The climate activist group Extinction Rebellion is best known for its attention-grabbing tactics. Activists have blocked roads and bridges, stuck to trains, smashed bank windows and sprayed fake blood on buildings.
But in two words, topping off a New Year’s statement, the group signaled a sea change.
“Let’s break up,” he announced.
Extinction Rebellion, widely known as XR, said it had taken the “controversial decision” to temporarily abandon mass public disruption tactics, as other climate groups plan to step up.
Instead, the group said it will focus on trying to grow its numbers and become a more inclusive organization, including trying to attract people who have felt alienated by its past tactics.
Founded in 2018, XR has changed the face of climate protest. Their goal was to draw attention to the bleak climate predictions by showing the lengths to which activists were willing to go to demand change, including arrests and jail time.
And the strategy worked, to an extent. XR, which now has hundreds of affiliates worldwide, became a household name. But his heavy-handed tactics came at a cost: unpopularity.
The group has also found itself operating in a more complicated landscape. Tougher anti-protest laws in the UK have sought to criminalize many of the tactics favored by climate organisations, raising the stakes for activists.
In the photos: The Extinction Rebellion protests
The decision to move away from disruptive protest is a big change and “was not taken lightly,” said XR spokeswoman Marijn van de Geer. “But we think there’s this space now where we can try something different and maybe be a place especially for people from backgrounds where arrest is an extremely scary thing.”
As the impacts of climate change intensify, particularly marked in Europe by last summer’s heat waves, the group believes people will be more receptive to its message. Conditions for change have “never been more favorable,” XR said.
But as XR retreats, some of the environmental groups that have sprung up in its wake are mounting mass disruptive protests.
British group Just Stop Oil has taken to roads, stuck their necks in goalposts, blocked oil facilities and targeted iconic works of art. In October, in one of their most prominent protests, they threw tomato soup over Vincent van Gogh’s famous “Sunflowers” in a London gallery.
Members of the German group Letzte Generation (last generation) have taken to the roads and thrown mashed potatoes over a Monet painting, while their Italian counterparts, Ultima Generazione, have thrown pea soup over another Vincent van Gogh .
As 2023 begins, many of these groups have pledged to go further.
The Letzte generation said it will double down on protests and is prepared for more arrests and jail time: seven of its members spent Christmas and New Year behind bars.
Spokeswoman Carla Rochel told CNN: “We will continue to block highways in the new year; we will stand in the government district and directly confront those responsible; We will go to concert halls, football stadiums, museums, political party headquarters and all areas of society”.
Just Stop Oil also plans to increase disruption.
“We are driving down the highway to the loss of orderly civil society as extreme weather affects tens of millions,” Just Stop Oil spokeswoman Indigo Rumblelow told CNN in a statement, adding: “It is time to escalate, from disobedience to civil resistance.”
The disruptive protests have managed to attract attention, but have also drawn waves of criticism for disrupting everyday life, delaying emergency services and damaging cultural heritage.
Herein lies the “activist dilemma,” said Robb Willer, director of Stanford University’s Polarization and Social Change Lab. Activists want to reach audiences through the media, but the best ways to do so are often unpopular.
Feyzi Ismail, professor of global politics and activism at Goldsmiths, University of London, said that while impactful creative tactics are needed, “preventing ordinary people from going to work or to hospital does not advance our cause”.
Willer’s research has found that disruptive protest tactics tend to reduce public support, but there are still reasons groups might want to pursue them, he said. For smaller and early-stage organizations, it can be a way to gain profile and recruit members.
The campaign group Insulate Britain, for example, began blocking major roads in 2021 to require the rehabilitation of low-carbon insulation in the country’s public housing. Videos of motorists angrily dragging protesters off the roads, with one driver even waving his SUV at an activist, made a group with an unsexy cause suddenly very prominent .
The disruptive tactics of a radical climate organization can also help draw people to more moderate organizations, according to a theory known as the “radical flank” effect. XR can hope to pick up those alienated by the actions of groups like Just Stop Oil, Willer said.
XR plans to spend the next 100 days building support for a demonstration in April, which they hope will see 100,000 people surround the Houses of Parliament. The ultimate goal, van de Geer said, is to show that “it’s not just a bunch of tree-hugging hippies that they’re worried about; It’s everyone, and everyone wants action.”