Extinction Rebellion: Inciting Controversy–and Conversation–Since 2018
A review of the plight and progress of the environmental activist group
By Madhura Shembekar, SFS ‘26 & Common Home Editor
“This is an emergency.”
“The science is clear. Our future is not.”
“The time to act is now.”
These are the bold declarations splashed across the homepage of Extinction Rebellion (XR), a U.K.-based, radical environmental group that uses public acts of civil disobedience to take action against organizations, businesses, and governments perpetuating climate change and biodiversity loss.
The group’s message is fairly straightforward, and to understand XR’s motivations, one has to look no further than its name and logo. “Extinction” refers to the ongoing sixth mass extinction on Earth, largely driven by unsustainable human practices such as poor land and resource management. “Rebellion” manifests itself as XR’s ongoing nonviolent action. And XR’s logo—a stark, geometric hourglass—completes the picture: our time is running out.
The organization was officially formed in 2018 after British activists announced a Declaration of Rebellion against the government of the United Kingdom. Thousands of activists planted trees, dug a metaphorical “coffin” in the middle of Parliament Square, and glued themselves to the gates of Buckingham Palace. From this first feat onward, the group has taken inspiration from historical nonviolent movements—such as Occupy London, the Civil Rights Movement, and Gandhi’s Satyagraha—to draw global attention to its cause.
And the world is paying attention. Since its inception in 2018, XR has spread to all seven continents, including 88 countries worldwide. Activists have scaled the Eiffel Tower, glued themselves to U.K. government buildings, and blocked roads in Germany. The organization’s mission has expanded, as well. When XR spread to the United States, a fourth item was added to its list of demands prioritizing “the most vulnerable people and indigenous sovereignty” by establishing “reparations and remediation led by and for Black people, Indigenous people, people of color and poor communities for years of environmental injustice.” Across the globe, inclusivity in its members and mission has become one of XR’s central goals. In attempts to combat criticisms of its members being overwhelmingly white and affluent, XR now encompasses 7 affinity groups, or ‘communities,’ including “XR Buddhists,” “XR Scientists,” “XR Disabled Rebels,” and even “XR Grandparents.”
Despite the changes it has undergone, XR has remained just as, if not more, controversial as the day it declared a rebellion against the U.K. government. Considered by many a radical fringe environmental group, XR has been blasted for alienating the general public through fear-mongering and obstruction of daily life as well as costing governments millions of taxpayer dollars. By the end of the group’s protests in London in 2019 and 2020, for example, XR had cost U.K. taxpayers £50 million in damages and police force costs.
XR has also struggled to gain widespread support within the progressive and activist community. Moves like denying its association with socialism and shying away from police abolition have made XR unpopular with left-wing political activists. Many have even argued that XR’s work isn’t truly meaningful or impactful. Left-wing magazines like The Jacobin have criticized the global organization for simply not going far enough: in their words, “Our wretched Earth needs class and climate organizing, not a funnel into prison for young activists.”
Despite these many critiques, the organization has consistently maintained its celebrity—or to some, its notoriety. Over the course of its many campaigns and sub-movements, XR has raised millions of dollars from donors of all kinds, from wealthy philanthropists to ordinary green-thumbed citizens. In the U.K., where XR was founded and is based, the group has met with Members of Parliament and discussed policy at the highest levels of government and business. And perhaps most importantly, XR demanded that the U.K. government declare a climate emergency, making it the first country to do so in 2019. For all of the criticisms of inaction it faces, XR seems to be making waves in the climate movement on an international scale.
So, where from here? As XR has evolved into countless chapters and regional groups, so has its activity. Now, individual chapters operate as autonomous arms of the broader movement: sheltered by the power of XR’s name and authority, but free to operate at the grassroots level. In Washington, D.C., for example, the local chapter is currently battling Washington Gas, a methane gas company serving more than 1 million customers, in an effort to expel fossil fuels from the nation’s capital. The campaign, coined “End Methane. Electrify D.C.” hopes to tackle the negative health, environmental, and political effects of methane gas use, particularly among families and children in lower-income communities in D.C..
Around the world, similar chapters tackle local issues, forming the now international beast that is Extinction Rebellion. So, has it really made a difference? This question has plagued the conversation around XR and similar groups, with critics arguing that simply creating controversy isn’t real action. However, in a world where a fifth of U.K. citizens and 46% of Americans doubt the severity of climate change and climate denialism seems rampant, perhaps simply forcing conversation is a tremendous step in the right direction. Without groups like XR challenging the status quo and forcing elites to reckon with their role in climate change, perhaps these conversations wouldn’t happen.