Recently, it was alleged by news outlets, such as the BBC that the climate action group Extinction Rebellion (XR) were planning to fly drones over Heathrow airport to disrupt air traffic. This led to polemic articles branding the proposed action “reckless” or “extremely dangerous”. However, this reporting is highly inaccurate. Perhaps the notion of non-hierarchical control is too foreign for the media to understand, because although the wording in the BBC article is that Extinction Rebellion has “vowed” to perpetrate this action, the reality couldn’t be further removed.
Firstly, there is no indivisible Extinction Rebellion to vow such a thing as the movement is organised at the lowest possible level. The organisation is made up of local groups which plan their own actions in smaller teams called “affinity groups” and one central group which organises international groups, maintains the principles and runs media. Although the roles of these groups differ, there is no operational hierarchy. The only condition for an action to be an Extinction Rebellion action is that it adheres to the ten principles which are listed on the website, potentially the most notable of which being non-violence.
Individuals didn’t rationally consider their decisions and therefore did inappropriate things, antithetical to the goals of the movement
The proposed Heathrow action is therefore a suggestion from one affinity group, (a group of ideally less that twelve who plan actions together). The reality is that many of the Extinction Rebellion members and groups that I know oppose the action, or even if they support it in spirit, they realise that it could be seen as an act of violence or at least a threat of violence. That’s not to say that it categorically won’t go ahead as the organisation does not seek the explicit consent of all members. The system in place for opposing actions is to write your views on a public forum, which allows the author of the proposed action to gauge whether they have the support of the wider movement or not. This allows actions to happen quickly, and the movement to grow organically, avoiding hurdles of bureaucracy and infighting which caused movements, such as Occupy to fall flat.
The cost of dispensing with momentum-reducing checks and balances is that actions which are antithetical to the goals and values of Extinction Rebellion have happened in the past and will likely happen in the future. One such example was the group that glued themselves to Jeremy Corbyn’s fence during the London protests. The only possible outcome of that event was the politicisation of a necessarily apolitical movement or even worse the chance of alienating a potential ally. Another was the smashing of the Shell headquarters’ windows. Although that in particular didn’t end up doing any real harm, the media tried to turn it into an anti-XR story, to announce that this non-violent movement had turned violent. The truth was that in both cases, individuals didn’t rationally consider their decisions and therefore did inappropriate things, antithetical to the goals of the movement.
While it is in the world’s long-term interest to educate people that they have not earned a right to fly for pleasure, a divisive protest such as this would be more likely to alienate than to encourage
The actual goal of Extinction Rebellion is to involve 3.5% of the population in active civil disobedience in order to force the government to take climate breakdown seriously (the principle suggesting that this is all that a non-violent civil disobedience movement needs to succeed is called the radical flank effect in the literature). As much of the community has pointed out, it would not be tactical to create stories that could be used against this goal. In the case of Heathrow, even though the 28th of June was chosen for the event specifically to affect a higher portion of business customers than private consumers, the few that would be inconvenienced likely wouldn’t get their money back. This is because of an EU law which states that under “special circumstances” the airline does not have to refund its passengers when a flight is cancelled. Consumers who were especially upset about this, or those with particularly emotive stories could then be exploited by the press to create anti-XR narratives.
Therefore, while it is in the world’s long-term interest to educate people that they have not earned a right to fly for pleasure, a divisive protest such as this would be more likely to alienate than to encourage. In fighting against the culturally entrenched notion that it is reasonable to treat each other, and our planet, terribly with no regard for the future, a range of non-violent methods are going to be used. Some of these will anger people, and some of them will go too far, or vanish without a trace. But when something very ill-conceived happens, it is important to note that while the fight against climate breakdown is not reckless, some people can be.