This article originally appeared in the CIPD’s ‘Work!’ publication.
A new lesson in how to win friends and influence people?
In a world where people’s attention is an increasingly scarce commodity, any organisation or brand which truly “catches the imagination” of its audience has found the holy grail. If you succeed you go beyond acquiring customers, even followers (whether Twitter Instagram, or otherwise) – you create disciples for your cause. And, with a sufficiently powerful creed, you stand every chance of retaining them.
In the short space of less than a year, unconventional climate emergency protest group Extinction Rebellion has done just that, capturing the imaginations of a substantial slice of the population – and not just in the UK but across the continents.
Its series of non-violent “direct actions” in London and elsewhere has received widespread media coverage and not a little sympathy among right thinking people, even readers of The Daily Mail and others who might traditionally have regarded a ‘protester’ as being a Crustie from Bath leading a dog called Giro on a string. As it beached its pink boat on the Oxford Circus crossroads more than 1,000 arrests were made in London at Easter alone. ER now has tens of thousands of followers across the UK, spread through 130 branches and is now arguably far more significant than the post-financial crash Occupy Movement of 2011-12 in which is has roots.
One of the reasons it has achieved its success is that anyone has the ability to join and, indeed, be the organisation. It’s bottom up and not top down. It is based on strongly felt emotion, not reason. (Conventional business may have something to learn here.) There are no barriers to membership, no fees, no entrance tests, and even its founding 10 Inclusive Principles (see box pXX) are crowdsourced. It prides itself on being strongly anti-hierarchy, shunning the traditional layered management structures favoured by organisational ‘experts’ not just in the world of business but also among NGOs. New recruits are invited to begin their own chapter or ‘Circle’ as ER’s “self-organising” units are known. The young especially are strongly attracted to this sort of leaderless leadership.
Extinction Rebellion was established in October 2018 after 94 academics wrote to the Guardian newspaper, demanding immediate action. It has three stated goals: make governments declare a “climate emergency”; reduce net greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2025; and force the creation of citizens’ assemblies to set climate priorities, bypassing the short-termism of parliamentary democracy. The democratic process is too slow and consistently disappointing for ER.
It’s a popular uprising in the style of The Peasant’s Revolt or Gandhi’s Salt March. ER’s spiritual roots – and it is a spiritual thing with Gaia, the earth mother, as its deity – go back to Tolstoy and Martin Luther King, and have their modern embodiment in 16 year old Greta Thunberg the Swedish schoolgirl climate activist who chose selective mutism from the age of 11 in protest at what humanity is doing to the planet.
Even accepting that the scale of the climate crisis is huge and real – few outside the circles of Trump are still deniers – ER is truly apocalyptic in its predictions. It is the first 21st century, fully digital, social media- organized End of the Word is Nigh movement.
The difference this time is that it really does have a global burning platform to operate from. In a lecture given to Amnesty International in February 2019 one of ER’s founders Roger Hallam, a one time small organic farmer from Carmarthen – “It rained every day for seven weeks, which destroyed all my crops. I went bankrupt” – didn’t pull any non-violent punches. His personal experience, he says, led him to realise that our lack of “emotional arousal” is holding back efforts to fight the climate crisis. Not something that Hallam could be accused of.
“All this means one thing – no food. At two degrees centigrade you can’t grow grains at scale in the centre of continents. It means economic collapse. That means mass starvation. Many people won’t die from lack of food, they’ll die from the secondary effects – the slaughter of global war, mass mental breakdown, mass torture, mass rape. You all know this – it’s all connected. It’s the end. It’s over,” he continued. Crikey.
What do existing climate campaigners make of ER? Those who have been there for years, seen the Paris Accord, watched the CO2 levels rise and observed polar bears scavenging for food in downtown Vladivostok. One, a lawyer, who is highly experienced and very senior in the sector in government and NGOs but asked to remain anonymous said: “NGOs have been progressively captured by copying the political systems and companies whose power they desire and admire. They have begun to mimic corporations. It’s cost them all their radicalism and ER is the natural answer to this. Young NGO people down the ranks on low salaries are fed up with being told the gratitude of the planet is a just reward for their efforts while their bosses swan about the globe in Business Class. Many NGOs are almost like the civil service these days, which might be good if they spoke truth to power. They also waste huge amounts of time and energy fighting among themselves.”
So in that sense ER is a disruptive organisation that offers a lesson to the business community in the power of shaking up the status quo. But like all disruptors it will face challenges of its own as it grows up. “ER is likely to suffer from age-old problems as it tries to deal honestly and with authenticity about issues of hierarchy. You’ll have the wild egotists who want to be in charge but don’t know how to be in charge. Management is a real thing if you wish to effect change and they will need to learn it.”
Blake Lee-Harwood has worked in campaigning for NGOs for forty years. He has done stints, including throwing himself from an inflatable dinghy on a swell, at Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the RSPB. He now specialises in marine conservation where some considerable, practical progress has been made over recent years combining new technology with persuading retailers to do the right thing when it comes to not selling certain species.
“Look – ER is a good thing,” he says. “80% of success is timing and they got it just right. Ten years ago it would not have amounted to much. The problem they will face with their organisational structure is control of messaging and control of the behaviour of the organisation. Greenpeace couldn’t allow such mass uncontrolled direct action. But they are a small vanguard of green professionals and ER is a mass movement. Everything will start leaking in advance as every rightwing journalist is on their mailing list.”
Lee-Harwood is surely correct. It will only require one ER hothead to put a drone up around Heathrow’s southern runway for the curious support of ordinary people to drain away.
In the meantime it may not be big on providing detailed answers but it has captured the narrative and cast business in its usual role as the baddie. “Disruption is a tightrope,” says Lee-Harwood. “And it’s worth remembering that Greenpeace isn’t a tired old brand in India or China. But there is room in the NGO ecosystem for both people like ER and those who can talk for hours about the intricacies of the landfill tax per metric tonne. ER delivers high emotion and that is important to bring about change but they won’t be doing negotiations with Uk civil servants about tax breaks on solar panels. Greenpeace is hybrid in that it can do both and that’s why BP will throw 50 PhDs at the problem to counter them.”
But it’s also true that Greenpeace is furious to have had its thunder stolen by ER. Hungry for column inches and TV news footage of its own it retaliated soon after the Easter protests by invading the Mansion House speech and achieved the PR coup of having one of its number bundled out by the scruff of the neck by Tory MP Mark Field – subsequently suspended from his job as a Foreign Office minister as a result. It then also attempted to prevent new UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s motorcade travelling down the Mall as he presented his credentials to The Queen. Publicity is the oxygen for NGOs. Like Lady Thatcher’s remark about the IRA, they suffocate without it.
ER isn’t dull, plodding and worthy like Friends of the Earth or the old “Animal Farm” carthorse, Boxer. It’s cool and bang on trend, using all the tools in the modern media influencers’ handbook to make its points. In an echo of the Radical Chic followers of the Black Panther movement of the 1960s, ER has its own cohort of celebrity backers from Emma Thompson, Phillip Pullman and Rowan Williams to Noam Chomsky and Charlotte Church. It has financial backing from highly-scented toiletries chain Lush. (“Woke wash yourself with Lush,” is unlikely to make it as their next ad slogan.) The V&A has already established an exhibition of ER logos and artefacts. The museum has even acquired a child’s hi-vis jacket, worn during an Extinction Rebellion protest, which will go on display at the its Museum of Childhood as part of a display about how the movement has engaged with families, accompanied by “a programme of workshops.”
So while its methods would be familiar to any savvy corporate marketer, where it differs from most orthodox organisations is in its aims which are properly subversive. It seeks to undermine the power and authority of the established system and institutions. It is quite clear to ER where the fault lies for the earth’s ecological ills – capitalism. The ER credo is quite certain that the free market – which is usually referred to by activists as neo-liberalism – will inevitably destroy life on earth and therefore must be brought to an end. For ER even Marx’s dictatorship of the proletariat is not going far enough. Proletarians want 50 inch Samsung Tvs and a Nissan Qashqai.
It rejects economic growth per se because we cannot afford to continue to use the earth’s resources as we have since the beginning of industrialisation. It’s important to realise, and ER is quite explicit about this goal, that it’s aim is to replace Western capitalism and liberal democracy with another – not yet fully fleshed-out – system involving citizen’s assemblies. Other suggestions to do something about carbon are given short shrift. Dr Gail Bradbrook, Hallam’s co-founder, when she was summoned to parliament’s Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee in June 2019 and asked about nuclear power replied: “given that many credible commentators talk about the collapse of civilisation, how are we going to manage nuclear power stations in the face of a civilisation collapse?” [They sure made a great job of it at Chernobyl as the Soviet empire disintegrated.]
Roger Hallam writes in This is Not a Drill – An Extinction rebellion handbook (Penguin £7.99)
“We have to be clear. Conventional campaigning does not work. Sending emails, giving money to NGOs, going on A to B marches…(have) failed to bring about the necessary change.”
In its Declaration of Rebellion, ER states: “The wilful complicity displayed by our government has shattered meaningful democracy and cast aside the common interest in favour of short-term gain and private profit….we hereby declare the bonds of the social contract to be null and void…we call upon every principled and peaceful citizen to rise with us.”
That’s all well and good, but the problem is that ER’s proposed solutions – such as they are – simply aren’t workable. Getting to net zero by 2025 – one of its three key aims remember – has been described by the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit as “an ambition that technically, economically and politically has absolutely no chance of being fulfilled.” It would require a cessation of all air travel, the scrapping of 38m cars and the disconnection of 26m gas boilers, all in six years. Are they just another bunch of puritan control freaks who want to stop people doing the things that they enjoy?
A seasoned branding expert might initially flinch when faced by Extinction Rebellion. But maybe that’s part of the attraction. It’s not polished. Firstly, there’s the slightly untidy handle itself. It could be read as a nihilistic imperative – “Rebel: And let’s all go extinct.” The sort of thing depressive, witless dinosaurs might have wished for before the great meteor strike actually fulfilled their heart’s desire.
Then there’s the logo. Designed for extreme ease of reproduction – and daubing on walls. With its thick black lines, often favoured by extreme rightwing organisations, it is literally akin to a cattle brand. It lacks the lightness of WWF’s cuddly panda or a Greenpeace dove. But there’s a reason for this. The extinction symbol represents the threat of holocene extinction (or sixth mass extinction) on earth; the circle represents the planet and the stylised hourglass is a warning that time is running out for many species. The recently published ER handbook further pushes this theme with each chapter ended by a skull in slightly Hell’s Angels iconography.
So is ER’s management and organisational structure as radical and effective as its marketing? WORK spoke to Chris Taylor who lives in Herefordshire and has been involved with ER since inception having been campaigning on global poverty and inequality for four decades. “What I love about ER is its experimentation with a model of self-organising systems. They find a way to harness the energy of people in a much stronger but more simple way that traditional organisational forms. This lack of traditional structure encourages people to be creative about their contribution. What are the gifts I can offer towards this purpose? When the purpose is crystal clear – a vision with a clear objective – you can let a self-organised system get you there.”
It might sound like anarchy, but actually there are echoes of the kind of flat, decentralised and non-hierarchical structures that have become increasingly popular popular in business.
“No. There are clear structures within ER – a set of nested interlocking circles. Circles to look at how the movement develops, circles to look at the culture and values of non-violence. Circles to look at training and running meetings. Circles to look at the health of the system and circles to plan action and strategy. The structure of circles helps manage the organism as a whole and then the local autonomous groups create the kind of self-organising system that just releases energy and potential into the movement.”
One can see what ER is aiming at here – power-devolved, holacratic businesses like the Dutch social care organisation Burtzoorg and online shoe retailer Zappos. Zappos defines holacracy as “a predefined set of rules and processes, checks and balances, and guidelines that an organization can use to help them become self-managed and self-organized by giving every employee (instead of just management) the power to innovate, make changes, and have a voice.” But these models are very hard to control, and are not spreading as fast as their boosters hoped. Even where they have been adopted, results are inconclusive.
And even the most progressive business might baulk at ER-style (non) leadership. “There are founders who set it up who came from Rising Up [Hallam and Bradbrook] and they carry some gravitas because they were the people who initiated things. I’m somewhere in the circle of Influence and Governance.” What about discipline? The issue of whether, for example, to disrupt Heathrow airport with drones this summer caused schisms within the higher echelons of ER.
Although it has been very careful to maintain it’s non-violent position, accidents can happen and it isn’t at all clear how ER would cope if someone was badly hurt or even killed as a result of its protests. And there is the chance that if public opinion goes against ER, then the police will become much less tolerant of public order offences and start shutting down protest much faster. Many say that its ultimately unsuccessful progenitor the Occupy movement failed because of its rigorous commitment to decision making by consensus which ground them to a halt.
When talking to Chris Taylor I wondered what Lenin, Ho Chi Min or indeed Gerry Adams would make of ER. After all, they might say, if you want to get shit done then power comes from the barrel of a gun. “That flies in the face of evidence,” says Taylor. “The research shows that non-violent movements are more successful at achieving their objectives than violent movements are. And that non-violence can be quicker. Think about how long the Vietnam war lasted. There is no separation of means and ends. So the means you employ in a process to achieve change become the outcomes that you end up with. If we want a world that respects the environment and respects all life then to achieve it we need a movement that is fiercely non-violent and fireceley compassionate.”
ER protestors have impressed many sceptics by making every attempt to clean up after themselves – even wearing Marigold gloves to scrub things down. They try very hard to engage with passers-by and are mostly terribly polite. But once democracy is pushed aside – even for the best of reasons, and non-violently to boot – the chance of it returning is slight. And the environmental records of totalitarian regimes are hardly better than that of their more liberal counterparts.
ER has calculated that it requires only 3.5% of the population to be “mobilised” if it is successfully to bring about change. The methodology behind this claim is quite arcane. But perhaps the core Extinction Rebels do not want to reach out. If the Rebellion continues to focus on attracting a relatively small group of activists they might open up a space for a mass movement which can appeal across political boundaries. In Europe, concern for the environment is by no means confined to those on the left of the political spectrum..
One could argue that this mass eco consciousness is already well underway. Just not happening fast enough. Many teens and young people are adding to the current woes of the High Street and fast fashion by rejecting Primark and taking up Ebay or charity shops to acquire second hand clothes. When one regards the scores of rails of distressed, listless, hanging inventory at TK Maxx one can see why. We really have sated ourselves on consumption in the West in the years since the 1980s. Every year, some 8m tonnes of plastic ends up in the oceans – according to some estimates, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the sea. When one hears that companies such as Unilever and P&G are toying with the concept of refillable receptacles for shampoo, shower gel, body wash etc one knows the eco movement is breaking through, and ER is part of this. Enlightened and opportunistic businesses know there is profit to be made from averting climate catastrophe. When one gets down to it a non-growth economy involving the “rewilding” of city streets and a command-led supply system just isn’t that appealing to most people. But ER could force business to speed up their positive action, show willing and take some risks pretty quick as the ice caps melt.
If such a mass movement does indeed come about and Western societies reject consumerism – actually making their own sandwiches from leftovers rather than ordering one from Uber Eats – the Extinction Rebels are likely to provide an important service. This will be due to what’s termed the radical flank effect when extremist groups make us aware of the problem, in turn forcing the authorities to work with more moderate movements to create answers.
By an interesting coincidence in May of this year the anniversary was marked of John Lennon and Yoko’s Ono’s famous “Bed-in for peace” protest in Room 1742 of the Queen Elizabeth Hotel In Montreal. For a week Lennon held court to hordes of media. In his pyjamas, Lennon repeated the aims of the bed-in: to encourage peaceful resolution of all human affairs; to condemn violence in all its forms; to persuade onlookers of the power of the small gesture. This is what they could do for peace, he said; perhaps we could think of another way to help. “Stop asking us if you think it is going to work,” said Lennon in an exasperated moment. “Do something yourself.” This is the selfsame message of ER in 2019 – take two weeks off work and head for the barricades.
At the end of the week Lennon composed “Give Peace a Chance”. The idea of peace, he said, needed to be “sold like soap… with gimmicks and salesmanship”. It needed to appeal to housewives and children, without intellectualism, then adding,“We’re humorists… that’s John and Yoko, and we stand a better chance under that guise, because all the serious people, like Martin Luther King, and Kennedy, and Gandhi, got shot….”
We can all smile sadly, and not just because we know that Lennon got shot too in the end. But as we’ve wasted the last three years brawling among ourselves about Brexit we’ve lost valuable time in which to do anything about the clear and present climate dangers of which ER warns. Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England has said billions are there to be made from global warming. And he’s correct. Ultimately the carrot is more effective than the stick – it’s high time that business took some of ER’s lessons in engaging hearts and minds, and combined them with the profit motives’ proven and powerful incentive to change.
Here are the Ten Crowd-Sourced, Inclusive Principles, according to ER:
- we have a shared vision of change
Creating a world that is fit for generations to come.
- we set our mission on what is necessary
Mobilising 3.5% of the population to achieve system change – using ideas such as “Momentum-driven organising” to achieve this.
- we need a regenerative culture
Creating a culture which is healthy, resilient and adaptable.
- we openly challenge ourselves and our toxic system
Leaving our comfort zones to take action for change.
- we value reflecting and learning
Following a cycle of action, reflection, learning, and planning for more action. Learning from other movements and contexts as well as our own experiences.
- we welcome everyone and every part of everyone
Working actively to create safer and more accessible spaces.
- we actively mitigate for power
Breaking down hierarchies of power for more equitable participation.
- we avoid blaming and shaming
We live in a toxic system, but no one individual is to blame.
- we are a non-violent network
Using non-violent strategy and tactics as the most effective way to bring about change.
- we are based on autonomy and decentralisation
We collectively create the structures we need to challenge power. Anyone who follows these core principles and values can take action in the name of Extinction Rebellion.