The Extinction Rebels have got their tactics badly wrong. Here’s how | André Spicer
Over the past few days, I have watched members of the Extinction Rebellion movement block bridges, disrupt public transport and lock themselves to lorries. I have been moved by their bravery and inspired by their message, but puzzled by their strategy. On the face of it, the rebels have been effective. They have disrupted major cities, gained publicity and built bonds of solidarity. But are they achieving their aim of building a more sustainable world?
According to Stanford University’s Doug McAdam, the climate change movement has historically been a failure when compared with other movements. Climate activists have struggled to engage politicians, been unable to build influential organisations, and failed to connect with the wider public. The Extinction Rebellion may mark a turning point. The rebels have injected a sense of urgency and emotion back into the issue of climate change, but creating meaningful and long-lasting change requires more. A movement must reach out beyond true believers and connect with a wider base of potential supporters – wherever they might be found on the political spectrum.
What is Extinction Rebellion?
Extinction Rebellion is an international protest group that uses non-violent civil disobedience to campaign on environmental issues. Demonstration have included blocking bridges to traffic in London and a semi-naked protest inside the House of Commons.
The group says climate breakdown threatens all life on Earth, and so it is rebelling against politicians who ‘have failed us’, to provoke radical change that will stave off a climate emergency.
Climate activists talk about saving the natural environment from “harm”, “caring” for the planet and working towards climate “justice”. Such language appeals to the left but antagonises the right. Researchers have found that conservatives heed messages about climate change when they are couched in values they hold dear – that means talking about saving the climate as obeying authority, preserving the purity of nature or defending your country. A recent study published in the journal Nature: Climate Change found that “interventions that increase angry opposition to action on climate change are especially problematic”. The only sound way forward was to “transform intergroup relations”. That meant being able to reach out beyond one’s political tribe and draw in other groups. You do that through their values, their language and their rituals.
Extinction Rebellion’s call for “ecological justice” will appeal to people on the left, but it will miss out those in the centre and alienate folks on the right. If the rebels want to reach out, they could instead talk about “preserving the purity of nature” or “saving our national natural heritage”. Their tactics are also likely to push away many potential supporters. Acts of civil disobedience such as occupying bridges, guerrilla gardening and protest puppetry may appeal to seasoned activists, but are a turnoff for thousands of potential supporters who might walk past such occupations. If the rebels want to reach out, they should use social rituals which other groups are familiar with – instead of glueing themselves to DLR trains, they might hold tea parties at local fetes.
The Extinction Rebellion protest in New York on 17 April. Photograph: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
The identity offered by the Extinction Rebellion movement will resonate with would-be rebels, but the majority of people who could potentially be won over to their cause don’t see themselves as “rebels”. Instead they identify as parents, workers, neighbours, members of ethnic or religious groups and many other things. To effectively reach out, the climate change movement needs to connect with these identities. After all, one of the main reasons people change their minds is when they have an extended conversation with someone who is like them but who has changed an opinion.
But perhaps the Extinction Rebels do not want to reach out. Their avowed aim is to encourage 3.5% of population to undertake system change. If the Extinction Rebels continue to focus on attracting a relatively small group of activists they will open up a space for a mass movement which can appeal across political boundaries. If such a mass movement does indeed come about, the Extinction Rebels are likely to provide an important service. This will be due to what’s called the radical flank effect. This is when more extreme groups make us aware of the problem, in turn forcing the authorities to work with more moderate movements to create the solutions.
• André Spicer is professor of organisational behaviour at the Cass Business School at City, University of London