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On the inside of the rebellion against climate change

Updated Saturday, 27 April 2019
A psychologist‘s intimate experience with Extinction Rebellion

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Disclaimer: This is an opinion article. Please note the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view or position of the faculty the author is associated with, or of The Open University.

I have been interested in the work of Extinction Rebellion (XR) ever since I co-signed the letter to the Guardian in October 2018 and listened to Rupert Read’s talk on climate change and civilizational collapse. Following a bout of kidney stones since then I made contact with a local XR group and joined the rebellion in London on Monday 15th, Friday 19th and Saturday 20th 2019. As a psychologist, XR raises profound questions for me in terms of the value of social sciences relative to the existential crisis faced by humanity, and what social sciences and psychology could be said to be good for.

Following David Attenborough’s screening of Climate change the facts on BBC, a message is becoming ever clearer – humanity and life on earth are in peril from the catastrophic potential of climate change that is caused by human activity on the planet. As David Attenborough highlighted, the biggest risk for humanity and earth are climate tipping points, which are irreversible and will result in massive disruption to ecosystem services that humans currently rely on for the supply of food and water. An attitude of continuing on a business-as-usual path is unlikely to facilitate the type of social and economic changes necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change. 

Nine people are dressed in red to symbolise blood through costume. They are wearing hoods and the four at the front are kneeling down whilst the other five are stood on the steps of a statue. There are people in the background. Symbolism of blood through costume

Being a participant at an XR protest over parts of last week was an eye-opening experience. Social psychology has documented the polarisation of groups based on perceptions of in-group and out-group membership and how these can lead to hostility between different groups. Looking at XR events over the week there was little evidence of hostility between XR members and the police. While police arrested protestors, police handled the arrest sensitively without force, and protestor did not resist arrest, remaining non-violent throughout.

The groups from which arrests were made chanted ‘We love you!’. While this was directed at arrestees, in my view was also aimed at the police, since XR planned to get as many people arrested as possible, and there was a sense that the police were aiding the campaign by arresting protestors.

Amongst protestors, the conversations often referred to police being in the ‘same boat’ as regards climate change. There are several anecdotal and videoed accounts of police officers showing empathy, warmth and agreement with XR’s aims – a far cry to what one might otherwise view as a more deeply polarised situation. What was astounding to me was the deliberate approach of de-escalation occurring on behalf of protestors, as the potential for friction between protestors and police, increased during the arrest process.

The second big insight for me was that underpinning XR is a creative, playful culture akin to that espoused by metamodern writers such as Hanzi Freinacht, to change the game. On reflection, climate discourse is often driven by scientific arguments, where there is a significant element of climate denial aided by the production of pseudoscientific narratives and conspiracy theories. These are difficult to unpick by most people not trained in scientific methods employed in climate science. Rather than pushing information about the science, and playing the science game, XR has adopted a different playful approach compared with other campaign groups who often emphasise the scientific aspects. The use of artistic symbols and fun activities connects with people at a different, more symbolic and deeper cultural level and importantly has the potential to change the political game.

One of my most memorable experiences was encountering the procession of the red brigade also referred to by protestors as ‘the blood’ proceeding through Regent Street en route to Oxford Circus.

Nine people are dressed in red to symbolise blood through costume. They are wearing hoods and the four at the front are kneeling down whilst the other five are stood on the steps of a statue. There are people in the background. Live performance by XR through Regent Street

Their iconic image and live performance draws on Greek tragedies, representing ethereal beings, the fates perhaps, that are silently gesturing a warning, disturbing our sense of normality and symbolising the blood that will be spilt by future generations as a result of climate breakdown. Then there was the near mystical samba band appearing at parliament square when all was thought lost.

Of course, a creative culture does not mean that XR as an organisation is not open to scientific evidence. Far from it, XR has the support of hundreds of scientists from all areas of the academic spectrum, and its campaign message of what is needed to address the problems is informed by analysis and evaluation of the facts. The creative culture serves to engage people from all walks of life. Seeing children drawing with oversized street crayons on the pavement of parliament square, breathing relatively unpolluted air was a sight to behold.

Unsurprisingly, support from the public for the XR action has initially been somewhat mixed. The reason being that disruptive action is inconvenient to many people, leading to complaints about the disruptions and suggestions that XR is losing the argument as a result. On the other hand, new signups to XR appear to have seen around 3,000 per day according to XR insiders, suggesting there is considerable support for XR, its cause and its approach of civil disobedience. Talking to members of the public who engaged with the blockades also appeared to be mostly supportive.

However, more negative reactions are understandable, and while XR apologises for the disruption the goal for action is not necessarily to be liked. Furthermore, not only was the action disruptive for car drivers, but also to campaigners, many of whom would rather enjoy other pastimes than camping out on London streets, exposing themselves to the elements and possible hostility.

As a psychologist, I questioned how much my personal ethics agreed with the idea of disrupting the lives of people living in London. While people were inconvenienced, disruptive action seems justifiable ethically because the aim is to prevent the massive inconvenience to future generations of living through climate breakdown and potential tipping point impacts. XR’s action is informed by the urgency with which societies need to engage with the climate crisis. The problem is not a lack of knowledge of what needs to happen, but the political will of governments to do something about it.

Spending time at the XR sites on Parliament Square and Waterloo Bridge has been an experience of bearing witness to the largest act of civil disobedience in modern UK history.
Considering that women’s right to vote required the suffragette movement and acts of civil disobedience, it is difficult to see how XR and continued disobedience are not likely to impact on the British political system.
Given the damage that Brexit has caused the UK’s reputation, a change to politics along the lines proposed by XR would be a timely moment in World History with the UK leading in the evolution of a political system that could give humanity a chance to avert climate catastrophe.


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