The actions at the ‘Impossible Rebellion’ in London (August 2021) were impressive. Day after day, groups of dedicated human rebels managed to out-manoeuvre and evade the police, popping up installations and blockades just a few streets away from heavy police presence. A 12-foot high pink table was constructed in-place, a caravan blocked Tower Bridge, a pretend wedding bus blocked London Bridge, trucks blocked roads, tripods abounded, and the innovative bamboo tensegrity ‘beacons’ popped up around the city.
In 2020 a UK rebel invented bamboo structures that have come to be known as ‘beacons’ — bamboo and wire structures that can be put up in minutes, anywhere, enabling activists to climb up and that make it difficult for the police to safely clear the space. These bamboo beacons were spectacularly used at the news-grabbing “Free the Press” action in 2020, and have now spread outside the UK, having been deployed in Switzerland and the US. Many beacons were used throughout the Impossible Rebellion. They’re an impressive activist innovation.
XRUK has become an incredibly badass direct action group. Possibly the most badass the UK has seen in recent decades.
During the Impossible Rebellion one of the various vehicles or structures would be deployed to ‘take’ a site, and a nearby XR march would rush over to join in. People sat down, the samba bands drummed, banners flew, speakers spoke, and the crowd chanted. And day after day, this same thing happened. It became repetitive. A game. Human rebels (mostly) evaded detection, a site was taken, police cordoned off the area, the public was kept out of view, and then people were either allowed to leave, or gradually arrested.
Questions arise: is this working? And what does this achieve?
Throughout the fortnight, the rebels got faster and slicker at popping up structures, and the police got faster at detecting them, preventing their deployment, or taking them down and clearing a site. As the rebellion progressed, the risks increased, and things became more dangerous. The police recklessly flung themselves onto a beacon as it was being erected, snapping a wire that brought a bamboo pole within inches of a person’s head, and then brought out batons to smash a window of the wedding bus and attack the people (including myself) who were in it. Weeks later my hand still has pain from the baton blow it took (I’m OK, the injury was minor compared to oppression faced by many around the world).
Both we rebels and the police were playing out a pattern, a dynamic, that is well rehearsed and well known. Harder, faster, taller, riskier. As the public get used to splashy actions, they need to become ever splashier, with diminishing attention for the same actions. “If it ain’t new, it ain’t news,” goes the old adage.
Before XR, while we were still in the planning stages (I’m one of XR’s co-founders, and have been deeply involved in climate activism since 2012), the activist scene around us was all about direct action. Activists were blocking fracking sites with lockon-tubes, or climbing buildings and infrastructure. We analysed this direct action-based activist scene, and consciously decided to go for something else for XR: mass civil disobedience.
In the first year of Extinction Rebellion people could show up with their bodies and take a stand (or a seat in a road). Their bodies were the message. All that was required was for people to have done a Non-Violent Civil Disobedience workshop, attended a Know Your Rights training, and joined an affinity group. The rest was left to the bodies of the people who wanted to join in. The empowerment was infectious. With such a low bar to participation, the movement grew rapidly.
Contrast that with the Impossible Rebellion in 2021, where you need to be in an in-group, have done some training at deploying a beacon or tripod, and maybe even have a climbing harness. The bar to entry is high. Yes, people can ‘just’ sit on the street, yet there’s a hero-culture in XR now that centres those taking the riskier actions.
In fairness to XR, the 1–2 week-long sites that we had during the April 2019 rebellion — vibrant bases to interact with the public, to draw people in, and to train people up — are no longer possible. The police made that clear during the October 2019 rebellion, which became a long drawn-out retreat, as the police dismantled and destroyed site-after-site. By the rebellion periods in September 2020 and August 2021 the idea of holding a site for more than 12 hours was a dream that never manifested, and the window in which the site-holders could interact with the public was far less.
So is the answer to continue to spiral into the harder, faster, higher, riskier path of direct action. I would argue that it’s not, and that another path is the one to seek.
Perhaps there’s still juice in the ‘old’ idea of sitting in roads, not to hold sites (which was never XR’s goal, but a beneficial side-effect). To be a disturbance. We’ve got Insulate Britain as a case study for this tactic — a five-week bodies-in-roads experiment, with the express tactic of creating a disturbance and being arrested (with the possibility of imprisonment). My sense is that it’s too early to judge the outcome of this, as the campaign is ongoing. We do know that 13 days of blockading roads in five weeks is not enough to land a mass of people in prison, although the campaign did irk the politicians. It might take a more powerful disturbance to achieve systemic change, even on the scale of implementing insulation.
From a theoretical point of view, complex systems theory points to the importance of disturbances in transforming systems. At any scale, a disturbance contains the seed of the healing wisdom that the system is being called to integrate, and by doing so will transform. XR was such a disturbance in 2019, and has forever changed the global discourse about the climate’s breakdown and the approach of humanities’ extinction. Yet now, I assert that XR is no longer a significant disturbance to the system, and has already been integrated by it to a large extent. The many, beautiful and diverse actions that XR groups around the world continue to deploy are stunning, and I often find them encouraging. Yet the energy that goes into them seems to do more to maintain a certain level of activism, rather than to bring about the revolutionary transformations that are so longed for. In short, XR is now part of the status quo, albeit a beautiful part of it.
So what to do? Again, systems theory, along with role theory, can be useful. XR can be seen as symptomatic of an unjust, anti-democratic society that is hurtling towards biocide and extinction. Social movements are symptoms of unjust societies. Yes, they can be repressed, yet they will inevitably arise — the questions are when, how, and in what particular form.
Yet when XR is still seen to be in the role of “the climate movement” in society, it makes it more difficult for other movements to arise that will enter that role, as the role is already occupied. Many won’t take action because “they’ve done XR” or because “at least XR are on it”. So either we’ve got people who were involved with XR and no longer find themselves ignited by it, or who see the continued existence of XR as an excuse for not participating themselves. While XR started with a motto “Hope dies, action begins”, the continued existence of XR now provides a hope that diminishes the possibility of action! XR’s continuation may even be part of the context that makes future movements (and transformational moments, aka bifurcation points) less likely to spring to life.
From the start of XR, there’s been an admittedly marginal conversation about how to lay XR down to rest. How could XR die well? How could we honour the life of XR, and conduct whatever ceremonies we need to, to allow XR to pass away — rather than to prolong it on energy-sapping life-support? Those conversations were never central, yet the thread has always been there. When we’re busy doing and acting, with our existing ideas of strategy and knowing, we end up playing out patterns that the larger system will get better and better at integrating. It’s only in the spaces of not-doing and not-knowing that the possibilities of the new can emerge. I don’t know whether it’s time for XRUK to lay down to rest, or whether XRUK’s continued existence brings more benefit to life. I do think it’s worth asking these questions, with this awareness.
One way to envision this could be through the life of a butterfly. As RisingUp we were a caterpillar, a small and humble being, plodding along for a couple of years, trying things out. We metamorphosised into a butterfly, and it was glorious — we flew as colourful, attractive beings. It felt great. Yet to cling on to being a butterfly can only be done by becoming pinned into a museum collective, forever there to be visually consumed by tourists as a curiosity. To accept the cycle of life (and for butterfly life to continue) a butterfly must lay its eggs and accept its own death. That particular butterfly will never fly again as a butterfly, yet it trusts that the next generation will find its wings. For humans, such letting go often comes with a lot of sadness and resistance.
In my personal journey, I’m sad to be letting go of XR. I really wanted XR to ‘work’, for it to be the change and to break-through, in a way that saw a radical shift from the political class (or perhaps to do away with the political class entirely!). At times I dared to allow myself the thoughts along the lines of, “perhaps this is it, perhaps XR is bringing the revolution” and “maybe we will win”. Whatever ‘win’ means. I’m coming to accept: XR has made amazing intervention and has transformed the world. To admit that humbles me.
I suspect that many will not (yet) be ready to lay XR to rest. Many of us have our identities and communities deeply linked to our activism. I know that when I stepped back from organising in XR’s working groups, I found myself wondering where my friends and sense of belonging had gone — and that was scary! It took time to grow new and old friendships. It’s an ongoing process to feel and know that I belong simply as a living being on this planet in this time (regardless of the people around me), yet that process has brought me a resilience that I previously didn’t know was possible. I’m grateful for it.
It also took a lot of trust to let go of my involvement with XR, as there was a constant voice telling me “if you’re not doing XR, then since it’s the only game in town you’ll just be wasting your time as a privileged non-activist, and the world will burn.” I got to know that voice, and became familiar with the fear that drove it. I brought love and compassion to that scared part of myself. I deepened into trust — trust that there is a larger mystery playing out than we can hope to understand, and that there will be a continuation — whatever happens to human life in our shared consensus reality in the next few decades. I’m fortunate to have been supported into this trust through contact with Indigenous peoples, traditional wisdom, mystery traditions, and elders. Yet this won’t be everyone’s path.
So what are the eggs we wish to lay? Or perhaps, what are the seeds we wish to plant?
I would suggest that one of XR’s most amazing gifts has been the network of connections it has made, bringing people together who were previously alone. I’m not saying that these connections should be severed — far from it, these connections are so precious! I especially value the relational web that has been tended between folk in XRUK and organisers in the Global South — such connections are relatively rare, yet contains seeds of immense power. Perhaps these connections can continue beyond XR, and people will remember and maintain the connections for years to come. Many of them may even grow deep friendships, enabling a secure enough place for many heart-led, courageous acts to come. Or perhaps XR provides a skeletal framework for such relationships to continue to grow. I don’t know. I do believe that to be ready to launch into the new, people need time and space in their lives — and that includes time away from our now-normal activist organising!
Towards the end of the Impossible Rebellion I was around when an XRUK Media & Messaging working group was talking about how to message to closing of the rebellion period. There was a suggestion that the messaging could be one of declaring that we had failed — that we’d done our best, and yet we’d been largely ignored by society, and that those making genocidal decisions intended to keep making them. It was a radical suggestion. Powerful. Daring. It even gained some traction. Yet sadly (from my perspective) the press release and wrap-up video gave the opposite impression, along the lines of “look how splendid we are” and “keep rebelling”. They may as well has said “keep calm and carry on”, as “keep rebelling” is just an exhortation to “keep playing out the (existing) patterns of Extinction Rebellion”. A potential moment for radical honesty was skipped over (“Tell the Truth” is one of XR’s 3 Demands, one we don’t always live up to).
If XRUK is not daring enough to declare XR over (or even to boldly state “We’ve tried our best and we’ve failed — don’t put your hope in XR any more”!), then perhaps those entering into the upcoming strategy process will consider a radical re-think. Perhaps a new branding. Perhaps a slowing down — mainstream industrial society is all about urgency, so why adopt quality in that ourselves? Could mass-participative & disruptive ceremonies be radically slower than bodies sitting in roads? Or is it about community organising and mutual aid networks? Or is there something else that wants to emerge? How could XR create the space for such emergence? If we’re not able to relinquish, what can be salvaged?
I included the word “failed” in above paragraphs, and that’s worth saying a little more about. Our politicians are deathly afraid to fail, and they rarely — if ever — admit they have done so. Yet failure points to daring — it points to having tried to do something beyond our normal belief in what is possible. And it’s a radical act to admit failure. By doing so we create a space for other experiments to bring fresh approaches. XR could model failing, providing a pattern for others (including politicians) to admit theirs. That’s radical. As Samuel Beckett writes, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
The question I’ll leave you with is this: What is needed for an infectiously experimental culture to arise? If you have a sense that it is not what you’re currently doing, perhaps the universe is calling you to explore beyond what you currently know…
Note: this article was edited on 20th October to reflect that I also am in the ‘not-knowing’, and do not know what is ‘best’ for XR or the world. I write to raise questions and moments for reflection, from my perspective, and to offer those who might be ‘addicted’ to activism a way to more easily let go and detach.