In the past few months, the global ‘Extinction Rebellion’ (XR) climate action movement has increased its presence in Australia. Thousands of protesters have participated in nonviolent, disruptive actions across the country.
XR protestors have flash-mob-danced across intersections, hung off bridges, and more. As a result, scores of people have been arrested.
“It really isn’t an exaggeration to say that the future of the human race is now at stake. The nature of the changes in climate and environment that we are now living with threaten not only the well- being but, possibly, also the being of our species and this planet in the long term. In the middle term, they threaten some of the most vulnerable populations on earth,” Williams said.
“It’s not at all surprising that people in this urgent situation feel they’ve got to take nonviolent direct action. They’ve got to find a way of putting the case for the human race before those in power.
“That’s what Extinction Rebellion is doing … I believe a wide, deep support from the public is needed to bring this matter fully to the attention of our political leaders, to show that we can actually have democratic change for the good of everybody in our world …”
“It really isn’t an exaggeration to say that the future of the human race is now at stake” – Rowan Williams
In Australia, Shawn Whelan – a Melbourne-based Christian with a rich heritage in the tradition of the Christian social justice movement – took part in an Extinction Rebellion action last weekend.
He told Eternity why he got involved with XR as a Christian and whether he believes XR can achieve meaningful change on climate action.
What XR action did you take part in and what did it involve?
I took part in a ‘Bicycle Brigade’ action last Wednesday, cycling around the inner northern suburbs of Melbourne near Collingwood, where we were riding slowly through the streets and occasionally stopping to block an intersection for a few minutes at a time.
The purpose was part of a week-long set of actions by XR in Melbourne, trying to draw attention to not just the reality of the climate crisis, but its urgency – by disrupting ‘business as usual’.
‘Business as usual’ is causing very serious problems and, while we don’t like to disrupt people as they go about their daily lives, it’s intended to be a bit of a wakeup call to how serious the disruption will be if the current state of affairs continues.
Have you got a background in nonviolent direct action?
Yes. I guess you could say I grew up or was connected to the radical discipleship tradition of Christianity. I have been aware of and very inspired by nonviolent direct action by Christian leaders going right back, well to Jesus, of course, but in more recent times people like Martin Luther King Jr and [Nobel Peace prize nominated Jesuit priest and peace activist] Daniel Berrigan and the Ploughshares movement [he began], working against nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War.
I’ve grown up with the stories of these modern-day saints very much around me.
I’ve been involved in regular forms of peaceful protest since I was a child and a teenager. Coming to my own adult life, I became involved in nonviolent direct action that was more disruptive and potentially arrestable through Love Makes a Way [a movement of Australian Christians], seeking justice for people seeking asylum.
What is the radical discipleship tradition?
‘Radical discipleship’ is a term that very loosely picks up on a disparate and loosely-networked group of people – many of them coming out of Anabaptist traditions in the United States – as well as out of other evangelical or mainstream traditions in Australia, the United Kingdom and the US.
Several of these folks have been involved in intentional Christian communities built around a kind of ‘back to the roots’ – hence the term ‘radical’ – vision of Christianity, but also connected with a deep engagement in social and political causes.
These groups trace their roots in modern times back through the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day and those sort of folks, as well as to various kinds of non-conformist groups in the Baptist and Anabaptist tradition of Christianity.
This includes people like Ched Myers. I know the term radical discipleship from him – although there are plenty of others who have used it – as he was very formative in my adult understanding of Christian faith. [Myers is a Californian ‘activist theologian’ who has worked in social change and radical discipleship movements for more than 40 years. He also is a respected New Testament scholar.]
How much did you know about Extinction Rebellion before you got involved?
Not very much. I had been aware of the news items coming out the UK earlier this year. I had tended to think, ‘Well, good on them’ on the one hand but, on the other hand, [I had assumed] it was probably ‘the usual suspects’ – the [so-called] “radical ratbags”. And I was not sure that was really what was needed or what was effective.
Then, I started to look into it a bit more – both as to what XR generally is on about and what they were particularly planning to do in Melbourne.
A few things struck me about it. One was that those who are getting involved haven’t had a long involvement [in climate action]. Quite precisely, [they] are not ‘the usual suspects’. They’re either very young and just getting into radical political action, or they’re quite a bit older – or anywhere in between – and they all have essentially reached the end of their tether. They’re saying, ‘We have tried everything else … We’ve tried letters to the politicians and the papers. We’ve tried peaceful marches. We’ve tried all kinds of online and offline campaigns and political campaigning and electoral politics. We’ve tried really everything and it doesn’t seem to be cutting through.’
At the same time, there is a huge upsurge in activism by very young people – [such as] the school students strike movement – that has been tremendously inspiring, provoking and challenging.
[So] what are we, in our generation, doing to protect their futures? I think of my own son and other people’s kids I know, and their kids they’ll have and thought that it was good to be out there in the streets in a great big march … It was very inspiring to be there with 100,000 people in Melbourne at the last student strike… but there was no organised and strategised follow-up to that, that I’m aware of.
I thought, ‘Well, that sounds good’ when [I learned] XR were planning a week-long camp inside the Carlton Gardens – a major parkland area just immediately north of Melbourne’s CBD – which would be a great base to then go out and do all kinds of creative and colourful and, yes, disruptive actions across the city. And [then] to try to build some momentum and develop conversation and community as opposed to, you know, sort of a one-off action.
Some of the people I knew who are involved are reliable and trustworthy people. I think it’s important to have folks who have experience of nonviolent direct action and other forms of mixed-level campaigning involved inside the movement, rather than sitting on the outside saying ‘Oh, I wouldn’t have done it quite that way’ or ‘Those tactics in that particular action weren’t as well thought-through as they might have been.’
You need to have various kinds of forms of back-up and support for people who are engaging in these quite stressful and demanding forms of protest.
With all those thoughts in mind I thought, ‘Well, why not go along to try it out myself?’
So, yeah, I went from being a complete novice who knew nothing about XR to being someone who spent a little bit of time – only as much time as I could afford – in the camp and on the streets. Getting a feel for what they were doing and supporting, encouraging and offering whatever it is that I can into that process, rather than sitting on the outside critiquing.
How do you feel about criticism of XR?
There seems to be a few different kinds of critique. You’ve got the fairly predictable ‘just write the whole thing off’, castigate the people and demonise them – the usual plans of the conservative media and politicians.
I don’t have any time for them and would have expected that.
Then there are those people who are on side with the need for climate action … [but] who are thinking, ‘Oh, I don’t know if we should disrupt things.’
I think those people have been intrigued by the conversations about whether we can really afford to be so blasé and say, ‘Well, let’s just go to a big march and write a few more letters’, because that’s demonstrably not worked. And won’t work.
Those big actions are great for morale but they don’t achieve change.
The next layer of critique has been from people who are right inside the climate action or environmental movement, one or two of whom have written newspaper pieces critical of the tactics or strategy of XR. I have found those really disappointing.
‘Don’t criticise them from some supposed perspective of wisdom and experience, if the strategy you’ve been running for the last 20 or 30 years has demonstrably failed.’
A number of pieces written by people from the mainstream environmental movement have been very supportive of XR or have said, ‘Don’t criticise them until you have had conversations with them’ and ‘Don’t criticise them from some supposed perspective of wisdom and experience, if the strategy you’ve been running for the last 20 or 30 years has demonstrably failed.’
For me, that critique of the critique has been quite compelling. For any of us to say to the folks who are getting out there and putting their bodies on the line (so to speak) ‘No, you shouldn’t do that because it won’t work’ … Well, most of us have no basis for saying that because nothing has worked. Why not try something different?
And if we have some wisdom and experience to offer – get involved and help shape the internal conversations of XR.
The very identity of the group is premised on the idea of open conversation – it’s democratic and participatory almost to a fault. They are open to the wisdom of people who have been around a bit, while having an appropriate level of scepticism about the idea that only the old forms of ‘steady as she goes’ campaigning will work.
Do you think the average Australian has a misconception about what XR is trying to do?
The misconception I’ve seen the most is, ‘You guys disrupted the city in the name of climate action but that made me have to drive my car for an extra half hour and use more fuel, so you’ve been counterproductive.’
I suspect that response is nothing more than voicing a frustration, which is understandable and which XR protesters have acknowledged. They’ve done everything they can to hold up signs and hand out flyers to the people who are in cars being disrupted and say, ‘We’re sorry we have to disrupt you but we feel we have to … something has to change here.’
The misconception is that we somehow think just by locking ourselves to each other on the street, or doing a disco dance across an intersection, it’s going to result in immediate change. We know full well that’s not the case.
What we are trying to say is, ‘Business as usual cannot continue.’
We’re not expecting they’re going to pass a law next week because we’ve stood in the street this week, but we are expecting if more people get involved … pressure will result in changes.
Will people start to have conversations about why this form of protest is happening and the nature of its demands? [Demands] include a citizen’s assembly to talk through the solutions, getting it out of the hands of partisan politicians and into the hands of ordinary people.
If these conversations kick off and keep rolling, they have potential to change things.
Are you hopeful that XR will achieve change?
I’d like to be. That is an honest answer. I don’t know whether I think it will really work. I didn’t join it because I thought it was ‘the one thing’ that was certain to work; I joined it because nothing else was working.
The very fact that people are not giving up – people are thinking creatively outside the square and trying something different – that is a hopeful sign.
Regardless of whether XR in its current form continues or grows or achieves anything directly, I do think this is a really important moment for the struggle for meaningful climate action.
How does this activism relate directly to your faith?
It absolutely relates to my faith. I do these things not in spite of being a Christian but because I’m in Christian. And there’s lots of layers to that.
One thing that’s absolutely central to my faith is the ancient belief that God’s created goodness made a good world and made us to be key players in the ongoing co-creation.
I believe that God – the creative source in the universe – has given rise to all we have and see. That … [means] being responsible and working with God in stewarding and managing that creation.
At the heart of it is the idea we are not here to suffer; we’re here as part of God’s good creation. We are not simply puppets on a string pulled by God, we have a role to play and God has stepped back to make space for that.
Climate change will disproportionately affect the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, [so] that is absolutely a matter of justice.
Another would be a fundamental commitment to justice because God loves all people – and I’ll go further and say all creatures – equally.
Climate change will disproportionately affect the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, [so] that is absolutely a matter of justice. Even if I had no interest in environmentalism generally, it would seem to me to be the absolute essence of our faith that we have to stand for those who are suffering, as Christ does.
For me, that means taking urgent action.
Another layer is about what the kingdom of heaven is. I don’t believe the kingdom of heaven is a place in the sky you go to after you die. It is the reign of God which is breaking in – and has been since the beginning – but is not yet fully realised.
It is up to us, as Christians and people of faith, to try to understand what God’s way is.
What would it mean if we really respected God as sovereign, rather than worshipping money or following political leaders as if they were our king? God is king and we need to work out what the best way of organising our society is that reflects God’s reign and sovereignty.
When you unpack all of that, I think you’re inevitably drawn towards the need to protect the natural environment and to protect the people who are most affected by it. To build communities of love and care as opposed to communities of isolated consumers, which is what’s got us into this mess.