Review – This Is Not A Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook

Suki Ferguson reviews the XR guide to climate activism

December 2, 2019 · 8 min read
Extinction Rebellion at Oxford Circus. By Mark Ramsay, under a CC BY 2.0 license

Extinction Rebellion (XR) is many things at once: a hopeful mass movement; a commuter’s nightmare; a source of inspiration; an apocalyptic kick up the arse. Within the UK climate movement, it has become a Rorschach test. For some, its shock doctrine ethos flirts with eco-fascism. For others, the actions have become their life’s calling. This Is Not A Drill has been written to clarify, inform, inspire and equip the people who are undecided yet interested in moving deeper into the climate action zeitgeist XR has ingeniously catalysed.

The book is loud and proud. Its hot pink cover is impossible to ignore, and pages of the text are dedicated to vivid woodcut imagery and all-caps messages. The book contains a wealth of essays, anecdotes, and advice. All are short and generally unfussy: no footnotes here. They are written by people from a variety of backgrounds, united through their concern over climate breakdown. An Indian farmer and a Californian firefighter offer their perspectives; individuals working in academia, climate science, politics and other fields weigh in too. These include Mohamed Nasheed, the former president of the Maldives; psychotherapist Susie Orbach; Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, an indigenous rights campaigner from the Mbororo community in Chad; and visionary economist Kate Raworth, among many others.

Notably, XR is working to develop a deeper understanding of climate justice and the causes of climate breakdown. The Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva writes a powerful foreword stating explicitly that ‘ecocide and genocide are one indivisible process’, pointing to colonialism’s ravaging motive by quoting US President Andrew Jackson’s 1833 call for ‘a superior race’ to triumph over native people in America. She and other contributors make it clear that colonialism and capitalism comprise a pincer movement that is destroying life as we know it. This lays important foundations for conversations about what an ecologically healthy and socially just future needs to consign to history.

Salutary reads

These big global overviews of climate breakdown and its impact on different communities are salutary reads for any reader. The more practical pieces that explore the logistics of effective direct action are excellent too. One, ‘Cultural Roadblocks’, shares the story behind how XR sourced a boat for activism purposes, and it conveys the mix of determination, absurdity, effort and camaraderie that collective action can involve. From branding textiles, to befriending journalists, to cooking on-site meals that won’t give everyone food poisoning, the best of these chapters share the qualities of being informal, smart, and motivating.

There is unexplored tension in the text. Horizontal self-organising is recommended throughout, yet the encouraged action, reiterated through a number of chapters, remains bafflingly prescriptive: disrupt transport in capital cities. Blocking bridges is a tactic, but is it the only option? According to This Is Not A Drill, it would seem so. The roots to this strategy can be found in the chapter written by XR co-founder Roger Hallam, where he states that disrupting cities is the only option: ‘That’s just the way it is.’ Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi, effective civil rights leaders whose work Hallam cites elsewhere, might have disagreed with this dogma; the Salt Marches in India and the Selma to Montgomery marches in the US, for example, were pivotal to their respective causes.

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It’s worth noting that Hallam has form in presenting opinion as fact. When interviewed on the Politics Theory Other podcast, he was challenged on the claim that ‘most prison officers are black’, which appeared in the (now-deleted) XR prison handbook. Hallam doubled down on the claim, saying, ‘That’s just an empirical fact. I mean, I’ve been to prison several times and that’s the fact of the matter.’ Given that, in reality, over 94 per cent of all UK prison officers are white, it seems wise to take Hallam’s other ‘empirical facts’ with a pinch of salt, city roadblocks as a means to liberation for all being one of them.

Most contributors wisely avoid this queasy romanticising of peculiarly XR views, though it does crop up in some pieces. One contributor states that ‘it is impossible to overstate the significance of where we are now,’ and brags about the ‘Easter Rebellion’ costing the city of London tens of millions of pounds. Another self-styled ‘Rebel’ offers a misty-eyed account of ‘hands [being] held together with love and superglue’ and an emotional police officer serenading arrestees with Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Meanwhile, the legal team chapter opening comes across as an unconvincing disclaimer for past errors around police relations (‘Extinction Rebellion is clear that the police continue to be structurally racist…’)

During the October Rebellion in London. By Garry Knight, under a Public Domain dedication

Dad’s Army-ish

XR’s other hallmark, a kind of Dad’s Army-ish tendency to dismiss other approaches because ‘There’s a war on, you know!’, emerges in these essays too. Mulishness is an essential trait when you are delivering a message that many would rather not hear, but the assertion that ‘Extinction Rebellion thinks beyond politics’ (unlike everyone who isn’t in XR) is the kind of sanctimony that most people would cross the street to avoid. This kind of messaging suggests that XR is still processing criticisms that their model is alienating to many.

This Is Not A Drill looks and feels well-calibrated towards an audience with disposable time, income and privilege. It’s not a bad strategy for a pressure group, but risky for a ‘beyond-politics’ mass movement. People living low- or no-wage existences, with more immediate survival concerns, do not seem to figure in XR’s plans, except perhaps as recipients of XR’s heroism. Black and brown climate activists repeatedly marginalised by XR will not find olive branches here. Instead, another XR co‐founder, Gail Bradbrook, says, ‘All the children are our children.’ The pink cover of This Is Not A Drill will be a status symbol to some and a red flag to others.

This Is Not A Drill is at its best when presenting overwhelming information in a clear, digestible way that moves readers towards re-assessing their personal and political (yes, political!) choices. Not everyone who reads it will block a road, but plenty will take valuable action of some form, feel more empowered to make individual changes without apology and know more about the seismic policies we must demand at a national level. The book is an encouraging and timely primer for those looking to join XR, but it also mythologises XR as the last word on survival in the age of climate breakdown. In reality, it is one of many essential groups, part of a much wider ecosystem of action. Starting points for people eager to act beyond voting, recycling and A-to-B marches include Go Fossil Free, Reclaim the Power, and the UK Student Climate Network, to name just a few. These groups empower people to intervene in ‘business as usual’ using a wide variety of effective tactics.

The final section begins with an exhortation: TIME TO STOP READING. And a diagram of how to block a road. It’s a clever editorial decision, but it is also a missed opportunity. A movement directory, much as it might pain some XR folk, could connect people with others who are already deep into the thinking and doing the work of climate justice. XR presents itself as the only show on the road. Issues of crediting others aside, this assumption breeds the saviour complex that currently limits XR’s appeal.

A revolution is happening, yes. But it needs to meaningfully communicate with people who don’t need to be saviours, and don’t care to be saved – people who care because they want to survive.

Suki Ferguson is a writer based in Hackney. This Is Not A Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook is published by Penguin.

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This article appears in our print issue, 225: Land, Labour, Liberty. Subscribe to Red Pepper today!


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