What is Extinction Rebellion, the new radical and non-violent environmental group

Extinction Rebellion, founded in May 2018, is an extremely organised and multifaceted non-violent movement that uses maths as an instrument to plan protests.

Thousands of people brought London to a standstill for eleven days, the non-violent protesters motivated and united by a simple yet powerful ambition: saving the dying planet. They formed human chains to block bridges and roads, lay down in the streets, glued themselves to the entrance of the London Stock Market and the doors of underground stations. More than 1000 protesters were arrested. “All men recognise the right of revolution; that is, the right to refuse allegiance to, and resist to, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in the essay Civil Disobedience. This is precisly the strategy adopted by Extinction Rebellion (XR), a climate activist movement founded to campaign for urgent action to halt the climate and environmental crisis that threatens the survival of our species and many others.

Extinction Rebellion protest in London
According to the founders of the Extinction Rebellion movement, “Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change; halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025” © Leon Neal/Getty Images

Declaration of rebellion

XR’s “Declaration of rebellion, is straightforward and underlines the absolute necessity to act in order to avoid a catastrophe. “Humanity finds itself embroiled in an event unprecedented in its history. One which, unless immediately addressed, will catapult us further into the destruction of all we hold dear: this nation, its peoples, our ecosystems and the future of generations to come”. The group appeals to individual citizens’ sense of responsibility, since institutions have clearly failed in their duties. “In accordance with these values, the virtues of truth and the weight of scientific evidence, we declare it our duty to act on behalf of the security and well-being of our children, our communities and the future of the planet itself. We, in alignment with our consciences and our reasoning, declare ourselves in rebellion against our Government and the corrupted, inept institutions that threaten our future. It becomes not only our right, it becomes our sacred duty to rebel. We hereby declare the bonds of the social contract to be null and void, which the government has rendered invalid by its continuing failure to act appropriately. We call upon every principled and peaceful citizen to rise with us”.

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Extinction Rebellion’s genesis

Extinction Rebellion is a radical non-violent socio-political movement created to combat climate change, the loss of biodiversity and minimise the risk of human extinction and ecological collapse. It was founded in May 2018 by Roger Hallam and Gail Bradbrook. The former is a 52-year-old ex-organic farmer who now works as a researcher at King’s College London, and the latter is a 47-year-old molecular biophysics researcher at Manchester University. Both have always been interested in protest movements, as demonstrated by Hallam’s PhD thesis on the history of protest from 1900 to today. Hallam and Bradbrook’s academic studies have allowed them to analyse the key factors behind the success or failure of protest movements, helping them develop “the perfect protest model”, the first piece in the puzzle of XR’s birth. In contrast with the Fridays for future movement, borne from Greta Thunberg’s solitary demonstrations, which in a single year brought over a million people to the streets, twice, the founders of XR aren’t students and the generational gap is evident, even though their supporters are heterogenous.

XR protesters march peacefully in london
Extinction Rebellion is supported by approximately 100 academics who signed a call to action in October 2018. In November of the same year, the movement carried out several protests in London, New York, Stockholm, Dublin, Cork, Belfast, Copenhagen, Berlin and Madrid © Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Revolution goes through an algorithm

Even though from the outside it appears shabby and “hippie”, Hallam and Bradbrook’s approach is definitely scientific, in fact it uses maths as a tool to plan protests and every move is studied in detail. The number of people arrested during demonstrations in London, for example, wasn’t dictated by chance but, rather, by meticulous planning: in fact, XR’s objective was for the number of innocent people arrested to be so high that it couldn’t go unnoticed. “The police will go to government and say, ‘We’re not doing it anymore’. They’re not there to start arresting 84-year-old grannies or 10-year-old kids, there has to be a political solution,” Hallam told the BBC.

The effectiveness of non-violence

Being non-violent isn’t only dictated by idealism, it has a pragmatic purpose. Thanks to their algorithm, the founders of XR have established that a peaceful protest has a much higher chance of success compared to a violent one: 53 versus 25 per cent. A study published in 2011 shows that only 3.5 per cent of the population is required to mobilise to accomplish significant social and political change. According to Hallam and Bradbrook, these findings imply that organising a revolution isn’t an illusion, it’s within their grasp; they just have to convince two and a half million people in the UK to take part.

XR protest New York
“Arrest has been normalised, imprisonment is the next step – a young protester who took part in the London protests declared –. The government deters people from taking on climate change using civil disobedience through legal repercussions, but I’ve reached a point where in order to align myself more entirely with my morality I’m no longer willing to let my actions be bound by unjust laws” © Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

XR’s demands

The group has three principal demands:

Tell the truth

XR had been pushing the government to tell the truth about the magnitude of the ecological crisis by declaring a state of climate emergency – a step taken by the United Kingdom on the 1st of May, making it the first country to do so. The movement is based on the assumption that no political leader from any country has been honest with the public regarding the size or gravity of the threat and the countermeasures needed to fight it. This is why telling the truth would represent a radical action, that would spawn change. In part thanks to the pressure exerted by XR, in the last few months numerous British municipalities (around 60, including London, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Leeds, Leicester, Oxford and Cambridge) have also declared a state of climate emergency, promising to adopt measures aimed at drastically reducing CO2 emissions. According to the organisation’s founders, this has a strong symbolic value by altering the way citizens perceive the phenomenon of climate change.

Read more: The UK becomes the first country in the world to declare a climate emergency

Zero emissions by 2025

The second demand entails a substantial reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, with the aim of reaching net zero by 2025. According to XR, it’s no longer possible to be guided by what is deemed to be politically possible, but on the contrary politics must be guided by what is scientifically necessary.

Citizens’ assembly

Finally, the movement demands that the will of the people is given greater importance through the institution of a citizens’ assembly that should supervise the changes necessary to achieve the other objectives.

XR hopes to start negotiations with the British government, meetings with Environment Minister Michael Gove and Energy Minister Claire Perry took place at the end of April.

Manifestante arrestata a Oxford Circus
The strategy of getting a substantial number of people arrested reminds us of the mass arrest tactics used by the British pacifist movement Committee of 100 in 1961 © Leon Neal/Getty Images

The occupation of London

For eleven days, from the 15th to the 25th of April, the members of XR performed peaceful and creative protests on the streets of London, including a march on Heathrow Airport and chaining themselves to the home of opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Over this period, the government employed more than 10,000 police officers who arrested approximately 1,130 people (including an 83-year-old man). Greta Thunberg also took part in the Earth Day mobilisation on the 22nd of April in London, expressing her support for XR. After the occupation, the organisers declared that, even though they had decided to pull back, “real action starts now, we need to create leaders and protest communities all around the world and expand the Extinction Rebellion network. We’ll leave the physical locations but a space for truth-telling has been opened up in the world”. The organisers also thanked Londoners for having opened their hearts, “we know we have disrupted your lives. We don’t do this lightly. We only do this because this is an emergency.”


Banksy’s signature

A new mural was painted by British street artist Banksy, who apparently took part in the XR protests, during one of the mobilisations on a street near in the central Marble Arch, one of the headquarters of the movement’s headquarters. The drawing depicts a child kneeling beside a new plant, holding the XR’s symbol in its hand, with the inscription: “From this moment despair ends and tactics begin”.


Extinction Rebellion grows

The London protest was undoubtedly the most effective and highly participated one, but similar protests took place in approximately 80 cities in 33 countries. “These are the first international rebellions: civil disobedience works when it never stops – comments Marco Bertaglia, 49 years old, Italian coordinator of Extinction Rebellion –. We will also see this in Italy, where the movement will grow until it reaches a critical mass.”

The United Kingdom declares a climate emergency

As mentioned, XR has already reached its first and very important goal: the British House of Commons approved a motion presented by the Labour Party declaring a state of “climate emergency“. Thus, the UK becomes the first nation in the world to undergo this symbolic initiative that also entails the adoption of concrete measures to stem the emergency. “This can set off a wave of action from parliaments and governments around the globe – Corbyn declared. – We pledge to work as closely as possible with countries that are serious about ending the climate catastrophe and make clear to US President Donald Trump that he cannot ignore international agreements and action on the climate crisis.”

Manifestazione di Extinciton Rebellion a Westminster
Even though most of Extinction Rebellion’s demands haven’t been undertaken yet, the movement’s impact is already evident. They’re supported by the Labour Party and various politicians have started speaking more about climate change and the actions required to contrast the emergency © Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Seeds of change

The rebellion has started even though it seemed unimaginable just a year ago, and Greta’s sweet and at the same time severe face isn’t the only one representing this insurrection. After decades of apathy, thousands of people all around the world are openly expressing their dissent towards the policies that have brought the Earth on the brink of ecological collapse, causing the sixth mass extinction on our planet. Thanks to the protests and rallies that have taken place in the last few months and the media coverage they’ve received, the truth on the climate crisis and the threat it represents for humans are now in the public eye and can no longer be ignored by those in power. The veil of Maya has finally been ripped open, and the truth, along with its terrible consequences, is unfolding before our eyes. The statement by British philosopher John Locke that heads XR’s Declaration of Rebellion underlines the need to inaugurate a new era of truth and (unavoidable) change. “To love truth for truth’s sake is the principal part of human perfection in this world, and the seed-plot of all other virtues”

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