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Welcome to the new age of activism where business is the model - and the target


When Extinction Rebellion produces stunts like Wednesday’s fishy assault on Queensland Parliament, it’s more than moral outrage or youthful rebellion. It’s really quite clever, writes John McCarthy

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There’s a predictable response when Extinction Rebellion carries out its stunts which always seem to include someone glueing themselves to something: awnings, roads, railings etc. Most recently it was the Parliamentary Annexe and also included sticking dead fish on the fence of parliament.

These protests justifiably get people angry about the interruption and delays they cause and others roll their eyes at this sort of activity and tut-tut about how senseless it all is, but that’s really misinterpreting the intent.

If you think XR (the shorthand for Extinction Rebellion) was just another ratbag group of middle class kids on a rebellion kick, think again. This group is different.

It’s part of a new wave of activism which adopted the core rules of business and marketing – and what they really want is a piece of your conversation.

To achieve that they and some other groups are using the tools of business to get the job done.

Activist groups in Brisbane probably started down this road before XR. They used the tools of business, like litigation, to frustrate the development of coal mines and credit where it’s due because it worked to the huge expense of companies like Adani and New Hope. Watching it unfold was over months and years was an insight into how they have changed the rules of the game.

The evolution of activism means that today they have detailed strategic plans, pro bono lawyers and there is even an activist school in Melbourne, CounterAct, which provides training and educational resources for activism.

Friends of the Earth has the affiliated Market Forces that does analysis and tracks businesses and their investments. IEEFA has become a go-to organisation for economic analysis of fossil fuels.

The environmental movement is no longer a rag tag collection of idealists and this is why business has been caught napping.

XR believes it doesn’t have to change everyone’s mind. It says that mobilising 3.5 per cent of the population is what’s needed to achieve system change and it uses “momentum-driven organising” to achieve this. Sounds like marketing, doesn’t it?

XR was founded by UK activist Gail Bradbrook and there’s a bit of folklore about how she came up with the idea after a bad trip on some psychedelics during a visit to Costa Rica when she was given “the codes’’ to resistance.

I’m not convinced that isn’t just a part of marketing, but it’s a good story. The fact that she is a coal miner’s daughter just makes it better (marketing again).

I’ve watched activist groups for about 20 years, right through the first attempts to take on the mining sector, then Drew Hutton’s disruptive tilt at coal seam gas and then on to the anti-coal Galilee Basin protests.

Some of the stunts pulled over the years have been stupid and dangerous, some represented a much broader and genuinely-held belief that we were plummeting into the abyss but XR is something else. Its mantra is not to be like all the other groups that have become mainstream. Moving the dial and getting arrested is part of the strategy.

But what it really wants is your conversation and they could not care less what the general public thinks about them. 

Their role is to have you talk about them when you’re standing around the barbecue or water cooler. What you say about them is quite irrelevant, it’s the action of debate that is key.

Surveys in Britain have found that for some time after an XR protest, the group’s name is at the top of the list when people are asked to name environmental protest groups. That’s a marketer’s dream.

It gets the attention of the younger generation, many of whom are disaffected by the lack of real action by society. Parents get involved too.

On one of my recent train commutes into Brisbane a middle aged woman travelling from the Sunshine Coast got up from her seat and started walking around the carriage handing out XR leaflets and talking to people about climate change.

She could not care less about the horror on the faces of people on the train who were aghast that their commute was so rudely interrupted. She sat down and talked to a friend about how she got a conversation started.

So why don’t the more high profile environmental groups start getting more radical as the environmental problems get worse? It’s probably not well known but many of them are charities and enjoy all the benefits of the no-tax status.

There are rules that go with that. Getting involved in actions where people are arrested could lead to them losing that status. Like any business, survival is key. 

That’s why there are the more hard core groups lying in front of Adani’s bulldozers or gluing themselves to government buildings. They don’t have the charity status and are not as restricted.

It’s a sort of out-sourcing of activism, another tool of business.

Welcome to the new age of activism.


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