A magazine for the climate emergency

Go Big or Go Home: What’s at Stake With XR UK’s Big One?

10 min read

The climate movement in the global north is witnessing a fundamental transformation. After some difficult and complicated years following 2019’s highs and 2020’s lows, it looks like the effort against ecocide is finding the new shape it needs. And XR UK’s upcoming ‘Big One’, beginning on the 21st of April, could be a defining moment in this change.

The Limits of Awareness?

To many, recent history has a depressingly familiar shape. In 2019 a surge of new movements and energy – foremost XR, Fridays for Future and the Sunrise Movement – dislodged something important in the western climate conversation, and made rapid gains. We moved from ‘climate change’ to ‘climate crisis’. Government policies began to move in something like the right direction. 

And then – we lost momentum.

Sunrise’s tactical repertoire is running up against hard limits

This slowdown had all kinds of causes: Covid, Ukraine, a concerted backlash from authoritarians and billionaires. But the underlying truth might be that we had reached the limits of that phase and form of struggle. 

The 2019 wave had plenty of ambition, but quickly found its best success in ‘sounding the alarm’. Where other aims (in XR’s case: strident upgrades to net-zero targets, and the serious uptake of citizens’ assemblies) proved difficult to push on, awareness-raising was euphorically doable. Media coverage of our actions was elided easily into coverage of our dire motivations. ‘Coverage’ became increasingly enshrined as our measure of success – or even as success in itself. 

Artist’s impression of a relevant YouGov poll

But without a deeper basis, this model was always going to hit a moment where gains in ‘awareness’ dwindled, and press attention faltered. As two compassionate American commentators observed, in 2021, “Sunrise’s tactical repertoire is running up against hard limits”; the same was evidently true of XR and FFF. 

In 2023, awareness seems about as raised as it’s going to get. We’ve got enough greenwashing to repaint the Sahara, we’ve got mediocre prestige dramas all about how awful climate change could be, we’ve got rainforests worth of surveys about how most people are worried and want way more climate action. 

Perhaps way back in the good old days of twenty years ago we might have managed to believe that this ‘first’ phase would be sufficient. It’s harder to be naïve about power now: there are people holding reins, and they not only ‘would consider’ but are literally in the process of committing mass murder in order to preserve their status. 

Where do we go next?

Our current phase – applicable since 2021 – is less a question of information than action, and it demands a different toolkit. Intermittent bids for publicity were pretty much exactly what was needed back in 2019’s ‘sound the alarm’ phase, because press coverage was a real strategic victory in its own right; but in 2023, that’s no longer the case. 

What do we need now? It seems to Raveller that basically everyone agrees: we need to figure out a way of cranking up the pressure on our governments and other ecocidal institutions, such that we’re not just asking but essentially forcing them to change their policies. This will almost certainly, sooner or later, require the participation of much larger numbers of people than we’ve seen so far. 

The image of the climate activist as an elite zealot with daring aesthetic preferences might possibly have been useful, or at least not-fatal, in past paradigms where an outrageous fringe might gain as much ‘awareness’ as a streetload of quieter types. But going toe-to-toe with institutional goliaths needs a lot more depth than that. 

For most of 2022, we’ve seen fierce debates inside the ecological movement on whether and how to gain this depth. There hasn’t been any sort of decisive resolution to these discussions – but there doesn’t need to be. Sometimes the best answers emerge organically: the climate movement’s pivot is already well underway. 

A Global Sweep

Lützerath was one of the western climate movement’s most exciting recent moments. Tens of thousands of people captured the imagination of the German public in a heroic stand against the destructive avarice of a coal mining company. 

But what made this moment so special? Other stands have happened: Ende Gelande does something like it every year. 

The climate movement’s pivot is already well underway

In this raveller’s analysis, one of the main reasons that Lützerath was so successful was precisely in the fact that it was not just engineered by Ende Gelande, or any other single movement, but was a coalition drawing from a broad range of the change-making spectrum. In the words of one commentator:  

“One key conclusion from the Lützerath action is that the more moderate and the more radical groups united behind the issue. Thunberg and Neubauer obviously felt comfortable alongside the masked activists of the more radical groups.” 

All you word-nerds and theologians out there might enjoy thinking of this developing trend as syncretic, ecumenical or even irenic. Our movement is far from the first to face these challenges of unity and scale.

Lützerath may well have been eye-catching, but it was just the tip of the iceberg. On a global level, we’ve seen growing numbers of org-agnostic, issue-led campaigns unfurling increasingly broad banners: from Scientist Rebellion mobilising in the thousands, Make Them Pay taking on private jets, to Stop EACOP and far beyond. 

In France, birthplace of the ‘convergence des luttes’ (convergence of the struggles), eco-types were seeing XR / Gilets Jaunes crossovers back in 2019, to say nothing of the present inter-cause upheavals which found Lützeratic scale in last month’s Battle of the Bassines

It’s difficult to convey both the scale and, again, the social depth of March’s Battle in rural France: farmers in tractors forming the advance-guard for a host of tens of thousands bearing standards of all stripes – including the Extinction symbol

In North America, indigenous-led coalitions go back years; more recently both Black Lives Matter and Sunrise have been converging on the vital (and inherently localised) problem of environmental racism

And an Australian researcher paints a similarly multipolar picture, setting XR and School Strike in what’s becoming a much fuller context: “These actions put climate change onto the public agenda by generating widespread media attention. But they represent just a fraction of environmental movement activities.” 

Thriving Grassroots 

As this last take suggests, all of these exciting international convergences are probably themselves just more tips of more icebergs. The deeper changes are generally too slow and subtle to make the news – but from a first-hand perspective in Scotland and Edinburgh, this raveller has been witnessing a quiet explosion of climate organising, growing underneath the news-cycle’s awareness like tree-roots beneath an unsuspecting pavement.

Where Extinction Rebellion once felt something like ‘the only game in town’, now there’s a dizzying array of climate groups at large. The usual suspects all have some degree of representation: XR, FFF, JSO, FoE, Greenpeace, the Greens, sure. 

There isn’t, at the time of writing, a Climate Emergency Centre in Edinburgh; but with snazzy visuals like this it’s surely a matter of time.

More interesting, in this raveller’s opinion, are the younger and more specialised outfits: on the more ‘activist’ side it’s Stop Rosebank, Youth in Resistance, a resurgent Climate Camp, a chapter of the Tyre Extinguishers. On the more ‘civil society’ side you’ve got SCCAN, OFE, four Transition groups, conglomerates like SCCS. If you’re a sensible professional you might be checking out 2050 or Sniffer or the ECCI. If you’ve got enough tolerance for acronyms and websites you could probably find twice as much again. 

It doesn’t even stop there. Even nominally unrelated crowds from bookstores to bike-lovers, co-workings to shops to spiritual centres are slow-marching into more or less explicit forms of participation in the climate movement. 

Your correspondent was literally writing this piece when he randomly received a leaflet about massively-rad-looking outfit Enough

We’re all eco-freaks now

Critics and pessimists might see this proliferation – of which Edinburgh is surely just one tiny sample – as an indicator of disunity. And perhaps there was a time when this was true (this raveller knew plenty of change-makers in 2020-2 who stated their allegiances in the negative: “I’m not in X”). But to fixate on this would be to miss two major points: a) our movement ecosystem is humming with life like never in its history; and b), that life is starting to show signs of some kind of collective consciousness. 

And this awakening itself is part of something even broader – so broad, indeed, as to resist easy description, but which can be suggested by the recent waves of strike action mobilising half a million British workers. 

There was a time that ‘being green’ meant doing your recycling and feeling bad about not giving more to charity; these days it’s looking more like a form of collective consciousness. One that could provide a basis for political action on a major scale. 

The Big One: Strength in Numbers? 

Which is where The Big One comes in.

The basic bastard’s bearing on The Big One will be Bigness. XR UK has set the bar at an immaculately round 100,000, and no doubt many will be tempted to evaluate the action in relation to this number. Expect a lot of airy journalistic estimates, and myopic head-scratching over whether e.g. 15,000ish across four days means 15,000 or 60,000.

Get used to this guy – he writes all the op-eds for all of the newspapers

And sure, numbers will count for something. But there is so much more at stake. 

As basically the only mass-participation event in the UK climate calendar – and this time all the more ‘mass’ due to serious alliance-building between XR UK and a bunch of other groups – this could be a profoundly formative moment for the UK’s climate movement. 

After years of literal separation under lockdown, and a subtler form of separation in the press-stoked debates over tactics and identities, The Big One holds the opportunity for the telling of a new story about the climate movement: one rooted in solidarity, inclusion, intersection

One that leaves behind the tawdry tabloid take of ‘is XR too white?’ by recasting XR from saviour to convenor, platform-holder. One that even threatens to disrupt our understanding of who is and is not an ‘activist’, by activating (less in terms of attendance than identification, or even self-recognition) the newly-massive civil networks mentioned above.

It might seem obvious that Greenpeace and FoE, among others, would turn out in support of TBO. As it happens, this raveller was part of the first discussions between XR and these groups, wherein the nascent rebellion did everything we could to convince them to take part, and they politely refrained. Times have changed.

Not that Raveller’s expecting Revolution. If anything, we reckon the apparent impact might be underwhelming. For one thing, numberwangers might well suck their teeth at the – at time of writing – mere 26,000 online signups. (Though note, if the whole diversity angle is happening, there’s even less reason to trust these numbers than usual: anecdotal polling suggests droves of attendees are coming in from wholly outside XR’s comms network, and have no concept of this sign-up thing.) 

For another, XR’s theory-of-change framing is predictably, if understandably, bombastic (“Gathering peacefully in large numbers at the nation’s seat of power will create a positive, irreversible, societal tipping point”). Never say never, but Raveller can think of reasons why this sort of outcome is unlikely. 

But change moves in mysterious ways. A melting pot of placards, a medley of spokespeople in interviews, and the traditional story of the climate movement in the UK could be fundamentally reshaped – and re-geared for the scale of resistance we’re going to need. 

Raveller has always been into XR’s distinctive visual style. But perhaps it was a beautiful monoculture; maybe 2023’s new look is patchwork?

Bonus round

It seems appropriate to mention, given all this talk of a proliferating multipolar climate movement, that this piece you (hopefully) just read is the first public offering of Raveller – itself another case of that proliferation. 

Our core team all worked inside XR to – among other things – build and run the global and UK newsletters. Almost all of us had left XR by 2021, for a bunch of reasons including burnout but also the desire to rove a bit more freely through the beautiful and complicated climate infoscape. 

Like a lot of people, we’re a little overwhelmed both by The Problem and its many possible solutions. We hope our efforts will offer some useful context, or at least some company, for anyone looking to find their place in all of this – along with the ideas and tools to make a meaningful difference. If you’d like to know more, check out our Manifesto or whatever.

Keep the ball rolling

1. Actually do sign up to The Big One

2. If you can’t make it: make a cool placard for someone who can (we reckon these could be a crucial way of conveying the breadth of people engaged with the crisis)

3. If you don’t have someone to give said placard to, look up your local climate group and meet some like-minded people!

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