I’ve been watching the Week of International Rebellion for climate change - and the reactions of politicians and the public - with somewhat mixed feelings. On the one hand, the protests have given me incredible hope for our planet. I am genuinely in awe of the sheer quantity of people who have been mobilised through Extinction Rebellion in such a short space of time. But as an advocate of intersectional climate justice, I couldn’t help but find it a little problematic that the public faces of Extinction Rebellion have thus far been overwhelmingly white, middle class, and male.
This impression of Extinction Rebellion is so glaring that right-wing media has even gone so far as to use it as an insult. On the 17th of April, Adam Boulton of Sky News took it upon himself to berate Robin Boardman of XR live on television:
“So, half term week, when Parliament isn’t even here, you come here and you cause disruption in Westminster – you’re not even getting your message across, you’re a load of incompetent, middle-class, self-indulgent people who want to tell us how to live our lives, that’s what you are, isn’t it?”
The likely motivation for Adam Boulton’s class-based comment is that he hoped it would alienate Extinction Rebellion from working class Britain. We’ve all seen how easily millions were led to believe that migrants are to blame for the remnants of the financial crash and a broken economic system. The rise of far-right extremism, racism, and general bigotry in the last decade shows that when the going gets tough, our society is all too quickly drawn in by scapegoating. Boulton obviously thought “a load of middle-class, self-indulgent people” were the perfect target for the next round of media-fuelled hatred.
But really, why he said it isn’t all that important. What matters is that Extinction Rebellion looks pretty privileged (at least in the UK media). This is worrisome because the environmentalist movement has a long history of being very white and well-off, despite poorer people/nations and people of colour feeling the worst effects of climate change and environmental degradation. True climate justice must rebalance privileges, work towards amending the damage caused already by colonialism, and ensure that nobody - no matter their gender, race, or class - is left behind.
However, based on the unique nature of Extinction Rebellion, I don’t necessarily think that their middle-class whiteness is a problem, at least for now. Here’s why.
Extinction Rebellion encourage civil disobedience with the aim of as many activists being arrested as possible. This is because throughout history, social movements where many people were arrested for taking part have consistently led to policy change and social revolutions - think the civil rights movement in America, or the suffragettes (though the suffragettes’ actions were definitely not non-violent). While it’s possible to take part in the protests without risking arrest, the vast majority of those involved with Extinction Rebellion are going in prepared to be put in handcuffs.
This is where privilege comes in. If you are a white, middle-class male, you face significantly less risk from interactions with the police than anyone in a protected minority. This fact is blatantly obvious everywhere, from the Black Lives Matter campaign in the US, to the islamophobic rhetoric of global media. While people of colour are shot for standing in the wrong street at the wrong time, privileged white men like Brock Turner - the ‘promising athlete’ who raped an unconscious woman - get minimal sentences for violent crimes.
So it doesn’t surprise me that Extinction Rebellion looks this privileged. But I think at this point in time, getting involved in Extinction Rebellion is one of the best ways to use this kind of privilege right now. If we need mass arrests, shouldn’t those who will suffer the least consequences be the ones to do it? Why should we ask those who are discriminated against to put themselves at greater risk? If we’ve got enough privileged people happy to put their bodies on the line for climate change, let them pave the way for change so that we can bring through the voices less heard. Everyone else has suffered enough already - let’s use this system of unequal privilege to achieve a system where it doesn’t exist any longer.
For true climate justice, we need to dismantle the patriarchal, white-focused, class-based system that caused the problems in the first place. The first step towards a world free of climate catastrophe and unequal rights may be those most privileged using their positionality in movements like Extinction Rebellion to call for structural changes that empower everyone else. However, this must be accompanied by XR and other organisations walking the walk by showing solidarity with those most affected by climate change globally, and by making space for a more diverse group of voices to be heard. I encourage Extinction Rebellion to reflect on their position and messaging in this respect.