The public profile of Extinction Rebellion skyrocketed this month, thanks to many global acts of civil disobedience calculated to sound the alarm, get people talking, and put public pressure on elected officials who mostly know there’s a crisis but won’t take the necessary action to address it.
Given this surge of coverage, I thought I would clarify my position on what, exactly, Extinction Rebellion stands for. If you’ve attended an XR Talk, you’ll know that XR was formed in response to government inaction on climate, and that our three demands are:
- Governments must TELL THE TRUTH by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change.
- Governments must ACT NOW to half biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2025.
- Governments must move BEYOND POLITICS, creating and being led by a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.
(Note: In Canada, XR members have been debating the need for a fourth demand which acknowledges the need for Indigenous perspectives and justice in the cultural transformation process. This demand hasn’t been fully articulated yet, but it’s a central concern.)
There’s also a list of principles, and generally we say that anyone can be part of XR so long as they act in accordance with the principles to further the demands. That leaves us open to a very wide range of actions and activities. So why do we spend so much time blocking streets and gluing ourselves to things? Why are we constantly getting ourselves arrested and pissing people off? Why not, y’know…play nice?
I think the answer is threefold. First, the “traditional” methods of environmental activism—petitions, letter-writing campaigns, peaceful protests in city-approved areas—have failed. It’s just a fact. Environmentalists have been trying to sound the alarm for more than 40 years, but greenhouse gas emissions keep going UP, not down. So while I think there are advantages to using non-disruptive methods, XR is the organization that takes the cause one step further, into civil disobedience.
Second, XR is committed to shifting the “Overton Window”—the range of publicly acceptable discourse—surrounding the climate crisis. It’s too late to let environmentally “woke” people do all the talking, or all the work. So our actions are controversial because we need everyone talking about the problem as fast as possible. I don’t feel like XR needs to have all the answers, but we need to ask the questions that others might be afraid to ask.
The final reason is that other organizations already exist to do more well-behaved environmental work. Here on the island, we have the Atlantic Coastal Action Program (ACAP), the Cape Breton Environmental Association, Enactus at CBU, the Bras D’Or Lakes Collaborative Environmental Planning Initiative (CEPI), among others. We also have Mi’kmaq Water Keepers, who use traditional methods and wisdom to protect natural resources.
XR strives to work in solidarity with those organizations whenever possible. I have the deepest respect for what they do, and I’ll share resources and promote their activities. But I don’t want XR to step on anyone else’s mandates, or to act in ways that end up becoming redundant.
Here’s a current example: the CBRM City Council recently announced plans to install numerous floodwater mitigation berms throughout Sydney’s Baille Ard Trails. Baille Ard is an environmental jewel—an old growth forest within the city limits, lovingly preserved and landscaped just enough to include a network of paths, so Caper city-dwellers can enjoy nature to the fullest. Baille Ard’s trees are themselves instrumental in mitigating flooding; it would be a tragedy to see them uprooted, and the paths demolished, and since there are other ways to prevent flooding (like the kind Sydney experienced in 2016), I strongly feel that CBRM should choose a different option.
This issue will galvanize and inspire public response. It’s also related to climate change, since flooding is a direct consequence of global warming. So XR could use the Baille Ard controversy to shift the “Overton Window” and get more people involved in climate action. But there are already organizations specifically devoted to this area (ACAP, the Baille Ard Trail Recreation Association) who may not appreciate us using direct action on their behalf.
Having said all that: XR members can and should get involved with local environmental causes. And if the president of the Recreation Association called me up and begged me to chain myself to a tree for the cause, I’d do it (or at least, I’d help him organize something involving non-violent direct action). I’m also participating in online planning, and working behind the scenes with my City Council connections.
But ultimately, I plan to keep CB-XR focused on the bigger picture. As far as I know, XR is the only eco-group on the island practicing civil disobedience to provoke rapid climate action. That’s our niche. If you agree, and want to participate… join up!
Or, y’know… change my mind! Like the rest of humanity, I know I need to be flexible in the days and years to come. Let’s evolve together.