Extinction Rebellion Ireland: Symbolic Versus Pragmatic Actions

Image by Tim Gouw (example of a purely symbolic action)

by Liam Campbell

Most Deep Green Resistance Cadre are more experienced than me, but I’ve had my fair share of action; having spent around 17 years attending and organising activist actions, ranging from anti-war protests to anti-fracking blockades, I’ve seen a wide range of tactics and outcomes.

I’ve followed Extinction Rebellion closely over the last few months, especially in Ireland, and I think it plays an important role in the broader ecosystem of environmental activism. Mass mobilisation is important because it builds public awareness, reduces public backlash against radical activism, and provides a recruiting ground for more assertive tactics (e.g. monkeywrenching). Although I understand why some radical ecologists refuse to engage with these sorts of groups, I personally think they’re worth actively supporting so long as the investments are made with nuance, patience, strategy.

Today I joined the Extinction Rebellion events in Dublin, out of a combination of genuine support for mass mobilisation efforts, and also to analyse the actions, police response, and public reactions.

Although I have clear critiques about their specific organising tactics, I’d like to step back and provide analysis at a strategic level because I think there’s one major issue that needs to be pointed out: the differences between symbolic and pragmatic actions.

Eric Oliver, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, has made staggeringly relevant observations about the difference between “intuitionists” and “rationalists.” Although his research focuses on their interactions with conspiracy theories, I think his findings broadly apply to many forms of political activism. In summary: humans fall into a spectrum between rationalists, who make decisions based primarily on facts and logic, and intuitionists, who make decisions based on feelings and symbolism. Neither group is inherently good or bad, but they view the world through profoundly different lenses. Professor Oliver estimates that strong intuitionists outnumber strong rationalists by about 2-to-1 in the United States.

What is a symbolic action? In Ireland the government is currently making important budgetary decisions, so Extinction Rebellion’s Dublin activists decided to occupy the front gate of the parliament (Dáil). In terms of measurable outcomes, this achieved essentially nothing because the members of government were still able to leave through the back door, and it was a poor choice of location due to low visibility and low foot traffic. However, it was the most obvious symbolic target because the building represents the government’s key decisionmakers. Choosing this target came at a significant pragmatic cost (i.e. lost momentum) but it created the clearest narrative (i.e. we’re blockading the uncooperative government).

What is a pragmatic action? When an action has a specific, measurable outcome, it is pragmatic. It doesn’t matter if the objective is to increase the number of participants in a march, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or deprive an opponent of a specific resource — the action remains pragmatic so long as it produces measureable and clearly defineable outcomes within a time limit.

Ideal actions are both symbolic and pragmatic but, if forced to choose between a strictly pragmatic or an entirely symbolic action, I would choose the pragmatic option because at least it’s measureable and if it’s successful its momentum can generally be redirected toward more symbolically effective actions.

“So what else could we do?” someone asked me today, while we were discussing the purely symbolic action at hand. The most obvious answer was to move protesters to a more visible location, rather than being quarantined on a street with so little foot traffic and external visibility. This would have been more pragmatic because we would have entered the consciousness of measurably more people. My second response was to suggest that it would be more effective to focus on blocking traffic at key intersections, which would likely cause citywide traffic jams, further increasing public awareness of climate change and feeding social media debates; these are also measurable through traffic reports and social activity (which I was measuring and noticed were mostly unaffected by today’s symbolic actions).

Having thought about it more, I’ve identified additional options:

  • March through the large university, which was 2 blocks away, while students were leaving their classes. Encouraging people to join would probably have yielded a meaningful increase in the number of active participants.
  • March through the large and densely crowded shopping street, essentially guaranteeing social media acitivity from both casual shoppers and also people who video record the many buskering musicians.
  • Occupy one of the large, indoor shopping malls. There was concern about harming local businesses, but these shopping malls are almost exclusively run by fast fashion and ecologically exploitative multinationals, and even a brief occupation would have yielded immense public attention.
  • Rig a sound system to something with wheels and turn it into a mobile dance party through the busiest streets in town.
  • March onto, or near, the field of the nationally televised rugby game at the massive stadium, which was happening around the same time.
  • Split into groups of 10-20 with flags and walk around town handing out information and inviting people to join the week ahead.

Most of the above approaches are less symbolic than sitting on a quiet intersection outside the parliamentary building, but I suspect they would have yielded more measureable outcomes and resulted in more momentum leading into the next 5 days of action. From my perspective, it’s better to focus on building momentum, awareness, and numbers during the beginning of an escalating week of activism — save primarily symbolic actions for when momentum has reached its peak.