Extinction Rebellion (XR) has captured the attention of millions of people around the world. In the Netherlands, the young generation sees hope in XR due to its ability to reach those in power. Following the footsteps of student groups throughout the country, on April 26th, students and staff at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague joined the XR protests. They see this as an important opportunity to initiate a deeper conversation about possible sustainable future(s). ISS students suggest a dialogue between degrowth and XR: these movements are complementary and can strengthen each other.

By Leila Rezvani and Fleur Zantvoort

A bridge turned into an urban jungle/playground: there were no daily commuters rushing to work anymore, instead Oxford Circus was occupied by a pink boat in by the name of Berta Cáceres and climate activists having breakfast. As thousands of people came together to severely disrupt London life for 10 days, Extinction Rebellion (XR) established itself as the newest face of climate activism in Europe and beyond. Acting under the core tenets of non-violent civil disobedience and decentralised organising, XR chapters are popping up like mushrooms as the movement gains ground on all continents. In The Netherlands, XR gained national attention when they welcomed the Royal Family to “Amersfoort by the Sea” during Kingsday celebrations.

Oxford Circus occupied by a pink boat and climate activists

Why should XR care about degrowth?

While XR articulates a clear set of demands, some of the concrete initiatives and proposals for change could benefit from a degrowth perspective. Degrowth questions the possibility of sustained economic growth on a finite planet, contending that current levels of consumption in the Western world exceed planetary limits and cannot be generalized globally. This recognition leads degrowth thinkers and practitioners to explore concrete ways to shrink the social metabolism. Some of the these include voluntary reductions in consumption, a basic income, fewer working hours, sharing economies, and re-localized production and consumption of food, energy, housing and transportation.

XR does already propose a number of solutions to the climate crisis, including the ‘Green New Deal’ and ‘One Million Climate Jobs’. However, many of these initiatives fail to name economic growth as a central cause of our current predicament, instead assuming that growth and environmental impact can decouple through widespread use of green technology. Degrowth thinkers have long recognized that growth inherently entails increased resource extraction, whether it is “green” or not, and that often emissions and externalities are merely outsourced when decoupling does occur. By providing XR with the theory and evidence to back up a critique of the capitalist, growth-based system, including its inherent contradictions and productions of inequality, degrowth can add strength and coherence to the movement.

Besides providing concrete proposals to implement the systemic change XR strives for, the rich intellectual underpinnings of degrowth could also lend themselves to help XR sharpen its demands. Degrowth has the potential to bridge different traditions of thought, including feminist and decolonial approaches to the environment and the economy. By emphasising the ecological limits to economic development, degrowth inherently invokes questions of justice, responsibility and debt in relation to climate change, and situates it within its long genealogy of capitalist extraction and dispossession of land and resources. This historical perspective is important for XR, as the movement has acknowledged the need to move beyond its white, urban, middle-class bias. Furthermore,  climate justice collectives have urged XR to take processes of colonial appropriation and the interdependency of racism, patriarchy and capitalism seriously. In addition, degrowth links to feminist notions of care and the commons and anarchist concerns for autonomy that are closely aligned with XR’s own principles of regenerative culture. Adding degrowth to XR’s list of “possible solutions” can thus help guide the way towards an empirically and theoretically grounded vision for prospering future societies.

Students and staff at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague stage a die-in

Why should degrowth movement care about XR?

XR has demonstrated its ability to capture public and government attention through creative, non-violent acts of disruption. This energy and momentum can provide a vehicle by which the demands of degrowth are brought to those with the power to affect policy and set in motion necessary changes. XR’s global network could allow for degrowth demands to be tailored to national and local realities while ensuring that action is taken in more than a piecemeal fashion. Many ‘degrowers’ debate whether it is possible to choose to degrow, or if it must occur in the context of a crisis - XR may be the force for a chosen, organized, just and joyful scaling down of the economy.

In addition to providing the means for action, XR’s strength of mass mobilisation has another potential in store for degrowth academics and activists. Since XR draws people from diverse backgrounds (although not yet diverse enough!), it provides the opportune space to facilitate the dialogue around what a degrowth world would look like. XR’s third demand, to establish a Citizen’s Assembly for decision-making related to climate and ecological justice, closely connects to this purpose. In addition, the movement provides an opportunity to put degrowth into practice in a way that it is highly scalable through XR’s self-organising structure. A dialogue between degrowth and XR’s regenerative culture could provide the “prefigurative politics” needed to establish a future that is sustainable, prosperous and just for all living beings.

About the authors

As students of development studies, and young people inheriting a profoundly damaged but still beautiful world, we are searching for rigorous and grounded ways to criticize and rethink progress and growth. We are also in need of dramatic, systemic change and movements that are capable of speaking to those in power, while building the power that we as the people already have. We hope to find this critical combination in degrowth and XR.