Merlin Betts and Alan Bolwell explore the impact of Extinction Rebellion

Reclaim public spaces, rewild your gardens, rebel against bureaucratic mismanagement. The climate rebels encompass all sorts, not just radical ecologists. Sedate middle-class patrons also break out the banners and consider intricate flower arrangements. It’s not all arrests, bridge-blocking, civil-disobedience…Why be so civil if you’re part of the infamous Extinction Rebellion (XR)?

Well, the interesting thing is that XR organises by lending its brand to smaller affiliate groups. As long as you organise in groups of less than 7, according to XR guidelines available on their website, you can fly the iconoclastic hour-glass flag. So, while the overall movement may be focussed on approaching catastrophe, affiliates and supporters might not need to agree that the catastrophe is just around the corner. ‘Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore’, and also, those just about managing.

Responding to a talk organised on 3rd July, The Time is Now, one Facebook user recently commented on the XR Hastings & St Leonards’ Facebook Group: “My question is (I didn’t ask at the meeting tonight for good reason) what are you going to do in order to reach the working class man, woman and child? The people struggling to pay their rent, give a balanced meal to their kids and the list goes on… I left shortly before the end of the meeting as all I saw and heard was privileged, middle class people… my background and childhood was kids homes…” 

Now this comment is just one, and not necessarily reflective of the total character of local XR groups, but it spawned an intriguing discussion in which many others raised an eyebrow in wondering: “yeah, what are you doing for the often silent, poor majority?” Local XR lobbies, at least as far as the Facebook group membership would suggest, have maybe 500 supporters [edit: their Facebook admin stated on 12th July that they have 520 supporters “16% of our target for the Autumn Rebellion”]. Even if there are many more involving themselves primarily with the London or even Rye XR activities, for example. It seems doubtful that the numbers of local supporters would ever represent more than a small percentage of the town’s total population of almost 100,000 residents. Is this because XR’s message of “save the world” is too narrow? Presumably not. 

Some ‘dissenting’ or perhaps just quiet voices asked before the Reclaim, Rewild, Rebel event on Saturday 29th: “Why won’t we be at St Leonards Festival?” and “Why don’t we rewild unused brownfield sites?” and “Why don’t we try to involve deprived communities as much as the Old Town elite?”. In response blame was placed on structural problems, principles, or Facebook algorithms…the point is: they didn’t seem to be heard. Meanwhile favourable responses to making a lavender maze in the shape of the XR hourglass on West Hill seemed immediately forthcoming.

Is there vast untapped rebellion brewing below the middle-class? Hidden behind the lavender mazes and rewilded gardens of XR Hastings and St Leonards’ more central members there could be a radical, rebellious, working-class emancipatory potential, waiting to form its own XR affiliated cell, with a world to save and not much to lose.

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