Direct action in an age of extremes: Extinction Rebellion strikes again


It’s not controversial to think that we’re living in an age defined by a lack of moderation. Whether it be the rise of the far right across the west, or indeed a similar leap to the poles of political opinion on the left, we’re becoming dangerously close to an age of unstable adversarial politics. Thus, it is no surprise that last weekend’s blockade of many of the Rupert Murdoch-owned International paper distribution sites became a flashpoint for debate.

On the one hand, the move was a vital way of alerting the country to the very real threat of climate change – something we’re in danger of forgetting in the age of Covid. California’s recent wildfires are only one of countless recent instances where the threat of a warming planet reared its apocalyptic head.

The narrative surrounding the blockade was hijacked by a prevailing message of censorship

One of the more common criticisms regarding current discourse surrounding this very real danger is the media’s often no so subtle attempts to minimise, or even deny it. In an age of climate deniers like Donald Trump leading the free world, the spread of accurate information by independent media is more important than ever. The Murdoch papers specifically are arguably some of the bigger culprits in this movement. Only last month, former heir presumptive James resigned from International over his father’s irresponsibility surrounding his publications’ reporting of the climate crisis. Various outlets labelled the media titan’s control on Australian climate denying culture a symptom of “Murdochracy”, an even greater issue considering the country experienced their very own record setting fires in January of this year.

Yet despite this, the narrative surrounding the blockade was hijacked by a prevailing message of censorship, as if Extinction Rebellion were the biggest danger of fascism we currently face. Indeed, part of liberal democracy is the free circulation of news, but an increasingly small number of people unable to get a copy of the latest print edition of The Sun is hardly a harbinger of an authoritarian future.

Historical examples…show that direct action and civil disobedience are often the most effective means for conveying a message and sparking change

Looking back at various historical examples of prominent protest groups shows us that direct action and civil disobedience are often the most effective means for conveying a message and sparking change, despite often negative contemporary receptions. For instance, the 1960s are often looked to as a decade of huge upheaval, protest and existential crises within the collective psyche of (mainly) American society. Black power, anti-Vietnam fever and a general distrust of governing bodies were looked to as revolutionary, radical and fundamentally corrosive to society, but ultimately paved the way for a positive number of changes. Many like to point to Martin Luther King Jr as the sanitised face of civil rights, but grassroots activism (which often included economic boycotts, blatant disregard to segregation rules and sometimes violence) led by the likes of Stokely Carmichael and James Forman led to huge gains in democratic participation among African-Americans in the South. We can see how current events across the US parallel this development. Genuine grievances surrounding continued police brutality have led to countless protests, many of which have been labelled as riots by mainstream media.

Thus, Extinction Rebellion are acting similarly to many other protest groups both past and present. Their actions are bold, and indeed, if press coverage was their aim, then they quite clearly succeeded. The outrage generated by the print blockade is to be expected when the status quo is threatened. But when the climate crisis is as pronounced as it is currently, this type of action could deliver solid results, as other direct action campaigns have done in the past. They are, after all, called Extinction Rebellion: it would be a little odd if they weren’t doing a little rebelling.

Photograph: Markus Spiske via Unsplash

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