Is XR selling out?

| 26th June 2019
Rebel reading
XR
Is Extinction Rebellion's new book another sign of the commodification and monetisation of social movements?

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The environmental activism group Extinction Rebellion (XR) has released a book. Not a free or donation-based ebook. Not one produced with a small, independent publishing house. No, this book has an RRP of £7.99, is published with one of the largest publishing houses, Penguin, and available on Amazon.

I am an XR activist myself. I write this as an immensely active member of my local branch. I write this in between packing a trolley full of high vis vests, posters, leaflets and stickers with that distinctive Extinction Symbol, ready for their next outing, and emailing other local coordinators and members.

I write this as a supporter of what I’ve seen XR achieve on a local and national level. But, I also write this as someone who has always had concerns about this growing movement and the direction it may take.

Real change 

It’s hard not to catch the whiff of hypocrisy, the creeping sense that an important movement could be selling out.

I remember when XR first appeared in the Autumn of 2018. Eye-catching posters appeared all over the university I work at, covered with animal skulls and warnings of climate crisis.

As an environmentalist I was naturally intrigued. I followed the link included on the posters but was disappointed to find a page with virtually no information, just a tantalising call to get involved.

Involved in what? I was frustrated in a way. I felt like I had been drawn in by a marketing gimmick for some festival, product or TV series soon to be wheeled out to try to capitalise on growing interest in environmentalism.

A month or so later I was happily proved wrong. XR revealed itself as a Non-Violent Direct Action movement that promised to take the climate crisis to those in power and fight for real change.

Rapid growth 

XR has undoubtedly been successful. Thousands joined the protests in London in April and, even as national organising goes through a quiet period as we plot for the summer, we are seeing people all over the country continue to take action in their local groups.

The UK government has just announced plans for a Citizens’ Assembly to discuss climate policy. A number of towns and cities have declared a climate emergency and the fact of the impending potential environmental catastrophe is beginning to take root in the public consciousness. 

The demands that XR have made are beginning to be met and This is Not a Drill has jumped into Amazon’s top fifty Bestseller’s list in less than a week.

The group's mastery of imagery and slogans has certainly been one of the aspects that helped with these successes and rapid growth. Unfortunately it could also be its weakness, vulnerable to being taken over by money hungry opportunists.

Is this what’s happening with their Penguin book deal? 

Reaching out 

Clare Farrell, an XR activist and contributor in getting This is Not a Drill put together, has confirmed that Penguin approached the group about a book deal: “Whilst a tough decision for a movement without merchandise, enough of us felt it would give us an incredible reach.

"I do think it helps us reach different people with more depth than online videos and texts.”

We have often seen the monetisation of protest movements. It happens far too regularly with LGBTIQ+ movements, feminism, and a recent tidal wave of “green” products.

However, these are almost always external forces that taste an opportunity for profit. Brands jumping on the success of Pride with rainbow covered everythingthe same shops that promote negative body images selling t-shirts with feminist slogans.

XR have seen it themselves with a slew of third-parties selling t-shirts and badges emblazened with the Extinction Symbol logo. But this internal capitalisation is far more worrying.

Anti-capitalism

People are making money out of this book. There have been suggestions that the profits XR receive will be going to support other groups - potentially the Green and Black Cross who have played a significant role in supplying legal support to XR arrestees - but there will still be other companies profiting from the sales.

The choice to publish with a large publishing company and selling on Amazon is undeniably problematic. They are still supporting a system which much of their movement has criticised. Penguin is the world's biggest publisher, valued at £2.75bn. It has 10,000 employees worldwide. It published in 2014 The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels

Our current commodity-obsessed system is eating away at the planet. Amazon is a leader in sustaining this and feeding our fantasy that we can have anything we desire dropped into our laps in a matter of hours. Amazon actively encourages increasing consumption and has been criticised for its treatment of its staff. XR is now playing a part in that same system. 

On its website XR highlights the inaction of governments caused by “a focus on profits and economic growth”. This is an anti-capitalist statement, but XR have always been wary of labelling itself anti-capitalist.

I can see the benefits of this, as it can scare many potential activists off even if they agree with the principles, but I now begin to question whether the individuals behind XR’s beginnings do not understand the fundamental issues that the capitalist system presents for the natural world.

Serial consumerism 

Warning signs blared when an XR Business group reared into existence during the April International Rebellion. Many within the movement were immediately suspicious. An association with the business market felt counter to what activists were fighting for. Could it be used as a greenwashing tool? Was this a means for XR to start marketing and selling itself?

No clear answers were given before the subject was hastily swept away, and the group was declared entity separate to XR, and which doesn't seem to have resurfaced since, leaving questions for many on the true intentions for this project.

There have been valiant efforts for XR to influence the sustainable practices of Penguin through the publication of This is not a Drill. The book is printed on entirely recycled paper, with hopes they will be able to get Penguin to commit to wider use of recycled paper long term. 

While this is encouraging, there are limits to the sustainability a large multinational company can achieve, and while progress could be made with Penguin there are almost insurmountable challenges posed by association with the retailer Amazon whose rampant encouragement of serial consumerism and reluctance to disclose their environmental impact are a clear issue. 

Empty slogans

It is essential that XR does not allow this book to be the first in a line of well-intentioned merchandise.

Standing their ground against further commercialisation is vital for the integrity of the movement. The creator of the Extinction Symbol, synonymous with XR, was very clear: “Since its inception the extinction symbol has always been a strictly anti-consumerist project. No extinction symbol merchandise exists, and it never will do”.

When social movements become commodities, whether through their own actions or those of external companies, they quickly lose their meaning. They become vehicles of empty slogans and quick-fix activism.

XR has huge potential to influence change on a grassroots level. Their decentralised approach to local activism is productive and creates true communities across the country, but from the central team there seems to be increasingly worrying practices and miscommunication. 

While these issues can be overcome more generally, an action like the publication of this handbook feels like somewhat of a betrayal.

Grassroots action

The lack of discussion defeats the horizontal organisation of the group, especially when the decision might upset and alienate some members.

This publication goes some way to legitimise the accusations thrown at us after every protest - that we are hypocritical virtue signallers who don’t live by our own principles. 

XR has built a brand, but we don’t need merchandise to affirm it. While the book may reach a wider audience, we will achieve more by remaining focused on grassroots, local politics and action.

This Author 

Liz Lee Reynolds is a freelance writer focussing on place and the environment. She tweets @LizzieeLR.

Image: Extinction Rebellion, Tomm Morton

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