By Tal Ben Yakir
— When COVID-19 hit The Netherlands back in March, Amsterdam’s branch of Extinction Rebellion (XR) did not engage in the public discussions on COVID-19. Now, months later, members disagree on whether XR has done enough to acknowledge COVID-19 and its role in the climate crisis. Some members claim XR should have emphasized the connection between pandemics and climate change and used it to call more attention to their cause.
Not reacting more strongly to the pandemic is viewed by some XR members as a mistake and a missed opportunity. According to these members, XR’s activities should garner the attention of the government and the public in order to promote XR’s cause — halting the effects of climate change. These members therefore believe that connecting the climate crisis to the pandemic could have allowed XR to benefit from the popularity of discussions about COVID-19 and reach a wider audience with their message. Other members disagree; they find that focussing the discussion around the pandemic would distract from XR’s original demands.
Mara Hanssen, a member of XR, stresses that pandemics are caused by socio-environmental problems. “Loss of biodiversity leads to increased contact between humans and animals, for example through deforestation,” she says. “This makes it easier for zoonotic viruses like COVID-19 to jump from animals to humans.” In other words, COVID-19 is according to Hanssen a consequence of the climate crisis. Hanssen furthermore claims that although XR’s members are aware of the connection between COVID-19 and sustainability, XR as an organization does not use their platform to educate people on that as much as they should.
Daan and Katy, who are also members of XR but requested to leave out their surnames, agree with Hanssen. Daan explains that XR has three main demands, all aimed at challenging governments to do more in the fight against the climate crisis. He states that XR should have been more proactive in using COVID-19 as an extra incentive to persuade the government to implement these changes.
Hanssen explains that it is hard to tell if many members share her opinion. XR prizes itself on being a democratic, decentralised movement, meaning that many different people with varying ideologies shape what the movement is and does. This means that members will often disagree with the organisation’s methods, and with one another.
Some of these other members think that XR did the right thing by not reconstructing their demands around COVID-19. Sascha Sylbing, also an XR member, does not believe that the organisation’s lack of emphasis on COVID-19 in relation to climate is a missed opportunity. She explains that this approach was a conscious choice made by a majority of some of the more involved members of XR. Other movements and organisations were already stressing the connection, she observes, and it is not XR’s job to reiterate what others are saying. Instead, its members decided to focus on adapting their methods of protesting, for instance by handing out facemasks with their logo on it or having socially distanced sit-ins.
When asked about the disagreement within the movement, Hanssen says it happens more often. “XR does not have one defining ideology,” she explains. She admits that this sometimes leads to a bit of chaos, but she also believes it is what makes XR strong.