Decentralized Rebellion

Extinction Rebellion calls itself the fastest-growing climate and ecology direct action movement in history. It emerged 18 months ago. When it consisted of just 10 people in Britain. It has swelled to millions of followers across 72 countries.

The movement relies solely on crowdfunding and donations. And it has been conceived as a self-organizing, non-hierarchical holacracy. There is no single leader or group steering its strategy, tactics and goals.

This is important. And it is very exciting. I have devoted the last fifteen years of my life to figuring out how to apply network theory to the work of social transformation. I don’t know of anything more important than dealing with the fact that we are in the midst of the sixth great extinction. And that we are the cause of it.

Applying network theory to the work of social movements requires that we grapple with questions like:

  • How to develop decentralized structures?

  • How can we loosen the oppressive grip of coercive hierarchies?

  • How do we work with emergence?

  • Can we thrive in a world that is defined by VUCA: volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity?

  • How do we experiment our way to freedom?

Movements from Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring, from Black Lives Matter to the #MeToo Movement, demonstrate the power of emergent decentralization. The effectiveness of working as networks.

It is important to note that these structures are value neutral. They work for good people. And they work for bad people. The current rise of white supremacy has the shape of decentralized networks. The same goes for terrorist networks like ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

Decentralized formations like Extinction Rebellion are loose alliances of groups. They help volunteers organize into working subgroups. Support teams, and responsibilities are distributed among chapters. Meetings and planning sessions tend to take place in online forums and on messaging apps. Offline meetings in the real world are used to provide training. And to create a sense of community.

We need to get better and better at working in this way. We also need to deal with the very real limitations that these structures present.

The setup can foster a general sense of confusion and disarray… Volunteers cheerfully describe planning meetings as ‘pretty crazy and disorganized.’ A news conference last week ahead of the latest mass protests involved a fair amount of shouting and technical difficulties, and at London Fashion Week, certain planned protests failed to materialize. With the exception of the funeral march, turnouts were generally lower than anticipated.

This is all very new. Of course it’s going to be messy. We are shifting away from a “broadcast” approach. A one-to-many structure that is steeply hierarchical and dependent on centralized authority. This shift from one paradigm to another is a process that parallels the evolution of our technology. But it is also one that harkens back to nature. And how living systems take shape.

If humanity is to find its way out of our existential conundrum, it will be through the development of this decentralized collective intelligence. It will be by learning to live and move as networks.

We are still early in this transition. But our survival depends on it.

*Liberally quoting from the October 6, 2019 New York Times article by Elizabeth Paton: Extinction Rebellion Takes Aim at Fashion