Why is XR so white?


It’s been an historic week for the environmental movement in the UK; Extinction Rebellion (XR) has very much arrived. I’ve witnessed it, participated a bit and been impressed with many facets of it.

I’ve also been thinking about why it’s predominantly populated by people like me - I’m white, middle classed and relatively privileged.

I think it might be something to do with a gap in the narrative. This gap can and should be addressed. Doing so might help build the supporter base XR now needs.

I’d noticed Jason Hickel hasn’t been tweeting about Extinction Rebellion (XR) ... and have been wondering why. We’d have to ask him, but I suspect it could be that XR isn’t doing a great job on climate justice*. Not yet anyway.

Climate change is impacting the global south hardest. This is going to continue to be the case and not just because of geography. When a climate change event hits a poor nation, or poor region within a rich nation (think Hurricane Katrina), the impact is more devastating and the recovery takes a long long time.

In so many countries, poverty is the direct result of the workings of institutions like the IMF and the World Bank. Their policies have the effect of keeping poor countries poor; global economic structures are deliberately designed in this way (or at least conveniently left that way). This happens simply because it suits richer nations (and there the ones that have the most power within institutions like the World Bank). The UK Government is, of course, very complicit in this. It is a process of manufacturing and sustaining global economic inequality.

While countries remain poor (are kept poor) they lack the resources they need to invest in clean energy, transport and food systems - to help the global GHG reduction effort. Not good for any of us.

Even more urgently, they lack the resources they need to invest in disaster risk reduction and recovery. AND they struggle to scale up even quite simple strategies to enable them to adapt to the everyday impacts of climate change.

Because all of the above tasks cost money (money that just isn’t in the coffers of national governments) the only option is to rely on aid and charity. We are doing our best to raise the funds (I’m Co-Director of The Glacier Trust; we enable climate change adaptation in Nepal), but the funding available is nowhere near sufficient, as NGOs we just can’t raise the amounts required, not even close.

Bluntly speaking, the UK trying (and likely failing) to hit net zero by 2025 (a core XR demand) is not going to do much to help Nepal and hundreds of other poor countries - not while they’re still under the opaque neo-colonial rule of the World Bank and IMF.

XR could be calling on the UK Government to lobby and advocate for major reform of the IMF and the World Bank. This could be a fourth demand. Such reforms could dramatically improve the chances of the millions (soon to be billions) of people living on the front line of climate change.

It is not really acceptable to use the plight of poor and marginalised people as a campaigning tactic to pursue XR’s three demands. Not unless you also tell the truth about the structural causes of poverty and demand that they are addressed.

Including a fourth demand on the above might just help XR do what it needs to do next - build its supporter base. It should be part of the narrative.

There are numerous other possible reasons for XR’s disproportionate whiteness, so filling this gap in the narrative, won’t improve diversity at XR by itself, but it might help a bit.

*It might also have something to do with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, but that’s a whole other blog post. I’m be fascinated to hear from Jason on XR.

Morgan PhillipsComment