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Extinction Rebellion calls for financial disobedience

“Money Rebellion” campaign calls for debt and tax strikes, targeting banks and investors that fund fossil-fuel companies. Do debt strikes work?

Illustration by Benoit Tardif

In fall 2018, London faced a blizzard of fierce, smart protests. In October, a thousand people occupied the street in front of the fabled Houses of Parliament. In November, activists blockaded government offices, glued themselves to the gates of Downing Street, blocked traffic and occupied five bridges over the River Thames.

That was the public’s introduction to Extinction Rebellion (XR), a direct-action group inspired by 100 British academics and scientists who publicly expressed concerns about the environmental crisis and their disgust with society’s failure to confront it. XR demands that the U.K. government tell the truth about climate and reduce carbon emissions to net-zero by 2025.

Traffic stopped. Tempers flared. Hundreds were arrested. While most of XR’s demands weren’t met, the protests did succeed in pressuring the U.K. into becoming the first country to declare a national climate emergency. It also succeeded in spawning a global movement, including Extinction Rebellion Canada, which major blockaded bridges across Canada in late 2019 (and traffic in Vancouver just last week).

Now Extinction Rebellion is pushing a more specific form of protest: financial disobedience. Its “Money Rebellion” targets banks and investors that fund fossil-fuel companies. “Our political economy is hardwired to resist the change needed,” XR’s latest manifesto declares. “It can only continue to grow beyond planetary limits, deepen inequality and drive extinction. It is going to collapse and will take us down with it.”

To save the world, XR is promoting debt and tax strikes, in which supporters hold back a small portion of their debt and tax payments (even just £5) and send those sums instead to groups fighting for climate relief.

Target number one is Barclays, which XR calls “the worst European bank” for funding fossil fuels and industrial animal agriculture.

Do debt strikes work? XR cites past successes such as Gandhi’s resistance to India’s Salt Tax and the 1990 U.K. poll-tax protests (which resulted in the withdrawal of an unpopular head tax introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives, and her resignation as party leader).

XR admits “debt rebels” can face legal jeopardy, but it assures timid rebels that “any financial disobedience will be conditional on the participation of thousands of fellow rebels, creating safer conditions for taking action.” XR rebels can also access a legal briefing kit.

A version of this story appeared in the Winter Issue of Corporate Knights magazine.

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