No, XR isn’t responsible for its diversity deficit

Extinction Rebellion protestors at Westminster Bridge October 2019

Time to reflect

Extinction Rebellion’s (XR) October protest is long over now. London’s toxic traffic is flowing again and its parks and squares are free of ‘uncooperative crusties’, much to the relief of the police, drivers and even some public transport users.  

The radical protest group braved a hardened police stance towards it to remain on the streets for 12 days, successfully sparking a national debate on the climate emergency. But its more sensitive members will have gathered up their camping gear and returned home with the public’s stinging criticisms of its tactics ringing in their ears. 

Accusations that its messaging and tactics exclude working class and non-white people will have affected the group, which undoubtedly considers itself progressive. 

Working class shut out? 

The class argument has gained a lot of traction in social media. Low income people, of all ethnicities, say the critics, are too hard pressed here and now to heed XR’s warnings of an apocalyptic future or take the time off work to join plummy XR protestors camped out on London’s main arteries. Nor either should they cave in to XR’s misanthropic and anti-working class demands to give up their few luxuries in the name of a zero carbon future. 

The first thing to correct is the notion that XR is purely future focused. Anyone who’s read its website or attended its information sessions will know it speaks out about the devastating impact global heating is having now across around the world. 

Why anyone would need to wait for XR to highlight these effects is a mystery. The news brings endless stories of environmental catastrophes around the globe from fires in the Amazon and California to droughts, cyclones and floods in Africa and Asia and record-smashing heatwaves in Europe, one of which killed an estimated 35,000 people in 2003. The information is there but people are choosing to ignore it and continue with business-as-usual.

The poverty argument has some credibility. Being poor and financially insecure can make it harder to join protests taking place during the week or involving illegal actions. And it’s true that being at the bottom of a hierarchical society like ours makes people feel disempowered and less inclined to believe their actions make a difference.

But it isn’t the case that being poor stops people from fighting social injustice or existential threats. History is laced with social justice struggles fought by people with little more than the clothes they’re standing in, with the Civil Rights movements in America and Northern Ireland being two of many recent examples.

In any case, not all underrepresented groups at XR’s protests are facing poverty. Chinese and Indian men and women, for example, have been almost entirely absent from environmental protests and yet they’re the highest earners in the country. 

As for the idea that XR is anti-working class, this is a fallacy. XR’s demands are aimed at the Government not low income consumers. And their objectives, if achieved, will hugely benefit all of us. Government, fossil fuel companies and the super-rich are disproportionately responsible for climate change and they will need to make the most changes. That said, we all need to snap out of the dream that we can enjoy limitless consumption. The planet can’t sustain it. 

Too white?

Extinction Rebellion protestor, October 2019

Another major criticism of XR is that its strategy of allowing members to get arrested is white-centric and alienates black people and other non-white people who have strained relations with law enforcement. While there’s no denying that young black men and Muslim Asian men may not trust the police, the fact is this hasn’t stopped them demonstrating when issues have resonated with them. 

The ParkfieldDanish cartoon,  Salman Rushdieslavery reparations and Grenfell Tower protests are all examples of this. Granted, there were no ‘arrestables’ at these demonstrations, but then again most people at XR protests don’t get themselves arrested. Of 30,000 people involved in the October actions just 1,700 or 6% were put in handcuffs. 

And what about all the other ethnic and gender combinations – Indian women, South East Asian men, white working class men and women and so on – that don’t have a troubled history with the police? What’s stopping them? 

Individualism wins the day

Neither the class nor race arguments stand up to scrutiny and yet it’s true that (with a few exceptions) it’s only a sub-section of the white middle class that’s participating in the climate movement.

Many factors play a role in different ethnic and social class groups’ attitude towards the climate crisis including their culture, education, religion, economic circumstances, history and sense of empowerment (or disempowerment). All these factors are playing out within a political system rigged in favour of the ruling elite and a neo-liberal capitalist system that encourages individualism and consumerism. Both these systemic issues make it harder to build a united movement for political or social change.

For most people capitalist arguments are winning the day, convincing them they need to forget about the common good – even in the midst of global emergency – and focus on themselves, their kids, their home, that job, that new car, the next holiday or plasma TV. Of Britain’s population of 67,000,000, a miserable 30,000 joined XR’s October 2019 protests, amounting to 0.04% of the nation.

Could XR adjust itself to attract more low-income and non-white people? Probably. For one thing, it’s narrowly focussed on the environment and not enough on socio-economic inequality. Both issues result from our economic system and tackling both could draw in more support.

But is it fair for communities to hold XR responsible for their indifference towards climate change? Certainly not. XR has done more than anyone to push for solutions to ecocide and raise awareness of the urgency of our situation. If most of us have still not awoken from our slumber that’s not the fault of XR no matter how white or middle class its tactics.