An Open Letter to Business Supporters of Extinction Rebellion

I was fascinated to read a letter in support of the Extinction Rebellion last week, expressing support, as business people, for the aims of XR. After 24 years focused on voluntary business efforts on sustainable development, last year I abandoned that to explore different approaches to our climate disaster. That included supporting people putting together XR. Part of that was being a lead signatory of the letter from academics last October that declared our support for the forthcoming rebellion. So, I believe in the utility of expressing public support as professionals in addition to what we can do as volunteers in the range of activities needed in a social movement. But the negative reaction from some to the letter from businesses brings to light some issues that need to be explored at this critical time, so I am writing this open letter.

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I see that the letter was signed mostly by people who work in companies that are proactive on environmental issues. So that means, like me, you have been following global sustainability issues closely, and must be feeling a similar anxiety at how bad things are becoming. The confirmation from the IPCC that we are heading for imminent disaster for the human race, as well as the rest of life on Earth, really helped bring that home. Suddenly, the lives of our own families seem at risk. Then there is the deeper pain we may feel as we sense that our own choices were mistaken. We believed that we had time and techniques to reform this capitalist system towards something sustainable. It was a wonderful idea at the time, and even got its swansong with international agreement of sustainable development goals. I have experienced myself how difficult it is for that sense of personal efficacy to fall apart.

The frustration we feel at the predicament we are in means we can feel great solidarity and respect for people giving up their freedom on the streets of London to bring national and global attention to our climate emergency. I felt such an honour to have helped a bit and spoken to launch the international rebellion on April 15th.

As some of you may now have heard, the letter of support for XR from business leaders, and its suggestion of some sort of “XR Business” initiative, caused concern amongst many volunteers and convenors of XR, both in the UK and internationally. While some might think this was simply a case of uninformed negative views of businesses or business executives, that would be mistaken. There is something to be learned from the concern, which may help any potential future support from businesses, banks, celebrities or anyone with perceived power in the current unsustainable system.

Perhaps some of you have already joined in XR individually as meeting organisers, arrestables, legal observers, or the other many roles that exist in the movement. But in writing a supportive letter that identified your companies and your role as business people, you are not simply joining in as equals. You are deploying your status as people in the private sector to help add weight to this activism. We did the same as academics when we wrote that letter of support. In the case of business leaders, this raises some questions about the role of business in our current predicament and how that will need to change. While organisations and individuals from the private sector have major roles to play in responding to climate change, and in helping us cope with the massive disruptions ahead, it is important they help not hinder the power of citizens coming together for radical change.

So I am going to suggest some ideas that could be recognised by business people if considering support for Extinction Rebellion. These are only relevant after you confirm you understand what XR stands for. The group has declared a peaceful rebellion, which means inviting non-violent law-breaking as a way of rejecting the legitimacy of governments and the system they are part of. So in declaring support, you are recognising that our climate emergency means that our current political and economic system is broken and in need of transformation. After accepting that, then the following five ideas could be useful to hear from business leaders. If you may excuse the presumptuousness, I will have a go at writing it as a letter from you to XR:

Dear XR activists, as business leaders we recognise the following:

First, we failed. Although we tried to make businesses and financial institutions more sustainable from the inside, it has not stopped carbon emissions rising or biodiversity loss increasing. We work in the most funded and dynamic sector of society but couldn’t achieve the change we hoped for.

Second, we were wrong. We believed that working with existing systems of power, within market systems, was the way to deliver positive change at scale. While we do not know what could have been achieved by efforts going into other approaches towards climate stability and biodiversity conservation, we told people our approach was more pragmatic and scalable.

Third, we will learn. We believed that being business professionals gave us credibility in addressing issues of climate and biodiversity. Now we realise that some of the assumptions and attitudes we have learned in the private sector may not be that useful, so we are ready to learn from others.

Fourth, citizens need more influence than us. Although as individual executives we think we have been useful participants in dialogues with communities and governments, overall, the effect has been to prioritise the interests of profit-making over other concerns. Because businesses can fund initiatives, lobbyists and so on, as a sector we have had unfair influence over our societies. As this has coincided with the predicament we are in, it is understandable to conclude this unfair influence is at fault. Therefore, citizens and scientists need more influence than us in future on how to drawdown and cut carbon, as well as how to manage the difficulties ahead.

Fifth, we must be made to behave. Although it is difficult for some of us to say this, it is the natural implication of where we have got to now facing catastrophic climate change. Praising individual companies doing useful things was never enough. We need state intervention to redesign the economy so we can more swiftly decarbonise and also prepare for the disruptions ahead. That means corporate support for changes in the law, perhaps even introducing a law on ecocide by corporations.

We hope that by expressing these realisations, we can find ways for our knowledge and resources to help humanity respond to our climate emergency. That may mean supporting you from a distance as organisations, but closely as individuals. Or it may mean finding ways to support you more actively with our organisations. Perhaps we can find ways to hold space open for your activism and ideas without any influence from the private sector. We will certainly work to ensure other companies do not get in your way.


Concerned executives, deeply impressed by your sacrifice.

I do not speak for XR in presenting these suggestions. However, I am aware of the sentiment of many of the lead organisers and volunteers and believe that if business executives wish to support or engage as representatives of companies, then it will help to acknowledge the need for massive change.

The XR leaders I have worked with all recognise that the difficulties we face require a great coming together of people from all walks of life and all corners of the world. They deliberately avoid blaming people or sectors, as they know we need to foster a culture of forgiveness and love, so we do not make matters worse as an unstable climate ruins our normal life. It’s an approach that I share, and what we are promoting in the Deep Adaptation Forum, which is focused on enabling readiness for likely societal collapse.

Like me, the XR leadership does not believe that one group or ideology has all the answers. To help get things started, with Rabbi Newman, I shared some ideas for the kinds of economic reforms we will need to help us decarbonise and prepare for disruption, on the XR Blog. While we will need more ideas to be shared and trialled, the options for responding to the climate emergency must not be driven by those with more time and money to shape dialogues, policies and initiatives.

I understand how deeply challenging this issue is so thank you for reading.


Jem Bendell

Professor of Sustainability Leadership

Former Director of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS)

Relevant reading:

In the Company of Revolutionaries

The Love in Deep Adaptation

26 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Business Supporters of Extinction Rebellion”

  1. Jem: Thanks for the update. Like many, I’ve dug deeper into the climate change issues. A week ago, I found a radically different perspective about the entire global movement attempting to bring about effective action to combat worsening climate change: Obviously, I think, I don’t have the knowledge you have about the host of major players detailed in the above. However, the argument, facts, deductions and overall conclusion make a case that I find difficult to fault – and not just because I’ve regarded capitalism as the core global problem since 1980. To help crystallize the main thrust contained within the above link, here’s a short quote from the concluding part of the final article (there are six articles):  “The skill and precision in achieving the protection and expansion of the capitalist economic system is today nothing less than extraordinary. By utilizing the non-profit industrial complex, the world’s most powerful oligarchs need not force their will onto society. Rather, akin to what Aldous Huxley prophesized in his fictional novel Brave New World, we have been manipulated and engineered to demand the very “solutions” that will further empower those that destroy us.” (Emphasis added) Regards, Roger J. Burke

  2. Great words Jem. I believe that the greatest challenge we face is finding solutions that are truly aligned with our biological inheritance and psychological potential. Wed o need to be aligned in the compass we align with. Natures ways and the continued emergence of human species seems a good pair to start with. Best

  3. willingness of businesses to support xr should be welcomed but i do understand the difficulties of allegiance that arise and xr’s hesitation
    – put rediculously simply :-
    we pretty much all now live in capitalist society
    the bedrock of capitalism is money and profit
    money and profit are core elements of business 
    and a root cause of climate change

    so its no wonder xr has anxieties about businesses signing up
    but – working with businesses is surely the only way to truly begin
    to reduce carbon emissions 
    and not all businesses operate on the same model –
    we have to give them a chance 
    openness and honesty is the way forward and starting with a
    clean slate with no blaming 
    its difficult but all possible

    1. Money and profit generated by novelty consumption (stuff) by US , you and me and everyone. Business leaders , I’m sure’ understand that economic growth and consumerism (which are inter-related) has got us to where we are today. They must also appreciate that continuing on this pathway is NOT and option if they want a prosperous future for their children and grand-children. So whilst capital will still be needed in the future the exploitation of people and nature is NOT an option. We need to re-frame what prosperity is (ie NOT measured as GDP)..and make it clear that everyone has a role is construction a new future pathway. This will involve challenging myths and expectations about wealth and material possessions (just be grateful for the basics and living a purposeful life). It is that debate about what change is essential and how all individuals, including business people, can contribute that is critical. We will all have to change our priorities and for some businesses that may mean closing down or adapting (ie becoming zero carbon businesses and adopting the circular economy). I’m sure that the skills and experience of entrepreneurs will be critical to facilitate and enable change, but the motivation will not be greed and profit but SURVIVAL and SECURITY for future generations. It goes without saying, I hope, that Government intervention is a critical component of change and therefore lobbying a advocating change is welcome from all quarters.

  4. Hello Jem, You’re quite right in your five points here. I’ve worked in business and I have worked with “business as a social good”. Unfortunately, my experiences have taken me to the same conclusion as yours, as expressed in your fifth point: businesses must be made to behave.
    Even businesses as enlightened as those led by recipients of the Business for Peace Award, with which I’ve been associated, fall short with respect to the challenges ahead, and many of them have contributed significantly to the problem.

    We are in the midst of a slow-motion yet inexorable explosion of compound negative externalities, set to ravage the globe. As business activity has fuelled this catastrophe, there is little true incentment for countering it, in the “free market”.

  5. Just in case my email to you, Jem, did not get to you, here is the information I wanted to pass on:

    The link below contains a series of six long articles (with many embedded links):
    The Manufacturing of Greta Thunberg – For Consent: The Political Economy of The Non-Profit Industrial Complex

    Copy/paste the above to your browser.

    The series of articles show how venture capitalists have subverted the aims and goals of many not-for-profit NGOs – including XR – to the extent of nullifying efforts to reduce
    carbon emissions globally.

    This strategy is nothing less than The Long Con by the oligarchs of global finance to control the entire climate change discourse to save capitalism and control the planet.

    1. Thanks Roger we do need to be aware of these stories and the ways in which Power attempts to subvert everything we do to its own ends. Personally I’m satisfied that Greta is receiving better advice now than when she started, and the conspiracy videos I’ve watched don’t convince me, intellectually, indeed some seem to convey to me a pathological negativity!

  6. I don’t think you grasp the role that global monopoly capital is playing in advancing predatory social impact investing linked to expanded tech-based carbon-credit trading. These systems will expand global tech surveillance via IoT and pretty much kill the planet even faster to “save” it using sustainability branding. It is HORRIFIC. Please, wake up. “Green” luxury capitalism is not the answer. This video should wake you out of your stupor.

    1. Jem is well aware of the ills of carbon credit trading and luxury green capitalism. I read this open letter as a critique of the mindset of the CSR sector; it goes to the heart of the problem and is not a full essay with space for numerous examples!

      1. This is an essay to make room for big business and global monopoly capital. There is NO discussion of UN SDG impact investing or the role it will play in IoT deployment, not just around carbon trading but other areas like extensive ICT education roll out tied to goal #4. This type of apologist stance is very dangerous IMO. As the planet dies, next-gen capitalism will run on speculative financial arrangements based on calculating human and environmental “risk” data within the panopticon of a total police state / “smart” cities. Beware of the “emergency” language being bandied about-it is much more likely to be used to oppress regular people than hold predatory corporate interests to account. Surely you realize that? That is what we are facing. No big businesses or banks are friends of the planet, people, or non-human kin.

      2. BTW the Pay for Success / predatory social impact investment class already has laid out ways to co-opt alternative “volunteer” based currencies. I think we should all be very concerned, but few people are aware of what is being planned. Hopefully more will realize before “self-sovereign” ID and global digital payments allows this model to scale.

      3. That’s a really great blog post about volunteering currencies and I agree with your concerns. I’m working on one myself which comes out of a timebanking, a reputable volunteering tradition, and we are aware of these issues. Volunteering currencies can be used for good though, it depends on who issues them and on what terms.

      4. They are way out ahead. I believe it will be linked to behavioral compliance and fed into pay for success investment deals. The growth of IoT surveillance and outsourced social services and digital ID infrastructures are turning people into data and commodities for speculation. If you read Yasha Levine’s book “Surveillance Valley” and understand the military history of the Internet and its original intent, is it very hard to imagine any form of liberation linked to digital currencies.

      5. Hedge funders are restructuring labor markets around not only gigs, but also pushing “volunteering” and unpaid mentorship among the young and elderly. This unpaid or underpaid “volunteer” labor is undermining the ability of workers to attain stable employment and again feeds impact markets. Americorps students, for example, are encouraged by that organization to go on food stamps to supplement their meager income. Meanwhile unionized jobs for teachers and education support staff continue to vanish. Once public benefits are digitized, behavioral economic nudges will be built in to enforce compliance and run their speculative games of “risk.” Are you familiar with what the state of IL is doing around Blockchain ID and birth certificates? See the infographic on coded nudges associated with SNAP benefit distribution-not in place yet, but you can see where this is headed.

      6. If you read between the lines of this piece about the first blockchain baby in Tanzania and use a lens of racial capitalism, it seems clear that alternative “innovative” economic systems foisted on the poor, particularly Black and Brown people, will likely be pitched as fin-clusion. In reality they are predicated on behavioral compliance to oppressive systems of aid/public benefits managed to further profit predatory impact investors in the Global North. The systems are being refined in the Global South now via US and UK Aid. But of course once they have a proof of concept, the same systems are being brought back and deployed on the domestic poor.

  7. “We must be made to behave” is very british English, and the meaning depends how you pronounce it, and and it can have a somewhat comic ring. For translators, something in more international English might be better – “Governments must limit our behaviour by law.” and “outlaw destruction of the planet”.

    To eliminate wriggle room and delay, and also to sort genuine commitment to change from flannel, I wonder if something specific like this would also be good:

    “It won’t be enough for our boards to declare a climate emergency and engage in hand wringing and another round of greenwash – as business leaders with real power and influence, we must actively work for political change that some of us previously opposed, including pollution taxes, resource taxes, harsh penalties on individuals for damaging ecosystems, major changes to capitalism, an end to GDP as a measure of success, an end to profit+shareholder value as the only measures of company success.

    “We will need to strive for more than we believe is possible or realistic.

    “Given that this is now an emergency, initial measures may need to be quite crude eg. an initial tax on polluting companies, which could gradually be replaced by a reformed system which rewards and encourages behaviour that protects and restores.

    “No country or company can use the excuse that ‘we must all jump at the same time’ as this leads to no one jumping at all, and a new level field never gets established. Instead, to help overcome inertia, those companies which don’t jump must expect harsh retrospective sanctions, civil, financial and criminal if they don’t move within 1 year.

    “In the most egregious cases, we must support the retrospective prosecution of ecocide, similar to the Nuremberg trials, where ‘just following the law of the day’ was no defense, which will apply from 1st January, 2020. We have to admit that some people are so focused on profit at all cost, that nothing short of this will deter their behaviour. USA industry was converted to emergency war production in a matter of weeks after Pearl Harbour, so conversion within 6 months or so should be achievable.

    “As Winston Churchill said, ‘Sometimes it’s not enough to do our best – sometimes we have to do what is necessary.’ “

  8. An excellent missive. Impeccably polite in the English way. In a more abrupt Australian way I would have suggested studying up on Federated Communalism – for which see William Morris and his associates – as preparation for what they might contribute to the future economy.

    1. We have to be very careful not to mix critiques, approaches and solutions. Mixing them makes it to easy for someone who disagrees with one part to dismiss the whole lot

  9. For more on the motley crew of rabble-rousing anarchists who founded Extinction Rebellion see

    ” .. Through mass civil resistance, we’re going to create a new global regime that takes our responsibilities seriously towards the next generation .. “.
    ” .. This is a call to the XR community to never say we’re a climate movement. Because we’re not. We’re a Rebellion .. ”
    ” .. I don’t think that Extinction Rebellion is really about the environment, it’s just about democracy .. ”
    comments by XR co-founders Roger Hallam, Stuart Basden and Gail Bradbrook.

  10. For more on the motley crew of rabble-rousing anarchists who founded Extinction Rebellion see

    ” .. Through mass civil resistance, we’re going to create a new global regime that takes our responsibilities seriously towards the next generation .. “.
    ” .. This is a call to the XR community to never say we’re a climate movement. Because we’re not. We’re a Rebellion .. ”
    ” .. I don’t think that Extinction Rebellion is really about the environment, it’s just about democracy .. ”
    comments by XR co-founders Roger Hallam, Stuart Basden and Gail Bradbrook.

  11. To add to Roger’s post on the “manufacturing of Greta Thunberg …” I became aware of this issue via an article by the economist Brian Davey on the FEASTA site with commentary. While I am wary of much that is out there I find this article scarily credible.
    The following interview with the source of this, Cory Morningstar, mentions plans to “unlock” global pension funds to divert our money to the “green new deal”, or re-boot a stalled capitalism if you prefer:

    I welcome your impressions Jem, and thanks for your DA and help in my faltering first steps beyond angry despair.

    1. Hi Roger, speaking as Jem’s executive assistant, I’m always happy to see Greta at work. Yes there is a real concern that the movement she is leading could be diverted or coopted by strategists with big PR budgets. We can hope the people close to Greta are wise enough to head off such attempts, which I think so far, they have been!

      1. Thanks. I think the “..Thunberg..” title of Davey’s piece is unfortunate – it was a reference to the articles he was responding to. Davey is addressing a wider and vital core issue in our climate emergency – whether there can be “green growth”, whether climate change progress is possible without de-growth. He has added the comment “I wonder though if what I wrote was quite nuanced enough. The danger is of appearing to imply that Greta Thunberg is manipulated and be implicitly insulting.”

        Caroline Whyte adds her analysis

        I think we need to ask whether if the proposed “green new deal” aka “fourth industrial revolution” gains enough traction will it copper-fasten our destruction? Can the diversion of trillions to tech/corporate interventions/products be achieved without significant increases in emissions? I don’t believe it can.

        Deep Adaptation and mitigation efforts go hand in hand, but a panicked “do something” (where such may arise) needs a calm analysis of what the best something might be, cognisant of the danger of making things worse.

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