Reflecting on the Big One

Billed as a more inclusive, non-disruptive event, it may not have been insurgent but it did feel valuable.
Joel Stone

For those of us involved in Extinction Rebellion (XR) from the earliest days, it was with more than a little apprehension that we approached the so-called ''Big One'' in April – billed as a more inclusive, legally sanctioned, non-disruptive event, in contrast to our previous ''Rebellions''.

I first came across XR at the Earth First summer gathering in 2018, through one of the co-founders who I knew from the anti-fracking front lines.

A few weeks later, I heard the Heading for Extinction talk at Partisan in Manchester, which outlined the truly horrifying extent of planetary climate and ecological breakdown, and invoked the call to mass civil disobedience as a response to this. Over the following couple of months, I helped deliver the same talk, as well as the Non-Violent Direct Action training in towns and cities across the North.

I was a very early adopter of XR: I poured sweat and tears into building it from the ground up and passionately believed in the value of their call to civil disobedience.

The Former Independent Chapel in central Manchester where Partisan were based when XR held its Heading for Extinction talks. Image: David Dixon/Geograph.

Almost five years later, where did we find ourselves? Was the Big One going to feel depressing or dispiriting – because of painfully low numbers in attendance, or due to the adoption of much less confrontational tactics? Did this mark the final 'NGO-ification' of XR, becoming just another toothless green group doing conventional campaigning, which could be easily ignored or sidelined?

All things considered, I was pleasantly surprised. The Big One didn't feel insurgent or groundbreaking, or like previous attempts to engineer ’moments of whirlwind’ or social tipping points. But it didn't feel totally pointless either.

We were lucky with the weather, which always helps with general morale. The overall atmosphere seemed positive and whatever else is going on, it’s always good to reconnect with old comrades. The big march on the Saturday was pretty big: 50,000 people seemed like a fairly plausible baseline estimate (we got reports that the front of the march had returned to Parliament Square before the back of the march had even left!). Marching with thousands will always be an empowering feeling and it was nice not to feel so constantly under threat from the coppers.

Extinction Rebellion estimate around 50,000 turned out for the Big One. Image: Extinction Rebellion.

Seeing the assembled groups brought together did feel valuable, supposedly over 200 different organisations: from War on Want, to Greenpace, to Global Justice Now, to the PCS union. Building real, tangible collaboration and cooperation between organisations and movements really is the most crucial thing, so this was genuinely encouraging.

But in spite of the good vibes, it didn’t feel like any sort of breakthrough. Despite the endorsement of so many varied organisations, it still seemed like those attending were basically those who had attended XR events before and while there must have been new folk there, the wider engagement, with even this conventional demo, still wasn’t there.

There remained a feeling of too little, too late, in terms of real coalition building under the XR banner.

Fighting with allies

"Beyond politics” – the pithy two-word summary of XR’s third demand, which called for the creation of a Citizens’ Assembly to determine climate legislation, along with Tell the Truth & Act Now – was an utterly disastrous slogan and orientation, that was harmfully misconstrued from day one (morphing from the uncontroversial need to go beyond current party politics, to the utter nonsense of planetary ecological breakdown somehow being a ‘’non-political’’ issue) and became uniquely debilitating.

One of the more infamous incidents being the ‘we're not socialists’ Tweet in September 2020, a particularly egregious example of alienating natural allies and fellow radicals, while winning over precisely zero Telegraph readers – part of a repeating pattern of attempted eco-triangulation born of an intense deficit of genuine political analysis.

True, XR did actively alienate much of the wider Left from the start, through hubris (‘everyone else has failed!’), through repeated ignorance around issues of race, class, global justice and state violence, as well as the ‘beyond politics’ crap.

But conversely, there was also lots of left-wing punditry snarkiness in the very earliest days that did not help either; Chris Saltmarsh wrote a disparaging five-point dismissal of XR before we’d even done the Five Bridges action in November 2018, during XR’s embryonic earliest days (his big counterproposal? Joining the Labour Party!) and surprising levels of condescension seemed to exude from the Novara Media hosts during one of the earliest interviews. The default attitude at the time from much of the Left was one of hostility, to an extent that left me personally taken aback.

There seems to me to be a uniquely British Left aversion to direct action and civil disobedience tactics. We only have to look to our nearest European neighbour (from the Gilets Jaunes and recent furious resistance to Macron’s pension reforms in France, to the anti-fascist organisation Ende Gelände in Germany) we see the stark difference to cultures of protest and resistance. Thatcher’s crushing victory against the miners, and with that organised labour more broadly, succeeded in robbing the working classes of our most effective form of direct action – the mass withdrawal of labour – and the consciousness and culture that went with it. This, alongside our ludicrous First-Past-the-Post two-party system and the Labourism it feeds, plus the fact that we’re still a fucking monarchy, all likely contribute to our particularly cap-doffing servility.

Although XR got bad press on the Left, Just Stop Oil are covered more favourably. Image: Alisdare Hickson/Flickr.

Interestingly, we have seen a significant shift in attitudes in the last couple of years, with the likes of Owen Jones and Ash Sarkar covering Insulate Britain (IB) and Just Stop Oil (JSO) much more favourably than they had done XR in the past, in spite of the more brazenly problematic elements and more questionable tactics of IB and JSO. This makes sense; in a post-Corbyn world, where the dream of an orderly, social democratic transition has well and truly died, more confrontational tactics suddenly appear more legitimate.

States of denial

Despite this, it still feels like we are being seriously held back from anything close to the movement we need to develop, which I’ve come to think of as the result of two distinct forms of denialism.

The first is a soft climate denial by much of the Left. Not an explicit denial of the very reality of climate and ecological breakdown itself, of course, but a deep implicit denial of the true enormity of the situation we face, of the immediacy and scale of impending harms, the existential nature of the threat and the unavoidably revolutionary implications.

For so much of the relatively moderate social democratic trade union Left, it seems that climate change is still just another issue among many, and one that can be safely responded to by plodding along with the same methods and approaches that we’ve employed forever (regardless of their efficacy).

This is mostly manifested in apathy towards the issues and lack of forward motion, but we also see actively regressive stances too. In 2019 we saw Unite aggressively pushing Heathrow airport expansion and in 2022 we saw the GMB union come out, yet again, in backing fracking, putting them considerably to the right of half the Tory Party on the issue of new fossil fuel extraction.

Unite pushed for Heathrow airport expansion a couple of years ago. Image: Skyler Smith/Unsplash.

The second denialism is what I’ve come to think of as capitalism denial, which infects swathes of the overly liberal ‘environmental movement’. Here we see people willing to talk in appropriately apocalyptic terms about planetary breakdown, who don’t hesitate to talk of climate genocide, but as soon as you suggest this means we must transition away from capitalism, they say that’s too extreme, too ideological, too impossible, that we don’t have time.

Ignorance of the uniquely and inherently ecocidal nature of capitalism as a social formation, with its endless exponential expansion imperative, leads to the incoherent idea that we can somehow address the multiplicity of capitalism’s harms without addressing the system itself. The lack of real class analysis and class consciousness engenders the most dangerous false hope that we can confront this catastrophe without direct and disruptive confrontation with capital.

Both soft climate denial and capitalism denial are fundamental barriers to the birthing of the revolutionary movement we so desperately need.

A new class-climate consciousness

To put it simply, we need a complete fusion of red and green movements, and the development of a new class-climate consciousness that doesn’t shrink from either hard truth – of the horrifying reality of biosphere collapse, or the necessity of revolutionary transition to combat it.

We need a complete fusion of red and green movements. Image: Extinction Rebellion.

While the calls to further action that came out of XR’s ‘Big One’ were in part unhelpfully vague (going back to our communities to ‘’do the work’’) there were also specific calls to action that were very encouraging, namely the explicit direction to support and get involved with ongoing strike action and industrial disputes. Bringing a more radical ecological consciousness to arenas of class struggle and bringing a more radical class consciousness to ecological spaces is exactly what we need!

Given the almost incomprehensible difficulty of the tasks that lie ahead of us, it’s hard to avoid falling into fairly vacuous platitudes – “we have to come together”, ‘’we need to do the work’’ – as we fumble for clear direction.

What we really need is a willingness to innovate and experiment with new and revitalised forms of tangible, material solidarity in action, especially around the intersection between civil disobedience and industrial action. Using XR-style disruptive law-breaking actions to directly and explicitly support striking workers, to add to the impact of their action, or the public awareness around their struggles, seems a particularly worthwhile direction of travel.

Back in 2021, during the Go North West strike in Manchester, which went on the become the longest bus driver strike in British history, a group of supporters was organised that would go down early doors to where the scab buses were being run from, block them from coming out, delaying their running and in doing so combat the companies’ attempts to undermine the impact of the driver’s strike.

The picket line at the Go North West strike in Manchester in 2021. Image: Nicholas Prescott.

Especially now as the Tories push ahead with what amounts to full-on strike banning legislation, in the context of some of the most restrictive anti-union laws in the Western world already on the books, the need for action that can circumvent these restrictions will only grow. Any such attempt would of course need to be undertaken with great care and appreciation for the specific complexities of the dispute and unions in question, including (likely clandestine) communication with those directly involved in the struggle and awareness that, in a context of intensifying media hostility towards protest and strike alike, the chances of damaging backlash are ever present. But worthwhile things will always be difficult.

With the passage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Bill and Public Order Bill into law, we are seeing a crackdown on protest. This year we've seen Just Stop Oil protesters sentenced to three years in prison for civil disobedience and one of them is now also facing deportation. Last month, Palestine Action activists were handed down sentences ranging from 16 to 27 months for taking direct action to dismantle and occupy a weapons factory. Not to mention the prison sentences currently being given to those involved in resisting authoritarian state violence during the Kill the Bill uprising in Bristol. The global and national picture gets grimmer by the day.

The need for intensified collaboration and revolutionary action has never been greater.

Solidarity with everyone struggling for a better world and particularly with all political prisoners. We’ll see where we go from here.

Joel Stone came to activism and direct action through the anti-fracking movement in 2016, before getting involved in the very earliest days of XR. He is working in the food sovereignty and agroecology sphere.

Support activists in prison in the UK.

Support Kill the Bill activists in prison.

Feature image: Guy Reece.

Joel Stone

Want to support us?

We’ve got big plans. We want to widen and increase our output. We want to produce good quality environmental journalism. And we want to expand our team. But running a media organisation costs money – and we’re run entirely by you. Head over to our Patreon page and consider donating today. Thank you.

Support Us