Extinction Rebellion and Citizens Assemblies

Extinction Rebellion and Citizens Assemblies

by John M Repp

 “only nonviolent rebellion can now stop climate breakdown and social collapse” is the subtitle of the book: Common Sense for the 21st Century by Roger Hallam (London: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2019)

Roger Hallam writes that real change happens when ordinary people break the law i.e., do nonviolent direct action. He gives his book a title that reminds us of Tom Paine’s Common Sense (January 1776) which sparked the American revolution. The book reads like a short 95-page instruction manual for a nonviolent revolution. Hallam uses “reverse engineering”, imagining what a successful nonviolent revolution would look like and then works back to the steps and preparations needed to achieve it. He means revolution literally: the current political class and political structure will be removed if the Extinction Rebellion succeeds with its highest goals.

The existential issue is the approaching collapse of most of the earth’s ecological and political systems due to climate change combined with extreme inequality and political corruption. (p. 55) This is happening all over the world. Our current leaders refuse to do what is necessary at the scale needed to save millions of people from eventual death. It is more than heat waves and the rising ocean; George Monbiot tells us that climate change will affect our ability to produce enough food and starvation will be widespread. Hallam focuses on England and the book was written four years ago, but most of the ideas apply to the United States of today.

We in Western Washington Fellowship of Reconciliation and the SNOW coalition knew a few of the steps since we tried to apply them to stop the invasion and war in Iraq, and later, many of us lived through Occupy Wall Street. We know about training activists in nonviolence (Mike Yarrow Peace Fellowship). We know that sometimes we must bring tents in case an occupation goes beyond a day (Occupy Wallstreet). We know how to reach out to artists and musicians to make the atmosphere positive.

Some leaders meet with the police beforehand to establish trust. We tell them we will be nonviolent, and we assure them we know they have a job to do, which is to arrest us. We say clearly that we intend to break the law. There are even a few paragraphs about using direct action to push NGO’s and other potential allies to join the action.

We develop affinity groups of 8 to 12 people who know each other and support each other. We had neighborhood groups in SNOW.  

According to Hallam, in an action, several people of each affinity group will not get arrested so they can support those of the group who do. There will be a series of smaller actions where people will be jailed to get national publicity leading up to the bigger action. This is how to build a campaign as part of the movement. Hallam writes “that radical change is primarily a numbers game.” (p.33) He knows that to get the number of people needed for a mobilization, the planning cannot be done secretly. Despite the focus on direct action, the goal is to change the minds of as many people as possible.

What happens after the big, many layered actions shake up the government? Hallam introduces us to Citizens’ Assemblies. Chosen by a random process of selecting a few citizens from all sectors of society, a process called sortition, Citizens’ Assemblies will discuss the issues that are dividing a society like abortion in the case of Ireland, or with Extinction Rebellion, what to do about climate change.  

We in the United States use a form of sortition when we pick juries and when we try to survey what people are thinking in opinion polling. Sortition has been used in situations where the difference between the parties on an issue is very great and the parties are not really speaking to each other. That is where we are with the issue of climate change.

Hallam writes: “The transition that will be shown to be necessary would be political death for any one party should they suggest the changes that will be required.” (p. 75) This is a most important consideration and a reason why democracies with elections as the key institution cannot deal with climate change. Would the people vote for policies that lessen their standard of living? Extinction Rebellion thinks we will need to cut in half our standard of living to survive the warming world. Leveling out people’s standard of living is the only way to make such a change palatable.

The ordinary citizens that sit as the Citizen’ Assembly are presented with an issue like “Shall we legalize abortion in our country?” for example, in the case of Ireland. The Assembly is told by experts the facts that support each side of the issue. They can ask for more resources or information. They then take as much time as necessary to discuss among themselves the issue until they are ready to propose their position and announce it to the larger public. They need a consensus to make a report, usually 70% or more.

This new kind of political institution (i.e. Citizen’s Assembly) has been used in Europe to solve difficult problems but is not very well known the United States. Hallam writes: “The Citizens’ Assembly system answers the age-old question of ‘Who decides?’ and represents as big a political shift as the transition from aristocratic rule to representational democracy.” (p. 78) In the United States, there is now a struggle over voting; some wanting to make it harder to vote, some wanting to make it easier; so, having Citizen’s Assemblies make the final decisions may be too big a step here. There is an intermediate step that has been used in Europe, where Citizen’s Assemblies decisions have been given to elected leaders and the elected leaders make the final decision.

The reason for this change to using Citizen’s Assemblies to decide issues is that wealthy political activists in our country have figured out how to game the “democratic systems” we have now, using lobbying, control of mass media networks, now troll farms to influence social media, and large campaign contributions to politicians. It has resulted in our political systems being paralyzed so our system cannot deal with such a difficult problem as climate change.