It’s easy to criticize those who take action. Yet, when all possible courses of action seem tainted, taking the moral highroad often leads to inaction in the face of injustice. For this reason, I have long been wary of publicly criticizing those with whose politics I broadly agree, lest I corner myself into inaction. But each rule, I suppose, has its exception.

In late 2019, at an Extinction Rebellion (XR) event in downtown Vancouver, I recall one of the coordinators saying something over the megaphone along the lines of, “everyone say thank you to the police that are here today. Without them this event would not be possible. We love you.” Were they pressed to explain themselves, I imagine that the speaker of this phrase would explain that they were simply flaunting their radical love in the face of the polices’ callous formality. However, I believe such statements are indicative of a deeper issue, and which I did not grasp until later: that the guiding philosophy behind XR, perhaps the most discussed climate activism movement in an era where climate activism is desperately needed, and one which prides itself on its core tenet of non-violence, has a rather poor grasp on what violence actually is. 

To explain what I mean, I will summarize what XR is and what are generally agreed to be its shortcomings. Then I will review some definitions of violence (and a form of it called structural violence in particular), and then see how they all fit. 

What is Extinction Rebellion?

Founded in the U.K. in 2018, XR is a decentralized movement that has since spread to every continent, although the vast majority of its estimated 175,000 active participants reside in the Western world. In this context, decentralized means that any group of individuals that act in accordance with XR’s guiding philosophy can call themselves XR; they do not need to seek permission. Foundational to XR’s philosophy are the evidentially supported beliefs that climate change is an urgent issue which needs to be acted upon immediately and that state governments are not doing nearly enough. Therefore, it’s up to individuals and organizations unaffiliated with state governments to take action and the changes we need to make are radical, encompassing everything from culture to food production. All of which I agree with, by the way, and for which reasons I originally joined XR.

Although XR is a collection of hundreds of groups without a central authority, they all share the same guiding philosophy, strategies, and tactics, as established by their U.K. founders. These are impressively comprehensive, describing how the world is, how the world can be changed, and how the world ought to be changed, even down to what meetings should look like and what sort of hand signals should be used. 

Much of what XR’s guiding philosophy says about how the world can be changed is based upon a 2011 book-length study by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, titled Why Civil Resistance Works. In it, Chenoweth and Stephan survey data on 323 violent and non-violent civil disobedience campaigns from the 20th century and compare their success rates. They come to the conclusion that the non-violent ones are “more than twice as effective” as violent ones. Based on the conclusions of this study, XR positions itself as firmly non-violent and also aims to mobilize 3.5% of the population of any one country within which it operates, which Chenoweth & Stephan identify as the ‘magic number’ for a successful campaign. 

However, contrary to non-violent liberation movements such as the Civil Rights and Indian Independence movements — two movements to which XR groups are universally fond of comparing themselves — XR’s signature strategy is mass arrest: participants try to get themselves arrested in a public way, so as to overwhelm prison systems and thus force governments to listen to their demands

What are XR’s shortcomings?

A standard criticism of XR is their failure to address how the risks associated with getting oneself arrested are far greater for people of colour, working-class folks, and other socially marginalized groups. Others also point to how XR groups seem averse to learning from the decades of experience that BIPOC activism groups have accumulated, as well as to XR’s emphasis on scientific research over the lived experiences of those directly affected by climate change. Attempts at responding to these criticisms have often resulted in XR spokespeople digging themselves a deeper hole, such as one recommendation by XR co-founder Roger Hallam that working class people and people of colour form their own XR groups rather than try to attain proper representation within existing groups.

Furthermore, while their own estimation of 175,000 active participants may sound high, it still falls far short of their goal of mobilizing 3.5% of the population, any way you cut it. Considering some of the public reactions to their protests, it is possible that their lack of appeal to working class people (who are also more likely to be people of colour) is a major contributor to this. While it is true that the movement is only three years old, a review of news articles covering their actions suggests no major increase in turn-out over the last two years, at least not in the UK and Canada. 

Another major stream of criticism targets fallacies within XR’s foundational social science  (Chenoweth & Stephan’s 2011 study) and within their frequent analogies between themselves and the Civil Rights and Indian Independence movements. U.K. journalist Nafeez Ahmed does a brilliant job of illuminating both these points. The flaws Ahmed points out in Chenoweth & Stephan’s study are numerous, but the major ones are:

1. That the data is quite heavily massaged, with all 323 campaigns reduced to either strictly violent or strictly non-violent in spite of many being a complex mixture of both. This includes some that featured violent tactics being categorized as non-violent, such as the anti-apartheid movement. Ahmed attributes this to a white-washing of history, in which deeper cultural contexts that are not understood by the authors are simply omitted

2. That the majority of these campaigns operated in a non-Western, non-democratic context, and aimed for regime change rather than a comprehensive restructuring of culture, economy, and society

3. Maria Stephan is a strategic planner for the U.S. Department of State, and the conclusion of the book explicitly states that these takeaways are useful for foreign interventions, of the sort that the U.S. has been avidly involved in for over two centuries, and which have resulted in immeasurable brutality. While it may seem like shifting to non-violent foreign interventions may be a nice improvement, U.S. foreign interventions typically result in empowering brutal governments or groups, and so the term is essentially an oxymoron.

This Western-centred, government-centred bias of Why Civil Resistance Works (2011) has a direct effect on XR’s strategies, above all by convincing them that a homogenous strategy of non-violence is scientifically guaranteed to succeed – when even their beloved Civil Rights and Indian Independence movements both had their fair share of violent means.

Between XR and the Civil Rights and Indian Independence movements, Ahmed (and other critics) points out these additional differences

1. Neither XR’s participants nor the people that XR is most immediately trying to recruit are the same as the people that are currently and directly victimized by the systems that they wish to change (such as the 25 million people internally displaced by climatic events globally in 2019 alone)

2. XR action’s, which within Canada and the UK often involve blockading traffic in urban areas and confronting police officers, are not directly targeted towards the main perpetrators of the injustices they wish to resolve, and nor are they at the geographical focal points of these injustices.

3. XR is not founded upon decades of grassroots organizing and community building, processes which were crucial for building public support and trust in the Civil Rights and Indian Independence movements.

I believe that the reason that these three differences are so undermining to XR’s strategy can be illuminated by an in-depth look at definitions of violence and structural violence.

What is violence and what is structural violence?

The founder of peace and conflict studies Johan Galtung defines violence as, “the cause of the difference between the potential and the actual.” In other words, to exert violence upon someone is to rob them of their full potential. Structural violence, he claims, is a form of violence wherein the perpetrator is obscured, and when the violence perpetuates a particular dynamic of social relations (i.e. racism, sexism, classism). 

Conversely, anthropologist David Graeber argues that structural violence should be defined not by its outcomes (systemic inequality) but by its mechanisms (the ever-present threat of direct violence). Nonetheless, these two definitions complement each other quite powerfully. According to Graeber, structural violence is the ever-present threat of direct violence — a threat typically made by the state, which in the modern era claims a monopoly on violence and threats of violence — that perpetuates systemic inequalities and property rights. Graeber claims that many of us are so accustomed to avoiding structural violence that we forget that the threat of direct violence is constantly there. Even seemingly mundane violations such as taking out a library book without a library card or driving without a license plate will, if persisted, result in police officers arriving and either threatening or committing direct violence. 

Borrowing directly from feminists such as bell hooks and Nancy Hartsock, Graeber claims that violence is unique in that it is the only way to get someone to do something without having to learn anything about them. All other means require some degree of “imaginative labour”: making an effort to see things from their perspective. As such, violence — and structural violence in particular — breeds ignorance, and lopsided relations of imaginative labour. To avoid transgressions that would cause structural violence to manifest into direct violence, members of marginalized groups are required to engage in imaginative labour far more than members of dominant groups. As a result, generally speaking, women understand men better than vice versa, people of colour understand white people better than vice versa, the poor understand the rich better than vice versa, and so on.

How do these all fit together?

Structural violence is everywhere and directs how we all go about our lives. However, as its very purpose is to maintain systemic inequalities and uphold property rights, it does not affect all of us equally. When members of more marginalized groups — such as people of colour — bestow political power upon themselves by challenging the social order, there is a greater gap between how much power they have and how much the powers that be believe they ought to have, and so the “correcting” response is greater.

The same is true not only of marginalized groups in Western liberal countries, but also of people living in countries where the vast majority are not believed to be entitled to political power at all by the powers that be. This is even acknowledged on XR UK’s website, where they say: “We stand in solidarity with those whom [sic] have no such privilege to protect them and therefore must protect themselves through violent means […]”.

The status quo is protected by violence, and challenging it will inevitably manifest structural violence into direct violence. The activists of the Civil Rights and Indian Independence movements were quite aware of this, and knew that large, non-violent demonstrations, directed towards the perpetrators of injustice and at the geographical focal points of injustice, would make it more difficult for the powers that be to continue exerting direct violence without sparking public outrage. Furthermore, they knew that these types actions would also inspire those who are absolutely fed up with structural violence to join them, as they provided an immediate (albeit perhaps temporary) sense of liberation from structural violence. Crucially, at least in the Civil Rights context, organizers chose highly visible, non-violent means primarily in those places where state violence was most repressive, and utilized other means elsewhere. Using non-violent means in a visibly repressive political context highlighted the injustice of the situation and brought more sympathy to their cause.

I believe that the reasons that the same tactics do not work for XR are: firstly, because the majority of people of the Global North do not perceive climate change as introducing violence into their lives in the same imminent and daily way as systemic racism did for African-Americans pre-1960s nor for Indians pre-1940s; secondly, because XR’s events are neither targeted at the main perpetrators of ecological injustice nor located at the main focal points of ecological injustice; thirdly, because the XR movement is not repressed by the police nearly to the same degree as those other movements; and, lastly, because XR uses mass arrests – essentially a way of inviting both direct and intensified structural violence upon oneself – as a main tactic.

The historical record suggests that, when a person decides whether or not to get politically involved and accept the associated risks, the imminence and tangibility of structural violence in that person’s everyday life is a major factor. Fighting for the clean air and drinking water of the next seven generations is undoubtedly important, but it is much harder to convince people to expose themselves to the brutality of structural violence – especially through the violence of voluntarily arrest – for these things when, at present, their distant absence is not perceived as introducing imminent, tangible violence into their daily lives.

In the words of Civil Rights activist Barbara Phillips: “When I marched with my father that day [to memorialize Dr. King’s recent assassination] […] the entire street was lined with soldiers […] with bayonets affixed to their rifles. Who were the bayonets for? My father and me? In our own country? That inspired me to continue to be involved in the struggle.”

Furthermore, the idea of imaginative labour provides a convincing explanation for why, in spite of years of criticisms, the predominantly white and well-educated XR is still having such a hard time accommodating the needs of both BIPOC and working class folks. It also provides a potential explanation for how they can paradoxically maintain both that non-violence is a privilege and that what is needed is a global, non-violent revolution.

What can be done?

It is quite possible that, in the Global North, mass mobilization against climate change is not currently possible, as most people do not seem to perceive it as introducing a sufficient degree of violence into their daily lives to warrant political action. Certainly, mass mobilization in the form of mass arrests, for those who are already struggling with the effects of structural violence in their daily lives, is impossible.

Fortunately, there are many climate activist groups (indeed, most of them) that do not rely on a strategy of mass mobilization, nor on provoking police violence. Powerful local examples here on the Northwest Coast include Braided Warriors, the Unist’ot’en Campaign, the Fairy Creek Blockade, and Protect the Planet Stop TMX. In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

As the concepts of structural violence and imaginative labour suggest, operating under a delusional framework of reality is the privilege of those in power. If one doesn’t have much political power and wants to change some aspect of the world — and not just get themselves to feel as though they are effecting change — then one has to start with an honest account of what the world looks like. Although Extinction Rebellion is full of many passionate and caring individuals, and has inspired some much-needed public conversations on the climate crisis, there is still much room for improvement. Structural violence is real. Any environmental movement that acts otherwise is, in my opinion, not only destined to fail, but also runs the risk of unduly endangering those who are most affected by structural violence. 

Vlad Krakov

Vlad was born in Israel to a Russian-Jewish family and raised in Vancouver, B.C. He graduated from UBC with a B.A. in Anthropology Honours in 2020. His main points of interests are climate justice, socio-economic...