Extinction Rebellion’s “regenerative culture” could be just as revolutionary as its demands

Behind the eye-catching arrest tactics, XR’s culture of conversation, care, crew and eschewing celebrity could be just as transformative.

Anna Pigott
Anna Pigott
2 May 2019, 12.24pm
Women blocking Waterloo Bridge during Extinction Rebellion, London April 2019
SOPA Images/SIPA USA/PA Images

Amidst the arrests and its bold demands, Extinction Rebellion’s (XR) core value of “regenerative culture” rarely gets coverage in the media despite it being, as one speaker during a People’s Assembly last Easter weekend put it, “the mycelium holding it all together”.

I arrived in London during XR’s two weeks of rebellion feeling that I had to be there; as a matter of principle and of being – as has been so often repeated in relation to this movement - “on the right side of history”. But what I left with on Monday evening was a sense of having been involved in something that went beyond simply supporting a cause.

There was adrenaline, yes, but there was also a warmth and joy that took me by surprise.

Were these the tendrils of regenerative culture being woven through me as I shared celery sticks in the samba parade, or dropped “dead” with strangers at the Natural History Museum? Besides the whirlwind of arrests, what I notice on the streets (and in my local XR group) are the ways in which this movement attempts to nurture different ways of being together, with a deeper sensitivity and responsibility than XR is sometimes credited as having. Now that I’ve returned home and dusted myself off (at least, for now), I’ve been reflecting on four regenerative spores that seem to feed XR’s roots and which could, quietly, prove as revolutionary as its outspoken demands:

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1. Changing the conversation

I had a tortured relationship with social media during the London rebellion. My internal monologue behind each new post unleashed to my friends and followers went rapidly from “I must tell the world about this!” (pre-update) to “I am an insufferable evangelist!” (post- update). Anxiety about broaching the topic of climate catastrophe is common because although it is a profoundly public crisis, it is also an intensely personal one. Speaking up about it exposes me – it exposes my thoughts, feelings, values and politics. But I worry that my posts also alienate others. Bringing climate change to people’s attention is like serving them a big helping of grief, often with a side dish of guilt, and then joining them at the table. Little wonder it is so often met with denial or, more commonly these days, silence.

Extinction Rebellion has undoubtedly helped to break this climate silence and made it easier and more acceptable to talk about. But XR’s modus operandi also changes the tone of conversations. Its principle of not blaming and shaming helps to shift the language around climate collapse away from an accusatory narrative focused on individual behavior, and towards a language that emerges out of feeling. It is common, for example, to hear XR representatives talk about the grief they feel about ecological loss, or the fear they have for their children’s futures. This acts as an invitation for others to empathize, rather than defend. That is not to say that the movement does not try to identify places where change needs to happen, but it does so in ways that offer people spaces – actual or virtual – in which to gather, rather than pulling the rug from under their feet. It seems fitting, then, that XR refer to shifting the “Overton Window” (a term for the range of ideas tolerated in public discourse) because, in the words of the poet, Ruth Bebermeyer, words are windows, or they’re walls.

2. Care

Spending two days in London as part of the rebellion gave me a glimpse of an alternative world, not only one in which birds were heard singing at Marble Arch for the first time in decades, but also one filled with care. Take the infrastructure that XR works hard to maintain around arrest: for every image of a rebel being carted away to a waiting police van, there is an unreported network of people – very often strangers to one another – looking out for that one arrestee, from legal observers at the time of arrest and the tireless support of behind-the-scenes solicitors, to volunteers who hang around outside police stations at 3am with tea, chocolate and a hug for the bewildered rebel when they are finally released. “How nice is that?” a rebel friend I had made on Waterloo Bridge texted me after he got out, his tone of surprise revealing a lot about the level of his bar of expectation more generally.

Care, it seems to me, is knitted into the fabric of what Extinction Rebellion is about -- from leaflets advising rebels to give themselves a neck massage to calm nerves, to the sharing of water, food and sun cream during road blockades. There is also a skill, I learned, in creating non-violent, caring situations; ways of using our bodies and voices that are non-threatening and de-escalating. In these most unlikely of circumstances, sitting in the middle of Waterloo Bridge surrounded by singing rebels, with Chris Packham atop a bus shelter and the police closing in, I experienced a gentler and more empathetic way of being with others.

3. "We are all crew”

If Waterloo Bridge gave me a glimpse of an alternative world, then arriving at Marble Arch later that day was like stepping into a parallel universe. Regenerative culture can also, evidently, be very good at logistics. Far from lazy tactics and a chaotic rabble, the canvas village established at Marble Arch (and the smaller occupied sites elsewhere) is testament to the ability of large groups of people to self-organise and co-exist. There had been more than a year of planning even before the first tent was pitched in London, but once it was and the rebels arrived, it was up to everyone to make it work. I attended a site meeting one morning and was amazed to realise that this seemingly well-oiled and contented camp was being managed by… the campers themselves. There was no one with a mega phone telling others what to do. From cleaning the compost toilet to running music meditations, all manner of jobs were identified and accounted for by volunteers, then marked up on a whiteboard or ear-marked for further discussion.

“We are all crew” is the message from Extinction Rebellion – a simple enough sentence but a sentiment that is so often missing from discussions about social change. As Caroline Lucas recently tweeted, the most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any. In a hierarchical society with all-too linear ideas of cause and effect, it is easy to lose sight of our own capacity for change and action. Whenever I need a reminder of this now, I will think about Marble Arch’s makeshift kitchen tent, where I headed one bright morning after I’d finished a round of litter-picking. It was full of rebels chopping, stirring, pouring and dish-washing, all its supplies funded by donations so that free food could be handed out to anyone who wanted it. The sheer amounts of co-operation and creativity that had made it possible for me to enjoy a steaming bowl of homely porridge in the middle of an ordinarily traffic-choked road made me realise that people are capable of acting together to do remarkable things.

4. Relinquishing ego

“Let’s not make this about anybody being special”, Gail Bradbrook urged rebels from the stage at Marble Arch, and then – attempting to downplay her own position as co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, and a recognisable figurehead – “you know, I can be a real dick a lot of the time”. Her eschewing of personal aggrandisement fits with a wider theme in XR, from a lack of named people on its website, to its insistence on the need for a Citizens Assembly to lead decisions in government.

Caught up in a culture obsessed with individual achievement and celebrity, it might be hard for Extinction Rebellion to resist a slide into stories of lone and exceptional heroes, because, as Rebecca Solnit reminds us, that’s what we tend to get with our media. But resist we must, because in telling these stories “we don’t get much of a picture of how change happens and what our role in it might be, or how ordinary people matter”. While Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough have been huge inspirations to this movement, fixating too closely on celebrities and leaders – who are, after all, imperfect humans who also need a rest – risks losing sight of what usually changes the world: people’s ability to co-ordinate, connect, listen and act in large numbers. Relinquishing ego can also be a necessary move by those in positions of power to create space for the voices of those less privileged, many of whom have been fighting for environmental justice for a long, long time. In doing so, the movement has an opportunity to deepen in ways that it must if it is to really get to grips with what climate justice means.

I nearly got arrested on my first morning at Waterloo Bridge, an experience that had my heart in my mouth and my ego, tellingly, practically bursting out of my chest. On this occasion I’m glad that I slipped the long arm of the law, because in my freedom to roam London that Easter weekend, I got to revel in the close embrace of something that felt like community, instead.

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