The existential question for climate activists: Have disruption tactics stopped working?

Jack Shenker

On a bright, chilly morning in January, seven women – some young, some older, all condemned as guilty by the state – gathered at Southwark crown court. The group had already been convicted of criminal damage following an Extinction Rebellion (XR) action in April 2021 that involved breaking windows at the headquarters of Barclays Bank: a financial institution responsible for more than £4bn of fossil fuel financing during that year alone.
“In case of climate emergency break glass”, read stickers they stuck to the shattered panes. Now they were being sentenced. After a long preamble, the judge eventually handed down suspended terms, sparing the defendants jail for the time being. But he used his closing remarks to condemn their protest as a “stunt” that wouldn’t help to solve the climate crisis. “You risk alienating those who you look to for support,” he warned.
Is he right? Outside the courtroom, that’s a question XR has been pondering for some time. Two months ago, we received an answer of sorts: the movement released a statement on New Year’s Eve, dramatically titled “We Quit”, in which it announced it would “temporarily shift away from public disruption as a primary tactic” and promised that its next major action would “leave the locks, glue and paint behind”. Instead, it called upon anyone concerned about climate change to gather peacefully outside parliament on 21 April as part of a mobilisation that will “prioritise attendance over arrest and relationships over roadblocks”. In response, Just Stop Oil and Insulate Britain – the high-profile environmental action groups that have outflanked XR in recent years when it comes to disruptive public protests – both reasserted their commitment to direct civil resistance. Debates over the pros and cons of different forms of activism are nothing new within the climate movement; see, for instance, fierce disagreements among supporters of Earth First! – arguably Britain’s first direct action environmental group – over the relative merits of sabotage nearly 30 years ago. What lends this one a particular urgency is the scale and pace of planetary destruction under the status quo (last year, the IPCC issued its “bleakest warning yet” regarding humanity’s future), as well as the specific conjunction of social, political and economic forces in the UK. After 13 years of Conservative rule, multiple and intersecting crises – from low pay and soaring inflation to unaffordable housing and a broken NHS – are engulfing the country, pushing more than a million people on to picket lines.
Rather than tackle the root causes of popular discontent, the government is seeking to criminalise those who give voice to it via new legal restrictions on the right to protest or take industrial action. Against a backdrop of both creeping authoritarianism above and collective fightbacks below, this feels like a moment of real possibility for climate campaigners, albeit one fraught with dangers. Little wonder, then, that XR’s statement has heightened some existing tensions within the wider environmental movement, a landscape that ranges from militant tunnel-diggers to the philanthropic arm of corporate giants such as Ikea. When it first burst into the public consciousness back in 2018, bringing parts of London to a standstill in a nonviolent riot of music, dance and colour, XR was described in the mainstream press as a radical force, particularly as its political strategy rested on maximising arrests of its supporters. The fruit of its first “rebellion” included a formal declaration by the British parliament acknowledging the climate emergency, but subsequent mass actions delivered diminishing tangible returns and fuelled mounting concerns in some quarters about the nature of the group’s work.
One notoriously ill-advised intervention at London’s Canning Town station in 2019, which resulted in an ethnically diverse and largely working-class group of commuters dragging XR protesters from the roof of a tube train, seemed to visually embody the movement’s blind spots and failure to engage local communities. In recent years, as prime-time news footage of pink boats at Oxford Circus has been supplanted by shots of protesters blocking the M25 or soup being hurled at (unharmed) Van Gogh masterpieces, other organisations have become the media face of supposedly extreme activism. Many of their supporters were once XR activists who have since broken away; at the same time, other prominent XR figures have moved in the opposite direction, calling for a less confrontational set of tactics that can command the broadest possible support base among the public. On the face of it, XR’s We Quit declaration looks like a big win for the latter, including the former XR spokesperson Rupert Read, who argues against “polarising” forms of activism and now co-directs an incubator dedicated to growing the environmental movement’s “moderate flank”.
The reality is more complicated. In truth, few believe that when it comes to the climate emergency there is a binary choice between radical protests and less confrontational forms of activism. Whether acknowledged or not, the former often depend upon the latter to make themselves and their demands appear more palatable to powerbrokers. There is already evidence of a positive symbiotic relationship between the “extreme” and “moderate” wings of the UK environmental movement, with Just Stop Oil interventions being found to increase public support for Friends of the Earth. A more salient faultline – and one that runs right through the middle of many climate groups, including XR – concerns what exactly is being named as the enemy here, and therefore what sort of changes are needed to vanquish it. It’s easy enough to recognise that the environment is being devastated by human activity, but who is responsible: is it a generalised failure on the part of an entire species – or the result of specific actors, and specific political and economic systems built to enrich and protect them? If so, can we really expect concessions granted from within those systems to durably and meaningfully change our relationship with the natural world?
This question matters because alongside a healthy diversity of tactics and movement entry points, what the climate struggle needs is a clear, coherent narrative that knits together the many different ways in which those with enormous wealth are dispossessing the rest of us – including their war on the ecosystems that form the basis of our shared survival – and calls out the extractive, undemocratic structures that enable that process. Yes, there absolutely must be room in the movement for people who would never dream of blocking a road or smashing a window, just as there must be for those willing to take on such risks. But there should be no space here for a “beyond politics” framing of the climate crisis (a slogan often and problematically espoused by XR, though its supporters insist that it has been misunderstood), because that would root the climate struggle in a fundamental lie. Without a compelling story that links rising sea levels with attacks on the right to strike, environmentalists will allow governments and businesses to pursue a slow, inadequate and ultimately ineffective decarbonisation programme.
Researching this article, I’ve spoken to people hailing from very different parts of the environmental movement, and what struck me most was the degree of mutual respect on display, rather than rupture. Rupert Read, for example, had positive things to say about some of Just Stop Oil’s past interventions; Indigo Rumbelow, a co-founder of Just Stop Oil, encouraged anyone who criticises her group’s tactics but supports their cause to join the XR mobilisation on 21 April. “The debate is not between those who want to take ‘moderate’ or ‘radical’ action,” she told me. “It’s between those who are standing by doing nothing at all, and those who are doing something. That’s where the line is drawn.”
The Guardian