Together with Stephen Woreniecki we wrote down some of our thoughts about Extinction Rebellion, the new wave of climate activism sweeping not only Europe but also Australia, Canada and New Zealand. We had some intense experiences participating in a demonstration that really opened up how we see direct action playing a role in decision making, especially as current decision-making is dragging us closer to climate disaster. This post was published by Cecilia von Arnold on the LUCSUS Blog in December.
Many readers may have noticed the increasing frequency of climate protests organised by Extinction Rebellion (XR) across Sweden. But what do these protests represent? Is this just another group of tree-huggers being a public nuisance? Or is this a needed development in taking our climate goals further? Two Lund University researchers argue that there are critical ideas to take away.
The Extinction Rebellion is a non-violent direct-action movement challenging inaction over dangerous climate change and the mass extinction of species which, ultimately they argue, threatens our own species. XR originated in the United Kingdom and has spread to more than 35 countries including Sweden in under 6 months. People are taking to the streets to express their incredulity that the climate crisis has been left unattended so long by the international community; inaction that dramatically increases the risks and leaves us with ever diminishing timescales and range of options. One of the key tenets of Extinction Rebellion is challenging the political class for its deep lack of commitment to addressing these very real problems.
We have had the chance to get to know the activists in Skåne and found that overwhelmingly XR comprises articulate, caring, well-read and surprisingly normal people; amongst them nurses, engineers, receptionists, teachers and a biologist. Many have never been involved in protests before. They have one thing in common however: the feeling of urgency to take peaceful direct actions to halt the growth obsessed paradigm of capitalism that is destroying our common future. From their perspective responding appropriately to the scale of the climate crisis as self-evident. None of them can comprehend why the so-called decision-makers have not responded appropriately, why the world is not taking climate change seriously.
For instance, it’s not commonly acknowledged that emissions reductions in Sweden have to occur much faster than currently to keep us on track. Neither is it common for the media to address the mass extinction we are currently facing. XR draws attention to the scale and magnitude of damage and loss that we can expect if the world warms more than 1.5 degrees. At this point all coral reefs will be lost, crops will fail, millions of people displaced. Many of these changes are becoming slowly inevitable through repeated inaction.
The sorts of responses that XR have been involved with in Sweden have been blockading roads by displaying banners, singing, dancing and handing out fliers and cookies, with breaks to let the traffic flow. XR have also brought attention to companies who blatantly ignore environmental responsibilities. These actions have been warmly received by the public, with bystanders expressing their support of these efforts, especially the home-make cookies. One driver wrote to XR Sweden afterwards saying “I was stopped by your demonstration in Malmö today. I wanted to say that I like your initiative and the way you met me was friendly and nice. It was a good reminder that I need to improve myself even more for the sake of the climate and environments, which I promise to do.” (Translation by authors).
These sorts of peaceful protests are part of wider social movements to make normal people’s concern over climate change visible. People taking to the streets can be a powerful way to not only share values, but also give a mandate to those in positions of power: to show politicians and business leaders that citizens are ready for change. They are prepared to start questioning our everyday assumptions around carbon intensive activities such as eating, transport, housing and leisure activities. Since starting just six months ago the movement has already witnessed some significant environmental policy successes, including Ireland divesting from fossil fuel and London declaring a climate emergency.
XR are right in that current efforts to protect the earth are not ambitious enough to match the scale of the threats. A new global deal for the earth, backed by concrete commitments from global leaders and businesses to tackle those threats, is imperative. There are answers to the climate crisis. But these answers don’t mean much if the rules and structures for organising society don’t change. We need to out-build – eliminate – carbon from society. But not without reference to social inequalities.
There was a strange symbolism a couple of weeks ago when cities on either side of English Channel were locked down by – at least superficially – matters of climate. XR shut down the bridges across the Thames in London, whilst at the same time Paris was on lockdown by the Yellow Vests, resisting what they saw was a regressive carbon tax hitting the poorest hardest. To be relevant, XR needs to acknowledge these politics and recognise that top down action like Macron’s carbon tax has consequences. Like the impacts of climate change, the poor can be hardest hit. Climate politics cannot be separated from the politics of inequality.
What can we learn from XR?
- Combatting climate change needs to be part of everyday discourse
- We need to fight the climate crisis together
- Grass roots governance has potential in tackling climate change in a socially inclusive way
We can only hope that actions like those that are becoming increasingly more frequent across Sweden can help shift the conversation and help establish inclusive, forward facing climate policy. Regardless of what you might think of XR’s tactics, climate change impacts, or the social movements that arise from the recognition of such impacts, will change the global environment. In a world struggling to come to terms with climate change, one thing is sure: leaders need to look to the people.