The planet is dying! Get naked in the Commons?

| 5th April 2019
Extinction Rebellion activists strip off in parliament to highlight climate crisis

Climate protesters from Extinction Rebellion strip off in the public gallery of the House of Commons during a Brexit debate to keep the climate crisis on the agenda

Extinction Rebellion
Extinction Rebellion's semi-naked stunt in the House of Commons exemplifies their alienating approach. They need to get serious.

As XR’s central strategy hinges on ‘raising the alarm’ through civil disobedience, the focus on seeking attention rather than effective disruption guides participants towards aimless but click-worthy stunts.

Extinction Rebellion (XR) protesters gave Parliamentary journalists some respite from the monotony of their current existence during the latest round of Brexit debate in the House of Commons.

Unfortunately, it was not an April Fool's joke that 11 activists got semi-naked and super-glued themselves to the glass window of the Commons' public gallery with their buttocks facing the chamber during a Brexit debate.

Coverage of the protest was bolstered by the shocked reactions of MPs including Ed Miliband who's wide eyes adorned social media and listicles for the next 24 hours.

Civil disobedience

XR was seeking to highlight the disproportionate resource dedicated to resolving the UK's current Brexit impasse compared to that dedicated to resolving environmental crises.

Distracting from their central argument, though, was the absurd sight of one of the 'semi-naked' protesters refusing to take off his jeans, clearly betraying the point of the action.

In some ways, getting semi-naked in the Commons is a natural next step for XR's strategy to 'raise the alarm' about the environmental crisis. The strategy implies a fundamental need to grab headlines and garner rapid social media amplification.

On the other hand, getting semi-naked in the Commons feels like a departure from their stated strategy to escalate disruptive civil disobedience that the shut-down of several central London bridges in November sought to set the tone for.

Herein lies one of the major contradictions of XR's strategy. If the primary purpose of disruptive civil disobediences is to attract attention and 'raise the alarm', why would activists go that far when they can achieve the same results by taking their clothes off in the Commons for 20 mins?

Arrest

This interpretation of their strategy incentivises actions which minimise organising capacity and disruption while maximising media coverage with increasingly shocking imagery.

We know that wasting 20 mins of a Brexit debate exercises no leverage over politicians or corporations responsible for the environmental crisis. You penetrate the periphery of the news cycle for 24 hours. Beyond that, what's the point?

The contradiction has grown increasingly apparent since November, when I wrote for Novara Media raising concern about XR's strategy, especially its privileging of tactics inciting mass arrests and what that would mean for the sustainability of XR and the wider movement.

Many XR supporters responded to the article by arguing that inciting mass arrests was in fact not central to XR's strategy. For them, it was the civil disobedience that mattered and arrests were incidental and avoidable.

This was contradicted as The Guardian released film of XR co-founder Roger Hallam on the day of the London bridges action giving police advice on how to arrest protesters faster.

Embarrassing

The video is captioned with his quote, “we can't get arrested quick enough". For Hallam, it's the footage of protesters being carried away that matters, not the efficacy the civil disobedience itself if measured by disruption.

This internal tension around the focus of XR's strategy has been further exemplified in the incoherent diversity of actions taking place under the XR banner.

The campaign began by occupying Greenpeace’s London office in a bizarre case of friendly fire amid demands for the NGO to materially support XR.

After the disruptive London bridges action, XR members have gone on, among many other actions, to shut down the Department of Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS); peacefully demonstrated outside the BBC over their reporting of climate change; block traffic at rush hour outside Sheffield train station; spill artificial blood outside Downing St; and refuse to give birth (known as ‘birth strikers’) until climate change ends.

In isolation, these tactics range from the reasonable to the absurd to the embarrassing. But it's difficult to see how they contribute to an effective joined-up strategy.

Weird

The target is different each time and sometimes non-existent or misdirected. Without concerted pressure, none of the targets of these actions - whether BEIS, the BBC or MPs - will feel compelled to do anything of substance in response.

What the actions do have in common is that they have been newsworthy, attracting regular reporting by The Guardian and others.

As XR’s central strategy hinges on ‘raising the alarm’ through civil disobedience, the focus on seeking attention rather than effective disruption guides participants towards aimless but click-worthy stunts.

One might argue that this is not an issue. If XR’s aim is to raise awareness and their actions continue to receive prominent media coverage, why not continue in that vein until they don’t?

The problem is that actions like getting semi-naked Commons are counter-productive precisely because of the attention they attract. They reinforce a popular perception of ‘environmentalism’ or climate action as essentially weird and fringe.

Breakdown

Similarly, actions which needlessly disrupt the day-to-day lives of people least to blame for environmental breakdown, like working-class commuters, actively alienate those we should be prioritising recruiting to our movement.

With less than 12 years to avoid runaway climate change and a wider environmental crisis in unprecedented scale and urgency, we cannot afford to continue excluding large swathes of ordinary people from our movement.

To solve this crisis, we need to win a social majority for sweeping changes to the economy in a very short time frame. XR’s strategy rests on the theory that you only need to mobilise 3.5 percent of the population “to achieve systems change”.

It fails to understand that annoying more than 50 percent of the population creates a major barrier to change regardless of how many you mobilise.

Increasingly, the left has begun to take climate breakdown seriously and instigate broad-based organising to build that social majority.

Serious

People & Planet’s Fossil Free campaign has mobilised thousands for universities to divest from fossil fuels.

Labour for a Green New Deal has launched to persuade the Labour Party to adopt transformative platform to address ecological and social crises in tandem. Momentum have taken up the fight against Barclays demanding the bank defunds fossil fuels.

We must underline the need, though, for a broad climate movement which extends beyond the university campus and the Labour Party.

We need social movements in the strain of Extinction Rebellion mobilising people with little experience of activism. But they must organise seriously and avoid undermining the good work of others by perpetuating damaging perceptions of climate activism.

We’re not all weirdos who get semi-naked in the House of Commons or disrupt working-class commuters’ journeys to work. We’re serious about bringing everyone along in our vision of a prosperous, ecologically stable future. Extinction Rebellion need to get serious too.

This Author

Chris Saltmarsh is founder of Labour for a Green New Deal and Co-Director: Climate Change Campaigns at People & Planet. He tweets at @chris_saltmarsh.

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