Extinction Rebellion is all over the news. From Greta Thunberg’s countless appearances on frontpage covers of magazines to the road-blocking stunts the group pulled across Washington D.C., Extinction Rebellion’s antics are receiving widespread coverage—and it’s finally begun to backfire.
In terms of spectacle, the “XR” crusade—that the media sometimes brands as “climate activism”—shares a lot in common with the efforts of previous radical environmentalists. PETA and other animal activists are well known for their disruptive protests: throwing red paint on people in fur coats, branding the skin of activists in public, and flippantly comparing animal slaughter to the Holocaust and other historical atrocities.
The protests can only go so far before the public demands the activists to stop.
Now, Extinction Rebellion has entered the public eye with a protester twerking in too-short shorts and rainbow suspenders (while blocking traffic), performance art involving a piece of broccoli, cult-like dancing, and the stationing of boats in the middle of busy intersections of major cities across the globe.
The protests can only go so far before the public demands the activists to stop. In Canning Town near London, irate commuters violently dragged activists away for delaying their morning commute. Other vigilantes set upon the activists’ camera crew, which documented a portion of the altercation. They had to be defended by London Underground staff. Police arrested eight members of the group.
Senior figures in the movement now admit that delaying the trains was a mistake and are reassessing the group’s strategy, or so they claim.
In London, police enacted a city-wide ban on all XR protests following the group’s invasion and subsequent occupation of Trafalgar Square and other protest sites over the past two weeks, and have begun clearing up the camps. In total, police arrested over 1,700 activists.
What differentiates Extinction Rebellion from its predecessors in the environmentalist movement is that it has the overwhelming support of the media and public figures. It has Greta Thunberg, who delivered a melodramatic speech at the United Nations heard by millions of people all over the world—even eliciting responses from President Donald Trump and France’s Emmanuel Macron.
The media tells us to take these activists at their word. And that’s a problem because the message advocated by Extinction Rebellion presents some troubling implications.
More than 100 celebrities have signed a letter to the media declaring themselves “hypocrites” for enjoying lavish lifestyles while simultaneously preaching about climate change—but used it as a launching pad to call for an end to the “fossil-fuel economy,” and called upon journalists covering the movement to focus on the urgency of a “sixth mass extinction” brought on by human progress.
In contrast, PETA’s provocations are largely regarded as jokes in the press. Their protests are presented as amusing exhibitions that can be safely observed and indulged with full confidence that their fringe ideas will never catch on. As inhumane as the agro-industry might be to its products, saving some cows from a farm isn’t going to save the planet.
Extinction Rebellion is different; despite employing similarly bizarre and provocative protest tactics, it is not treated with the same levity.
This distinction matters: whereas in the past, reporters would poke fun at these outrageous antics, today the media tells us to take these activists at their word. And that’s a problem because the message advocated by Extinction Rebellion presents some troubling implications.
THEATRICS DISGUISING POLITICS
Extinction Rebellion’s theatrics are a smokescreen for more dangerous, eco-radicalist elements within their movement.
Some tolerate XR activism because they don’t connect the group’s frivolous tactics with their stated goals. Improv theater and dancing appears innocent enough; it presents the group as a harmless band of hippies that may be a small nuisance but are good for a laugh.
But while some activists are dancing in a public square, others attack public infrastructure by blocking traffic and public transit. These actions disrupt essential public emergency services and endanger the livelihoods of those delayed by the protests.
It’s the reason why the video of a San Francisco man grabbing the banner of XR protesters was met with widespread approval from onlookers and countless internet spectators. Increasingly, these protests conflict with the interests of working class people, whose lives are disrupted in service of the movement’s theatrics. For many, such as longshoremen whose work is jeopardized by such interruptions, the displays are rightfully seen as sanctimonious lecturing of working class people on why their living standards should be further diminished. And the protests themselves do little except prevent ordinary working people from doing their jobs.
Figures in XR might claim to be rethinking their strategy with the public, especially after their efforts to block the trains in London were met with violence, but it’s unclear what they planned to accomplish with the effort in the first place.
PULLING BACK THE CURTAIN
So, where’s the line? Indulging in XR’s “non-violent” antics only serves to mainstream the movement as a harmless one and obscures its real motives.
“Extinction Rebellion isn’t about the climate. It’s not even about ‘climate justice’.”
According to Stuart Basden, one of Extinction Rebellion’s 15 founders, the movement “isn’t about the climate.” Arguing that the world is facing “imminent societal collapse” necessitating radical change from everyone, Basden says that the group coalesced around working to “create the conditions that would initiate a rebellion.”
The climate’s supposed breakdown, he argues, is a “symptom of a toxic system that has infected the ways we related to each other as humans and to all life. This was exacerbated when European ‘civilization’ was spread around the globe through cruelty and violence (especially) over the last 600 years of colonialism, although the roots of the infections go much further back.”
The co-founder proceeds to blame Europeans for spreading “toxicity” around the world. He then details what he sees as the “constructed delusions that have been coded into societies and institutions around the world,” including—but not limited to—white supremacy, patriarchy, Eurocentrism, heteronormativity (the idea that heterosexuality is normal), and class hierarchy.
“We need to cure the cause of the infection, not just alleviate the symptoms,” argues Basden.
So Extinction Rebellion isn’t about the climate. It’s not even about ‘climate justice,’ although that is also important. If we only talk about the climate, we’re missing the deeper problems plaguing our culture. And if we don’t excise the cause of the infection, we can never hope to heal from it.
Essentially, XR is an anarcho-primitivist leftist movement that seeks, in the words of the XR co-founder, to “dispel these delusions” and effectively rid the world of Western civilization. What then of people who are not on board with this vision? The rapid drawdown of Western and industrial civilization is a grandiose goal. What fulfilment of such an objective might require in they eyes of its proponents should worry us all.
This kind of eco-extremist thinking, shared by the likes of Ted Kaczynski (the “Unabomber”), should be correctly identified as a threat to the public order—not indulged. It’s only a matter of time before the movement escalates its tactics to the next level. The negative reception with dockyard workers in Canning Town be damned—the destiny of “humanity” is at stake.
But there’s a funny thing about those who obsess over the fate of “humanity”: they tend not to care about actual humans. We should call out Extinction Rebellion for the radical, apocalyptic, and misanthropic movement that it is.
That means identifying XR’s politics with their objectives—not their skill at twerking.