activism books climate change

Book review: Extinction Rebellion – Insights from the Inside

Extinction Rebellion returned to the streets of London this week, so it’s a good time to be looking at some of the inner workings of the movement and assessing their ongoing relevance. This book is a good way to do that. It collects together the writings of Rupert Read, one of the main thinkers and spokespersons of the movement, under the editorship of Samuel Alexander.

Extinction Rebellion: Insights from the Inside draws on a range of sources. There are pamphlets and open letters, a transcript of a Radio 4 interview, articles and discussions, internal strategy memos. All of them are by Rupert Read, but sometimes co-authored with folks such as Dario Kenner, Jem Bendell or John Foster.

Many of the recurring questions about XR are addressed here, such as the surely impossible zero carbon by 2025 demand. Yes, says Read, “it is completely ‘unrealistic’. That, to me, is its great virtue. For XR exists to make the ‘politically unrealistic’ realistic.” The book examines the arguments for or against disrupting ordinary people, something that lost a lot of goodwill in previous actions, and clearly shows how the movement is learning and focusing better on symbolic targets.

It’s an interesting time for XR. A lot has been gained, in particular the net zero by 2050 target, an unthinkable prospect before XR’s big actions, especially from a Conservative government that had done very little on climate change in a decade. How does that change what XR asks for? Or does it? What does five years of Conservative majority government mean? The book discusses all of this, suggesting that with the gains so far, the movement needs to adapt into a phase two.

I’d like to have read more in the book about climate justice – not just because it is a particular interests of mine, but because the movement is often criticised along those lines. It’s a strategic decision, but in my opinion XR has at times focused too much on future generations, and not enough on people in poorer countries who are suffering today. We do not need to imagine a future extinction. As Margaret Atwood once wrote, “It’s the end of the world every day, for someone.”

That aside, there’s an honesty about Insights from the Inside that I appreciate, much like last year’s collaboration between Rupert Read and Samuel Alexander, This Civilization is Finished. The authors know that they don’t have all the answers, and that XR isn’t perfect. But what else do we do in response to emergency? There’s a real sense of wrestling with big and sometimes unanswerable questions, and it reminds me of the word that the civil rights movement came to be defined with: a struggle. We are in a struggle against climate breakdown, and the forces that drive it. It will be a lifelong task, with reversals and mistakes a long the way, and the most interesting material on climate change is coming from those that see it that way.

XR activists will be familiar with these debates. I’d read a lot of the material in the book elsewhere, though it’s nice to have it all in one place and on the shelf for reference. It’s particularly useful for those who are interested in XR as a social phenomenon, and I’d count myself in that bracket. So would Samuel Alexander, who is both a participant and an observer of the movement, and lends his constructive critique and commentary to the closing chapter.

I have been taking part in XR actions over the last few days, with so many questions remaining about what the movement is doing and what it expects. One of the things that keeps me involved is the quality of discussion around those difficult questions, the spirit of open enquiry and self-critique that XR encourages. This book is a good demonstration of that, a snapshot of an iterative, learning and evolving movement.

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