Extinction Rebellion (XR) has captured global attention with its bold tactics and determination. With no single individual in charge, XR has operated as a collective to coordinate enduring action at scale. We sat down with XR member Chris Taylor to unpick how he and his peers have managed to create one of the most organised mass movements in decades.
How did you get into Extinction Rebellion?
Since the 80’s I have been moved by the starkness and injustice of poverty
that exists around the world. I actually ignored the environment movement
for several decades, seeing it as a middle-class luxury. However, one day my
son was watching ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ (the documentary film about
the former United States Vice President Al Gore’s campaign to educate
people about global warming, released in 2006). As I watched it over his
shoulder I thought, this is getting serious. I can’t ignore it. I realised that
the destruction of the environment was being driven by the same system of
social inequality that I was so concerned about.
Which leaders have inspired Extinction Rebellion’s protest methods?
The non-violence approach that we use can be traced back to Gandhi who cited Tolstoy as one of his inspirations. Both Gandhi and Martin Luther King had a very strong sense of spirituality that guided their actions. They could see everybody (even those who other people would classify as their opponents) as human beings and could approach them with compassion. That is a crucial part of non-violence and the way that we approach doing things.
We are inspired by the kind of leadership that comes from a very grounded sense of who you are, your relationship to other people and a service to the greater good. Ghandi said that you should be the change that you wish to see in the world. So, how this manifests in Extinction Rebellion, for example, is cleaning up after yourself after a protest. This is being the change you want to see in the world. It’s respecting the environment. So, we make sure that we do that.
How is Extinction Rebellion organised and led?
What I love about Extinction Rebellion is that it’s experimenting with models of self-organising systems. These are interesting because they find a way to harness the energy of people in a much stronger and simpler way than traditional organisational forms. It’s the lack of a traditional leadership structure that encourages people to think, “So how can I contribute?” That only works if the purpose, values and how we do what we need to do is crystal clear. As long as you have this, the system can organise itself.
Does that mean it’s anarchic in its true sense?
I wouldn’t say anarchic, because there are very clear structures within
Extinction Rebellion. It is based on a set of nested interlocking circles. There are circles that look at how the movement develops, at the culture, the values, non- violence. There are circles that look at training and how to run meetings, to plan actions, to set the overall strategy. There are also circles to look at the health of the self-organising system itself. (I’m within the circles of influence and governance).
So, people can find their place within those circles. Each local group is autonomous and organised on a circular model. So as long as local groups operate towards the overall vision and within the same set of values, they are free to act in the way they see fit. This structure of circles managing the organism as a whole, supported by local autonomous groups then creates a system that releases energy and potential into the movement.
Does it have a leadership?
There are founders – the people who set up Extinction Rebellion (XR) and the people who were in Rising Up before. Those people carry with them some gravitas because they initiated the movement. They’ve become some of the senior heads in the public sphere. But, the difference between ours and a traditional system of leadership is that in a traditional system, power and influence are concentrated in a few people in ‘senior’ roles – positions are conflated with leadership and power.
In a self-organising system like XR, those positions are more dispersed throughout the organisation. Different people take on different leadership roles and functions. Power is distributed. It passes between people from time to time as well. The circles change over time, some are being rationalised and brought together, others are getting a clearer mandate.
We’re beginning to notice that it’s helpful for people to step up for a while then step back to recuperate. Then they can step back in again. Our leadership is quite fluid in many ways. It passes between people depending on the topic in question and the phasing – are you full of energy? Or in need of some regeneration time?
We’re also seriously looking at power and privilege. We know that patriarchal, heroic forms of leadership are what have got us into this life-threatening situation. So, we’re exploring how we move away from this. How do we create space to hear the voices that don’t usually get heard – women, young people, people of colour? This is absolutely crucial – not only to redress past wrongs but also to create real lasting unity.
What if someone within one of those circles does something that is contrary to XR’s declared principles?
At the moment it lies with the people around that person. So, it’s with the people in that circle to manage that situation as they see fit. We are all responsible for our bit of the organisation and if somebody within our sphere is not operating within the values of the organisation, then that is for us to sort it out.
This is also something that we are starting to think about more seriously across XR. One of the things that Extinction Rebellion has is a ‘Circle of Council’ – people who are outside of the movement who act as advisors, offering insight into the movement from the outside. One of these is a guy called Micah White, who was one of the founders of Occupy. Occupy learnt some very important lessons about how to build a movement and how to create truly democratic spaces. And by their own admission they learnt
the hard way what happens when you’re unable to use your values and structures to be clear about what is acceptable and what is not, within the movement.
How are the values communicated? How do you know when there has been a breach of principle?
One issue with XR is that it has exploded into a mass movement in a very short time. So, systems are still evolving. What has helped though is that values have been “frontloaded”. We have a solemn declaration, which was read out at a lot of actions in London at the start. It encourages people to remember why they’re there, to remember that this is about the love of the planet, the love of other people, that it is about staying non-violent, treating everyone as you would like to be treated.
There are also groups looking at the DNA of the organisation, where it has come from and its founding values. And there are teams working on “Regenerative Culture” – how to make sure that we work in a way that helps us all to learn, grow and care for each other. People are taking real pride in this work.
We also have a circle that I am in called the Vision Sensing Group, which is
responsible for holding onto the vision that XR was born out of. We work on that with the Regenerative Culture circle. And we’ve just released a book “This is not a drill” which is a handbook about XR.
So, what do organisations with conventional NGO hierarchical structures make of you? Are they threatened by you? Are you going to take money away from them?
There’s a place for both. It’s not an and/or. Those organisations have been taking up this cause for decades and have done amazing work. They have built incredible networks and have influenced business and government to take actions that otherwise wouldn’t have been taken.
And yet, XR just captured the mass public imagination in a very different way. People wanted something different, they wanted a way to get involved directly themselves. They wanted a process that was a little bit street party and a little bit protest. Something a little bit direct action that was also a bit more on the edge. That is where the energy came from.
Being in a system that doesn’t have a large bureaucracy and doesn’t have a large fundraising need gives you a lot of freedom. The longer you exist as an organisation, in my experience, the more risk averse you become, because you have to protect the streams of income that create your own bureaucracy. I think having a mass movement such as XR to remind you why you’re there and what’s possible, is going to be good for everyone – those in politics, NGOs the public sector and private organisations.
And what do you think about the role of large private-sector organisations?
There’s been a lot of discussion within XR about the role of large organisations. This was provoked by a number of progressive businesses declaring a climate emergency. Many activists were really angry about this. For them it has been business or the economic system more widely that has got us into the emergency in the first place. And government is seen as being either complicit in this or unable to do anything meaningful about it. The system has failed us and failed future generations.
For leaders in these organisations to be taken seriously there will need to be some public recognition of this fact, even some sense of apology or atonement. XR’s third demand is for a genuine Citizens Assembly to decide what needs to be done to become carbon neutral by 2025. Leaders would need to listen openly to its recommendations and take radical action in response. This may mean dismantling parts of their organisational
empires, changing business models, taking on a different approach and shifting to less hierarchical approaches to power. This is the kind of leadership our times are calling for: recognition of the perilous situation we are in, taking responsibility for their/our part in it, deep listening to what’s needed and the bravery to radically shift, in order to avoid disaster and start to build a regenerative world.
So, what next for XR?
We’re recalibrating at the moment, resting after what happened in April. It took a lot of energy and emotions, we have a lot that continues to be happening though. Our next worldwide Rebellion is on the 7th October. So, we’re planning for that.
And what about the climate?
It will take the whole of humanity working together to sort the problems that we face. It’s a revolutionary rewriting of human civilisation and human existence. Nothing else will solve the crisis we’re heading into. It’s going to require a totally different approach to leadership and power. Sometimes I think XR isn’t really about climate change. Really, we are about rewriting what it means to be human.
Chris Taylor is Director of Oasis Foundation – a charity dedicated to social and
environmental transformation. He is also Coordinator of the Vision Sensing Group in Extinction Rebellion