Naming the system

| 4th December 2019
XR protest shell
Samuel Hayward
XR must name capitalism and neo-colonialism as the systems of oppression that underpin climate crisis.


The majority of the British public - including almost half of Tory voters - support the total decarbonisation of the UK economy in 10 years, a poll conducted last month shows

To put this into context, we have to remember where we were a year ago: the British government had a target of an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050 and this was considered pretty good at the level of the general public. There was little discussion about the efficacy of the Paris agreement – the UN and international bodies had climate change under control, we were on the way to saving the world.

Climate wasn’t a topic for energised political discussion. It certainly wasn’t seen as an emergency.

Extraordinary shift

I had a quick look this morning at the polls subsequent to the 2017 general election showing the top issues that motivated people to vote, just to dispel any confirmation bias I might be experiencing. The issues ranked in importance were: Brexit, terrorism, NHS, immigration and the economy.

Now one year later the majority of the British public wants to finish off the fossil fuel industry in a decade. This is an extraordinary shift. A poll a couple of weeks ago showed climate and environment as the number three issue, ahead of crime and the economy and close behind health and Brexit.

Critiques of Extinction Rebellion notwithstanding, no one could suggest in all seriousness that this monumental shift in public opinion would have been possible without XR’s actions over the past year, and – I would contend – without the 3,000 people who have been arrested.

Of course the school strikes have made a huge contribution, and I think Labour’s Green New Deal plans have been important in moving a significant number of left activists into the climate space. But in terms of communicating the urgency to take action, and framing climate change as a crisis, XR led the charge.

Now comes the hard bit. 

Citizens Assembly 

XR has three demands: for governments to tell the truth and declare a climate emergency; to legislate for net zero emissions by 2025; and to establish a Citizens’ Assembly to formulate the policies to reach that 2025 target.

I want to focus on this final demand because it illustrates how I think XR and the climate movement more widely might think about future strategy.

The Citizens’ Assembly demand enabled XR to build a mass movement in a very short period of time. The demand crosses ideological boundaries, and the message that political institutions are failing and that we can’t trust politicians to sort out the climate crisis landed at just the right time, in the midst of the never-ending psycho-drama of Brexit.

I have spoken to probably thousands of people over the past year and delivered the message that we need a Citizens’ Assembly. And while I still think it can be an extremely powerful tool to democratise policy making, it has a major, fundamental design flaw – it fails to acknowledge the existence of power relations and the deep roots of the climate crisis.

This demand assumes – blithely – that power will surrender itself voluntarily whilst simultaneously dismantling its own institutions by handing over power to determine the future of our economic and social structures to randomly chosen people.

This, I think, is naïve if you have any understanding of state power, and the history of the British state in particular.

As Marx said, power is a resource, which means that it is always in limited supply. By not engaging seriously with this failing, I believe XR has left some people adrift and is in danger of creating the conditions for climate action to perpetuate the horrors and oppressions of extractivist colonialism.

Naming the system

So how can we fix this? I think we have to do better at, as Jason W. Moore puts it, “naming the system.” Specifically, naming capitalism and neo-colonialism as the systems of oppression underpinning the crisis.

I think we have to start explaining to people that the climate crisis is not the start of a scary new thing but the end of a 500-year process.

There’s this graph that shows that more carbon has been released from burning fossil fuels in the last 30 years than in all of human history. Among other data points, this framing has helped create an artificial sense of the newness of climate crisis - that if only governments had put up more solar panels and wind farms in the 80s and 90s we could have averted this thing. I’ve been guilty of framing it this way myself at times.

And in a very narrow sense that is true, but it completely fails to engage with the geo-historical nature of the climate crisis. Neo-colonial capitalism was never going to stop burning the fossil fuels – is never going to stop burning fossils. The climate crisis is the inevitable end of the underpinning systems.

So unless we start naming the system, and educating people that the roots of the crisis are hundreds of years old, and are intimately bound up with slavery, with the genocide of Indigenous people, the plunder of resources, cultures and bodies, I think XR is in real danger of re-creating the old oppressions, just this time powered by solar panels. And none of us should aspire to a climate-safe future of oppression. It is nothing worth fighting for – and nothing worth handing to our children.


So why has this come about? I think one reason is that for a long time there was an idea that action on climate change would automatically be left wing, inclusive and compassionate. The resistance of the right to climate politics sort of logically suggested this would be the case.

But we can see how this is obviously not the case. The far-right terrorist who massacred 50 Muslims in New Zealand explicitly called himself an eco-fascist, as did the Trump supporting white supremacist who murdered dozens of mainly Hispanic people in the Walmart in Texas a couple of months ago.

In September 2017, American Renaissance, a white nationalist magazine, presented a question to its readership: “What does it mean for whites if climate change is real?” and said the biggest danger was the population explosion in the global south and liberal open borders.

Marine Le Pen has promised to make Europe the world’s “first ecological civilisation” and the National Front has said borders are the environment’s “greatest ally". The real fear has always been not that the nationalist right would keep denying climate change – but that eventually they would wake up to it.

Climate justice 

So the first thing I think XR needs to do is to start naming the system and talking explicitly about justice.

This conversation is starting, with some advocating that a fourth demand is added centred on justice, and I hope this conversation results in that fourth demand being added. But we cannot just tack justice on as a demand - it needs to be embedded in how we think and talk about solutions to the crisis.

Justice has to be the over-arching framework within which the future is considered and solutions are formulated.

For some in XR the addition of justice takes the movement away from the narrow focus on climate that has helped us grow so quickly. Yes, it does. And that’s why I think it’s necessary.

I believe XR – as a powerful and trusted new cultural voice – has a deep responsibility to guide the conversation towards justice. If we ever get a Citizens’ Assembly, the people sitting on that Assembly won’t step into the room from a political vacuum. They will take with them underlying assumptions and narratives swirling around the culture. We must start the work now of shaping those narratives.  

Class solidarity 

The second thing I think XR and the climate movement more broadly needs to do – related to this – is to turn climate action into much more of a class interest. We need to build a kind of climate-class solidarity that would really broaden the movement and help deliver the outcomes that have a better chance of empowering – and freeing – more people.

I have a bit of insight into this I think. grew up working class on a council estate with two parents who struggled every month. They don’t particularly feel climate is a real problem or really understand why I am an activist on this issue. Let’s just say they didn’t congratulate me for getting arrested at London City airport.

My parents have lived their lives with more pressing, immediate problems to deal with, which is entirely understandable right? If you’re struggling to pay the rent or the mortgage or having to carefully budget to put food on the table for two sons, you have no time to think about threats beyond the next few days, let alone in 30 years’ time.

It’s not going to be easy to change this but we need to engage with working communities in order to build climate solutions into a broader vision of a new economy and society.

If climate action continues to be seen as antagonistic – rather than supportive – of working class communities we fatally wound our cause. Embedding justice in our demands can help us do this – but only if we actually go out into those communities and engage with people. 

Moving forwards

Related to this, the climate movement has to guard against the kind of organising that channels influence to those with the resources to free up their time. Because naturally this tends towards cliques and an unrepresentative concentration of decision-making power, and unrepresentative outcomes.

As someone with a full time job I am feeling this a bit at the moment myself. I also think we may have seen this dynamic at play with the the much-criticised tube action in October.

The final challenge we have is turning this huge upswell of activity and public engagement into action. As much progress as we’ve made, the earth systems don’t care about polls or blocked roads. Emissions are still going up, ecosystems are still collapsing and the fossil fuel industry still has us in a choke hold.

We have to concern ourselves with politics as it exists, rather than airily claiming to be “beyond politics.” This means engaging with parliamentary politics and with elections, and looking for mechanisms of real power within existing systems to deliver climate justice.

We don’t have the luxury of waiting for perfect conditions, or the perfect political party. When the opportunity to make large leaps within the bounds of an imperfect system present themselves, we have to seize them.

This Author 

Nathan Williams is a climate activist with experience working on climate change policy. 

This article is based on speech delivered at Historical Materialism (2019).


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