Yoga gurus and cult leaders – I’ve seen a few. Four weeks ago, I unknowingly joined an alleged New-Age cult on the New Zealand coast, together with a giant kraken and some neatly dressed pensioners who would make any book club proud. They were among the 200 people of all ages preparing for a week of worldwide protests by the climate activism group Extinction Rebellion (XR). It kicked off in Wellington, with rebels temporarily shutting down the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, and gluing themselves to an ANZ bank branch with “climate crime scene” tape.
The next day, a Maori XR commando squirted tomato sauce on Captain James Cook’s plaque and decorated the statue of a colonialist outside Parliament with a ball and chain. In Melbourne, Australia, rebels sang and danced in the streets to “Staying Alive,” turning civil disobedience into “disco-bedience.” Meanwhile in London, UK, a man had broken down during one of the many protests, overcome by emotion — shaking, crying and clutching a photo of his two little children. Mothers holding babies filled the streets.
After more than a 1,000 arrests in the UK alone, the BBC stopped reporting as to not cause more disruption. Someone got on top of a plane at Heathrow. Over in Berlin, Germany, a controversial politician warned young school strikers to stay away from XR’s pirate pranks. Her safety concerns were not because of physical danger. Jutta Ditfurth, co-founder of the Green Party, now on the far left and an abrasive voice even by German standards, called the apolitical action network an “esoteric doomsday cult.” She tweeted that the movement is “anti-intellectual,” acting hyper-emotionally instead of rationally.
Doing Something Right
The global Greta hating and XR bashing has come from neoliberal and conservative camps as well as the radical left, the latter accusing Extinction Rebellion of being too white (make that racist), tame or elitist. But in Germany, only the far-right Alternative for Germany party branded Extinction Rebellion a “climate cult” and declared its full support for a fossil fuel countermovement to the school strikes. “Fridays for Hubraum” was started by car fanatics and instantly gained half a million followers.
Since XR is now being attacked by both extreme ends of the political spectrum, it must be doing something right — transcending all agendas and appeals to a simple human denominator: survival. If the concerned German politician would have come along to the Paekakariki Holiday Park with me, she might have found that the training weekend that took place there was one of political activism, even if two kitchen helpers went to meditate during a break, and a yoga session was held.
The overall vibe was friendly, fun and undogmatic. Someone brought a ukulele along. No one gave me a hard time for arriving by car. Although the food was mostly vegan, there was some organic milk and cheese at mealtimes. My mission for the rebels was to go shopping: finding police hats, pink ribbon and magenta dye for a performance piece with mock arrests.
Their ethos, pinned to the wall on brown paper, was more in line with the principles of Burning Man festival and Non-Violent Communication (NVC). It mentions self-responsibility and “radical inclusivity.” No blaming and shaming of individuals — Extinction Rebellion wants systemic change from the top. Hate symbols like swastikas on a US flag aren’t tolerated, nor is swearing at police officers. Instead, local organizers and their artistic helpers create a wave of love with visual imagery that they hope will catch on.
Seeing With New Eyes
The first morning started with a powhiri, the traditional Maori welcoming. Rebel Haimana Hirini stood barefoot on the wet grass, holding a talking stick toward the sky and thanking his siblings: the trees, the mountains, the water. New Zealand’s XR branch has translated the three demands of Extinction Rebellion — tell the truth, act now, lead by citizen’s assemblies — into their second language and wants to add a new one: decolonization and recognition of indigenous rights.
What Jutta Ditfurth and the European radical left dismiss as “New Age” is, in fact, the spiritual foundation of many First Nations who are directly affected by the destruction of our planet. If those critics are comfortable with Maori, Aborigines or Native Americans referring to the higher powers and the interconnectedness of all species but ridicule the same sentiments if Swedish or white American teenagers express their fears using similar ideas, then it only goes to show their arrogance and inert racism toward non-Western cultures stemming from not taking them seriously.
If the politician calling XR a cult had ended up in the tent for the “Truth Mandala,” she might have fired off more furious tweets. “The Spiral” was written out on a blackboard with a pretty floral drawing, explaining the emotional stages to move through before we kick into action: Gratitude that “brings us back to source,” then “honouring our pain” and finally “seeing with new eyes” and “going forth.”
It sounds esoteric but is psychological, if not therapeutic — and is the work of Joanna Macy, a renowned scholar of Buddhism and deep ecology. If XR works like a religion, then not as an opium for the people, but ecstasy, which can open hearts, heal trauma and bring out empathy. One group was painting hourglass symbols on flags, with endangered birds as an endemic note. In the evening, we sang chants: “The children have spoken — the earth won’t be broken.”
“Regen” is short for “regenerative culture,” from massages to cacao ceremonies — the XR wellbeing sector to prevent burn-out and create more connection. I missed the few body-mind offerings for the NVDA (non-violent direct action) training where I practiced breathing deeply and staying calm while being yelled at, for instance by people who cannot get to work because of the protests. Speaking of self-care: The legal briefing with a sign language interpreter had the biggest turnout. It was to send us off safely into the gray area between demonstration and arrest.
Rebels Without Borders
Sea Rotmann is a sustainable energy adviser and originally from Austria. She put on a kraken costume to introduce us newbies to the “rebels without borders” — not for fun, but because her spirit animal is a harbinger of ecological disaster. The Wellington marine biologist has been obsessed with the ocean since she was a child, then studied the dying Great Barrier reef for her PhD. She saw first-hand what is happening to the ice shelf on an expedition to Antarctica in 2016.
Rotmann gave an introductory talk about the peaceful principles of XR, its mass-mobilizing philosophy — “Hope dies, action begins” — and the state of the world to come: “Shit is just starting to kick off.” The climate is not warming, but heating. We got all the facts and numbers. “A dying ocean is a nightmare we cannot fathom,” she said, especially in a coastal country and with climate refugees from the pacific islands. No Elon Musk was going to come and whisk us away: “The clock has gone past 12.” She wiped away tears. So did I.
I thought of the beach where I had walked that morning in the early sunshine, watching birds, water lapping on the sand and shells, and of my sons — one now a vegetarian, the other sure that he will never have children. “Dr. Sea,” as everyone called her, closed her laptop. “Thank you for sharing your grief. I love you.”
I also saw wet eyes in the capital when the mourning brigade in red robes and white faces appeared there. One of the performers, decorated as Mother Earth, nursed her baby while she stood on the steps of Parliament, looking straight out of a play. It was powerful, heart-breaking — and stylish. The XR newsletter uses similar images and emotive language: “compassion; awareness; courage”; “We’re a movement unlike any other”; “you’re not alone in this.”
Apocalyptic scenarios, group intensity and woke jargon — this is also cult material which was discussed in July at the annual International Cultic Studies Association conference. Cult researcher Yuval Laor, from Colorado, US, has researched the nature of fervor for his PhD and upcoming book, “The Religious Ape.” What I took away from his lecture was that being in a cult — or a “high-demand group,” as is the preferred term among experts — works similar to falling in love: an awe-induced state of limerence that opens us to exploitation, coercion or manipulation.
How does Laor see Extinction Rebellion in the cult context? Are the XR rebels inducing fervor by sharing grief, riding the trauma wave together and pulling in celebrities like Michael Stipe and Keira Knightley? Yes, he says, but fervor is neither good nor bad in itself: “Cults, by definition, are bad, but there are positive groups that resemble cults.” He mentions the French Resistance during World War II as an example. “Inducing awe is a good way to influence people,” Laor says. “When the situation is dire, it would be negligent not to use awe to inspire people to change.”
Bestselling author Jonathan Safran Foer writes in his new book, “We Are the Weather,” that we know about the climate catastrophe, but we don’t believe what’s coming — similar to his Jewish family in Poland on the eve of the Holocaust. Everyone in the village knew in 1941 what the Nazis were up to, but only his grandmother felt terror, packed her things and fled. The others thought that things would turn out OK somehow. They were all killed.
Extinction Rebellion is based on hard science but works with emotions. That’s not cultish but smart. But it’s also smart to do what the group did in Zurich, Switzerland, this week and hopes to implement as XR’s international standard: They reached out to cult experts to build up resilience against undue influence.
*[A version of this article originally appeared on Public Address.]
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