As another year passes without any meaningful action on climate change, the feeling of ecological grief begins to crystallize. The window of time the infamous IPCC report gives the world to mitigate the worst effects of the climate crisis continues to narrow. Extreme wildfires rip through the West and hurricane after hurricane hits the South. The actions of politicians speak much louder than their words: that the climate crisis is not a priority.
The majority of politicians running for national office this year do not have platforms that include climate policies scientists say we need to avoid ecological collapse. This results in a bizarre cognitive dissonance between understanding this existential threat as a reality and feeling powerless to adequately respond to the enormity of the problem. What is to be done when politicians, even progressives, either lack the will or the momentum to drive through meaningful climate policy? Extinction Rebellion responds with: Organize.
Extinction Rebellion is a grassroots environmental movement that began in the United Kingdom in 2018. It quickly spread to 72 countries around the world, with many chapters in the United States, including one in Boston. Extinction Rebellion (XR) demands the government take immediate action to protect the land, halt biodiversity loss, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025. By political standards, this is no easy task. But XR takes the scientific consensus seriously. They know that if mass public pressure, followed by political action, doesn’t happen now, then it will be too late.
To achieve its four main demands, XR Boston organizes many types of actions, everything from parades to book clubs. But XR’s main push is centered around civil disobedience: a non-violent rebellion, to put it simply. XR is a decentralized movement, meaning there is no hierarchy. This organizational structure allows individuals and working groups to make autonomous decisions. If you want to get involved, there are many working groups to join: action, media and messaging, strategy, infrastructure, outreach, art, and regenerative culture. XR Boston holds community and mutual support as main tenants of its ability to push forward on its demands. Extinction Rebellion asks anyone seeking to get involved to agree with the movement’s Ten Principles & Values.
I got to speak with Allen from XR Boston, to discuss the chapter’s work, the nature of this decentralized movement, and how XR hopes to achieve its goals.
BH: I’d love to hear why you got involved with Extinction Rebellion in the first place and what your role within the organization is now?
XR: I first remember becoming aware of the issue of climate change from the documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, which I’m sure is true for a lot of people. And then when I went to college I studied environmental science and became more convinced that this was going to be a world-changing problem. At the time I thought we needed technological solutions, and that was generally the framing back then–that we have a lot of sources of emissions and if we just develop green technologies we will as a society just transition off of it. I worked in the solar industry for seven years after graduation. I started my own solar company here in Massachusetts. At that time solar had really become the cheapest form of energy, quite cheaper than all fossil fuels. But my company ended up being shut down because the state’s solar program hit its cap and legislators didn’t pass a new solar program for over a year and a half. That experience really got me to reconsider how I engaged on the issue.
I began lobbying at the state level for changes with NRDC, and found there to be a lot of head nodding from politicians, who say, “Yes, I acknowledge it, it’s a top three priority for me,” even from people who don’t engage on the issue at all, like my state senator, Senator Jehlen. She has never authored any policy on climate change, she hasn’t done any press conferences on it, she’s not engaged on the issue at all. But she can still sit in the room with me as a constituent and say, yes I believe your future is important.
We’re at a point in Massachusetts where there’s enough gridlock that the Senate will blame the House; the Senate passes more progressive legislation, the House doesn’t. The House is under control of Robert Deleo who rules with an iron fist and doesn’t let anything out of the Communications and Utilities Committee. It’s really frustrating. And this is where we’re at right now: I’ve tried traditional methods for four years and obviously it hasn’t worked. I think there’s an acknowledgement from progressive legislators that are trying to work on this issue, that they don’t have the power to do it themselves.
A few months ago I quit my job to work on XR full time because there’s a chance to involve a transition off of carbon within the national response to COVID-19 and the need to rejuvenate the economy. And in the case where the Senate becomes democratically controlled, we need to have enough public pressure ready so that this transition becomes a priority.
Right now, I’m working with our Action Working Group and our Strategy Working Group. I worked on the CITGO action organizing, and have helped launch our Emergency Everywhere Campaign, which focuses on our municipal demands on public schools’ carbon emissions and public awareness campaigns.
BH: In your experience, is targeting corporations or government more effective and why?
XR: We’ve targeted fossil fuel companies, but those kinds of companies aren’t going to listen to us. The point of taking action against them isn’t to change their minds, but to send the direct message that what they’re doing is unacceptable. Other kinds of corporations are kind of in-between. You don’t necessarily see a change in behavior, but they do care more about their reputation. We have an action coming up at the Boston Globe about their insufficient reporting on the climate crisis. And I think people are open to something like that–that their media should connect things like Hurricane Gamma back to the climate crisis. Or the record droughts that we’ve been in.
At a government level, there isn’t an easy uptake of our demands, it’s more of a shift towards the demands. For example, in the UK where XR has been around the longest and has grown much more quickly, they were able to get the government to set a legally binding 2050 net zero target last year, becoming one of the largest countries to do so. But that’s not what we’re asking for, we’re not happy with 2050, but that is the kind of shift towards demands I’m talking about. Different actions have different purposes. The government is who we most expect to respond. They’re the most accountable.
BH: In your opinion, what is the appropriate balance to strike between individual climate action (like buying solar panels or eating vegetarian) versus collective action?
XR: Do you want my personal answer or the XR answer? My personal answer is that they are mutually supportive. People want to have cognitive coherence: when you start taking one of those forms of actions, you start to engage more in the other forms of action. So if someone becomes a vegetarian because of health reasons, they can start to identify with some of the other benefits, like the environmental benefits of not eating meat. And then when they look at a politician’s agenda, they begin to care what the politician is doing about the environment. So I think that it ends up being both. And I think one thing that helped with the LGBTQ+ movement is how hard it is for people to ignore something when someone they love or care about is facing it. And I think for climate, people never really talk about the issue, and so individual choice is a path to emotional connection with the people we care about. So I do actually think individual action is a critical component.
As far as the demands we’re focused on at XR, our theory of change is centered on political action because that is the strategy to meet the scientifically mandated levels of decarbonization we need. And every individual action combined will not add up to that. That’s why XR has a No Blaming and No Shaming Principle; if someone drives to one of our actions, we’re not going to yell at them for not having an electric car! We’re here to demand the change that only our government can legislate.
BH: What are some obstacles to getting people motivated to join a ‘rebellion’?
XR: I think that’s one of the reasons Europe has been much more successful than us, it’s culturally very different in the United States. Which is interesting when you consider that here in Boston, the average Bostonian is proud of our colonial revolutionary background. But at the same time, we did an action in Wellesley recently at the town hall, and the town hall said that we wouldn’t be allowed to chalk in front of the building unless they approved our messages. They literally wanted us to send a list of the text we were going to write. Which is just a First Amendment violation! It’s strange that in their minds a rebellion means pre-approved chalking on the sidewalk.
We’re really removed from the movements that used civil disobedience in a way that was broadly accepted. We’re really removed from the Peace Movement of the 70s, the Civil Rights Movement or the Women’s Rights movement, where civil disobedience was more socially acknowledged as something you would do. So people have to re-wrap their heads around that. This is a type of action that works and has worked historically, and it is necessary in times when the government refuses to take action.
BH: With civil disobedience comes arrests. I know that Boston XR has been taking a break on these actions due to COVID-19 safety risks, but before that, what kind of safety net does XR provide for its members? Do you provide legal services to those arrested?
XR: Yeah, we work with the National Lawyers Guild, which is one of the pro bono options for lawyers to sign up for. And all actions where we’ve thought there is a likely chance of arrests, we worked with NLG. We have legal observers who act as witnesses for future cases, we have arrest support which provides transportation when you get out of jail. Funding-wise you can’t legally raise money before an arrest, because it can pull the donors into a conspiracy charge, but we have successfully raised money in the past. Like with the CITGO action, we ended up being fined $500, and the community was able to come up with the money.
BH: Is the lack of rigid policy demands a strength or a weakness for XR’s mission?
XR: That’s a good question. I’ll tell you both. Overall it’s a strength. The positive side of it is that the people who really care about climate solutions get too bogged down in the technical aspects of that. But at the end of the day if we haven’t agreed to decarbonize in a way that allows for a livable future, having some of these “in the weeds” discussions is irrelevant. So we want the government to first commit to a process where we plan, together with input and oversight from direct participatory democracy, what that transition looks like. We need that step first. Having overly technical debates right now is useless, it’s irrelevant.
I think the weakness of it is that XR doesn’t have a single positive vision for people to hold onto, to be excited about. If we were to paint a positive vision, it would be a culture focused on fulfillment with what you have and acknowledging abundance.
BH: I’m curious about the economic language around XR. For example the demand of just transition rather than a de-growth model. Should XR language be explicitly anti-capitalist, do you think it already is?
XR: The overall strategic framing for XR is what is a path that would work on the timeline we have. It is hard to argue that we can move the United States society to a place of degrowth in the amount of time that we have. I think that is a part of why it’s not an explicit thing. However, I think that if you talk to XR people in general, there’s a lot of support for degrowth and non-consumerist values. We want the movement to feel accessible to people, and as people join XR they will be exposed to the predominant culture, which is a degrowth minded culture.
BH: With that, has there been any work with labor groups or unions?
XR: We haven’t in the Boston chapter. I know The Sunrise Movement has done a lot more of that kind of organizing. I think that the issues are related in the spheres of governmental function, capitalism, and wealth accumulation. But we’re not aligned enough that we’re seeing the other’s work as a priority. An actual rebellion to restructure power in our governmental system is something XR would support, and I don’t think that the labor movement is even at that point. Showing up for labor right now is showing up for individual walkouts or strikes. It’s hard to think what the overlap would be for working on a campaign together.
BH: We’ve seen much of the working class moving to the Right rather than to the Left, and if climate and green jobs could be a bridge to minimize or redirect that rightward movement, isn’t that some common ground?
XR: Our Strategy Team is thinking about new partnerships with affected industries and what that would look like. Like partnerships with farmers being affected by the drought we’re experiencing, or the fishing industry throughout New England, which has been and will continue to be affected by climate change. The kind of government support that these sectors need is in line with the just transition path XR is on.
BH: Do you predict any changes in strategy based on the outcomes of the election?
XR: No. In some ways, it’s hard to plan an XR strategy that feels adaptive and current, because our whole strategy is we need to rebel against the government. Whether Biden is elected or Trump is elected, that is still true. A third of money in politics is fossil fuel money, and it goes to both parties. The Democratic Party has refused to include ending fossil fuel subsidies on their platform. They teased it, but then ended up removing it. This shows us where they’re at as a party. The first thing that needs to be done, that hurts no one, is to stop funding the climate catastrophe. Stop directly funding the fossil fuel industry with 20 billion dollars of subsidies. A lot of our demands are targeted at Massachusetts where we can’t even get stuff passed. It’d be one thing if Governor Baker was vetoing stuff left and right, but it’s all stuck in the State House. Democrats everywhere are not on board yet with science.
If you’d like to get involved with Extinction Rebellion, here is Boston XR’s event page.
Check out Boston Hassle’s previous interview with Extinction Rebellion here.
All photos courtesy of Extinction Rebellion Boston.