Extinction Rebellion (XR) started their “International Rebellion” on Monday 15 April, with thousands of people participating in road blocks across central London: Marble Arch, Oxford Circus, Waterloo Bridge, Piccadilly Circus, and Parliament Square.
There were hundreds in each location, with festival-like atmospheres, and people staying overnight in some. At the time of writing, Tuesday lunchtime 16 April, there are still some active blockades with hundreds of people.
Participants are mostly a mixture of pensioners and people in their early 20s or younger. The police have reported over 100 arrests so far. There seem to have been significant transport disruptions. Some protesters glued themselves to Shell Headquarters, which was also graffiti’d.
There have been blockades internationally: Brussels, Belgium; Stockholm, Sweden; Lausanne, Switzerland; Berlin, Germany; Ottawa, Canada; and probably elsewhere. There have been protests or actions in New Zealand, Istanbul, Barcelona, Lisbon, Seattle, and beyond. In Adelaide, a protest was staged inside South Australia's state capital, and was then forcibly removed.
These “rebellions” are helping to raise the importance of urgently tackling climate change in many people's consciousness. They are encouraging people to think about, and feel empowered to take, bold and confrontational climate actions. This is good.
But their core message, and strategy, fall far short. Their demands are extremely vague, and their message boils down little more than that our current situation is a climate emergency, and that the government should recognise it as such and do something.
Non-specific demands, up to a point, have their place. In aiming to build a mass climate movement, we cannot detail an exact blueprint for the transition. The details should be worked out democratically by a mass movement, in which workers in the industries which will be most significantly transformed — energy, transport, etc. - are central. This would make way for a better as well as more democratic transition.
However, XR's demands fail to point, even generally, in the direction of socialist environmentalism or a worker-led just transition.
Indeed, many in XR have proclaimed that it is a “non-political” campaign, simply a moral reflection of the urgency conveyed to us by science. Climate change has political causes. There are political reasons for action on it being blocked. Political action is needed to tackle it. The whole thing is inherently political.
To tackle climate change we need to overthrow capitalism, and most immediately tackle the power of fossil capital. We need to expropriate wealth from the ruling class to fund a rapid transition. This requires us to change millions of people's minds, but it also requires us to build power, and leverage, to force changes and to ultimately build a new society.
Capitalism cannot be overthrown simply by shutting down particular companies, by causing disruption, or by putting pressure on a state or some other capitalist institution to abolish it by decree.
To overthrow capitalism, we need to transform the labour movement, to build democratic power of workers organised in the workplace, and convinced of socialist environmentalist ideas. For this reason, our organising must orient towards not just “citizens” executing their “sacred duty to rebel”, but to the working-class, to trade unions, to the labour party.
Nor can we move beyond capitalism by convincing enough people that tackling climate change is really important, and perhaps understanding in our own heads - but keeping it to ourselves - that the logical conclusion of this is that overthrowing capitalism is really important. Our demands must be environmentalist, but they must be socialist.
Concrete demands around the environmental transition of the energy and transport sectors, for example, which see workers retrained rather than made redundant, could win a much wider layer of people. These are demands which workers in those industries could organise around: the most democratic way a transition can happen, and the fastest way we could win it.
XR can hopefully contribute towards laying the groundwork for better, socialist, working-class environmental movements. As socialists and activists in the working-class we must contribute much of the groundwork.
We should intervene in XR's rebellions, but also argue for socialist environmentalism.