Almost 5 years ago today, on the 31st of October 2018, Extinction Rebellion was publicly launched outside the UK Parliament. Since then, it has been one of the most influential environmental movements in the UK and in other parts of the world, instrumental in changing the public conversation and in leading to the declaration of a climate emergency by the UK parliament in 2019. Using non-violent civil disobedience and mass arrests as the main tactics, in its first few years the movement organised a number of often theatrical actions which included blocking roads and bridges, with activists gluing and locking themselves in public spaces. The question of whether public disruption was indeed the right tactic for Extinction Rebellion, and the environmental movement more broadly, has dominated conversations inside and outside the movement ever since.
To disrupt or not to disrupt?
A claim often made, in more or less good faith depending on the person making it, is that these kinds of tactics are likely to alienate members of the public, including those who might otherwise be sympathetic to the cause. Another is that not everybody is able or ready to take part in actions that might lead to arrest, and so a movement centred around these actions is unlikely to become a mass movement. In this connection, it has been rightly pointed out that the ability and willingness to get arrested correlate with other forms of social privilege, something that has arguably been a blind spot for Extinction Rebellion. These concerns were among the factors that led Extinction Rebellion to release a public statement on the 1st of January of this year, ironically titled “We quit”, in which the movement announced it would temporarily suspend the use of its more disruptive tactics with the aim of being as inclusive as possible and to build relationships with other movements. This led to a well-attended but underreported 4-day protest outside Westminster in April 2023. The decision of Extinction Rebellion to temporarily shift tactic was not shared by two other prominent environmental movements, Insulate Britain and Just Stop Oil, both originating from Extinction Rebellion and formed to draw attention to specific demands, which have continued engaging in disruptive civil resistance.
Beyond the moderate vs radical divide
The varying tactics adopted by different parts of the environmental movement are often described as a divide between the more moderate and the more radical. Calls to grow the more moderate part of the movement have been made by many, including Rubert Read, former Extinction Rebellion spokesperson and now director of an incubator dedicated to growing the environmental movement’s moderate flank. In his view, the moderate flank has the potential of becoming a mass movement actually able to lead to meaningful political change. Interestingly, evidence has been produced that, despite their differences, the radical and the moderate flank of the movement might have a positive symbiotic relationship, as the existence of a radical flank seems to increase public support for the moderate one. While there are obvious reasons why this debate is framed in this way, there are drawbacks to exclusively thinking of it as one between moderates and radicals. The main one is that it risks obscuring the question of what the aims are that these tactics are used for in the first place. For instance, one might think that public disruption was key when these movements were founded a few years back, since the primary aim was to bring the climate crisis to the foreground of public debate. After all, public disruption is undeniably one of the most successful ways to attract media attention, as evidenced by the relatively limited coverage that the event organised in April by Extinction Rebellion received compared to other more disruptive actions which took place only a few days later. Further, seeing ordinary people risking arrest and other serious legal consequences out of concern for the climate crisis might have acted as a wake-up call for some of those who had not fully acknowledged its scale. However today, in part because of the success of the movement in changing the public conversation, public disruption might not be so key. In this connection, it is important to note that Extinction Rebellion has not altogether abandoned tactics that we might consider radical, however, these are no longer aimed at public disruption but are targeted at places, and people, who are in positions of power. As the aims of a movement evolve, so might some its tactics. This raises the question, however, of what these news aims should be, especially in light of the fact that increased public awareness and debate has not translated into political change that is even remotely of the scale that would be needed to respond to the severity of the crisis. While other movements are continuing to engage in disruptive action, since January of this year, one of the main objectives within Extinction Rebellion has been growing the movement and building relationships with other groups, with an eye on returning to big actions in London only once the numbers are adequately consolidated. Further, Extinction Rebellion has recently put deliberative democracy at the centre of its strategy.
Deliberative democracy and citizens’ assemblies: a possible way forward?
One of the three main demands of Extinction Rebellion since its inception has been for the government to set up a UK-wide citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice and to commit to be guided by its recommendations. Citizens’ assemblies have grown in popularity in the past few decades, with a number of assemblies taking place across the globe. Motivations to support the creation of a climate and ecological justice citizens’ assembly are numerous, starting from disillusionment with electoral politics, due to its focus on short-term thinking in line with the electoral cycle, its inability to be truly representative and the influence of powerful donors and lobbying groups. A citizen assembly is seen as a corrective to many of these problems and a body that because of its composition is truly representative of the people. Support for this proposal is sometimes motivated by the idea that such an assembly would produce recommendations that are likely to be much more radical than what politicians have and are likely to propose. Others support it because they believe in the importance of giving people, and especially those who do not usually see themselves represented in politics, a voice. Finally, it has been argued that a citizens’ assembly will lend legitimacy to climate and ecological policies that might otherwise be opposed by citizens, if they are not seen as coming from them, or reflecting their concerns. This proposal, and the idea of citizens assembly more broadly, have not been immune to criticisms, and even among its supporters it has been pointed out that, while citizens’ assemblies can be an excellent instrument, the impact of the ones run so far has been patchy at best. Despite these concerns, this demand is often regarded as the most forward-looking of the ones advanced by Extinction Rebellion because it offers a possible strategy of how we can start transitioning to a more just and sustainable society. As the current iteration of the environmental movement moves to a new phase, it might make sense to focus on an aim that look at the future providing a possible way forward.
The current strategy of Extinction Rebellion does not only focus on the demand for a citizens’ assembly but is centred on deliberative democracy more broadly. One of its main aspects is the idea of running community assemblies, fora in which people can deliberate together on climate and ecological issues that are of concern to their community. Engaging in practices of deliberative democracy at the local level is meant to contribute to achieving a number of different aims: from further rooting the movement in local communities, to building relationships with other environmental groups, to empowering people to see themselves as political actors and influencing decision-making by pressuring local authorities to act on the recommendations of the assemblies. Further, while there are important differences between citizens’ and community assemblies, the idea is that the latter can support the former for a variety of reasons. First, participating in community assemblies makes people more inclined to believe that deliberative democracy among ordinary citizens is a good way to make decisions. More broadly, the success of community assemblies at the local level might increase support for the UK-wide citizens’ assembly and put pressure on the government to institute one. Second, scholars have suggested that rather than only focusing on citizens’ assemblies those interested in deliberative democracy should aim at creating a web of interconnected deliberative processes at different levels. The existence of such a network would also benefit the citizens’ assembly, when instituted, as it could provide it with more inputs and increase its political credibility.
Even if the institution of a UK-wide citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice is indeed a desirable aim for the environmental movement a number of questions remain open as to whether the environmental movement has the ability to achieve this goal and has identified the right strategies to do so. While a general push to more deliberative democracy in our society is likely to have a number of good consequences even if the final objective is not achieved, the severity and the urgency of the climate crisis makes the answer to these questions crucial.