Craig Dearden-Phillips: We can learn much from Extinction Rebellion

The climate change protests are about the unleashing of voice and provide opportunities for charities to claim a role

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

In just a few weeks, a relatively small, decentralised, low-budget organisation has, quite possibly, changed the world.

Extinction Rebellion has no trendy London HQ, no inside track to government, no slick fundraising arm.

What it does have, however, is a clear message, brilliant imagination and an ability to make all of us think afresh about an existing issue.

It’s not possible to predict, but I sense that, rather like the Occupy movement, Extinction Rebellion might succeed in changing the norms for how we all think about the environment. 

How so? In his new book How Change Happens, the US scholar Cass Sunstein focuses on the crucial role played by social norms – and on their frequent collapse. This arises from an unleashing of views previously unvoiced: in this case, mainly those of the young. Witness also the Me Too movement or the extraordinary changes in social attitudes to sexuality in the past two decades.

Extinction Rebellion is about this unleashing of voice. Pink boats on Oxford Street remind all of us, in a pithy way, that the science shows climate change is real and current efforts by government and charities are simply not proportionate to the challenge. 

Extinction Rebellion is also cleverly challenging all of us about how we live our daily lives: our regular flights to sunny places, our nice houses, even our gas-burning ovens and boilers. 

So what can charities learn from Extinction Rebellion? Three things. First is that a clear message is critical. The message "we are all going to die" might seem crass, but it’s made all of us think.

Second is that decentralised, bottom-up action – albeit led mainly by middle-class white people – is often more effective than top-down, behind-the-scenes influencing when it comes to forcing politicians to act in new ways. 

Third is that imagination is just as important as resources in terms of unleashing mass opinion. 

Have any opportunities been created for charities? Yes. The boring business of implementing change is always slow and detailed. This is where charitable organisations with deep skill in working with government and business can be useful. Someone has to make new laws and write new regulations. These are not produced by someone glued to a bus.

But they are being written because of that person, and that is perhaps the greatest lesson of all. 

Craig Dearden-Phillips is an independent adviser to chief executives and boards, and leads Social Club, a network of social purpose leaders

 

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