Extinction Rebellion and the politics of creative tension

Clive Hamilton

Are Extinction Rebellion protesters shooting themselves in the foot? Commentators have been quick to accuse them of doing no more than annoying motorists and alienating the public from their cause.

That argument assumes that all protests are aimed at winning over the public to one’s point of view. Put another way, protests are effective only when they operate within the boundaries of the accepted norms of the political system.

But that completely misconstrues the strategy of XR’s campaign of civil disobedience. The point is to break out of the boundaries imposed by normal politics and challenging the system, the system that, in their view, has failed so dismally to respond to the climate emergency.

The history of protest in the 20th century shows that segments of the most important protest movements have engaged in civil disobedience and, despite attracting widespread outrage and alienating much of the public, the strategy has worked.

In the early years of the 20th century the suffragettes, tired of their respectability being used against them, began chaining themselves to railings, disrupting political meetings and smashing windows. Public opinion was sharply against them. Yet they changed how women were seen, blasting away patronising attitudes that allowed the demand for women’s suffrage to be ignored.

Like most social movements, the suffragette radicals were a component of a broader movement, criticised even by their sisters who wanted to stay within respectable boundaries. In retrospect, the suffragettes were essential to the success of the cause.

The same can be said of feminism’s second wave in the 1970s and 1980s. The movement divided between the moderate elements, like the Women’s Electoral Lobby, and the radicals, like the unruly women who turned up at Anzac Day marches carrying signs reading “War means rape.” Provoking outrage was the point.

The politics of impatience

Radicals who engage in campaigns of civil disobedience do so because they feel they have exhausted all lawful means of achieving change. The system has marginalised, patronised or ignored them so they have decided to challenge the system itself, where “the system” is a set of entrenched beliefs and attitudes about what is acceptable activism and what is reasonable to demand. It’s a system controlled by the powerful.

When in 1972 a handful of young activists drove from Sydney to Canberra to set up the Aboriginal Embassy, the elders and leading spokespersons for aboriginal rights disapproved. The Australian public, for the most part, were unimpressed by these radicals with their uncompromising demands and Black Power salutes. The government denounced them and made eviction plans. The police carried out the plans with violence.

Yet the symbolism of the Tent Embassy and the determination of the young radicals soon won over the moderates and brought about a decisive shift in the national debate. History was with them. It was a huge step forward in the campaign for indigenous rights.

The young radicals were emulating the civil rights movement in the United States. Against the advice of the established leaders, who had for years been working at winning over reasonable white opinion and were frightened of turning them away, young activists, black and white, went to the South to provoke the beast. Across the country it was seen as unduly provocative and counter-productive and caused deep unease among politicians and opinion makers.

But it worked. XR is just the latest manifestation of the long history of the politics of impatience. It’s a politics that energizes and emboldens a movement’s moderate majority and expands the boundaries of what seems reasonable to demand.

For 20 years the climate action movement has played by the rules of the game, the rules defined by the same system that has stood in the way of a proper response to the scientific warnings. Everything has been tried—information campaigns, political lobbying, street marches and so on. They have failed. If they had worked Australia’s greenhouse gases would have been falling for the last 15 years; they are still rising.

What is remarkable about the climate change movement is that it has taken so long for a radical, disruptive wing to emerge. After all, the stakes could not be higher—a liveable planet.

When conservative politicians and shock jocks rant against the protesters, demanding tougher laws and harsher punishment, they are playing the role they are meant to play in this situation, policing the boundaries of the system that is failing, proving that the instinct of Extinction Rebellion is right, the system has to change.

And when earnest ABC radio interviewers ask: “But aren’t you just alienating the very people you want to win over?” they too are playing out their roles. They are demanding that all protest must play by the rules of the system, when the system has manifestly failed.

Even as the climate tipping point has been passed, and we are on track for a catastrophic 3-4 degrees of warming, the conventional view is that it is more important to preserve normal political boundaries than prevent an irreversible planetary crisis.

Explaining the inflammatory logic of the Freedom Rides into the Deep South in 1961, Martin Luther King wrote that the aim was to generate “such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.”

Clive Hamilton is the author of What Do We Want? The story of protest in Australia (National Library of Australia, 2016)

Published under Creative Commons, so feel free to republish according to the usual rules–don’t edit and properly attribute.


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