Extinction Rebellion: The New Counterculture?
Extinction Rebellion (XR): you may know them through news articles about people glueing themselves to streets and buildings, blocking bridges, dropping boats in the middle of cities (here and here), even people exposing themselves in parliament and shops. It is an environmental-social justice movement evolved from the likes of Occupy only more pagan, glitter-bee and “burner”-esq.
As one of many existing movements currently rocking the boat*, XR has made tidal waves on how we talk about and understand the climate and ecological crisis. They have stood by their non-violent (creative) direct actions in the two years since its conception. But XR is so much more than just protests, roadblocks and flashy eye-catching new articles, XR is the new counterculture revolution of our generation and here’s why.
I join XR in the summer of 2019, the peak of the honeymoon period. That spring a pink boat had just landed in the middle of Oxford Circus, and the world was gushing about these new-age hippies on the streets spreading the word of love and change.
My induction started at a Round Chapel with chairs outlined into a circle. Around me were people from all walks of life — teachers, parents, scientists, freelancers, artists… and we all came for the same reason: “I want to do something about climate change”, that was my answer and one that echoed across the room.
I was naive as to what activism really was. Week after week I would turn up at local meetings, waiting for someone to give me a job, waiting to be told what to do and trying desperately to understand how things were being organised. It took me over a month to realise there was technically no one in charge. Not only could I volunteer to do work, but people were hungry for it. There was also no one to validate anything I did. I felt nervous but empowered once it dawned on me that I was part of a giant social experiment of something that had never been achieved before. This was so far removed from any upbringing I’d had in mainstream society — I came from a “chalk and talk” education system and corporate hierarchical background. I was paid to do what I was told to and most decisions needed approval by someone of “authority”.
I threw myself into the task of making spreadsheets, creating and coordinating WhatsApp groups. I spent hours talking about what “regenerative culture” meant, learning facilitation skills, attending training and workshops, understanding self-organising systems, partaking in grief circles and processing all the emotions that inevitably comes from the realisation that humankind is destroying the natural world (and themselves). But none of this, at the time, still seemed very radical to me. It just seemed like the right thing to do.
Everything changed in October 2019. My first rebellion. All the glitter and ideas I had about “wellbeing tents” (for yoga/meditation workshops) and engaging “stalls” all crashed into the reality of a week-long wash-out. Hundreds, if not thousands, of activists, slept out in tents in the rain. Marquees were soaked and police aggressively sectioned and arrested over a thousand rebels. Little did I know that these actions would be what would forge trust, friendship and community in the months to come.
Extinction Rebellion is not an organisation, there’s no “membership” per se. Sure you can attend an “induction”, but you decide when you call yourself a rebel. Local agreements, which help steer decentralised autonomous local groups, could all be thrown in the bin — as long as you followed the 10 principles and values.
Underneath all of this though, under the informal formalities of jazzy hand signals and how to self organise together, there grows a mycelium network of eco-like-minded progressive conscientious people, being woven together into a counterculture revolution.
The more time I spent thinking about the climate and ecological crisis the more I realised the way I personally lived was in direct violation of the issues I was trying to help solve. So when I looked toward my fellow rebel peers for inspiration to address this dissonance, I unravelled parcel after parcel of gifts to alternative ways of living. My life became a series of self-experiments, many of which aligned already to my curiosity and values such as: attempting to go plastic-free, zero-waste, vegan, rewilding, permaculture… to the more abstruse Deep Adaptation, urban dumpster diving, caravan living, spiritually liberating, consciousness exploration… and more!
I slowly understood that once you understand the depth of the pit that we dug ourselves in, you start realising you need to relinquish any holding or hope you may have that the normative values, in which our western society lives by, will save us. You surrender to the fresh breath of exciting, hopeful possibilities in ways to live with resonance and authenticity.
In and amongst all of this, communities are forming and a different way of collaboration and communication is evolving.
In the way that Silicon Valley reorganised itself as the tech hub of the world, bringing together great minds to innovate and change the landscape of our social consciousness, I propose so does XR as the hub of a new Sociocratic and Regenerative Culture.
The movement is a buzzing hive, thousands upon thousands of people connected into a network of mutual trust, mutual aid, open-source knowledge and skill sharing. By way of putting it into perspective, I could send a WhatsApp message to someone and end up with potentially a bed to sleep in, a hot meal and an invitation to an event or a bucket of glue and posters (for some radical fly postering) within a couple of hours. Few Rebels are ever homeless, even if they have given up their complete livelihood to the cause (I personally know of doctors, teachers, lawyers, scientists who have all done so and are now living under the hospitality of others). Resources are generously shared, from food to clothing… where Covid Mutual Aid groups failed, XR has succeeded in building non-hierarchical communities of trust and solidarity across the country.
I must be clear here — in no way is the mass that is the XR organism perfect. It’s no surprise that large conflicts have arisen within the movement surrounding what types of radical actions should be conducted under the XR banner. Mistakes have been made, and factions have been drawn. But the people are open to (painfully) learning new ways to be, and these lessons are slowly permeating into the collective consciousness.
In no other time on this planet has humankind been more connected. In no other time has our species had to face up to such an existential threat, created by ourselves. The counterculture revolution has begun. XR is now a mass of moving people who’ve learnt over the past two years how to be courageous in the face of fear. How to act when governments and institutions impose a set of beliefs that isn’t congruent with the love and connection humans need to live and thrive in. It is creating a regenerative culture to which we are all invited, one that encourages you to connect with the natural world, to see yourself as part of nature, and to embrace the fear and uncertainty of what is to come.
We are at a point of evolution now, the 2020 manifesto to become a “movement of movements” is well underway and with it brings even more diversity, cultures and ways of being. Together, activists across all spectrums (from BLM to #MeToo) are carving the path forward to turn the tide of an injust and toxic system.
I, like many on this path, no longer feel alone in this world. We have genuine companions wherever we travel, people with values of honesty, compassion, playfulness and an enduring mindset of positive change.
In XR no one holds your hand when you stand up for what's right. You must draw deep within yourself the audacity to act according to your own moral compass. But you are surrounded by the beautiful songs of others on this journey.
The counterculture revolution is now underway, an embodiment of equality, justice, love, connection and sustainability… are you with us?
Like art, revolutions come from combining what exists into what has never existed before. — Gloria Stienman
*I acknowledge the work that many activists are doing in multiple movements and across the intersectionality of Global Justice, but have the most direct experience with XR. Additionally, regenerative culture is not an XR creation, rather I see XR as a vessel in which radical fringe ideas and restorative indigenous wisdom are being reconnected to us and our society.