Today I did something ‘illegal’ for the first time. I joined an Extinction Rebellion NL action in Amsterdam called swarming. With small groups of people we blocked traffic roads in the city. Our message? “We’re sorry for the inconvenience. But as a society we have to take real climate action NOW to ensure a future for life on earth.”
Each block only lasted 7 minutes so people in cars where only a little delayed. We counted down with time signs and went to people with cookies and flyers. The reactions where off course mixed. Quite a lot of people we’re enthusiastic and actually cheered us on. Some people where surprised but friendly and open for a talk. I loved talking to these people and listening to their stories. And no matter what their beliefs or situation, they all agreed that we need a different economic system. This goes beyond green consumerism and electric cars. Extinction Rebellion (XR) wants to create sustainable economic and social structures that work for everyone.
Some people where mad because of the delay the roadblock caused. Often they didn’t want to talk to us so we respected their space and acknowledged their anger internally. When they did want to talk we listened to them and validated their experience. “I can see that you’re angry, because you’re busy and have to go to….” This way of responding is based on non-violent communication and helps people to safely express their emotions. Sometimes after this they where open for a conversation and we told them why we we’re doing this.
This action was my first real life experience with Extinction Rebellion and I LOVED it. I followed the actions of this international grassroots movement in London the past 10 days and was very impressed by what they achieved. Finally a non-violent movement is rising up in ’the heart of capitalism’ that expresses the urgency of the ecological crisis we’re facing. A movement that is rebellious, creative and attracts media attention with relatively small numbers of protesters. That shows we can do things outside of the beaten tracks and current rules. Which is also what real solutions to the climate crisis will ask of all of us. And the XR movement has a way forward based on a zero-carbon economy and participatory democracy.
Still beforehand I was a little nervous to join an XR action in the Netherlands. I’ve organized demonstrations, but I’ve never been involved in a civil disobedience action before and also never been arrested. I always thought I was not that kind of activist. But it turns out I am. That is, within a movement that has non-violence, safety, respect, wellbeing and love as it’s basis.
At the briefing this morning it was immediately clear that the XR movement has made wellbeing a priority. They are a very friendly, open, honest and loving group of people. There is wellbeing build into the structure of the movement and actions, from different roles and buddy systems to wellbeing coordinators. But it’s also an energy that all participants have within them. Everyone looks out for everyone. And there is room to express emotions. People genuinely check up and ask how you feel. The overall energy is one of joy and laughter AND you can share it when you are tired, sad or angry. It’s all welcome and it’s being met with love and care (what do you need right now?). If something comes up in days after the action, you can still share it with your buddy or coordinator.
In this way the group creates room for authentic expression and connection. It also carries the burden of climate grief and depression together. Because the realization that we’re facing the extinction of most lifeforms on the planet, including our own, is a huge thing to face. And something that only the younger generations seem to truly grasp. I’ve struggled with this for about 5 years now. Pending between panic, anger, grief and resignation to the inevitable. I learned how to express my ecological concerns without getting mad at people. But I never met a large group of peers that deeply shared my feelings. And therefore I almost lost the conviction that we can still truly change something now. Sure I focus in my work on ecological awareness and positive solutions. But honestly internally I’ve been preparing for a total collapse of society. Today I experienced that by carrying the emotions of the ecological crisis together, we can make room for hope and take action to turn to tides. We can still do things to avoid a total ecological and societal collapse and it’s our duty to at least try this. We can honestly tell people about the huge dangers we’re facing AND offer a positive and inclusive way forward.
The spirit of wellbeing is also embedded in the way XR reacts to bystanders and people affected by actions. These people are not seen as ‘the enemy’. There is no us vs. them. There is a deep realization that we all live in a toxic system. And that we need to change the system itself. Off course these actions can create inconvenience and trigger emotions in bystanders. But they are met with genuine attention and love and an invitation to people to share how they feel. It’s obviously a challenge to do this with people who are angry or (verbally) aggressive towards you. But the XR movement makes good use of the insight of non-violent communication. The basis of this is emphatic listening, emphatic expression and staying in contact with yourself. This way of communication might be one of the key solutions to the problems of humanity. So many people on this planet are not heard or validated in their deeper emotions and experiences and become angry or violent because of this. Like Naomi Klein once said, climate change is not just about ecological devastation. It’s also about how we treat each other in these major collapses. The XR movement shows a way forward that includes everyone while still taking action based on strong moral principles.
Because of the principles of non-violence and the focus on wellbeing Extinction Rebellion has been called a protest movement in the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. I believe an inclusive climate movement (and there is still work to be done to make XR this) does carry forward the work of the big activist movements of the past. True solutions to the ecological crisis also change the capitalist, racist, sexist, (neo)colonial, classist and other oppressive structures of the system we live in. Within XR there is definitely work to be done to make sure the movement also involves people of color, people from different educational backgrounds and representatives from the Global South. By making this a priority and working together with existing groups (who don’t all have the privilege of risking arrests) we can realize collective solutions to the climate crisis that will turn the tides on this planet for good.
So yes count me in. I’m now a REBEL FOR LIFE.
This action was just one of the actions of XR Netherlands. Make sure to check out all of them and look for experiences of people with a longer trackrecord in this movement. I’m looking forward to joining more Extinction Rebellion actions. And developing more concrete idea’s together about what a zero-carbon, fair, post-capitalist society looks like and how we can get there.