I’m standing in the middle of the bridge crossing central Brisbane as the sun goes down during peak rush hour on a Friday evening in October 2019. There should be a constant flow of bumper to bumper traffic, but today there are no cars. Instead, children hold colourful and witty banners while trailing their parents as they slowly march over the river. Musicians pause their walking to add drum beats to the chants and songs, while a brass band performs behind a large banner stating ‘12 years to change the Earth’. Retirees, professors, nurses, people of all ages and all backgrounds have come out to stop traffic and join the rebellion. Why are they here? What drove them to march on this bridge at peak rush hour despite the risks?
Extinction Rebellion (XR) burst onto the world stage in late 2018 with its dramatic tactic of mass non-violent civil disobedience, intended to clog up the policing system and thereby force urgent action on climate change. It has since spread to over 70 countries, mobilising countless individuals to use their bodies to block traffic, occupy urban centres and stage mock ‘die-ins’ to mirror the extinction crisis. Through a mix of vivid imagery, a stark message and a strong brand, the movement has the same goals across the globe: to halt mass extinction and minimise the risk of social collapse.
Yet activism about climate change is not new. Environmental groups have existed for centuries, with many thousands across the globe dedicating themselves to climate activism since the early 2000s. Given this, why has XR exploded in both numbers and media attention unlike other climate activist groups? Some insights from the social psychology of collective action reveals some key features central to XR’s success.
Identity and collective action
The concept of identity is central to the social psychology of protest. The various ways in which we identify ourselves, whether individually or collectively, profoundly influences our choice to engage in protest or not. In particular, politicised identity may play a central role in such decision making. This type of identity can develop when individuals experience a shared grievance based on a perceived moral transgression by an opponent or system. When connected to a group with common values and positive emotional connections, these shared grievances can then coalesce into group norms, goals and interests, and foster an obligation to act collectively to drive change. The climate crisis provides both the sense of grievance and evidence of moral transgressions to fuel this mass mobilisation surging around the globe. XR has provided the group through which this politicised identity can transform isolated individuals into united rebels.
There are several aspects of the XR movement which help foster a powerful and stable sense of politicised identity. The simple symbol, concise shared demands and autonomous organisational structure enables mass message replication and easy entry for existing groups to join the movement. Sub-groups such as XR for families, XR artists’ collectives and XR Grey Power provide pathways to link salient self-identities to the XR cause, as well as create a space for those who may wish to engage collectively but not directly in civil disobedience.
XR sub-groups can also attract more people to join by using these multiple identities to challenge negative stereotypes of activists. This negative environmental activist stereotype often stops people from identifying with groups taking action on climate change. Thus, imagery of people who challenge that stereotype, such as doctors and firefighters, can be very powerful in supporting a shared politicised identity without threatening existing self-identities. These features all combine to provide multiple avenues for XR to reach people both from within and outside existing environmental activists’ networks. Combined with the urgency of the climate crisis, a self-propelling feedback loop can develop to link more and more individuals from a multiplicity of social groups to XR as each mobilisation wave occurs.
Other drivers of engaging in collective action
While identity occupies a central role in explaining why some people engage in activism and others don’t, there are other important drivers. In 2008 a group of researchers set out to review the diverse range of factors linked to collective action engagement. They created a combined theory called the Social Identity Model of Collective Action (SIMCA), which explains which social psychological factors most strongly predict whether people chose to engage in collective action. SIMCA predicts that three other factors – moral conviction, collective efficacy and group-based emotion – can be activated when an individual strongly identifies with a particular group. Each of these factors then in turn help drive engagement in collective action. While research continues on the pathways through which these factors influence and interact with the others, the XR message has features which can enhance each of the factors individually.
Many XR activists argue that they have a moral duty to act. As asserted by the group in late 2018, ‘it is therefore not only our right, but our moral duty to bypass the government’s inaction and flagrant dereliction of duty, and to rebel to defend life itself’. This strong moral stance can be a powerful driver of collective action, not only helping transform self-identities into politicised identities, but can also legitimise and even necessitate action.
XR argues that only 3.5% of the population is required to engage in non-violent collective action in order to achieve their goal. This figure is based on longitudinal research investigating the outcomes of violent vs non-violent collective action. The use of this figure aims to convince activists that civil disobedience works; that it is efficacious, and indeed more efficacious than previous activism tactics such as petitions and political lobbying. In addition, the choice of civil disobedience as a tactic can be empowering at an individual level as well. Individuals can feel efficacious in standing their ground and acting on their moral convictions in defiance of authorities, as well as collectively efficacious through the belief that XR is capable of successfully creating change.
The XR message conveys strong emotional content about the climate crisis and the role of humanity in creating that crisis. This group based emotional content is complex and multifaceted; unsurprisingly, the future of life on the planet is a deeply emotional issue. For many, the climate crisis generates strong feelings of anger and outrage, emotions known to drive intentions to engage in collective action. However, other emotions, such as fear, may inhibit collective action. To counteract these potentially conflicting effects, XR provides pathways for mobilisation via both negative and positive emotions through community building and regeneration activities. These include projects such as rewilding, building community gardens and the demand for citizen’s assemblies, which can foster positive emotions such as joy and pride with the group and its achievements. These positive emotions may help sustain ongoing activism in the future, which could be crucial in ensuring the success of the movement as the climate crisis continues to escalate.
The ingredients for success
XR argues that mass participation in civil disobedience will force the urgent action required to address the climate crisis. However, to be effective this tactic requires virtually unprecedented numbers of protestors to engage in civil disobedience over prolonged periods of time. Each protestor may face high costs for this engagement, particularly individuals who are typically marginalised or already suffering disproportional aggression by authorities. As well as overcoming these situational barriers, SIMCA shows us which psychological factors need to be met to drive engagement in such high-risk collective action. Those who join the movement will likely need to feel a strong sense of politicized identification, moral alignment and an emotional connection with the cause, as well as hold the belief that XR has the potential to succeed.
As we march over the Brisbane bridge, I see elements of each of these drivers of collective action emerge and blend between individuals and their groups. The multiple identities coalescing under each XR banner help strengthen the connections between each individual and their own social and familial networks. Strong emotions are expressed vividly on placards and banners, and through looks of fear, happiness and anxiety flashing on faces throughout the crowd. And lastly, the power of blocking traffic, of demanding attention, is intoxicating. But is this power enough to achieve what XR demands?
Mass mobilisation is happening
Countless individuals are joining the XR movement around the world. Thousands of new autonomous groups are emerging, filled with volunteers taking the lead in driving change in their own communities for no material or financial benefit. In Australia, over 75 separate Extinction Rebellion groups were formed by January 2020, together organising more than 3,000 separate events. These included acts of civil disobedience staged simultaneously across the county. One of these, ‘Rebellion week’ in October 2019, resulted in more than 60 arrests as well as a surge of media attention. Rebellion week alone generated over 4,450 individual print and broadcast articles which reached an average audience of 3,000,000 people across the country. Despite its high cost and high-risk tactic, XR’s contentious civil disobedience tactic is keeping climate change on the agenda.
Incremental campaign success is being achieved
Mobilisation by itself is, of course, not enough. While governments continue to lag in committing to XR’s key demands, my research on the outcomes of climate change activism shows that it can still be successful by achieving smaller, incremental wins. These include the many Climate Emergency declarations and zero emission commitments made by corporations, communities and their representatives around the world. These incremental wins have enabled XR to demonstrate that their tactic is generating successful outcomes. In doing so, this message can increase individuals’ beliefs that XR tactics are efficacious and meaningful, thereby amplifying their potential to join the cause themselves.
The pitfalls ahead
These contentious tactics are delivering impressive mobilisation outcomes and some campaign wins. However, unlike most other climate change activism tactics, the civil disobedience strategy used by XR impacts directly on the general public by blocking traffic and shutting down bridges. While central to the message that climate change both affects everyone and is everyone’s responsibility, this tactic has generated substantial backlash. This backlash is most commonly expressed through negative media coverage, perpetuation of the activist stereotypes, and depictions of XR as anti-police and anti-authority. This backlash may increase polarisation between XR and the wider community, as well as alienate potential supporters.
In addition, governments around the world are also quickly cracking down. Some governments have designated XR as an extremist organisation, and others have passed new laws against the right to protest. Given that XR depends on mass mobilisation of individuals engaging in arrestable actions, this combination of sustained, negative media coverage and punitive responses may lead to reduced mobilisation of individuals and power to effect change in the future.
To the people marching on the bridge, the need for action is clear: the climate crisis is upon us. The cost to individuals living on the atolls of the Pacific Islands to the Russian permafrost is ever increasing and will only escalate as our response to the crisis continues to be inadequate. Homes, livelihoods, entire communities and countless wonders of the natural world are being lost to the rising temperatures and rising seas. In response, XR has built a powerful global movement demanding an urgent and commensurate response to the crisis by using sophisticated strategies likely to encourage more people to take action. How well it succeeds remains to be seen. For those holding the traffic at bay the question may be redundant. For them, there may be only one option left; to rebel for life.
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 Unpublished research, R Gulliver
 Gulliver, R., Fielding, K., Louis, W. (2019). Understanding the Outcomes of Climate Change Campaigns in the Australian Environmental Movement. Case Studies in the Environment