by Greg Yost
(op-ed published in the Asheville Citizen-Times on February 2, 2020)
Most people in the United States by now have heard of Greta Thunberg, the straight-talking Swedish teenager whose unflinching demand for climate action has made her a thorn in the flesh for do-nothing politicians from Davos to the White House.
Less known here, but more notorious in Great Britain than even Thunberg is Extinction Rebellion, a nonviolent direct action movement which aims to turn Thunberg’s pique into Gandhian power.
Extinction Rebellion (often abbreviated as XR) launched itself in London in November 2018 when thousands of people blocked five bridges over the Thames. It continued in similar fashion across all of 2019 with spirited, colorful protests and hundreds, if not thousands, of arrests each time for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience.
XR uses the disruptive spectacle of mass action to press its three demands. First, that government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency. Second, that government must act now to stop biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero in this decade. Third, that government at all levels must create and be led by citizens’ assemblies on matters of climate and ecological justice.
XR spread from the UK, landing first in major world cities such as New York, Paris, and Berlin. But in keeping with its decentralized, do-it-together ethos, it also appeared spontaneously in much more out of the way places.
Last summer, Carla Norwood, a young mother of three from a rural eastern North Carolina county, heard the news reports about Extinction Rebellion and began asking herself what she personally was willing to do to make a safer, more livable world for her children. She decided to start with something simple, a series of trips across the state to spread word about XR to anyone willing to listen.
One of Norwood’s journeys last fall found her gathered with a handful of people at the Black Mountain Public Library. The group followed her homemade slideshow with a discussion of its own, and in short order Extinction Rebellion WNC was born. Norwood departed, leaving local organizers to get to work. Similar stories were repeated in other North Carolina cities.
Extinction Rebellion is in fifty-six countries now, spreading like fire even in some areas, such as Australia, which literally are on fire. But the explosive growth has also been marked by occasional fierce criticism, some of which has come from would-be allies. The movement’s reliance upon mass arrests to force government to the table has caused some to wonder if the tactic is sustainable. Others question its suitability in neighborhoods already plagued by abuse at the hands of the police.
But it was the characteristically blithe tone of newly minted, white middle class XR activists in the UK which most concerned longtime organizers from other struggles. The exuberance of early XR actions betrayed an assumption of status and privilege that was off-putting to those not so accustomed. Many worried that XR would not be a reliable ally if it did not understand that exploitative power relations in the pursuit of domination and profit constitute the root cause of the climate and extinction crises.
To its credit, Extinction Rebellion has proven willing to publicly apologize for mistakes and learn from them. To the original three UK core demands, for example, XR organizers in the United States have since appended a fourth which prioritizes protection and repair of marginalized communities. This and other efforts to deal honestly with issues of equity and justice may help the rebellion one day fulfill its promise as a durable multiclass and multiracial movement.
Extinction Rebellion WNC will likewise need to work to earn trust here in the Asheville area if it’s to succeed. Ironically, the climate emergency itself all but guarantees that it will have that chance. Rising waters, after all, can serve a purpose of bringing people together to higher ground.
There are thousands in western North Carolina already who experience climate-induced fear, anger, and grief. Those thousands will grow into tens of thousands more in days to come as flooding, melting, and burning continue to wreak havoc on human communities and natural ecosystems around the world.
Extinction Rebellion exists to channel this naturally occurring human energy into a collective global act of self-preservation. The fact that it’s beautiful doesn’t guarantee its ultimate success, but it is encouraging evidence nonetheless for it being on the right track.