Inside Extinction Rebellion – What’s it doing during the CoVid crisis
By Danny Halpin: Last week, Extinction Rebellion decided to pause its plans for a Rolling Rebellion in May, with many actions in March cancelled. The official statement says Extinction Rebellion exists to protect and preserve life and will therefore not ask anyone to gather en masse – deciding, like the Premier League, to take action without waiting for the government to impose restrictions.
Unlike the government, XR rebels don’t have to balance the health of people with the health of the economy and business and they are diving into action, organising on a community basis from the street level up, using the same self-organising, autonomous system that allowed the movement to grow so rapidly through 2019. Within days, over 1,000 people joined a Telegram group to discuss ideas on how to identify who needs help, what kind of support they need and how it can be delivered safely.
Anxiety hangs over every conversation. Nobody wants to inadvertently spread the infection by trying to help. Should we wear masks? Is it safe to knock on doors and speak to people? If we drop leaflets through the letterbox asking people to contact us when they need help, will that carry the virus into their home? There are no convincing answers to these questions. Even experts don’t know exactly how the virus spreads, their advice is based upon the behaviour of other known forms of influenza. The best anyone can do is weigh up the risks and decide if they want to take them.
Other discussions have centred around the role that the XR brand should play in this crisis, whether we should wear badges and introduce ourselves as XR when offering support or not. The general consensus is that doing so may result in some people accusing the movement of hijacking the crisis to further its political ends and so many rebels are integrating into what are called mutual aid groups, that are made up of community activists from different backgrounds and are established on the basis of location. The North London borough of Haringey for example, where I live, has Whatsapp groups for each ward and they are sub-divided into areas covering smaller blocks, each with its own Whatsapp group. Each street is then assigned a representative whose responsibility is to find out who is in isolation and what kind of support they need, which they then feed back to the group so that volunteers can be organised to respond.
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Because the spread of the contagion could continue through spring and into summer and because the climate and ecological emergency is still the biggest threat humankind has ever faced, the Rebellion is moving online.
Because the spread of the contagion could continue through spring and into summer and because the climate and ecological emergency is still the biggest threat humankind has ever faced, the Rebellion is moving online. Many local groups are swapping their regular meetings for Zoom conference calls in order to keep working and they are communicating through online platforms – Whatsapp, Mattermost, Telegram, Signal, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Basecamp – thinking of new ideas to cause creative disruption online and reach non-rebels with ideas and information.
These online platforms do have their own challenges though. While messaging apps allow people to communicate across distances and rapidly organise into groups, they are inappropriate for sensitive debates or resolving conflict. Because of the constant flow of incoming messages from so many people, it is easy for individual points to become lost and for people to feel ignored. Also, members in the group discuss a wide range of issues and there may be several such discussions occurring simultaneously, which fragment around each other because the reader can only scroll through messages chronologically. And although there is no character limit on messaging apps like Whatsapp or Mattermost, their format encourages short messages, especially if someone is writing on a mobile phone. This then encourages people to simplify their arguments and leave out nuances or caveats that in a verbal face-to-face discussion, with less time pressure to submit their messages into the ever-flowing deluge, they could include.
Extinction Rebellion was formed in response to a global crisis that endangers life. This is what we do. We work together, building networks of support between communities so we are stronger in the face of external threats
Even before the pandemic, the volume of communication channels was excessive for some people. It causes stress and anxiety through trying to keep up with incoming messages. People feel they can never clock off because there is always a conversation happening somewhere and a sense of urgency propels them to work beyond a sustainable limit. With many businesses closing and laying off workers and the likelihood of many of us self-isolating increasing, it’s important to maintain a healthy level of engagement with online activism, focusing on positive, creative work and keeping a distance from the black hole of 24-hour news updates.
Extinction Rebellion was formed in response to a global crisis that endangers life. This is what we do. We work together, building networks of support between communities so we are stronger in the face of external threats, be that pandemics, flooding, food shortages, or whatever else the climate crisis decides to throw at us. Through austerity, the UK government has weakened our society’s ability to withstand such threats and it is up to us to protect ourselves. I don’t believe that this current crisis will bring down civilisation but it does show us what the first steps of societal breakdown look like. Climate change is not a singular threat, it is the theatre in which pandemics, floods, fires and storms take to the stage. We cannot return to business as usual. We must use this disruption to show that another way of living is possible and that if we continue to allow the Earth to heat up, we will find that crises such as this will become frequent and severe enough to tip us over the edge.
Danny Halpin is a reporter for Extinction Rebellion’s Rebel Radio and is studying for his MA in journalism at Birkbeck, University of London. His work has featured in the Journal of Popular Music Education, Lippy Magazine and his website: dannyhalpin.com