Extinction Rebellion: It's time for NGOs to adopt a model of rebellion

As we enter the 'ecological end game', the world's biggest environmental charities face a choice between innovation and extinction

The first school climate change strike, February 2019 (Photograph: Terry Matthews)
The first school climate change strike, February 2019 (Photograph: Terry Matthews)

The UN Secretary-General calls climate change a "direct existential threat"; wildfires burn across the UK in winter. Even in the comparatively sheltered western world, ordinary people are beginning to see that we face an emergency unlike any other.

And this has big implications for NGOs. Where once monthly subscriptions and online petitions were generally seen as enough, this is no longer the case, especially on the back of a long decline in trust.

Instead of paying for change, conscientious citizens across the western world are starting to make change of their own. In just six months we’ve seen the meteoric rise of the Sunrise Movement, the young climate strikers and Extinction Rebellion. As British schoolchildren showed on 15 February, and as they’ll prove again today, the trend towards mass civil disobedience is only increasing.

The question faced by NGOs is whether to join and support this fresh tide of social change, or to stick with tried-and-tested methods.

It might be worth pointing out that the methods thus tested haven’t been entirely successful: despite the heroic efforts of so many selfless staff, environmental NGOs still saw global carbon emissions grow by 60 per cent since 1990. In roughly the same period the WWF has reported an average decline in vertebrate populations of 60 per cent – part of the planet’s sixth mass-extinction event, an event that carries a serious risk of including the human race as feedback loops take the climate beyond our control.

It goes without saying that this apocalyptic trajectory involves more than NGOs: there is a much bigger picture involving capitalism, neo-colonialism and extractivism. Changing course will not be a question of apportioning blame, but of embracing change. As we roar towards 3° warming, sticking with business as usual looks like the most radical proposition there is, whatever your sector: a world with a billion migrants will leave no cause untouched by catastrophe.

The status quo is unsupportable, but nor will change be easy. There will be many who see the third sector as a fixed entity that can exist and operate only in particular ways, rightly citing legal, bureaucratic and regulatory concerns as impediments to sweeping changes. At the same time, vested interests will fight to maintain a system they can understand and (for motives however good) control.

But adapting to this new activist terrain could have huge advantages, both for NGOs and the world at large. A model based more on decentralised empowerment has the potential to spread much faster than conventional top-down structures, as Extinction Rebellion’s quadruple-figure growth in November can attest. This could bring about rapid positive change on far more than just the environment and could be a chance to win back the trust and sense of cultural and moral leadership once so particular to the third sector.

And, of course, the support of NGOs could bring enormous benefits to the new generation of "conscientious protectors". Funding and resources are the most obvious examples, but no less valuable would be the gifts of leadership and world-visioning: combining decades of experience and resilience with the new movements’ vitality and reach could well be humanity’s best hope for building a truly better world.

Given all of this, we at Extinction Rebellion were glad to see Greenpeace and Amnesty International announce a new, more climate-centred and bottom-up direction. The question remains of whether these venerable organisations are capable of adapting sufficiently in the very short space of time we have left to take meaningful action. We sincerely hope that they can, and that they will join us as allies in April’s International Rebellion and all that follows.

Now is the time to join Extinction Rebellion. The planet needs you.

Extinction Rebellion exists to support and encourage acts of civil disobedience to change the political, economic and social landscape

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