Some conflicts may explode overnight, sometimes driven by surprise moves from the players and grabbing the immediate world’s attention. Others brew steadily and slowly, painfully highlighting the lack of political inability or will to manage what seems inevitable.
“We’re fucked” is a popular slogan used by Extinction Rebellion, also known as XR. This movement, founded in late 2018 attempts to raise awareness about the damage that the world’s continuing commitment to fossil fuels are doing to the earth, and indeed climate change, resulting to an all-time high rising sea levels, the warming of the earth, and the rise of carbon emissions. The group blames governments, and ultimately neoliberal capitalism, for repeatedly ignoring decades worth of scientific data, leading to a climate breakdown. In the UK, their demands are threefold: the government must declare a climate emergency; the country must legally commit to reducing carbon emissions to net zero by 2025; and a citizen-run assembly must be created to oversee these needed changes (BBC News, 2022). XR’s does not present an optimistic view on the future of humanity but rather imply a vision of a post-apocalyptic world surrounded by death. As Matthew Green, stated in 2019: “The word ‘extinction’ in the movement’s title isn’t just referring to plants, insects, and animals. It means us.”
Its message has tentacles. The “Just Stop Oil” movement is the youthful offspring movement of XR, using more extreme and in-your-face tactics to get their message across. Their work has grabbed headlines in recent years, through acts such as smearing food on the Mona Lisa, to cementing themselves on main motorways in countries including the UK and Germany. Recently, a part of the public opinion has been asking: how do we view these groups? With such a vital message, are disruption tactics the only thing left to do? The response from the movement is that nothing else has worked, so what are we left with but this? Undoubtedly the most controversial climate protest group, “Just Stop Oil” has divided the nation. Through utopian lenses, this article unpacks the message behind these groups, offering a hopeful outlook on an otherwise bleak subject.
Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil: A Disruptive Utopianism
Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil’s bodies-in-the-street protests represent a form of utopianism. Known for their disruptive tactics that often bring cities to a standstill, the act of putting physical bodies in the streets is a form of utopianism. Verity Burgmann discusses that “utopianism is most relevant to social movement mobilisation when understood not just as thought but also as action” (Burgmann 2012). To be heard, one must demand action and a better future, and this must be done through active direct participation. Burgmann also emphasizes Fran Shor’s argument that utopianism is not only theoretical but also involves action to enable the criticism of values, showing us the evident utopian characteristic of XR: mass protesting and the blocking of streets as a tactic, such as blocking the road leading to the airport of the largest private jet facility in Europe, demanding an end to private jets. By occupying the space with protesters, the movement exemplifies disruptive utopianism as a way of upsetting the norms of the current society to provide the possibility of a brighter future. Anna Friberg discusses how “the actions of the activist groups are about disrupting the present rather than imposing blueprints” (Friberg 2002), and this is because social movements such as those discussed only have an ever-changing vision of the future; striving to offer alternatives to the present rather than unrealistic perfection.
Furthermore, Helen McKnight (2020) adds to the discussion of the disruptive actions and nature of social movements of the types of XR and Just Stop Oil, arguing that spontaneous “acts of resistance” are nano-utopian moments. She also finds influence from Bloch’s utopia of striving for a better world, and a society that looks forward. There is a Blochian notion of a potential future that is present in the current. This is hidden in our subconscious. McKnight argues that this rises out of us in the form of nano-utopian moments, allowing us to pave the way for spontaneous, unthought actions: the so-called ‘unexpected pre-conscious emergence’ (McKnight 2020). She believes that the nano-utopian ‘category’ presents these acts of resistance by social movements as “accelerated processes of self-organisation that appear to arise out of chaotic situations or breakdown” (McKnight 2020). These spontaneous acts of resistance are in essence utopian and McKnight describes the nano-utopian moment as having the potential to birth a new society with a fairer and better ordering for the people in it, which disrupts and changes the current society and challenging existing orders, opening the door for a potentially new and better ones. This, however, is only a potential consequence of these ‘nano-utopian moments’. Therefore, spontaneous acts of protest, demonstrate the disruption of the current order of society, and are examples of this type of activism: “disrupting one system”, whilst potentially creating the possibility of “hope for a fairer ordering of the world for the participants” (McKnight 2020).
Upon analysis of XR and Just Stop Oil’s actions, it must be argued that they fit well within a nano-utopian framework. Likewise, McKnight argues that the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests with their “explosion of radical practices of care, artistic projects, distanced protests, and community activity” lend themselves nicely to such a framework. When we compare Black Lives Matter to our climate movement, we see similar results: soon after damning reports from the intergovernmental climate panel in 2018 (Gunia, 2019) describing the destruction soon awaiting us, mass mobilisation by XR occurred. This so-called explosion of mobilisation, which as described involved the occupation of endless roads in London and artistic expression through costumes and banners, soon resulted in the UK government declaring a climate emergency. Also, the UK government announced a “legally binding target for net zero carbon emissions by 2050” (Nugent 2020). All these protests, therefore, have led to the implementation of action that will strive to better our future. By disrupting one system, XR has opened the door to a new horizon of hope.
Bloch and Reimagining a Post-Apocalyptic Rhetoric
A fitting analytical approach to a study of the nature of XR and Just Stop Oil is found through the lens of Ernst Bloch’s idea of utopia. A pivotal point in Bloch’s theory revolves around the idea of hope and longing. Bloch believes that the constant idea that humans can fathom something better than what they are currently experiencing motivates the creation of a better reality. This is evident in his work in the Principle of Hope (1995), describing “expectation, hope, intention towards a possibility that has still not become: this is not only a basic feature of human consciousness, but concretely corrected and grasped, a basic determination within objective reality as a whole”. This is significant in the discussion of political and environmental protest movements as it shows their fundamental drive: that there is still hope for what we can become. This idea of hope and longing is inherent in humans and Bloch describes it as a utopian impulse. Anna Friberg (2022) further impeccably describes Bloch’s utopian ideal using the word ‘possibility’. This idea of possibility conveys a potential future ideal. Friberg writes that it is “fundamental to Bloch’s argument that the world is essentially unfinished and in a process of becoming and that the future is indeterminate and consequently constitutes a realm of possibilities” (Friberg 2022). This shows the significance of Bloch’s utopia concerning environmental movements; they all contain connotations of hope, even if these are not apparent. In specific relation to XR and Just Stop Oil, this study finds that one must delve further into their messages and protests to find their true vision of hope due to the largely pessimistic outlook that they originally presented.
It cannot be denied that, at face value, XR and Just Stop Oil do not resemble the hopeful and positive nature of utopianism. Through their use of post-apocalyptic language and imagery, including slogans of “We’re fucked”, one would not be wrong to argue that there could not possibly be a utopian ideal within these movements. However, upon further examination and analysis, it can be determined that these movements are utopian. Through the application of Bloch’s idea of a loss of the future, it is possible to see that these movements remain hopeful of a future ideal, as their actions represents the idea of hope; that it is not too late for us. Finally, through the tactics implemented by XR Just Stop Oil a form of disruptive utopianism is realised. To create a chance for a better future, one must break down the walls of the present order. A question that we are left with at the end of this is: Are they the heroes of this story, or the villains? I will let you decide.
BBC News. (2022). What is Extinction Rebellion and what does it want? [online] Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-48607989
Bloch, E. (1995) The Principle of Hope, Cambridge, Massachusetts. The MIT Press
Burgmann, V. (2012) “Imagining the end of capitalism: ‘The practical-political value of utopian thinking’ for the climate movement.” Australian Political Studies Association Conference, University of Tasmania, Hobart
Friberg, A. (2022). ‘On the need for (con) temporary utopias: Temporal reflections on the climate rhetoric of environmental youth movements’ Time & Society
, 31(1) pp. 48–68
Friberg, A. (2022). “Disrupting the Present and Opening the Future: Extinction Rebellion, Fridays For Future, and the Disruptive Utopian Method” Utopian Studies 33 (1): 1–17.
Green, M (2019). ‘Extinction Rebellion: Inside the New Climate Crisis’, The Financial Times. 11. 04. 19.
Gunia, A. (2019) “The U.K. Has Officially Declared a Climate ‘Emergency’”. Time. 02/05/2019
McKnight, H, (2020). “Chaos and Hope: Nano-Utopian Moments of Activist Self-Organization” Excursions Volume 10, (1)
Nugent, C. (2020). “A Revolution’s Evolution: Inside Extinction Rebellion’s Attempt to Reform Its Climate Activism” Time. 09/07/2020.