Extinction Rebellion mass die-in, Melbourne, Australia, April 27, 2019. Image: Julian Meehan
“When it’s a fight for your life, you’re willing to throw down.”
New York police recently arrested 66 protestors who rallied outside The New York Times building to compel the newspaper to make climate change a front-page issue. The demonstrators belonged to Extinction Rebellion, a movement born in the United Kingdom that is committed to nonviolent resistance. In addition to protesting outside of The New York Times, U.S. members have taken to the streets against Amazon in Seattle and NBC in Los Angeles, calling on those organizations to treat the climate crisis with the seriousness it deserves.
It may seem strange that Extinction Rebellion would target The New York Times, Amazon and NBC, three companies nominally committed to dealing with climate change, as opposed to, say, The Wall Street Journal, Fox News and ExxonMobil, which have abysmal track records on the issue. And it may appear self-defeating to block traffic and mob public spaces, which might alienate potential supporters.
But organizers say that’s precisely the point.
“We have finite energy, and spending energy trying to win over the people who are absolutely not going to be won over to your side is peanuts compared to mobilizing the people who would be active or passive supporters,” said Leah Francis, an organizer with the Extinction Rebellion U.S. national team.
“We really want to shift people’s perspective on what constitutes normal, socially acceptable behavior around responding to climate change.”
It aims to push governments to make the rapid, large-scale transformation needed to prevent the collapse of human civilization. This means massive, disruptive protests that render climate change too inconvenient to ignore — protests that will rouse progressives to the cause, even if they turn away centrists or conservatives.
Big green groups, by contrast, have devoted a lot of time and energy to winning over conservatives with the goal of making incremental progress on climate change. Environmental campaigns ask for small donations or push supporters to call their members of congress, always with the promise that change is just around the corner.
“I just want it to be clear that the mainstream environmental movement has been asking very little of people for decades. They’ve been using a strategy of not trying to scare people,” said Bea Ruiz, also an organizer with the U.S. national team. “There’s no element of, ‘We are in an emergency. We all need to do more than what we’re doing.’ There’s a lot of emphasis on positivity and hope.”
A 2018 UN report determined that to stave off catastrophic climate change, humans would need to cut carbon pollution roughly in half by 2030. This would require a radical overhaul of the global energy system, a shift on a scale unprecedented in human history. By some accounts, the UN report was unduly optimistic, spurring Extinction Rebellion to demand countries reach net-zero carbon pollution by 2025. This aim is so ambitious as to be impractical, and politically, it’s unworkable. But organizers are committed to setting their goals based on science, not politics.
“We’re trying to put out there what’s necessary, not what people think is politically possible. And then we’re trying to be part of helping to change what’s politically possible through direct action,” Ruiz said. “We are really, literally, almost out of time, and if we don’t make the reductions that are needed based on the science, we’re going to be in serious trouble. We can’t negotiate with reality.”
Extinction Rebellion is focused on mobilizing people who are already passionate about climate change, and then working to consolidate progressive support for drastic action.
“The way you win is by forcing the issue and then asking people, ‘Which side are you on?’ And we know what side the conservatives are on,” Ruiz said. “A significant portion of the country, for example, is evangelicals, who literally believe that, if climate change exists, then it’s God’s will. Civil resistance movements do not win by spending precious time and resources and energy trying to win over people like that. That’s a losing strategy.”
Ruiz said organizers were influenced by the work of Harvard University political scientist Erica Chenoweth, who found that when just 3.5 percent of a population publicly takes part in an opposition movement, that movement succeeds. Chenoweth’s research further showed that only nonviolent movements are able to reach this critical threshold. That’s because nonviolent movements are better able to recruit people, and some of those people will have friends and family who work for the government or news media, or who belong to security forces.
To be clear, 3.5 percent is nothing to sneer at. In the United States, that would mean around 11 million people marching, striking or joining sit-ins. For context, the 2017 Women’s March drew an estimated 4 million people, and it was the largest single demonstration in American history. At 11 million people, Extinction Rebellion would be too big and unwieldy for any politician to ignore.
Organizers think they will be able to reach that number. Extinction Rebellion UK is reportedly the largest civil disobedience movement in modern British history. And coordinators in the United States said their stark message on climate change has attracted a host of new members.
“They wanted to hear somebody sound the alarm. They’ve all told us over and over and over again that they’re so glad that finally someone is speaking about this crisis in a way that matches reality,” Ruiz said of the people joining their movement.
“Mostly what we’re dealing with are people who are just scared, and they are grieving the state of affairs that we have found ourselves in,” Francis said.
“People have a lot of energy around this, and they want to be able to put it somewhere that matches the intensity of what they’re feeling.”
One of those people is Art Weaver, a former scientist who now sells small-scale wind turbines in Ithaca, New York. Weaver is a new member of Extinction Rebellion, who was stirred to join the movement after learning how little time is left to slash carbon pollution. “I don’t think people are willing to accept that, listen to that, internalize that, be upset about that. They just want to be in denial,” he said. “You have got to look at it with open eyes and a clear head.”
Weaver spoke to the importance of pushing popular news outlets to routinely report on climate change. He recalled watching Walter Cronkite update Americans nightly about the number of casualties in the Vietnam War and seeing the graphs of the body count. “That image, day after day after day, is indelibly printed on my brain,” he said. “That sort of emergency coverage is needed [for climate change]. The news needs to lead every single day with it.”
Weaver came to Extinction Rebellion to find what Ruiz calls the “joy of resistance.” She said that taking part in the movement can give people an outlet for their anxieties. “Extinction Rebellion is asking people to allow themselves to grieve and then turn that grief and that despair into action,” Ruiz said. “When you do that, there is a sense of liberation. There is a sense of joy.”
Lisa Fithian, another organizer with the U.S. national team, put it more bluntly. “Yes, we’re fucked. Yes, this is coming apart,” she said, “We have to reckon with the grief. We have to reckon with the anger. We have to reckon with the fear. And we have to know that deep inside we actually have power and agency, and we can make a difference.”
She added, “When it’s a fight for your life, you’re willing to throw down, especially if you are doing it in a community together.”