Early 2018 was a challenging time for me, as in the space of two weeks I read the Dark Mountain manifesto and an early version of what became Jem Bendell’s paper on #DeepAdaptation. I spent months struggling to come to terms with what the future held, so when #ExtinctionRebellion (XR) launched that October it gave me an opportunity to act. The momentum built, I joined in with actions in London and also a local group nearer to home, and for a while it felt like things may actually change. XR gave me a reason to hold on to a little bit of hope in the face of a bleak future for the ecosystem.

Fast forward to October 2019. Progress on climate action seemed to have ground to a halt (again), and I found the scale of XR’s October action in the UK and the response to it disappointing. Up to this point I’d ignored criticism of XR strategy and tactics, as I couldn’t see any alternative out there – in fact, being ‘the only game in town’ is given as a reason to join XR in public talks. But if there was one thing that scared me more than criticism of XR, it was that XR might not be doing things in the best way – as we don’t have time to get things wrong any more. So I started to read the criticism of XR with as open a mind as I could manage.

I found that not everyone thought XR’s focus on large volumes of arrests would achieve its goals, that it could also be harmful to those getting arrested, and that it excluded people who were at risk of police oppression. I became more aware of how the non-hierarchical nature of XR only ran skin-deep, with central working groups exercising power, and autonomy of local groups and affinity groups not being a priority. Also, the public talks I’d been helping to deliver aimed to use people’s fear of loss to spur them into action – but this is more likely to motivate those who are well off enough to have something to lose than those who are already suffering through poverty and the consequences of climate change. 

Worse still were the consequences of the XR policy of avoiding party politics and ignoring or only giving lip service to issues outside of climate change and biodiversity loss. This has resulted in issues of social justice being sidelined or ignored, perhaps because they’re felt to be too ‘controversial’ for the kind of people XR wants to volunteer to get arrested.

I’ve had a lot to learn, and I know there is much more. But what has become clear to me is that action on climate change must go hand-in-hand with action to address poverty, oppression and other injustices – at local, national and global levels. I also feel that so far I’ve been focusing on the symptoms (climate and ecosystem collapse) rather than the core problem – capitalism, colonialism and prioritisation of growth – which are the cause of many kinds of oppression as well as climate change. None of this is news, of course, but the single-minded focus on climate change that I’d had, and XR encourages, had led me to regard these as secondary issues. 

I am now part of an group encouraging ‘mutual aid’ – a voluntary exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit, which can be used to fight poverty, oppression and other injustices. This can happen alongside direct action on climate change, which should specifically target the cause of the problem – capitalism, fossil fuel production, mining, etc. It’s also especially relevant during the covid-19 crisis. The transition to a sustainable society must be something that involves everyone, especially those who traditionally have less influence, rather than being directed by a powerful elite and enforced on everyone else. Combining mutual aid with direct action on climate change is one way to help bring this about, and it also creates opportunities to build resilience, which will be ever more important as climate and economic shocks escalate.

What I’d like to see in the climate change and direct action space is less hierarchy, a spread of mutual aid principles, direct challenges to the capitalist system and thousands of autonomous affinity groups – each of which is learning about its local context and making its own decisions about how to create change. We need something new, that shows the alternative to the system that is destroying the planet. As Buckminster Fuller said, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”