-and-control structures we’re more used to.


There are issues, of course.

XR must have broad support to hope to succeed, and that means tackling not just climate change but all of the other causes that rebels and potential rebels consider important, such as social justice and biodiversity conservation. The catch is that the more causes a movement includes, the more opportunities there are for internal disagreements or external backlash–trying to be universal risks throwing existing disagreements into even sharper relief.

In XR’s case, the major division is between those who want to work within existing governmental and economic systems, and those who want to tear down what they see as inherently problematic structures and rebuild fresh. Both agree on the importance of climate action, but each tends to want to undermine the strategies of the other.

Another issue is that not having institutionalized authority roles doesn’t prevent individuals from amassing power, it just makes it virtually impossible to hold such individuals accountable. The problem is nicely illustrated by Ursula K. LeGuin’s book, The Dispossessed, which largely takes place in a (fictional) peaceful anarchic society—the society mostly works quite well, but a few people do amass and abuse power on a small scale, and there is no way to deal with them. They can’t be fired since there are no bosses, can’t be arrested because there are no police, and can’t even be publicly called out for abusing their power because officially they don’t have any. I’m not saying that anyone within XR is abusing power, but there are certainly those who hold power, and they do so with an almost total lack of transparency. There are dedicated rebels, seasoned hands (or as close to seasoned as anyone can get in an organization barely two years old!) who don’t know what XR’s underlying strategies are, why those strategies have been chosen, or even who chose them.

And, honestly, sometimes I question those strategies. Given the marvelous opportunity XR has made for itself—the wonderful momentum it has built—I very much hope that its energies are being directed by top-notch strategic thinkers.

The fact that I don’t personally know that the thinking behind the rebellion is sound is not, in itself, a bad sign; top-notch thinkers need not prove themselves to sympathetic bloggers in order to be real. But I’d feel a lot better if some of them did prove themselves, frankly.

And yet not all issues are problems. My favorite XR issue is embodied by the individual rebels I have met. Put simply, they’re good people. They don’t come off like radicals–which is to say they show no sign of retreating into a self-referential counterculture, as many of the radicals I’ve met over the years do (and I say this as someone who sometimes identifies as a radical and tends to enjoy the countercultures radicals create). They seldom discuss ideology or visions (stirring or otherwise), but instead quietly go about their work, one foot ahead of the other. They are less likely to shout “strike for God and Country!” and more likely to remind each other to wear sunblock and carry a water bottle while protesting in the streets. And they do not waste time or energy on hatred—I have never heard a rebel mock or denigrate any polluter or climate denier by name.

They are kind. Every rebel I have met—not a large sample size, I admit, but still—will begin every interaction by asking “how are you?” and listening to the answer.

None of this is by accident, for it is precisely these values of kindness, acceptance, and pragmatic positivity that XR’s published materials emphasize. This is a group that seems to genuinely walk some excellent talk.

These people must be doing something right.

Hear Ye, Hear Ye

I chose to write about XR for two reasons. One is that when thousands of people take over parts of three UK cities in the name of climate action, I kind of have to cover the story, just as I couldn’t let Hurricane Laura blow by without some kind of acknowledgment. But the other reason is that there will doubtless be people in the press and elsewhere attempting to paint the rebels as pointlessly lawless, as fringe-group radicals, as something less than serious shapers of their country’s future—and that’s to the extent that they make the news at all. In recent years I’ve seen even widespread climate demonstrations buried well behind the headlines, at least in the US.

And that’s not fair. These people deserve to be heard and listened to, if not uncritically that at least sympathetically and honestly.

I am not convinced that XR is going to fulfill its potential. I’m not convinced that it is the movement we’ve been waiting for, the one that will save us by offering us the strategies, resources, and leadership to save ourselves. But I am convinced that someone needs to be taking to the streets for climate, and no one else is at the moment. Massive marches with the proper permits might be better, who knows, but there aren’t any, not for some years, now, and none on the horizon. Well-organized, fully intersectional efforts to get climate hawks into office would certainly be excellent, but no one seems to be doing that, at least not in the United States–climate is being treated as a secondary issue mentioned occasionally by candidates running largely on social justice and economic reform (as if either were really separate from climate). Somebody has to do something—and XR is doing something.

I’ll tell you what I think.

I think it’s possible that XR, together with the various other assertive, confrontational branches of the modern environmental movement, may or may not be able to drive the change it seeks—but it may nonetheless be the change it seeks.

Kind, practically-minded people self-organizing into a society willing to care for each other and the planet at whatever cost? If that gets big enough, it may not need to persuade anybody or force anything, it may simply become the world.

And then we win.

The photo shows what appears to be a tea party in formal dress, except table, chairs, and humans are all in about two feet of water out in what looks like a large harbor. The sky is partly cloudy and gorgeous. The table has a cheery red table cloth with a square of white lace on top and what looks like various cakes and other fancy food stuffs. There is a green and blue banner above that reads "stop global warming" in red letters and there is a tall pole with a short cone on top nearby. The people are all posed very elegantly as though they were upper-class people taking tea together. Most of them are wearing masks to prevent COVID-19 transmission, including one woman who is pretending to sip her tea.

Originally published in the newsletter of Extinction Rebellion. Used by permission.

Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have two published novels and more on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

2 thoughts on “You Say You Want a Revolution

  1. Pingback: You Say You Want a Revolution – My Daughters' Earth

  2. Pingback: About That Revolution… | The Climate in Emergency

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.