Is Extinction Rebellion Right To Move Beyond Disruptive Tactics?

Words by Molly Lipson

photograph by Hiroshi Tabata 

XR says its decision indicates a willingness to listen to criticism, and adapt. Others believe it undermines the movement’s powerful potential for change.

Extinction Rebellion, a UK-headquartered global environmental movement known as XR for short, made headlines in 2019 when it brought London to a standstill, blocking roads and junctions at major sites, including Oxford Circus, Waterloo Bridge, and Marble Arch. The movement’s key tactic—until now—has been non-violent civil disobedience, or direct action: using non-violent disruption, including breaking the law, in order to make a political statement.


But, on the last day of 2022, XR announced what seemed to be a total reversal, stating that it is no longer going to make public disruption their primary tactic. Instead, XR has said that the movement’s new aim is to “prioritize attendance over arrest and relationships over roadblocks, as we stand together and become impossible to ignore.”


There is no doubt that the statement signifies a change in approach, though according to Alanna Byrne of the XR press team, the change isn’t as significant as it might sound. “XR was founded on experimentation, and we’ve always had risk-taking built within our strategy. It’s important to look at your strategy and say, Let’s try something else for six months and see what happens. If it doesn’t work, we’ll try something different.” The movement is now working towards a mass protest in April where it hopes to gather over 100,000 people from the public and across different movements, climate and otherwise, to send a message to the government.


As of now, it’s unclear what exactly this message is, but the aim seems to be engendering a wider support base. “This is appealing to people who say, I totally back you, but I couldn’t do it myself, or people who totally agree with the message, but just don’t like our methods,” explains XR spokesperson Etienne Stott.


The movement is portraying this change as proof that it’s listening and adapting, but old criticisms about the movement’s lack of a racial and economic analysis remain unresolved—a point made further evident in XR’s public statement in which it breaks down “the root causes” as being: “a financial system prioritizing profits over life, a media failing to inform the public and hold power to account, and a reckless government entrenched in corruption and suppressing the right to protest injustice.”


While there certainly is truth in their reasoning, it’s nowhere near the whole truth. Four years after its founding, and four years of repeatedly receiving the same feedback from climate justice movements and organizers, there is still no mention or explanation of racism, racial capitalism, colonialism, oppression, and hierarchical power structures. These are the root causes of the crisis, but they have been absent from XR’s analysis since its inception. Without this understanding, the movement will never be able to tackle the climate crisis adequately no matter what their tactics. Instead, it will either lead to a greened up version of colonialism or “environmentally-friendly” capitalism. What we need is to entirely uproot, dismantle, and reorganize human society.


Instead, like so many other middle-of-the-road climate groups, it provides only short-term band aids that, in many cases, often end up replicating and perpetuating many of the same root problems.

“XR was founded on experimentation. It’s important to look at your strategy and say: Let’s try something else for six months and see what happens.”

Alanna Byrne
XR member, press team

In terms of tactics, it’s not that Extinction Rebellion hasn’t used legal, mass protest before, but this is the first time the movement has publicly made it a main focus. Civil disobedience, which XR has employed since its inception, is not unique to Extinction Rebellion. It’s a method used across the climate movement with roots in the ways Indigenous communities have defended their land from colonizers as well as the U.S. civil rights movement. Extinction Rebellion has always openly claimed that it borrows civil disobedience from such movements, but commentators have criticized XR’s knack for “cherry-picking” and watering down the historical events on which the movement bases its theories.


Nevertheless, XR’s impact in altering the socio-political landscape and conversation around climate cannot be underplayed. Their mass actions in 2019 dominated headlines for almost an entire year, leading the U.K. government to declare a climate and ecological emergency and, most importantly, driving mass participation in the climate movement as a whole.


Many were inspired by XR’s actions, including Dane Pavitt, a video editor, animator, and a natural science student at the Open University. XR’s latest announcement, though, has left him feeling disheartened and disappointed, for fear of it undermining XR’s standing as a viable, powerful movement for change. “It comes across as XR conceding defeat, and has given the opposition a huge boost of confidence to not take them seriously,” Pavitt said.


Worse, perhaps, is the fact that this has weakened XR’s bargaining position. “They’ve given the impression that they can be shaken & will retreat if threatened,” Pavitt said. “I worry that the public and political audience won’t take them seriously as an effective protest movement, which will hurt environmental causes more broadly.” Stott disagrees: “We’re seeing that there’s an opportunity to make bigger progress doing what we’re doing now, and we’re not wedded to particular [tactics]—what we’re wedded to is safeguarding our future for ourselves and future generations and all life on Earth.”

“When threatened with arrest, the Suffragettes would double down and push harder, rather than back off and announce they’ll be doing more letter writing and petitions.”

Dane Pavitt

The announcement arrived amidst a palpably tense political and economic atmosphere in the U.K. Train workers, nurses, airport staff, postal workers and others are undertaking industry-wide strikes, influenced and compounded by discontent caused by a revolving door of prime ministers, the cost-of-living crisis, Brexit and the pandemic. Extinction Rebellion’s announcement refers to this as a favorable moment for change: “The confluence of multiple crises presents us with a unique opportunity to mobilize and move beyond traditional divides.”


As mass protest has grown, so has the state’s desire to quash it. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Act passed into law in April 2022, giving the police more power to impose conditions on protest and to arrest, charge and criminalize protesters. It has been seen as a direct response to Extinction Rebellion, with specific stipulations addressing their tactics of “locking on” and blocking roads. A number of the harsher amendments from the PCSC Bill that were thrown out after impressive campaigning have been packaged into a new bill, the Public Order Bill, that is likely to become legislation this year.


Against this backdrop, Dane Pavitt sees XR’s move away from disruption as a critical misstep. “When threatened with arrest, the Suffragettes would double down and push harder, rather than back off and announce they’ll be doing more letter writing and petitions.” As the government ramps up both its disregard for global heating and its crackdown on dissent, XR seems to be ramping down.


Is the movement running away scared, or perhaps trying to reestablish its social capital with dwindling numbers to support mass arrest? Stott doesn’t think so. “It’s giving us a full pause for thought to say, Okay, how can we grow this movement given these conditions?” Byrne also notes that, whilst XR is focusing mainly on building a mass movement, “it doesn’t mean we won’t be doing disruptive actions as well, we’ll just be disrupting the perpetrators rather than the public.”


Other climate groups famed for using disruption have already made clear that they won’t be following XR down its newly forged path. Just Stop Oil has renewed its commitment to “civil resistance,” and Insulate Britain has made no statement suggesting it plans to change tack. Whether or not XR’s new strategy will work is uncertain— both because the strategy itself doesn’t seem fully formed and because it involves no fundamental alteration to their understanding of the crisis.


It’s still early days. How this new approach will impact Extinction Rebellion, the climate movement more widely and, most importantly, the climate crisis itself, remains to be seen.

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