Extinction Rebellion’s latest poster is a classic of the genre: a skeletal figure sits on a tree stump, holding a distortion of the group’s trademark hourglass logo. The text at the bottom is a variation on a slogan I have come to know very well: “Act Now, Before Because It’s Too Late”.
Like countless other precocious teenagers before me, I waited until university to rebel against “the system”. Then, for about two years, I dedicated every Saturday and dozens of other evenings to sitting, cross-legged, in a circle in the centre of Cambridge, discussing the end of the world. Climate change, after all, was the issue of our time. Forget the petty squabbles and internecine conflicts of the Left — the revolution would be green, not red.
While I jumped from one political identity to the next — Social Democrat, Corbyn loyalist, Anarcho-Syndicalist, Bookchinite Social Ecologist, Trotskyist — there was a single constant: to defeat the forces of capital, Leftism needed to be centred around sustainability. Climate change was one crisis capitalism couldn’t overcome: it had an extinction date.
It is difficult for me to separate how much of my political certainty was a product of the Left-wing populism that electrified campus politics, and how much was born from youthful arrogance. Either way, I was convinced we were the only ones left to protect the working classes against the forces of reaction. So it stung to have them reject us for what we were: jumped-up students looking out for our own interests.
Still, I enjoyed being a “radical”. I would walk around campus brandishing my own Little Green Book. Entitled Make Rojava Great Again, it was a hilariously delusional manifesto influenced by Murray Bookchin, and attempted to explain how a small, anarchist-in-name-only Kurdish commune was the future for global Leftism. The irony that Rojava was only able to exist thanks to the imperialist interventionism of the Global American Empire in Syria was, of course, lost on me and my comrades.
It was amid this revolutionary fervour that I was introduced to Extinction Rebellion (XR). They were, at the time, a relatively unknown collection of old-school conservationists, ageing animal rights campaigners and credentialed academics who seemed utterly clueless in comparison with our own more militant group, Zero Carbon. Before one meeting between our two respective groups — we had planned to discuss the importance of racial justice — several XR members started shouting at us for failing to have brought chairs. They were, it quickly transpired, simply too old to sit crossed-legged in a circle like us students.
My comrades and I used to chuckle over photos from their rallies, full of middle-aged, middle-class hippies who looked as if they had wandered off from a People’s Vote protest. That this raggedy group would go on to become the most influential face of environmental activism was inconceivable three years ago.
As for their ideas and strategies, they were even easier to mock. How exactly did they expect to build a popular front against “extractivist” climate-plundering while simultaneously irritating ordinary people with their thoughtless disruption? Where was their consideration of class? How dare they cloak themselves in the language of revolution despite clearly posing no actual threat to the regime.
Yet there remained a tacit understanding that we were on the same side. We shared meeting rooms, supported their direct actions and invited them along to our own. Our memberships became increasingly blurred, with the next intake of freshers often touting loyalty to both Zero Carbon and XR.
I became friends with XR true believers, kindly old activists who would cook me vegan chilli and explain how I could safely chain myself to a fence or gate. Their provincialism was charming; while we enlightened radicals understood the need to destroy bourgeois capitalism, they simply wanted Cambridgeshire local council to declare a “climate emergency”.
But then, during a Zero Carbon protest at the 2019 Oxford-Cambridge boat race, also my 19th birthday, it all unravelled. Our plan had been to protest the universities’ decision not to divest from fossil fuels. We were, though, quickly caught by a pair of very patient police officers, who humoured our Bolshevik playacting for a while. But then, I watched in dismay as my comrades started complaining about police brutality, crowding around the officers and shoving phone cameras in their face.
The sight of their ridiculously exaggerated outrage quelled my revolutionary zeal. There we were, wearing straw boaters, planning to drop a banner over Hammersmith Bridge and set off a few flares for… what? Was this what we were all along: pantomime activists? We were no better than the XR hippies singing outside the Cambridgeshire County Council office; worse, actually, because we weren’t even having fun.
Samuel Biagetti has described the dynamic inherent within modern Leftist politics as that of a parent and child, with liberal elders viewing young activists as juvenile and subordinate. I saw then what he meant. My comrades and I thought we could radicalise our XR mentors; in reality, they had merely been indulging our silly fantasies. They knew that, eventually, we would learn to give up the pretence of Marxist revolution and accept the inevitability of reform.
So I left eco-activism for good. Better to be reviled as a reactionary traitor than have to live with the humiliating realisation that I essentially held the same politics of my parents. And there is nothing rebellious about XR. Just look at Roger Hallam, who co-founded the movement after studying for a PhD in civil disobedience at King’s College London. His thesis was that mass outbreaks of civil unrest — like those seen in the last few weeks in central London — are the best way to force governments to act. “Extinction Rebellion” is therefore a misnomer: the group doesn’t want to overthrow the system, but to petition it.
Liberal democracy isn’t going to solve the climate crisis. The same conditions that triggered the climate collapse will persist, and no amount of performative anti-capitalism will remedy that. XR’s rallies over the past week have seemed little more than narcissistic spectacle, a way for well-meaning people to gather and feel righteous and alive for a few hours.
Just as my comrades and I lacked any substance beneath our vague faith in the power of “revolution”, there is nothing hiding beneath their costumes. They have achieved the platonic ideal of liberal protest — all style, no substance.
It would, of course, be all too easy to laugh at them, were it not for the gnawing realisation that their warnings contain an element of truth. It is too late. This really is the last gasp of the old regime. And there they are: dancing as the world burns.