Reflections from the frontline: Does environmental sustainability have a problem with social justice? (Part 3)
By Nick Anim, on 24 April 2023
Read Part 1 here.
Read Part 2 here.
3.1: Environmental ‘activisting while Black’: Questions and conundrums
Within and between the world of mainstream environmental movements and me, there are ever many unasked or unanswered questions about race, wrapped in conundrums of justice, inside notions of common interests and collective visions for a world transformed. On the frontlines of environmental activism, those questions, conundrums, and notions can be tracked and traced in demands for ‘system(s) change, not climate change’, vociferous calls for ‘climate justice now’, and ubiquitous proclamations insisting ‘another world is possible’. What, exactly, do they all mean? For example, which systems are included in my fellow activists’ ideas about ‘system change’? What forms of justice constitute ‘climate justice’? If another world is to be made possible, what is the roadmap for getting there and, perhaps more importantly, who are the cartographers? How, why, and where do matters of race intersect with all those questions?
In this final piece of my three-part series looking at the contested relationship between environmental sustainability and social justice through the bifocal lens of my research and activism with various environmental movements, I offer some reflections guided by those sample questions. I do so in recognition of long-simmering tensions and emergent fault-lines amongst different groups of activists about the locations, hierarchies, and particular forms of justice in the vital interplay of causes, demands, tactics and grand visions that inform what I call ‘the soul-craft of a social movement’ – how any movement understands and frames its organising concerns, demands and tactics to address not just the direct drivers of its discontent, but also the root causes and other interrelated issues beyond.
Having previously looked at how the defiantly-positive Transition movement is now trying to proactively engage with growing queries about social justice in its community-based and solutions-focused approaches to environmental actionism, I now turn to focus on the unapologetically-disruptive Extinction Rebellion (XR), which has become one of the most prominent and influential environmental movements in recent years by using a kaleidoscope of non-violent direct action (NVDA) or ‘dilemma action’ (Sørensen and Martin, 2014) repertoires to arouse public consciousness, engage ‘the power of the powerless’ (Havel, 2009), and invigorate the necessary political debates and actions on the climate and ecological emergency that present a ‘code red for humanity’.
Here in the UK, XR recently embarked on a(nother) journey of critical self-reflection, re-examining its relationships with, and representations of, various forms of justice within its soul-craft. That process arose from sustained scrutiny and criticisms, both internal and external, about the perceived lack of proper or sufficient attention given to persistent and multidimensional matters of (in)justice by the movement since its inception in October 2018.
From the outset, XR presented three core demands to governments. First: Tell The Truth about the scale of the ecological crisis by declaring a climate emergency, and work with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change. Second: Act Now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025. Third: Go ‘beyond politics’ to create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly to tackle the climate crisis (Rebellion, 2019). Infused in those three demands are far-reaching calls for ‘system(s) change’. The inescapable quandary, though, is, “how far-reaching is ‘far-reaching’?” My emphasis on ‘system(s)’ is a provocation to recall my earlier query about “which systems are included in ideas about system change” on the frontlines of contemporary mainstream environmental activism.
3.1.2: System(s) change: Beyond environmental spheres?
“Environmentalism without class struggle is just gardening” — Chico Mendes
Environmental movements like XR are, by definition and ambitions, overwhelmingly preoccupied with the conservation of nature in perpetuity. Environmental sustainability is therefore typically understood and presented as a precondition for anything and everything. On that basis, most environmental movements have traditionally exhibited what is seen as an acutely limited engagement with class struggles and various concerns about justice that are seemingly not immediately connected to the major environmental spheres – the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, pedosphere, and lithosphere.
Answers, then, to questions about what is to be sustained in perpetuity are habitually formulated in relation to the environmental spheres. Accordingly, on the frontlines of contemporary mainstream environmental activism, the predominant demands for ‘system(s) change’ are articulated in terms of disrupting or upending the prevailing fossil fuel-based energy systems and networks of industries, corporations, institutions, and lifestyles that drive, or are known to be complicit in, the degradation and/or destruction of the environmental spheres. The inescapable question though is, what happens after we, for instance, ‘Insulate Britain’ or ‘Just Stop Oil’? Would any such symbolic policy change signify ‘mission accomplished’ for environmental movements?
It is certainly undeniable, a truism, that environmental sustainability is a precondition for anything and everything – and that, sadly, includes, for instance, class struggles, global injustice, social injustice, racial injustice, and various other persistent configurations of distributive and procedural injustice. Arguably, absent of a recognition and meaningful engagement with such struggles and injustices, any talk of system(s) change indicates a misunderstanding of the underlying system and a misdiagnosis of the problem. All too often, this leads to a prognosis that promises to change specific systems whilst keeping everything else the same – in short, a placebo. It is not enough, I would argue, to focus exclusively on sustaining the major environmental spheres without much broader analyses of justice concerns, including class struggles. Doing so betrays a strategically naked and/or elitist approach – compositional or demographic elitism, ideological elitism, and impact elitism.
At first glance, XR’s three demands appear to exemplify the elitist or exclusionary perspectives and approaches of traditional environmental movements; the principal focus is on achieving environmental sustainability. However, a closer examination of the demands, when taken together with a longitudinal analysis of the movement’s ‘soul-craft’, suggests that XR has a much broader agenda infused into its overarching ambitions for systems change. To wit, the movement’s untamed cries of crises, of emergency and of urgency, coupled with its unsanitised warnings of impending civilisational collapse, all of which are amplified by the language of ‘extinction’ in clarion calls for rebellion, imply that XR is not solely concerned with the environment, but about everything – this changes everything.
The suggestion that ‘this changes everything’, invites questions about the degree and/or nature of social transformation that XR and its activists are committed to. Are they talking about a tinkering or tweaking of the existing order, the status quo, or are they looking for far-reaching social, economic, and political changes beyond the environmental spheres? In other words, are they, or I should perhaps here say ‘are we’, talking about revolution or reform?
3.2: Kairos: XR and the choice between reform and revolution in social transformations
“It’s time to change the course of human history. We appear to be heading into what the ancient Greeks called Kairos, a window of opportunity, when our capacity for change is put to the test.” — David Wengrow
Notions of ‘revolution’ often invoke negative emotive forces associated with violence in the overthrow of an existing government and/or the prevailing social, economic, and political regime. In contrast, most references to ‘reform’ come with positive connotations of an improvement to the status quo (Nielsen, 1971). Since joining XR in April 2019, I have spoken with hundreds – 311 and counting – of my fellow activists and ‘Rebels’ during and between the movement’s biannual ‘Rebellions’, about their perceptions of ‘system change’ – as both a process and an outcome. Most activists expressed a tacit understanding that systems are constantly in flux, but the processes of change have been pushed and pulled in the wrong direction by the vested interests of a few elites – elite capture (Táíwò, 2022). ‘Elites’ in this context can best be described as the oilgarchy and oligarchy whose pervasive and/or unchecked economic powers have been increasingly blended into the politics of statecraft, thereby distorting democratic mandates to advance their corporate and individual self-interests – resulting in what the political theorist Sheldon Wolin referred to in his book Democracy Incorporated as an ‘inverted totalitarianism’; in part a state-centred phenomenon that primarily represents “the political coming of age of corporate power and the political demobilization of the citizenry” (Wolin, 2017).
Given that understanding, my questions about perceptions of system(s) change elicited diverse and, in some cases, divergent responses relating to both processes and outcomes. On the possible processes, perspectives offered ranged from a spectrum of national democratic changes centred on notions of participatory democracy, to the rather more radical and internationally-focused anti-oppression and liberatory consciousness advocates who insist that the existing interrelated national and international routes for change are woefully inadequate to bring about the deep structural – local and global – transformations needed to address the root causes of the crises. As Audre Lorde (2003) said, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”.
In terms of envisioned outcomes, opinions ranged from improvements to the insulation of all social housing – Insulate Britain – to no new fossil fuel licences in the UK – Just Stop Oil – as well as a growing volume of anti-state perspectives advocating for a borderless world – ‘No borders, No nations, Stop deportations!’
Within and beyond the reformist and radical viewpoints, and indeed the various shades of grey in between, there are numerous ‘Rebels’ who are “mad as hell”, and lean towards Andreas Malm’s (2021) “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” provocation, which suggests that strategic property sabotage is the only viable route to revolutionary change. For those so-inclined, the roll-call of disappointments – following decades-long appeals, campaigns, and mass street protests, as well as the countless international agreements, accords, protocols, and development goals that emerge as inconsequential from lobbyists-infested meetings such as the, to date, 27 Conference of the Parties (COP) gatherings – justifies sabotaging, even if only symbolically, the properties of corporations and institutions linked with the fossil fuel industry.
However, against the backdrop of increasing state repression, any acts of sabotage, and for that matter civil-disobedience, that seek to disrupt business-as-usual with the intention of disrupting the unsustainable trajectories of business-as-usual, are being met with tougher punishments including unlimited fines and/or imprisonment. In spite of those threats, the moral imperative to rebel continues to drive many activists.
For XR, the moral imperative to rebel remains because despite the clear and present danger, the ‘code-red for humanity’, that the climate and ecological emergency presents to current and future generations, particularly in countries of the Global South that have been least responsible for causing the crises, the dirigiste state’s environmental policies continue to be mediated and tamed by GDP growth-fetishism, and delimited by pliable politicians shaped by lobbyists and opinion polls in the vagaries of sado-populism (Snyder, 2018) and, additionally, the short-termism of Party-manifestos within the circus of electioneering cycles that position elections as the defining feature of any modern democracy – electoral fundamentalism (Van Reybrouck, 2018).
To that point, we may recall here that XR’s third demand is for governments to go ‘beyond politics’ to create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly to tackle the climate crisis. That demand, I believe, harbours considerable revolutionary potential. It is borne of a recognition that the highly-managed and money-saturated variants of representative democracy here in the UK and elsewhere around the world are, effectively, not fit for purpose in terms of representing the diverse interests and welfare of people and planet.
Yes, XR’s third demand, as with the first two, has been seen and criticised as being too narrowly focused on the climate and ecological crises as sine qua non for social transformations. In that respect, when I first joined the movement, I thought the founders – all ‘White by law’ (Lopez, 1997) – in formulating the demands, had chosen, as environmental movements usually do, to contest just the direct drivers of their discontent, but not the root causes and other interrelated issues beyond. If that was the case, then I suspected the demands could, on the one hand, be easily co-opted by the government and institutions paying lip-service – essentially green-washing – all the while maintaining fealty to business-as-usual – plus ça change. On the other hand, I feared the demands may even be hijacked to further eco-fascist agendas, given the current political currents of identity politics and sado-populism (Snyder, 2018) in politics feeding into and being fed by growing ethnonationalism and social polarisation.
From my background of racial, social, and global justice activism, and my critical analyses approaches steeped in the traditions of UCL’s Development Planning Unit, the climate and ecological emergency is understood as symptomatic not of a broken system, but, rather, of a system working exactly as designed; religiously pushing to its limits, and resiliently fulfilling, the ideological intents and purposes of a certain demographic – elite capture (Táíwò, 2022). Applying that perspective, I thought the demands could have been formulated as follows:
- Tell the Truth, the whole truth – the science, the histories, and the geographies – about the scale of the ecological and inequality crises by declaring a climate and inequality emergency, and work across institutions to communicate the urgency for change.
- Act Now to halt biodiversity loss, reduce greenhouse gas emissions to real zero by 2025, and announce policies to address the growing income and wealth inequality.
- Go ‘beyond politics’ to create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly to tackle the climate and ecological emergency, as well as the growth in inequality.
Despite my initial reservations about the absence of explicit references to inequality or justice concerns in XR’s demands, I found the movement, across the various camps during the April 2019 ‘Rebellion’, quite compelling. From the audaciously-sited pink boat in the middle of Oxford Circus, to the transformation of Waterloo Bridge into a garden bridge complete with 47 trees and countless potted plants, and from the various presentations, workshops, talks, music and dance around the Marble Arch encampment, to the localised Citizens’ Assemblies held in Parliament Square, the movement seemed to present and represent, even but for a fleeting moment of untamed utopian imaginaries, something of a revolution in motion. The sublime madness of some 10,000 or so fellow activists convivially reclaiming public spaces, making their voices heard, and engaging in various radical and experimental practices of deliberative democracy and mutual aid, whilst contributing absolutely nothing whatsoever to the production of any profit, embodied Henri Lefebvre’s (1968) call to imagine “the reversal of the current situation, by pushing to its limits the converted image of the world upside down” – ‘The Right to the City’ manifested.
However, within and between the conviviality of the different sites there was, notably, an issue I often refer to as a ‘diversity deficiency syndrome’, which seems, in part at least, to define mainstream environmental movements and organisations. That is to say there is a persistent scarcity of people like me – ‘openly Black’ (see, CB4, 1993) – in environmental spaces. This has long been recognised and criticised, mostly through the prism of ‘privilege’, as being symptomatic of wider pathologies of systemic racism that are systematised via unequal power relations. Beyond the usual proliferation of what sometimes appears perfunctory or perhaps ‘à la mode’ but nevertheless noteworthy criticisms, my longitudinal research into the perennial challenges of diversity and inclusion in environmental movements, reveals that the issue is highly complicated, with dynamic social, economic, and political dimensions in causal relationships, which constantly interact with one another in some unpredictable ways that make it resistant to optimal resolutions. In short, it is what is called a ‘wicked problem’ (Rittel and Webber, 1973).
In lieu of the publication of my research findings and analyses, it suffices for me to say, in this final ‘reflections from the frontline’, that contemporary environmental movements such as XR have, in general, acknowledged the significance and implications of the issue, and are trying, even if somewhat clumsily at times, to better understand and address the multidimensional nature of demands related to it. That is evidenced in XR’s ‘soul-craft’.
3.3: The ’Soul-Craft’ of XR
Recall here, my earlier conceptualisation of a movement’s ‘soul-craft’ as being ‘how any movement understands and frames its organising concerns, demands and tactics to address not just the direct drivers of its discontent, but also the root causes and other interrelated issues beyond’. That conceptualisation draws from and builds on what the renowned philosopher and public intellectual Cornel West articulates as “the formation of attention that gets us to attend to the things that matter, not [just] the things on the surface” (Cunningham, 2018).
Yes, XR’s organising concerns, demands and tactics centre on addressing the climate and ecological crises. However, we must note here, in considering the movement’s soul-craft, that, from the outset, the founders were aware of and understood the multidimensional nature of their concerns. That is to say they recognised that the climate and ecological emergency, the direct drivers of their discontent and ire, are but the surfaced symptoms of an exploitative and ultimately unsustainable socio-economic system deeply rooted in and evolving from the histories, geographies, and politics of imperialism’s many crimes. More recently, those crimes have been camouflaged and channelled through a seemingly unfettered rise of corporate power and predatory capital(ism) propelled by transnational market forces to reach into the Earth’s most remote corners. To paraphrase the noted geographer and anthropologist Neil Smith (2010), from his book ‘Uneven Development: Nature, Capital and the Production of Space’, capital stalks the Earth in search of material resources; and to that end, no part of the Earth – the atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, pedosphere, and lithosphere – is immune from transformation by capital and its vast spectrum of attendant isms including, but not limited to, colonialism, extractivism, market fundamentalism, materialism, consumerism, nationalism and protectionism.
Crucially, in relation to my introductory remarks, the founders of XR acknowledged how and why, in their formation of attention to attend to the things that matter regarding the climate and ecological emergency, issues of uneven development and disproportionate impacts highlight questions about race that are inextricably wrapped in conundrums of justice inside notions of common interests and collective visions for a world transformed. Although being quite well-versed and attuned to the multifaceted correlations between matters of race and environmentalism, the founders sought, like all movements ought, to build solidarity across differences with some seasoned activists and groups that bring the necessary but oft-marginalised voices of Global South concerns and resistance to inform a justice focus on, and greater understanding of, the histories, geographies, and politics of imperialism old and new – we cannot heal what we do not understand. By fostering solidarity through shared critical analyses of the dominant social, economic, and political systems, they engaged in meaningful dialogues around radically different perspectives and practices from all over the world that offer an environmentally sustainable and socially just vision of the world transformed. ‘Unity without uniformity’ thus drives the pluriverse approach championed via the vital work of the Extinction Rebellion Internationalist Solidarity Network (XRISN) and affiliated groups.
Taken together with the demand for a Citizens’ Assembly that seeks to go ‘beyond politics’ in order to transcend the pathological partisanship that has come to define contemporary politics, ideas about building solidarity across differences, unity without uniformity, and pluriversality in XR’s soul-craft, all suggest that if another world, a better world, is to be made possible, the cartographers of the roadmap for getting there must be ‘the people’. Therein lies the revolutionary kernel in XR. All power to the people to ‘fight the power’ (Enemy, 1989).
The revolutionary potential or fervour imbued in any movement’s soul-craft does not begin with questions about what is practical. Rather, it is nurtured by asking what is right. Intrinsic to the formation and evolution of XR’s soul-craft, are constant deliberations about what is right in terms of particular tactics and targets pursued by the movement. This drives the concerted exposé of, and unrelenting attacks on, the various wrongs of corporate power and the egregious abuses of government power that bring to light issues of democratic deficits hidden in plain sight. Since the movement’s most notable and, perhaps arguably, most impactful ‘Rebellion’ in April 2019, XR’s actions have increasingly targeted fossil fuel companies and numerous public and private institutions that enable them, as well as mainstream media establishments that fail to convey the truth, urgency and gravity of the climate and ecological crises, clandestine anti-climate lobby groups, and organisations with historic and ongoing ties to the endurance of extractivism and other forms of exploitation that not only represent but intentionally perpetuate the proclivities of overproduction and overconsumption, growth-fetishism, and imperialism.
From a systems analysis point of view, the specific targets chosen by XR for direct action interventions, represent what the environmental scientist Donella Meadows (1999) and other systems thinkers conceptualise as ‘leverage points’ – places within a complex system where a small shift in one thing can activate or produce big changes in everything. Leverage points are key points of power. Notwithstanding the disproportionate and undue influence of elites and corporations in the policy-making decisions and agendas of government(s) pursuant to addressing the urgency of the climate and ecological emergency, the most important leverage point in any properly functioning democracy should, logically, be ‘the people’. In that context, XR has sought to raise awareness to shift the mindsets and paradigms out of which the socio-political and economic systems’ goals, power structures, rules, and culture arise and are legitimised.
As well as targeting the leverage points represented by certain government institutions, companies, and organisations, XR is well-known for its repertoires of public disruptions. These include, for example, the blocking of roads and bridges, and, quite often, activists locking-on or gluing themselves to various structures, thereby inviting police arrest and subsequent engagement with the criminal justice system. Although such ‘dilemma action’ (Sørensen and Martin, 2014) tactics have been effective in gaining widespread publicity and stimulating important dialogues about the cause across different sections of society, research suggests that they – the disruptive protest tactics – often undermine popular support for any movement due to reduced feelings of emotional connection and social identification with the movement.
That said, and despite varying types of cost to some individual activists and indeed public perceptions of the movement as a whole, XR has, until very recently, been unyielding about sounding the ‘code red for humanity’ alarm not through the ‘practical’ – tried, tested, and failed – routes of marches, petitions, and letters to MPs, but by deploying the ‘right’ repertoires of public disruptions and dilemma actions deemed commensurate with the existential threats that the climate and ecological emergency presents for current and future generations. Whilst that has caused much consternation amongst some sections of the public, evidence from a variety of polls suggests that the message is getting through (Corner et al., 2020). That is to say, in recent years there has been a remarkable shift in the British public’s perceptions towards greater awareness and apprehension about the different risks and impacts associated with the climate and ecological emergency. That shift, it would appear, closely correlates with the emergence and ‘impossible to ignore’ activities of XR – and, of course, other contemporary movements such as the youth-led Fridays For Future (FFF), and their vociferous demands for climate justice.
Quite clearly, there is something of a symbiotic, albeit somewhat fraught and often fragile, relationship between XR’s disruptive protest actions and attracting broad public support. Cultivating a critical mass of awareness, and by logical extension support, has always been a strategic goal in the movement’s quest for ‘tipping points’ towards multi-level and deep societal transformations. However, amid unsettled debates about the percentage of the population needed to achieve that tipping point goal, there are underlying questions about how to convert awareness into concern through a greater understanding of interconnected issues, and then converting concern into a significant support base who are willing to coalesce in civic actions – not necessarily civil disobedience or direct actions associated with XR – that could help to disrupt the unsustainable trajectories of business-as-usual.
Whilst those debates and questions have been oscillating since the emergence of the movement, we should perhaps consider, as XR activist Nuala Gathercole Lam (2021) argues, “So what if Extinction Rebellion isn’t popular? We’re protesting to bring about change, and it’s working”. Similarly, as psychology professor Colin Davis (2022) of the University of Bristol has pointed out, “people may ‘shoot the messenger’, but they do – at least, sometimes – hear the message.” That succinctly captures the idea of “the activist’s dilemma”, wherein disruptive actions that raise awareness also tend to diminish popular support.
On that note, an inescapable quandary for us to keep in mind is how public opinions of XR’s disruptive actions might influence political agendas and the course of government decisions or policies. Two key questions arise. First, do such actions that raise awareness likewise increase public support for more urgent climate action from the government? Second, and relatedly, do disruptive protest actions increase public backing for greater police powers and the introduction of draconian measures to discourage such protests? A necessary reflection when grappling with those two questions is the role of the media in steering public narratives. If power is, as often thought, the ability to control what happens, then real power is controlling what and how people think about what happens.
The reciprocal nexus between disruptive protest actions, public perceptions, the media, government policies, and the police and criminal justice system, takes on a different hue and cry when viewed through the prism of race matters. In the overarching context of questioning environmental sustainability’s problematic relationship with social justice, and more specifically my inquiry in this section into how matters of race intersect with the formation and evolution of tactics in XR’s soul-craft, it is noteworthy that among the criticisms from certain sections of the public about the movement’s use of disruptive actions, XR has also been periodically rebuked, and in a few cases even ‘cancelled’, by some movements representing racially marginalised people’s interests, for being insufficiently attentive to the things that matter in what W. E. B. Dubois (2015) called ‘The Souls of Black Folk’. In our current era, the things that matter in the ‘souls of Black folk’ includes the near-constant drumbeat and reminders of institutional racism and durable inequalities within and beyond the police and criminal justice system. Hence, a backdrop of social injustices foregrounds the ‘hostile environment’ viewpoints of many Black, Brown, and ‘othered’ people in the UK.
In the unsettled multiculturalisms of Occidental countries such as the UK, ideas about ‘appropriate adaptations in a hostile environment’ mediate the everyday life experiences and conduct of many Black and Brown people. A major consideration in that regard are the disproportionately negative interactions and outcomes with the police and criminal justice system. Consequently, for a variety of groups representing different interests of racially marginalised people, any possibilities of coalescing with XR were stillborn in the widely-publicised moments of the movement’s activists declaring love for the police during the April 2019 Rebellion (Campfire, 2019). Additionally, the fact that XR’s brand, to date, has been in part shaped by and seen as inviting arrest, has tended to reinforce some perceptions of privileged ignorance (Wretched of The Earth, 2019). That, of course, calls into question, as outlined in my opening remarks and provocations, fundamental notions of common interests and collective visions for a world transformed.
The more people identify with the soul-craft of a movement, the more they are inclined to join that movement. Put differently, unless the organising concerns, demands, visions and tactics that determine a movement’s soul-craft collectively and positively resonate with people, they may support the cause but will not join the course. Accordingly, as Assata Shakur, a political activist in the USA with the Black Panther Party and Black Liberation Army in the 1970s once said:
“No movement can survive unless it is constantly growing and changing with the times. If it isn’t growing, if it’s stagnant, and without the support of the people, no movement for liberation can exist, no matter how correct its analysis of the situation is. That’s why the political work and organizing are so important.”
3.3.1: This is the work
Being a radically decentralised leaderless movement as XR is, can sometimes frustrate the pace of decision-making processes needed to help advance any tactical reorientation and organising to help build solidarity across differences. Nevertheless, in the past year, after much internal deliberation ever since I joined, the movement has undergone what I think are two significant changes worth highlighting here as I begin to draw towards my conclusion.
First, after countless meetings, workshops, conversations, and agonising debates about understanding the justice conundrum and how best to explicitly situate and communicate it within a revision of the movement’s demands, a decision was finally reached. The preamble to the revised demands clearly illustrates that XR is not just a movement solely focused on environmental sustainability, but is also “rooted in love, care and a fundamental commitment to climate justice”. Further, the preamble emphasises that “In the UK, we bear a particular responsibility to the Global Majority, and acknowledge and support the incredible work of the many organisations specialising in the specific issues related to justice”. However, despite the justice-turn in the revised demands, the decision not to include a fourth demand specifically about justice proved to be a point of considerable distress, a deal-breaker, for some activists – of all colours, but most pertinently some racially marginalised activists – who subsequently decided to withdraw or reduce their participation, citing irreconcilable differences.
The second significant change by the movement, is a recent “controversial resolution to temporarily shift away from public disruption as a primary tactic”. Perhaps even more so than the revision of the demands briefly sketched above, that decision signifies a radical departure from XR’s brand, which I earlier described as ‘unapologetically-disruptive’. For various reasons, not least of which is an authoritarian-turn by the government marked by an increasingly repressive approach to many forms of protest, the movement will, for now at least, “prioritise attendance over arrest and relationships over roadblocks”. To that end, and as I write, XR has facilitated the coalescence of a ‘movement of movements’ – The Big One – which has involved building solidarity networks across over two hundred social, environmental, and justice campaign groups, movements, and unions – Unite To Survive. The aim is to become even more impossible to ignore by encouraging a hundred thousand supporters to peacefully occupy the public spaces in and around the epicentre of politics and government power. This strategic pivot from the movement’s established public disruption tactics, has been criticised by some seasoned activists who argue that the urgency of the climate and ecological emergency, coupled with the government’s record of inaction, demands more, not less, disruptive actions.
We should note here that as, over years, a certain level of familiarity and, inevitably, staleness have gradually crept into the multi-level impacts of XR due to the repetition of disruptive repertoires, questions about the movement’s own sustainability have arisen. In that context, many studies of radical environmental movements suggest that they rarely last more than a few years, even if the reasons for their discontent and emergence remain just as urgent. As I suggested in a presentation to the movement’s Strategy Assembly in February 2021, social movement theory indicates that XR was, at the time of my presentation, at a crucial stage wherefrom there were at least seven possible, but not mutually exclusive, outcomes: success, failure, fragmentation, co-optation, repression, stagnation, or going mainstream – which would require aborting the movement’s distinguishing repertoires of public disruptions in order to garner greater support from the general public, and build a broader coalition of interests. In many ways, I would argue, the movement has succeeded. All its demands have been met, albeit severely compromised adoptions, by the government. Most crucially, public awareness about the climate and ecological emergency has increased exponentially since XR’s emergence despite, or perhaps even because of, the repressive actions of the State. Therefore, the resolution to temporarily shift from public disruptions is, I suggest, not only timely, but altogether wise. It should address some of the glaring blind spots in the movement’s determination to reconcile its environmental sustainability aims with a broad range of social justice concerns.
3.4: Conclusion: We cannot heal what we do not understand
In this three-part series questioning the relationship between environmental sustainability and social justice, I have presented a snapshot of my longitudinal research on the perennial challenges of inclusion and diversity in environmental movements as a way of problematising and interrogating that relationship. Drawing on my research experiences at UCL’s Development Planning Unit, the underlying consideration that has driven my journey is the fundamental question about development: What is development? At the heart of that deceptively simple question, are some of the most basic but deep philosophical reflections about ‘the human condition’: What is the meaning of life? What does it mean to be human? Who are we to each other? How best can we organise ourselves to collectively thrive on this finite planet, knowing that our journey is limited and, in many cases, riddled with durable inequalities and uncertainties?
Given the persistent absence or failure of adequate multi-level governance responses to some of the most pressing problems in contemporary development thinking, planning, and practice, a brief study of recent human history across space and time tells us that collective action has always played a vital role in resolving a myriad of intractable societal issues. In that respect, social movements have been absolutely instrumental in driving some of the most important and positive social transformations in modern times, including independence from colonial rule, universal suffrage, civil rights, and much more.
In many ways, then, we can think of social movements as somewhat prophetic. That is to say they `speak before’ to announce what is taking shape even before its direction and detailed contents have become clear. They can be seen as thermostats shaping the climate of socio-political changes that are yet to be, and yet must be. Whilst many of our lobbied and pliant politicians tend to check the temperature of polling data before declaring what their deepest convictions are, movements like XR force issues out into the open, onto the streets, infiltrating the attention marketplace and opinion corridors with particular demands for transformative change. The success, failure, or indeed the degree of change achieved by any movement, often depends on interlinked dynamics between various factors such as the production of space and time, resource mobilisation, and the political opportunities that foreground their emergence and operations.
Moreover, with the current social and political currents increasingly being fuelled by identity politics, culture wars and, relatedly, the weaponisation of ‘belonging and othering’, ‘us versus them’, one of the foremost challenges and determinants of success or failure for environmental movements like XR, involves reaching beyond the low hanging fruit or echo chambers of ideologues in order to achieve the critical ‘mass factor’ necessary to trigger the tipping points for regime change in socio-political conventions. In that context, the inescapable conundrum that all movements must grapple with, is how to build and maintain solidarity within, with and between different interest groups, without fatally compromising the core cries and demands of each group. A successful coalescing of groups, then, should begin not by seeking to erase, circumvent or dilute differences, but, rather, by recognising, respecting, honouring, and appreciating differences. XR has come a long way in doing that.
The movement has been, encouragingly, attentive to the different justice demands of other non-aligned groups. To that point, we should note here that justice is a multifaceted ideal and, consequently, as I have frequently highlighted in various spaces and conversations within the movement, it can be quite cumbersome to specify and then amalgamate different types and hierarchies of justice into the specific demands of environmental movements. Thus, whilst numerous theories of justice – beyond the immediate scope of my enquiry in this piece – have been debated and advanced over many centuries by a number of notable philosophers, the relatively recent concept of climate justice has been profusely adopted by the current generation of mainstream environmental movements such as XR and the youth-led Fridays For Future.
“What do we want? Climate justice! When do we want it? NOW!!!”
What, though, is the justice demand in climate justice? An array of formations exist, perhaps best encapsulated by the demand that “polluters must pay”. Imbued in that phrase are three fundamental formulations of justice: justice as recognition, distributive justice, and procedural justice. Within and beyond those three forms of justice that frame ‘climate justice’ as a demand, the concept has become something of an empty signifier that is sufficiently capacious and user-friendly enough to suggest that the demands of environmental sustainability can be reconciled with the quest for all iterations of social justice. As the British MP David Lammy (2020) explained:
“The climate crisis is in a way colonialism’s natural conclusion. The solution is to build a new coalition made up of all the groups most affected by this emergency. Climate justice is linked to racial justice, social justice, [and] intergenerational justice”.
The links between historic and ongoing forms of colonialism and the climate and ecological emergency have now been recognised (IPCC, 2022), and are broadly accepted. In that context, capitalism alone cannot explain the racial inequities produced by the twinned crises. Colonial and racial capitalism can help us develop a better understanding of the origins, dimensions, and impacts of the crises. Put differently, and as I have often discussed with fellow activists, if we do not understand the idea of racial capitalism – how it started, what it is and how it works in our current era (Kelley, 2017) – then everything we think we know about the climate and ecological emergency will only confuse us, and the possible solutions that we propose in our activism, will most likely be futile.
The Green New Deal, as currently proposed and widely understood, supported, and promoted by many contemporary environmental movements and progressive politicians, offers, as has been pointed out by Jasper Bernes (2019), a promise to change everything while keeping everything the same – a placebo.
Any truly just and sustainable solution to the ‘code red for humanity’ requires us to recognise and understand the stratification of global and local societies – world systems analysis (Wallerstein, 2004). More pointedly, any/all solutions, I would suggest, should take as their starting point, the perspectives of racialised and colonised communities. We cannot heal what we do not understand.
Thankfully, there is a rich corpus of literature from marginalised scholars to help us; for example, from the Black feminists Anna Julia Cooper, bell hooks, and Mariame Kaba, postcolonial thinkers like Edward Said, Gayatri Spivak, and Arundhati Roy, Indigenous scholars such as Vine Deloria Jr., Winona LaDuke, and Rosalva Aída Hernández Castillo, and the liberatory consciousness and critical social theories from the Black radical traditions of resistance evidenced in the works of Cedric Robinson, W. E. B. Dubois, and numerous others.
On that note, just as I began this final offering of my ‘reflections from the frontlines’, I now close by invoking, through paraphrasing, the sentiments of W. E. B. Dubois in his landmark book ‘The Souls of Black Folk’.
Between me and the world of mainstream environmental movements and activists, there are ever many unasked questions: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way during or between protests and meetings, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then cautiously enquire, “how can we attract more Black and Brown people into our movement?”, or they say something like “I wish there were more people like you in our movement”. Sometimes, after a little discussion, some reveal in exasperation, “we have tried and tried to get them to join us, but they won’t”. Others imply, after several conversations, that ‘race as a focal point for considering matters of environmental sustainability, means that we fixate on differences instead of similarities, which does not lead to what Martin Luther King Jr called The Beloved Community’. At these I smile, and remain focused. To the real question, “What if justice, particularly social justice and racial justice, are distractions that are getting in the way?” I answer seldom a word, for I know that we cannot heal what we do not understand. Justice is key.
I also know that no movement in history has ever been perfect, and the mélange of activists that make up any movement are not perfect either. As Cornel West so often reminds us, “we are all cracked vessels, trying to love our crooked neighbours with our crooked hearts”.
We cannot talk about climate change without acknowledging the sciences of climate change. We cannot acknowledge the sciences of climate change without looking into the histories of climate change. And we cannot look at the histories of climate change without seeing the geographies of catastrophes mapped out on what the United Nations General Secretary António Guterres has referred to as “an atlas of human suffering”. That atlas makes apparent the enduring prominence of race matters and matters of injustice in what I call ‘the necropolitics of climate change’.
Meaning that is the title and subject of my next blog. See you soon.
Recommended reading, listening, viewing, and visiting
Bernes, J., 2019. Between the Devil and the Green New Deal. Commune. Issue 2, Spring 2019. Accessed via:
Campfire, C., 2019. Police, We Love You, We’re Doing It For Your Children Too. Accessed via: https://youtu.be/uAH3AkuNCO8
CB4., 1993. – I’m Black, Y’all! Scene. Accessed via: https://youtu.be/Y_21Agi0t8I
Corner, A., Demski, C., Steentjes, K. and Pidgeon, N., 2020. Engaging the public on climate risks and adaptation: A briefing for UK communicators. Accessed via:
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Davis, C. 2022. Just Stop Oil: do radical protests turn the public away from a cause? Here’s the evidence. The Conversation online, First published 21 October 2022. Accessed via:
Du Bois, W.E.B. and Marable, M., 2015 . Souls of black folk. Routledge. Accessed via:
Enemy, P., 1989. Fight the power. Def Jam Recordings—Let the People Speak. Accessed via: https://youtu.be/mmo3HFa2vjg
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IPCC., 2022. Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change. Working Group III Contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Accessed via:
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Lammy, D., 2020. Climate justice can’t happen without racial justice. TED Talks. First published 13 October 2020. Accessed via: https://youtu.be/EkIpeO1r0NI
Lefebvre, H. 1996 . ‘The right to the city’, in H. Lefebvre, Writings on Cities. Ed. and Trans. E. Kofman and E. Lebas, pp. 63–184. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.
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Smith, N., 2010. Uneven development: Nature, capital, and the production of space. University of Georgia Press.
Snyder, T., 2018. The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America. Crown.
Táíwò, O.O., 2022. Elite capture: How the powerful took over identity politics (and everything else). Haymarket Books.
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Wallerstein, I., 2004. World-systems analysis, in world system history. Ed. Modelski, George. Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems (EOLSS). Oxford: Eolss.
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Wretched of The Earth, 2019. An open letter to Extinction Rebellion. Red Pepper. Accessed via: https://www.redpepper.org.uk/an-open-letter-to-extinction-rebellion/
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