Extinction Rebellion have alienated me and other people of colour: They can’t succeed unless they change

Extinction Rebellion (XR) has drawn attention to the dire issue of climate change. However, the methods and actions the campaign has used to push for climate reform are flawed and exclusionary. Consequently, the campaign’s hypocrisy is baffling. On the one hand, the call for justice is commendable, though the way this message is spread is worrying. How can alienating people of colour by calling on supporters to get arrested, or stopping working class people from getting to work by blocking the tube really build support for dealing with the climate catastrophe?

Extinction Rebellion’s radical methods are jarring. In order to break the status quo and raise their topic, it has to be. Its name itself expresses their message aptly and calls for a revolt against climate change. However, the campaign calls for “as many arrests as humanly possible”. This is an uncomfortable statement for young people of colour, whose career prospects may drastically decline upon having a conviction.

XR’s methods appeal to white middle class people

XR’s methods reflect its privileged leadership. XR was founded by three white, highly educated adults. Thus, it reproduces the sentiment and longings of the white middle class. In this way, XR have alienated me and other people of colour from fully participating and engaging in their activism for fear of arrest and social strife.

This was made obvious in the Canning Town tube protests in October. There, XR attempted to blockade the tube – one of the most environmentally friendly ways of travelling around London. Thus, they put the lives of people on the trains in danger. Early in the morning at Canning Town, the tube is full of zero-hours contract workers; their livelihoods are utterly dependent upon arriving at work on time, due to their job insecurity. It’s shameful and ridiculous that XR protesters completely disregarded the consequences their blockade would have on working‑class commuters’ lives. XR must understand that their protests suggest that future disasters are more important than the current plights of workers.

XR’s National Portrait Gallery (NPG) protests in October also reaffirm that its target audience is the white middle class. Student activists targeted the NPG’s affiliation with the petroleum company BP. But both large institutions are impenetrable.

If XR wants to make waves, surely it’s more effective to appeal directly to consumers, rather than wealthy, faceless companies? After all, in the 1955–1956 Montgomery bus boycotts, influencing consumers was more powerful than appealing to racist bus companies. Why can’t XR understand this? This fixation on bringing down large companies, like BP, makes it difficult for individuals outside conventional XR circle to join their activism.

As their methods show, XR’s organisation is confusing and unclear. It often causes dangerous situations, putting people off joining them.

Preserving the Western middle class over other peoples and regions

XR promote the idea of a climate catastrophe happening in the future. This may be a reason why older people find the group so appealing, as they worry for the future of their grandchildren. This concern is in many ways admirable. But XR have failed to acknowledge the true impact climate change is currently having in the southern hemisphere.

Consequently, their activism seems tokenistic. It comes across as an attempt to preserve the lives of people in the affluent West at the expense of people in poorer and southern geographies.

In the past six months there have been deadly droughts and famine in eastern and southern Africa, lethal hurricanes and tornadoes in the Caribbean and Atlantic and heavy rains devastating crops and causing social relocation in South-East Asia.

But none of this has been discussed or fully appreciated by XR as a serious issue. In fact, XR has reflected its fixation on the West and the comparatively marginal issues of climate change in its Instagram posts and activist soundbites.

Their message suggests that the only way to appeal to people in the West – specifically Londoners – is to express that climate change is starting to affect the Western hemisphere. This disregards how the south has already been destroyed by it.

I’m of course sympathetic to the action that XR have said governments must take. Policy makers must take the time to implement and address the seriousness of the climate crisis. However, I find it very difficult to engage with the plight XR expresses because of how they approach spreading awareness and pandering to a white middle‑class audience. Therefore, for XR to gain more support, they must stop alienating people of colour and the working class. We all want the chance of a better future. Why exclude certain groups who could help us get there?

J. Simons studies Classics and English at King’s College London.

Photo credit: David Dahlborn.

Would you like to write a reply? Email the opinion editor at david.dahlborn.13 [at] ucl.ac.uk.

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