Robin Boardman In Conversation With Micah White, co-creator of Occupy Wall Street, On The History, Strategy And Theory Of Extinction Rebellion.
Robin Boardman: I guess, just to introduce myself, yeah, my name's Robin Boardman. I dropped out of university last year to help start a rebellion against the UK government. Doesn't mean I don't like a bit of activist academia though. Yeah, I've been working on this since the start, basically. I helped co-found the Rebellion. It was a bit of project rising up the network, a sort of decent decentralized network that came beforehand and has taken off in a viral way since. Yeah, we've been sort of cultivating some of that energy through a different kind of story, a different kind of structure as well.
Micah White: Great. Okay. So I'm going to show some of [crosstalk 00:00:50].
Robin Boardman: Yeah, you asked about getting on board with the Activist Graduate Academy. I mean, one of the key things we've been doing is learning from previous movements and learning, looking at the research basically and how this stuff happens and not just whipping up some theories in group circles. One of the key texts that we looked at was the End of Protest. That was the one we studied beforehand. That's how I kind of started to follow some of the what you've been doing, Micah, and then I saw this pop up and I thought that sounds like a good thing to continue that study, continue that research.
Micah White: Cool. What are some of the ... Before I move ... I'm curious. What are some of the other books that, or resources, that Extinction Rebellion has been drawing on?
Robin Boardman: Yeah, sure, so there's a book called This is an Uprising by Paul Engler and Mark Engler, his brother. Very fantastic book about momentum-driven organizing. There's How Civil Resistance Works by Erica Chenoweth, where you get that 3.5% figure needed to create social change. Some of the others include more environmentally-related issues like Charles Eisenstein, the Climate: A New Story, focusing on the biodiversity element to the environmental process and not just the carbon-reductionist element of climate.
Micah White: Cool. Okay, so I'm going to show a provocation from ... This is from the course on, the seminar on feardism. Let's see, and this is about ... It's a minute long and it's about environmentalism. So hold on one second. Let me share my screen. Let's see. Here we go. Okay, can we see it?
Robin Boardman: Yeah.
Micah White: Here we go. Okay.
Micah White: I'll tell you what I honestly think. I believe that the leadership of the environmentalist movement is to blame for the failure of environmental protest, and probably as guilty for climate change as the polluters themselves. I'm sorry for your generation, but we will never stop climate change. That time is over, and the reason why it's over is Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, 350.org, and those organizations who use tactics that they knew were going to fail. The idea of doing climate marches? Come on. We had just had Occupy Wall Street. Like, seriously. We can't just blame the opposition and say it was Shell, Exxon, and these people. It's like no, at a certain point, what about our leadership? They were the ones who told us what to do, but now the environmental movement is over. We will never stop climate change.
Micah White: Okay, that's the provocation, and I think that in many ways, why Extinction Rebellion is exciting is because it's coming out of ... after that moment.
Robin Boardman: Yeah. Out of that frustration.
Micah White: Yeah. Out of that frustration.
Robin Boardman: Yeah.
Micah White: All right. Let's get into it. That's kind of framing for Mark's, so I'm curious. First, let's start with history. Let's talk about Extinction Rebellion. Let's talk about your relationship to prior environmentalist movements and how you're doing things differently and just basically the history of where you're going. The history of where you came from and where you're headed.
Robin Boardman: Sure. Yeah, so I kind of want to just start off with the sense that I feel and the sense that a lot of feel and thinks rebellion is this unprecedented sense of emergency about what's happening, the collapse. I'm not really going to talk about that that much, what we're talking about, because I'm assuming that most people here will know about it, but it's the severity of it that's really sort of sparks a lot of energy and the willingness behind what we're doing.
Robin Boardman: I think, to follow onto the story, it really comes from rising up, sort of a decentralized network in the UK that looked at what it called with three pillars of a toxic system. That was the toxic finance system, the toxic media, billionaire media, and the lack of democracy in the UK. That was a network that was quite spread out across the UK and different groups of it focused on different elements of those pillars. The beauty of being decentralized was that you could create tactics or strategies that could be easily shared and done throughout the UK but the difficulty was bringing together a kind of cohesion.
Robin Boardman: In a paper that Roger wrote last year, Roger Hallam, he wrote a paper about why climate change now demands a rebellion against the UK government and why it's got to the point where the UK government now lacks legitimacy. The social contracts between the people and government has been broken because they are no longer protecting its systems. This is something that you can see across the political spectrum, whether it's your radical-type person, you think egalitarianism, that's obvious, then we need to do something about it. Whether you're a more liberal person and you're thinking why it's about individual rights. Well John Locke is all about if the government fails to protect those rights of individuality, then you need to rebel. On even the more conservative levels of looking at, well, what is the most important thing? Why, it's order and security. How the hell can you guarantee order and security in society that's falling apart?
Robin Boardman: So from that basis, we say well, this current government is no longer legitimate and there needs to be a rebellion to change that in a serious way. That's where the Extinction Rebellion really came from. And from the beginning, it's really framed itself as being that the government is no longer legitimate and therefore civil disobedience is the thing that's needed to change it, because the what the research shows. That's was Erica Chenoweth's research shows. That's what when you look at the big civil resistance movements of the past or the Freedom Riders, the Children's March, Martin Luther King, or the Gandhian movement or Otpor! in Serbia. These are the kind of things that create that change.
Robin Boardman: And, as like I mentioned in this off publication or whatever, it's not the marches, all right? The marches are done. In the UK, we particularly felt that with the Iraq War March across the world, obviously, in 2003, a million people out on the streets that did nothing. Just recently, a couple of weekends ago in the UK, we had a million people out on the streets demanding a second vote on the referendum around Brexit, and six million people signing a petition saying they wanted to change it, and it's just fallen on a complete deaf ears.
Robin Boardman: It just shows, really, that we need civil disobedience is so important now. I guess the way it spread across the UK was by a simple, I guess it's more like a old-school organizing method, which is just going around into town halls, sitting in council halls, and giving talks about the climate crisis and the need for rebellion, the history and the social change research and how that can create a difference. And then really, I guess, the rebellion became something quite different once it entered a bit of a whirlwind-time moment as Paul Engler might call it, where Georgia Monbiot, a prominent Guardian columnist in the UK, started writing an article about Extinction Rebellion and then Bernie Sanders shared it on Facebook and then we went into this massive growth period.
Robin Boardman: When we were initially planning about declaring a rebellion in London, in Parliament Square, it was mainly this idea of it doesn't matter if there's 10 of us, or if there's 50, because we know in our hearts that this is the right thing to do. That's a key value that a lot of hold is this idea that's probably similar to something like virtue ethics, where [inaudible 00:08:57] which is that we do things because we believe they're right, rather than because we think they're going to get this big, fancy result. There were 50 of us planning to be in that Parliament Square area, and then because of the more whirlwind-type moment, there were 1,000 people there blocking the road outside Parliament, which was, yeah, amazing.
Robin Boardman: So from that rebellion, we kind of grew into something larger. The following couple of weeks we shut down five of the bridges in London in a really peaceful day of mass civil disobedience. Not seen for quite some time in the UK actually breaking the law in that way and not just going on the usual march, and have since been using movement-building, I guess, to get to the point of international rebellion. So things like activists throwing blood, fake blood, all over Downing Street and that kind of challenging this government. We all have blood on our hands for not challenging the environmental crisis, and the naked protests, which you probably saw earlier in the week, which have gone sort of viral and got even MPs talking about what's happening, and we've been to that.
Robin Boardman: These are some of the different, yeah, tactics that have been used and I think a key element to [inaudible 00:10:16] protest on Monday was the decentralization is still a core value in what Extinction Rebellion does and that wasn't a centrally-planned thing in that most people think the Extinction Rebellion had no idea what was going to happen. It was a smaller, fancy group from outside London that said, "Actually, let's do this. This is a great idea," and they just went and did it. And then, wow, okay, so that's the thing that can kind of take that real energy forward is these decentralized networks.
Micah White: Yeah. So let's talk about, I mean, I think one of the things that's really interesting in what you're saying is that the Extinction Rebellion really situated questions of political legitimacy at the origin of its founding, so that the reason why, like you laid it out, the reason they we needed a rebellion is because our governments are not legitimate, et cetera. But I guess what I'm curious about is to what degree is Extinction Rebellion actually willing to then govern and how much of a rebellion still falls into the paradigm of challenging the existing structures but not replacing them? I mean, I guess one part of this is you have this ... This gets into the question of strategy, but you have this idea of setting up a citizen's assembly and ... So what I'm saying is at what point does a rebellion just fizzle and what are the ways in which thinking about how do we turn a rebellion into establishing a new form of legitimate government et cetera like that. Does-
Robin Boardman: Sure, yeah, so I think, I mean, I guess that I think about Extinction Rebellion is like my personal interpretation of the way that it's going, but our current three demands are really ... They've got their demands to the government itself, so they're requiring its own response. One of them is the creation of a citizen's assembly which would guide the decisions of the government. It would create this paradigm which you maybe could compare to participatory budgeting in Brazil and Porto Alegre, where they have massive number of people that decide how parts of the budget's going to be spent, and then the council approves that budgeting. They never not approved it because they know if they didn't, the people would be in uproar about it.
Robin Boardman: It's a similar idea of the citizen's assembly, is giving this democratic alternative, which is definitely going to be more fair. You've seen examples of it in Ireland and other places, and saying they must follow their system if they set it up, which'll be a huge win. A key part about what we're doing is prototyping the need for regime change or rebellion in western democracies and this is how we can do it and then trying to prototype that for other places, because the UK's cool and everything, but it's not where the real change is going to happen. In fact, I'm kind of hoping you folks over in the States will do that for us, because that's where the change really needs to spread.
Robin Boardman: But anyway, yeah, so the citizen's assembly kind of puts that forward as the new form of democracy, and the idea being that if these three demands aren't met by the government, then you've tried what you can do to reform that existing system, and then if that fails, then you know the three demands will change and the government needs to be changed and the citizen's assembly needs to be deepening in power.
Micah White: Cool. So let's talk about the strategy. I'm curious, so what's cool in this ... What I'm [inaudible 00:13:35] say, who we are, principles and values, number two, it says, "We set out our mission on what is necessary, and what that is is mobilizing 3.5% of the population to achieve system change using ideas such as momentum-driven organizing to achieve this." This is very interesting to me because I love when activists try to quantify exactly what is necessary. So you've quantified it. It's 3.5% of the population, and you said earlier that this is from Erica Chenoweth, but can you break that down? Why 3.5% of the population?
Robin Boardman: So that's from the research from sort of seeing that even in the most totalitarian states or whatever with [inaudible 00:14:16] regime change, you need that 3.5%, although that 3.5% is mainly in those totalitarian regimes. It's not as well documented, but in western democracies, that's something where we're kind of experimenting. I think a lot about what Extinction Rebellion is doing is experimenting with different forms of protest like you talked about the NGOs, [inaudible 00:14:38], Bill McKibben, all this kind of stuff in the introduction and I think that that's something where we'd looked at at the start and saying for 30 years, NGOs have basically failed to do anything serious.