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January 7th, 2020

A Response to Roger Hallam’s Holocaust Remarks

Language has power. The very words we use shape our perception of the world and our place within it. This is why “Tell The Truth” is the very first demand of Extinction Rebellion. Through fearless speech, truth has the power to change hearts and minds. But without compassion, this power has the potential to cause real and lasting harm.

In an interview with Die Zeit on November 20th, 2019, Roger Hallam made insensitive and unacceptable comments that were widely perceived to be dismissive of the Holocaust. We wish to express our profound disappointment at the choice of words he made.

Hallam spoke in a personal capacity and cannot speak for the many diverse rebels in this global movement. Nevertheless, he has occupied a privileged role as co-founder and high-profile spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion UK, maintaining a disproportionate amount of power and influence. Many in the movement have looked up to him, read his work for inspiration, and watched his videos for explanations of XR principles and tactics. As such, his words have caused deep harm both inside and outside the movement. He has since apologized, stating that he did not intend to imply that the Holocaust was anything less than an “unspeakable horror”; yet, this does not erase the harm caused.

Extinction Rebellion is a decentralized movement that strives to promote healthy power dynamics within our networks that are based on trust, transparency, and accountability. Our principles include avoiding blaming and shaming; however, we also encourage rebels to take personal responsibility for their actions and seek to resolve conflicts through nonviolent communication.

Roger Hallam is not exempt from these principles, and we do not promote the idolization of any of our founders or spokespeople. Such idolization is dangerous and results in inflexible fundamentalism that stifles constructive criticism and self-reflection. We welcome the discussion that this controversy has generated, both within and beyond Extinction Rebellion, and we are committed to reflecting and learning how to best put our principles into practice. This is why an ongoing restorative process is taking place which includes gathering feedback from those impacted.

Extinction Rebellion’s principle of ‘welcoming everyone and every part of everyone’ means that there is no place for any form of discrimination in our movement. This includes sexism, racism, ableism, ageism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-islamism, and antisemitism.

Most of us have things to learn about our prejudices and biases, and we will inevitably get things wrong. We do not wish to ‘cancel’ people from our movement when they make these mistakes. Our regenerative culture means, in part, that we practice forgiveness towards each other and work towards reconciliation where possible. We do not grow stronger as a movement by scapegoating each other, but by upholding a spirit of fierce love and integrity, by reflecting on our individual and collective weaknesses, and by redeeming each other through engaging in the messy work of rebuilding trust.

However, a regenerative culture can only flourish if we first identify and name what sickens our cultures, then move actively to change those conditions. To compassionately recognize the truth about our cultures requires us to lean into discomfort and hard truths. It requires courage.

Ultimately, we are living through much more than a climate and ecological emergency. Across the world, we are facing a crisis of liberal democracy and the catastrophic failure of neoliberal capitalism. The continuous exploitation of people and nature for profit, benefiting only a wealthy and privileged minority, has led to societies that are increasingly polarized, with people estranged from each other and disconnected from the living world. In the absence of any meaningful political alternative, voters discontent with the status quo are turning to nationalist and far-right parties for solutions. These parties use times of crisis to consolidate their power, stoking fear and hate. As the climate crisis creates global political unrest and drives an unprecedented number of people from their homes, we are very likely to see an increase in ethnic hatred and xenophobia, as well as authoritarian regimes that will work to exploit these sentiments. Climate and ecological issues may themselves become the justification for horrifically inhumane policies. Despite vows of ‘never again’, atrocities all-too-similar to the Holocaust are very much at risk of occuring in the coming decades.

Roger Hallam’s controversial remarks were intended to bring attention to this risk and to communicate the unimaginable tragedy that is already unfolding in order to galvanize the public into collective action. In his words: “We are allowing our governments to willingly, and in full knowledge of the science, engage in genocide of our young people and those in the global south by refusing to take emergency action to reduce carbon emissions.”

Hallam is not the first nor the only person to use the word ‘genocide’ in this context. Nevertheless, many were upset with his choice, since it is a term usually reserved for the strategic and systematic destruction of an ethnic or religious group. They felt strongly that the climate and ecological crisis does not meet this criteria, and that Hallam’s use of ‘genocide’ only served to minimize the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust, as well as the specific nature of other genocides. We understand and sympathize with this distinction, which Kate Aronoff explains well:

Technically speaking, what fossil-fuel companies do isn’t genocide. Low-lying islands and communities around the world are and will continue to be the worst hit by climate impacts. Still, the case against the fossil-fuel industry is not that their executives are targeting specific “national, ethnical, racial, or religious” groups for annihilation, per the Rome Statute, which enumerates the various types of human rights abuses that can be heard before the International Criminal Court. Rather, the fossil industry’s behavior constitutes a Crime Against Humanity in the classical sense: “a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack,” including murder and extermination.

Simply put, these two crimes may be distinguished by their specific intention. While ‘crimes against humanity’ refers broadly to the mass killing of individuals, ‘genocide’ refers more specifically to atrocities committed with the intent to destroy a particular group. Determining criminal intention is by no means straightforward, however, and not everyone will agree on which of these terms is more appropriate in this case. Regardless of intention, particular groups—Indigenous peoples, inhabitants of the Global South, marginalized communities, and young people—continue to be disproportionately and unjustly affected by an extractive global economy based on exploitative colonial systems.

Furthermore, the right to a healthy environment and a safe climate is a necessary precondition for all other human rights. This is why ecocide must also be recognized as an international crime. Since we depend upon this planet’s ecosystems for food, clean air, water, and so much more, the extensive destruction of our life support systems constitutes the ultimate crime against humanity: mass killing on a scale unlike anything we’ve ever experienced.

The tragic truth is that governments and corporations have not only caused this crisis, but are continuing their harmful activities, knowingly and purposefully. As Emanuel Pastreich and Alexander Krabbe point out:

It is no longer a secret that a small group of billionaires are making a fortune off of encouraging waste among the population and forcing us to be dependent on fossil fuels, often using taxpayers’ money to subsidize this addiction to a dangerous energy source. They are fully aware of the crime that they are engaged in and they are informed about the coming catastrophe.

Instead of warning us about this catastrophe, fossil fuel companies have perpetrated a disinformation campaign to discredit climate science with the “criminal intention of misleading the public about a national security crisis”. Corporations, the media, investment banks, and corrupt governments have all been complicit in downplaying the crisis and hiding the truth. While promoting fairy tales of endless economic growth that benefits all, those in power have worked methodically to increase economic inequality, and they have continued forward in this “institutionalized death march”, triggering the sixth mass extinction.

Lawsuits against the fossil fuel industry are beginning to gather momentum, building on such precedent as the litigation of the tobacco industry and a recent Commission on Human Rights in the Philippines. The latter states plainly: “companies investing in new fossil fuel projects are knowingly committing human rights violations”. The commission names four Canadian oil sands producers—Canadian Natural Resources, Encana, Husky and Suncor—and extends this liability to the Crown corporation Trans Mountain, which is expanding an oil pipeline through unceded Indigenous territory.

Yet we cannot pin all of our hopes for justice on the courts. If we wish to hold our governments and corporations accountable for their climate crimes, and respond quickly enough to the climate and ecological emergency, we will have to upgrade our democratic institutions for the 21st century, integrating deliberative processes like Citizens’ Assemblies. Career politicians have been constrained by their short-term electoral interests and negligent in their duty to represent the long-term public interest. Many have been manifestly corrupted by industry lobbyists. The political and corporate class have had over three decades to address climate and ecological breakdown and they have struck out—we’re up.

It’s time to change the broken system. We have only five years to both decide on and begin to implement an emergency economic and social transition. We have no choice but to create an effective political alternative to both the failing status quo and the new politics of the far-right. By bringing citizens across the country into the heart of public decision-making, outside of party politics, we may finally begin to heal national divisions, rather than continue to aggravate them.

We find ourselves in a period of terrible uncertainty. Near term social collapse has become a likely scenario, but it is not inevitable. We may still find a way to survive this dark moment in history and transform our world through cooperation, dedication, and self-sacrifice. Regardless of the outcome, in times of crisis, we can choose to live transcendently, for a purpose beyond the self. And so we rise up in the name of truth and withdraw our consent for ecocide and oppression. We will not stay silent and obedient while the world we love plunges ever further into chaos. Our consciences leave us no choice but to rebel. These crimes against humanity will not go unanswered. To quote Pastreich and Krabbe again: “The circumstances may be entirely different, but a moral bravery on a par with that which was required to confront the Holocaust will be demanded of us if we wish to find a solution”.

Here, at the beginning of perhaps the most crucial decade in human history, we must overcome our fear, despair, and grief together and begin to build revitalized and resilient communities. From this place of support and belonging, we must expand our networks of trust to stand in solidarity with every struggle against systemic injustice in a broad-based social movement. Nonviolent mass rebellion is now a necessary and justified response to negligent governments and reckless corporations. Without ultimately reclaiming our democracy, we will fail. The forces we are up against are simply too powerful.

We hope that this message of moral courage and outrage in the face of global state and corporate criminality is not lost due to the poorly chosen words of Roger Hallam.

In love, rage, and solidarity, Extinction Rebellion Vancouver