Nigel Doggett on the strengths and weakness of the XR campaign

This autumn’s XR climate campaign action story has had a stunning impact, but the tactics of some supporters sparked bitter disagreements and jeopardised wide public support, notably actions hitting commuters from poorer London districts on the very public transport systems that are part of the solution. It remains to be seen whether it can shed its largely privileged white image.

While the climate strikers led by Greta Thunberg demand that politicians listen to the science and act, XR is following a strategy applying past non-violent action experiences to the unfolding emergency, as set out in the book Common Sense for the 21st Century by XR’s co-founder Roger Hallam [pdf].

The XR protests have galvanised people and pushed the Overton window – the range of ideas that are openly discussed in public debate. But we need to achieve results and Hallam acknowledges that while the chances of success are limited, we must not give up. Unfortunately his underlying analysis is confused and open to criticism, even from those who share his objectives.

Climate change is deemed a ‘wicked’ problem due to its multi-dimensional and multi-level nature, so transition studies stress action at many levels and arenas, including city initiatives, local government, the transition towns movement and voluntary organizations. But Hallam seizes on the failures of central government, understating the role of diverse civil society groups to sustain and deepen the transition. (Two positive examples among many I would set against the negatives: the website BusinessGreen highlights numerous initiatives to shrink companies’ carbon footprints that are necessary whatever their form of ownership or control; and a sea change is underway in many trade unions who see the time is up for old carbon-based technologies.)

Hallam believes that as reform (defined as progress in small incremental steps) has failed we need a ‘revolution’ (albeit peaceful and non-Leninist). This risks lapsing into semantics, and failure so far does preclude real reform. Besides, the same dilemmas in achieving sustainable (in both senses) wholesale change remain. It is a staple of democratic left politics that neither parliamentary/governmental nor grassroots action can transform society: they must complement and enable each other.

None of his examples of successful non-violent direct action – from East Germany in 1989, Alabama in 1963 and Nepal in 2005, nor other oft-cited cases from Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, to more recent movements in the Middle East and Eastern Europe – are comparable to the climate emergency. They all faced discredited and repressive regimes, and none had to move so fast on so many fronts as we need now. Hallam attributes direct action at Kings College by himself and others as the cause of agreement to disinvest from fossil fuels. However, numerous other institutions are disinvesting, including most recently University College London, under sustained criticism and pressure more than disruptive action. In the heart of capitalism, maybe recent warnings by the likes of the Governor of the Bank of England are a greater influence than he admits.

XR demands the UK government:

  1. Tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency;
  2. Act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025;
  3. Create and be led by [my emphasis] a National Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.

Hallam argues that the current regime has lost legitimacy by its failure to act; and principled non-violent campaigns can gain such legitimacy through citizens’ assemblies. But the role of such a new body could raise more problems than it solved. It would face political challenges as dependent on technocratic, arguably partisan, advice and lacking representativeness and legitimacy, thereby risking diverting attention from the problem in hand.

Climate assemblies such as in the London Borough of Camden are a useful innovation in the formulation of principles, building popular consent and initiating local actions in tandem with the levers of democratic government. It’s doubtful if they could (or should) replace the current system, however flawed it is. Clearly even a committed government would need popular pressure to overcome fossil fuel interests, but so would any new regime; it is inconceivable that a nascent citizens’ assembly could manage this. It would be foolish to ignore the democratic legitimacy of Parliament, regional governments and many local authorities who have declared a Climate Emergency. We should instead be pressurising all institutions (and people) to live up to their rhetoric.

Hallam even proposes the Citizens’ Assembly go beyond “[l]egislation to transform the economy and society to respond to the existential climate and ecological emergency” to draw up “other social legislation which follows the will of the assembly rather than the former political class” and “a new constitutional settlement which creates a genuine participatory democracy…”. He doesn’t say whether it will require 9 to 5 on weekdays or the full 24/7 to surmount three such daunting challenges!

XR has grown meteorically in the last six months, picking up academics, lawyers and celebrities among thousands of people from all walks of life, including environmental lawyer Farhana Yamin, who has joined after her experience of the limitations of climate negotiations including the 2015 Paris COP. Its strategy is likely to evolve accordingly. Success in forcing the necessary changes will require a society-wide mobilisation on the scale of a world war, and to be effective XR must avoid both rhetorical and programmatic excesses.

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