You’ve probably heard of Extinction Rebellion (XR) by now. The environmental campaign has caused waves with its focused, colourful and in many ways controversial direct actions.
The weeks of disruption caused to central London in April 2019 marked a turning point, mobilising large numbers who had not previously engaged in direct action, and finally pushing well overdue conversations into the public discourse.
XR has also been criticised by parts of the organised left, who accused it of irresponsible tactics, of backgrounding capitalism as the core enemy, and of understating the existing struggles of people in the global south.
Out of this comes An Extinction Rebellion Handbook, recently released by Penguin, with the aim of pushing the message – and the confidence to take action – even further.
The book is a collection of 32 short essays by diverse authors, split into two halves, illustrated throughout with XR’s signature impactful artwork.
The first half, Tell the Truth, relates to the situation at hand: rising temperatures, catastrophic events, and the failure of governments to act.
The second half, Act Now, provides practical advice on climate activism, including how to organise and carry out a direct action, building campaign support, and the nitty-gritty of making art, providing food and keeping spirits up on the day.
This two-part structure mirrors the successful presentations that XR has been taking around the country to begin forming groups, helping to make that experience available to a wider audience.
Whilst there is no single voice, there does appear to have been an effort to respond to the criticisms, with chapters on Indigenous struggle and the ecological situation in the global south featuring prominently, and capitalism and colonialism frequently named as the core problem.
A further criticism I have personally had of XR has been its apparent lack of a concrete future vision in terms of transformed social structures (as opposed to merely demanding reduction in emissions).
I was pleasantly surprised, then, to see that in the final few essays the book moves on to lay out ideas for alternative societies such as Rojava, democratic confederalism in Northern Syria; participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil; and Cooperation Jackson’s radical cooperative network in the US, as well as discussing post-growth economics, redesigning cities, and building common ownership.
The potential for these ideas to be opened up to a wider readership is, for me, enough to warrant recommending this book, as it remains a missing piece in the climate movement puzzle.
Those who were critical may remain dissatisfied. Many of the essays continue to feature an unquestioned liberal state analysis: for example, the term ‘social contract’ is thrown around without any analysis or acknowledgement that this concept emerged from the same Enlightenment philosophy that has formed the backbone of capitalism and colonialism.
Further, the friendly approach to the police is unchanged and is so deeply embedded in the organisation’s DNA that it is extremely likely to remain so. But the book does give a much clearer explanation than I’ve seen elsewhere for why this approach has been taken.
Anyone embarking on any extended critique of these or other aspects of XR would be advised to read it for insight into the underlying strategy.
But whatever problems the book might have, it’s worth taking a step back and looking at it in terms of its intended purpose: that of mobilising the large number of people who are currently outside the left-wing bubble.
This is an accessible text appropriate for introducing the average reader to both the scale of the building crisis and what they can do to fight back. It does that while seeding in ideas that haven’t been heard in the popular conversation, such as around the role of colonialism, and viable utopian visions.
It won’t please everyone, but it’s aware it won’t. It’s a messy book for messy times. Buy it for that person in your life who just needs one more nudge to take action.
Graham Jones is the author of The Shock Doctrine of the Left. This article was first published in Resurgence & Ecologist magazine
Image: Francesca E Harris.