Some thoughts on watching Roger Hallam’s Youtube video, We’ve Already Won

You can see the original here.

Roger Hallam is a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion (XR) and a prime architect of the design strategy.  I don’t advocate servile following of what another has said. But for those of us in Canada who’ve taken up the torch of Extinction Rebellion, in order to understand whatever XR means, we need to look at what they’ve done that’s worked so well.

Most people will have heard of XR from the April actions in London and the UK. If we want to change their  model or update it, we can. But we might as well do that consciously and intentionally, if only so people who are drawn into  the proto-movement know what we’re about. And of course it helps us know what we’re about too.

Here I want to point to some of what Roger  says about what that strategy is. I’m only taking a slice of what he’s saying here about that strategy. We can use what he puts forward, at the very least as something to make our own.

I’ve not found it easy to find ways to talk widely about the national, provincial or local strategy and how it might differ or be the same as the UKs. Please feel free to point me to factors I’m missing. I have much less involvement than many on the XR-Canada Mattermost site and I’m not a member of the steering committee of my local group, in Ottawa. Nonetheless a few things jump out at me for reflection.

I see XR in the UK as having a clear focus on the three demands.  

  1. Tell the truth
  2. Reduce carbon to net zero by 2015
  3. Create  a Citizen’s Assembly, chosen by lot, that has power to oversee changes.

Roger celebrates being as ambitious as you can and then multiplying it by five. Fortune favours the brave.

He says to go for creating a crisis by escalating actions that involve mass citizen arrests. Crucially the strategy to engage citizens is to focus on climate change and survival. The reason is that everyone can relate to survival. It is not a partisan issue. All other issues that are not related to climate change survival are secondary. If we’re not on a survival track, they won’t matter. People will not unite around secondary issues. Roger uses an example that people won’t unite around wearing red hats. As one Canadian example, there’s a push in some XR groups to make the struggle against policies of Ontario premier, Rob Ford, an XR initiative. Yet clearly many people voted for him and support the spirit of his policies. XR alienates them when it goes after Ford instead of the three demands. It alienates another group with each partisan issue.

Rob Ford is only one of many concerns that distract us from the focus we need to win. However much or most of XR’s energy is devoted to these secondary issues. The three demands are seldom the focus.

The practical application of this strategy is to ramp up and go for the three demands first. Roger seems to suggest going for the biggest demand possible and, when compromises must be struck before we’re  all the way there, take a secondary gain that is on the way. This will be seen as a win. But even here, if I understand him correctly the  secondary  gains are steps to the primary  ones (a partial carbon commitment, for example), not tangential to it, which I think is the case with Rob Ford.

In my view, XR Canada hasn’t made the primary decision to focus on the primary demands but are instead focusing on numerous secondary issues. Participants and non-participants alike are divided in their sense of what we are doing.

The lack of clarity on what comes first sets XR-Canada up for failure. The rally cry to unite around clear XR demands is quickly followed by a chorus recommending numerous other worthy actions. It’s very understandable  that we should think this way. It’s hard to make room for the radicality of our situation and what needs to happen now. We have strong loyalties to existing struggles and it’s natural  to want to bring them along. To use the loyalty language (and loyalty is a primary determinant of how people choose), the XR-UK strategy calls for us be loyal to our  need to survive and to put that first.

A second main challenge is closely related to the first and is again related to loyalty. How do we work together in a vast nation like ours? How do we work together when a national action (in the view of XR-UK) has to centre around the capital city, yet people in the regions don’t yet trust each other or the people in Ottawa for the simple reason they don’t know them? This very human problem – our ability to get to know and trust each other and the collective intelligence that we build together – will likely be decisive.  Hallam points out that the subversive value of human contact is not politically insignificant.

While he wasn’t speaking only of the connectivity between activists, it may well be that success will come as a side-effect of the human connectivity  we build. I don’t think it can come without it.