Earth Day, Extinction Rebellion and the barriers to grassroots climate action

Earth Day 2022

COP26 — the largest protest I’ve ever seen. Beautiful (my photography does not do it justice).

“These are some of the injustices of the climate crisis — those who didn’t cause the climate crisis, those who aren’t responsible for the rising global emissions — they’re the ones on the frontlines. They’re the ones whose voices are not being listened to.” Vanessa Nakate

*This article may contain triggers pertaining to climate breakdown and race.

In Summer 2019, I attended an Extinction Rebellion (XR) march in East London. My good friend was a part of the core team in the borough and asked me to help flyer. It felt good to be a part of that and the weather was temperate and beautiful. Marching and smiling through the streets towards London Fields armed with piles of recycled paper flyers, we were stopped by a car, driven by a young woman of African heritage that I had never met. Asking me what we were doing, I gave her a flyer and said we were marching for the environment. Her reply set in motion an entirely different perspective for me, fuelling my fire for research on the nature of activism, and from that point on I have yet to attend another XR march.

She said to me ‘I’m not going to listen because you won’t march for Black Lives Matter.’

Fast forward to today, Earth Day 2022. In light of the 3rd IPCC ( Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report and certain cases of police brutality happening just down the road in Hackney, the profundity of that statement has never felt more palpable.

Earth Day itself has been around since the 1960s with the current mission to “act (boldly), innovate (broadly), and implement (equitably)”. It’s seemingly so popular that many have stretched it out to Earth Week and the organisers tell us that 1 billion people — 1 in 8 of the global population — recognize it as a day. An incredible figure. But if one billion people really do recognise it, then how could climate breakdown still be happening? Can you imagine the scale of the transformation if really 1 billion people committed to transforming their lives or engaging in activism? This far outweighs the numbers that XR state is necessary for real change — they believe we only need 3.5% (280mil) of the population to engage in non-violent civil disobedience … but still, we are nowhere near achieving the mass we need to move into the new era of sustainability.

I want to make abundantly clear before I go on that it’s the fossil fuel companies that should be the main targets for change. But when considering grassroots action, it is obvious that awareness or recognition of a day is not enough. Addressing the barriers to action requires us to face some ugly truths, especially surrounding the equitable implementation that Earth Day speak of. Through my thesis research surrounding the effectiveness of XR’s activism (for an MSc in Environmental Science and Policy), I have found these 4 points to prove true:

1. The environmental activism space is still very white and very lefty and, yes, that matters.

2. In order to act you have to have the privilege and power to act.

3. Eco-anxiety, burnout and denial are natural human reactions to the climate crisis that can prevent action — and they’re not going away any time soon.

4. We need millions of people working consistently and imperfectly on this rather than a few people working perfectly. (Anne-Marie Bonneau).

Firstly, through protest, we create identity. Through activism, we carve out a group of people that we belong to and that we share our values with. The cost of this is that wherever we create an ‘us’, we create a ‘them’. For every person we engage in protest and large groups, we ostracize another. There’s a solid body of work that suggest that people of colour, conservatives (both small and capital c), those with disabilities (both mental and physical), those unable to get arrested, and the working class have felt ostracized from XR. This is clearly not their intention and they are definitely improving how they operate, with representatives from XR stating that they are apolitical and most recently altering their demands to include climate justice. But the demographic of the group, where they choose to protest and their historic lack of empathy for those who cannot take weeks of work or get arrested will be hard mistakes to shake off, and until they do the efficacy of their outreach will be affected.

The 2nd point stems from this. White privilege is but one layer of privilege that enables many people to have a voice or to act on climate. The main others of course are money, time and gender, but there’s also digital privilege. In a world seemingly so connected, it may seem mad still that large swathes of people do not have access to the internet. In Nigeria for example, 70% of the nation do not have access to electricity and 49% without access to the internet. How can people assert their rights and have their voices heard without internet access? Even more disturbing than that, when a relatively healthy, free and democratic country like the UK uses their digital privilege to veto a coal mine, like last year in Cumbria, what’s the knock-on effect that that NIMBYism (‘not in my backyard’) has on countries like Nigeria? Colonialism is still alive and kicking in this regard and at this very moment, the Global North are helping to build the East Africa oil pipeline. I wonder how many people will march and protest for that in the UK?

Thirdly, as urgent as these messages are, how can we deliver them without scaring people off? Even as someone who has read extensively and worked on matters of climate, there are some Twitter posts and articles that send me into an emotional spinning wheel of doom. It’s also been proven by behavioural scientists that denial is a natural reaction for some when facing climate breakdown. Is there a better way to deliver the hard hitting facts? One idea that has been gaining momentum is the idea of trauma-informed approaches. Appreciating that we are living in an era of trauma, fear and guilt which is going to get worse before it gets better, bringing information to people in a way that is mindful of their mental health is crucial. According to psychologist Per Espen Stoknes, that might look like framing issues within very clear calls to action, or avoiding accompanying the messages with a sense of doom. Another way could be to include trigger warnings or to create spaces that people can be warned about and ready for, rather than surprise bombardments. Perhaps it means moving offline and engaging people face to face with compassion and empathy.

Finally, in line with this, is avoiding shame. Perhaps that starts with ourselves? Perhaps, instead of imagining if that one billion who’ve heard of Earth Day did something small today and committed to it. Imagine if you did. What would that be?

The ultimate solutions lie in empowering the unempowered, including the unincluded, and giving voice to the voiceless. It means white environmentalists making sure their activism is anti-racist and showing up as true allies to their friends and neighbours of colour, even on issues that we think don’t connect to climate breakdown (hint: they do connect); it means committing to truly persuading people to change using empathy, not barking angrily at them or fearmongering; it means recognizing the complex systems of privilege that may stamp out the wellbeing of others even with the best of intentions.

Bringing the issue back around to Earth Day, I’m going to leave you with a few small commitments of my own — that I have the privilege of being able to do — and invite you to do the same. Last year, I gave up fast fashion, I now only buy recycled fabrics or 2nd hand. Today, I commit to going fully vegetarian (yes that includes fish), to offset all of my flights and begin to slowly offset my historic flights, and to work hard to change the behaviour of those around me, communicating as best I can the urgency of the issue without shaming.

What commitment can you make today?