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Striking at the End of the World

Extinction Rebellion proposes a new paradigm for climate-change activism

In recent months, hundreds of people from coast to coast have confronted politicians in their offices and asked them to take action on climate change. Activists with the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led organization whose mission is to halt climate change and “create millions of good jobs in the process” swarmed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office on Capitol Hill in February, urging him to support Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey’s Green New Deal, which McConnell was planning to torpedo by holding a premature vote. Days before that, a group of young children had done the same at Senator Dianne Feinstein’s San Francisco office. In December, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s San Francisco and D.C. offices were both occupied, and before that . . . well, you get the picture.

Few of these political leaders seem to be listening, however, and it’s become clear that a form of climate denialism—or at least, in Ocasio-Cortez’s recent parlance, climate delay—remains a bipartisan consensus. When all is said and done, neither party seems interested in enacting bold, transformative policies within the timeframe scientists warn is necessary to avert climate apocalypse. So, in the face of this inaction, and with a renewed sense of urgency, people of all ages and backgrounds have begun taking directly to the streets and participating in mass disruption events in the United States and beyond. One notable event was coordinated late last year by the relatively new group Extinction Rebellion; on November 17, they successfully shut down five major bridges in London through a series of swarms, flash mobs, roadblocks, and other forms of direct action.

Extinction Rebellion was launched by activists from the organization Rising Up! at the end of October 2018, shortly after the publication of the groundbreaking UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report which outlined the mere twelve years we have left to radically transform all aspects of the global economy in order to avoid full-blown climate apocalypse. On October 31, the group held their first action, convening an assembly of more than a thousand people at Parliament Square, where they formally declared rebellion against the UK government and performed a sit-in on the roadway which resulted in fifteen arrests. Extinction Rebellion continued coordinating relatively small disruptions during the first two weeks of November, all of which lead up to November 17. These smaller actions included road blocks, a banner drop over Westminster Bridge which read “Climate Change: We’re Fucked,” and a gathering where protesters glued themselves to fencing outside Downing Street.

Larch Maxey is an organizer with Extinction Rebellion in the UK. From the movement against Heathrow airport’s expansion to anti-fracking and anti-genetic engineering efforts, Maxey has been involved in some way with non-violent, direct action around climate change for the last quarter century. Last year, he used his annual leave from his day job to work full-time with Extinction Rebellion and helped to coordinate the November 17 protests. “That was one of the largest civil disobedience events in the U.K. for decades,” Maxey told me. “We had probably 6,000 people out on the bridges blocking traffic for seven minutes. We’d block traffic in one location for a few minutes, then we’d disappear into the crowd and suddenly pop up elsewhere. It was enough to cause massive economic disruption and block the whole city.”

According to Maxey, one of Extinction Rebellion’s goals for their direct-action events is to have as many people arrested as possible. The police in London were well aware of this strategy during the demonstration and had a no-arrest policy throughout—though eighty-five people were still arrested despite this. “We had hundreds more willing to be arrested,” Maxey explained. “The theory of change behind Extinction Rebellion comes from non-violent direct-action movements in history, from the suffragettes to Martin Luther King Jr., where we see that getting arrested and going to prison is part of a movement which brings about change through pressure.”

“That was one of the largest civil disobedience events in the UK for decades.”

The strategies used by Extinction Rebellion are not intended to antagonize the individual bystanders being disrupted, though—they’re ultimately aimed at building a mass movement. During the November 17 Rebellion Day, they used a number of tactics to ensure that they did not alienate the drivers, bikers, and pedestrians who were being blocked. “People were making flapjacks, we were offering chocolate bars. You offer them a gift, you say sorry for the disruption, we’ll only be here for seven minutes,” Maxey recalled. “The first day [we blocked traffic], we were like, oh, it seems the taxi drivers are really pissed off. But then by the third day, I had a whole flurry of taxi drivers who were thanking me for doing what we’re doing, saying I really get it, what you’re doing is important.”

Since that November action threw Extinction Rebellion into the international spotlight, they’ve been launching chapters all over the globe, including dozens across the United States. Building on the already existing activist networks of groups like the Climate Mobilization—and with help from people like Zack Exley, an organizer who played a key role in the Bernie Sanders’s 2016 Democratic Primary campaign—Extinction Rebellion U.S. is growing quickly.

On December 2 of last year, about a hundred people gathered in Washington D.C. and blocked an intersection just outside of Capitol Hill in what became the first action by Extinction Rebellion in the United States, convening what they called the “First People’s Climate Emergency Congress.” Following the lead of Extinction Rebellion in the United Kingdom, the protestors passed a declaration of non-violent rebellion against the United States government, then broke out into committees to write up a list of measures which were presented back to the group.

Russell Gray, a recent college graduate who had just quit his job at the Treasury Department, was one of the lead coordinators of the D.C. event and serves as a national coordinator for Extinction Rebellion U.S. “I found [the whole process] really empowering,” Gray said of the First People’s Climate Emergency Congress. “We put together such a radical list of policies, but it was constructed in a very peaceful way. It gave me a lot of hope that the American people know what needs to take place and they’re ready to make those changes. If the power of the United States can be returned to their hands, I think they would be able to implement the necessary solutions.” Among Extinction Rebellion’s demands were an end to all governmental policies contributing to fossil fuel emissions, a World War II-scale mobilization to reach carbon neutrality by 2025, the prioritization of vulnerable communities and indigenous sovereignty throughout this transition, and the establishment of representative democratic bodies to oversee it all.

Many of these demands look quite similar to policy proposals found within the Green New Deal, which has been supported and promoted by the actions of Sunrise Movement, who also helped to launch the resolution. That’s because Sunrise shares many of the same goals as Extinction Rebellion. Their key differences, as Gray explained, have largely to do with strategy. “Sunrise is focusing heavily on Congress and on occupying offices because they seem to think that Congress is equipped to deal with the crisis and that they can convince congressional leaders to take necessary action—they’re basically trying to work within the congressional system,” he said. “Whereas one of Extinction Rebellion’s main premises is that the system itself is broken, and that Congress as an institution is not equipped to deal with the problem because they’re so beholden to the interests of the fossil fuel industry.”

Extinction Rebellion has its sights set on radical systemic change, and they’ve adopted a strategy that focuses on disrupting the system itself from the bottom up. “We believe that the government has violated the social contract by willfully leading us towards destruction and extinction, and therefore we feel obligated to withdraw our consent to be governed, which also entails refusing to participate in the system,” Gray explained. “We believe that’s the only strategy that’s capable of addressing the climate crisis at the scale and at the speed necessary to avert runaway warming.”

In their long-term vision, Extinction Rebellion believes that with a large enough series of actions, they can bring the government to a grinding halt. If that takes place, then there’s no longer any way for elected officials to ignore their demands. “There’s no other place that power can be marshaled from that can successfully overcome the power of profit and money and capital,” Gray said.

“We believe that the government has violated the social contract by willfully leading us towards destruction and extinction.”

Since their December D.C. launch event, Extinction Rebellion has put on a number of actions in the United States. On January 26, a series of disruptions were held all over the country, including banner drops, roadblocks, die-ins, funeral processions, and other grieving rituals meant to acknowledge the imminent death of the planet while simultaneously evoking a sense of urgency. “We’re trying to connect with regular people in their daily lives,” Bea Ruiz, another national coordinator with Extinction Rebellion U.S., told me. “We’re not trying to just reach the activist bubble or just protest or shut down an oil refinery.”

Extinction Rebellion U.S. doesn’t yet have the numbers necessary to achieve their most ambitious goals, but they are growing quickly, and they hope to soon reach a point where they might be able to seriously disrupt the flow of the capitalist economy in a way that would draw mainstream attention. As a wave of teachers’ strikes continues to spread across the country, alongside growing calls from labor leaders and commentators for a general strike, it’s no longer impossible to imagine mass climate mobilization spilling over from Capitol Hill out into the streets—not simply permitted marches and demonstrations with well-known headliners, but massive acts of civil disobedience aimed at shutting entire cities down. After all, it was less than two weeks ago that more than a million students worldwide participated in climate strikes inspired by sixteen-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.

“We’re just starting, but we are definitely off to a great start,” Ruiz said.

I think Extinction Rebellion as a whole has really succeeded in beginning to break through a different kind of climate denial. It’s a climate change denial that exists even among people and more mainstream organizations that care deeply for and work on climate change. The climate change denial among these good folks is that we can keep on lobbying Congress or doing electoral work alone and be able to defeat the fossil fuel industry and those in power who protect them. Extinction Rebellion’s message is tapping into a need that is clearly not being filled enough—a feeling among many people that the world is dying around us, and yet there doesn’t seem to be an emergency. That the house is on fire, and there’s no serious action to put it out.

Groups like the Sunrise Movement undoubtedly play an essential role in the broader movement to transition away from fossil fuels, but the organizers of Extinction Rebellion believe that pressuring elected officials alone will not be enough to seriously challenge the fossil fuel industry and other power brokers who are working as hard as they can to keep the current system in place. Rather than focus their efforts on a disengaged political class who, with a few exceptions, seem already bought and paid for, Extinction Rebellion wants to take a hatchet to the root of the extractivist, capitalist economic system itself. “The idea that we could somehow make the needed changes in the timeframe we have without a major mass upheaval and unprecedented battle is sheer delusion,” Ruiz told me. “We are talking about one of the most powerful industries in human history. If we had three hundred years, we might be able to make these changes incrementally and without a major upheaval. But we don’t. We are in a life and death battle. The sooner we all face this, the sooner we can prepare ourselves for how we can collectively do what is needed.”

But when what is needed is such unprecedented and all-encompassing transformation, belief in the success of radical groups like Extinction Rebellion can itself seem like a form of denialism. Are we really going to completely change the most foundational elements of our economy within a decade, let alone dismantle the structures of concentrated power that seem hellbent on maintaining the status quo and crushing all opposition? The fact is that this may not really be the most helpful way to frame the climate change question. As Gray puts it, “It doesn’t really matter whether I think that we can succeed or not. It doesn’t change the fact that I need to be involved in this fight.” Rather than thinking in binaries of failure or success, hope or hopelessness, members of Extinction Rebellion have found that it’s more productive (and psychologically sustaining) to think about the task at hand as inextricably part of what it means to be alive right now.

“When I first heard about Extinction Rebellion, I heard about the demonstrations in England, and then I heard about the language they were using,” Ruiz said. “They were talking about how what we need is courage—not hope. And they were talking about when hope ends, action begins. It’s like I had been waiting for this—for there finally to be a group with people who were telling the truth about how serious the emergency was.” And they plan to keep telling it: Extinction Rebellion chapters around the world will undertake a weeklong “International Rebellion” beginning April 15, another step towards “coordinated economic and government disruption on an unprecedented scale.”

As sea levels rapidly rise, so too do international solidarity movements determined to save what’s not yet been lost. Thanks in part to the work of radical climate activists, the suicidal nature of our economic system is becoming more widely understood. A long societal slumber is slowly ending. The question remains: Will we wake up in time?