Cult Reawakening: An Extinction Rebellion Post-Mortem

  • Date: 06/09/20
  • David Zaruk, Risk-Monger

Cults cannot survive the mainstream scrutiny while maintaining zealot dogma. Radicalism amplified turns quickly into ridicule and leaves any mass movement open to internal collapse.

When a cult loses its grip on a person, a form of reawakening takes place. It involves having to return to a society not managed by guru slogans, children chanting or all information managed via a dogmatic funnel into a simplified worldview.

Many young people in the West are reawakening from an experience with the Extinction Rebellion cult which had gripped them for an intense period for most of 2019.

There are many emotions to manage in a post-cult reawakening: bitterness at the deception, embarrassment over the personal vulnerability, apologetic to those close who may have been hurt, concern for those still held in the grips of the gurus, fragility about re-entering society. Should the experience be blocked out, explained away or assessed? A catharsis may be necessary to come to terms with the power the cult had held in dominating the individual’s freedom.

For around a year Extinction Rebellion managed to grip many young, vulnerable idealists in many ways that religious cults operate. What were some of the manipulative tools they used? In the heady days of 2019, Extinction Rebellion:

* postulated an end-of-days apocalypse within ten years

* provided a simplified salvation pathway and virtue reinforcement

* identified a dogmatic “us vs them” war on evil

* created a fun, carnival atmosphere with communal chants at their events

* developed a series of pagan-like spiritual rituals and iconic priestesses

But this cult was a shallow, abusive front. The objective of the organisers (the Rogers and the Ruperts on the activist extreme) was to overthrow the capitalist state, and an army of brainwashed young people simultaneously dancing, chanting and weeping in the streets proved, on paper, to be the perfect distraction. Add a few ageing celebrities, some clever street pranks and a cocktail of virtue signalling opportunities … the strategy was brilliant (even if their organisation and execution was pure Pythonesque).

The Broad Church of Nature

Cults grow on the far, narrow edges of religious belief systems.

Within every religion there are extremes – the zealots, the dogmatists, the fundamentalists, the manipulative cult gurus… I have written often how environmentalism is our new religion with a wide range of believers practising a variety of rituals (like recycling, culinary sacrifices, carbon emission cuts…), preaching of Armageddon (climate change), offering redemption from original sin (consumption) with a collection of angels, saints and demons every church needs to “iconicise”. This Church of Nature grew out of the ashes of the decline of traditional religious faith in a more affluent West. We did not grow too sophisticated for religion; it just donned different cloaks and occupied different temples.

Religion provides meaning in life, virtues, inspiration; it also protects the believers in a communal context from their deepest fears and concerns. Most in the congregation of the Church of Nature want to live decent lives and feel good about themselves. They listen to the sermons against consumption but do enjoy some of life’s finer pleasures. They donate when the collection basket comes around, but are not active in the campaigns.

On the extreme of the Church of Nature lie the cult organisations that dictate to the true believers, crusaders and missionaries: the zealots who provide the religious oxygen for the clergy to breathe and the fires to burn. But the problem with fire and brimstone is that when outrage and condemnation burn out of control, they can bring temples down. Extinction Rebellion’s death-cult tactics discredited climate science, pushed environmentalism to the hard (anti-capitalist) left and offered little common ground for political compromise. When these groups used children to shame adults (How dare you!), political discourse was abandoned in favour of media spectacle.

In 2019 the Extinction Rebellion cult became the story and the Church of Nature lost its moderate members. This has seriously hurt the entire activist movement as cynicism and disenchantment does not translate into donations or further engagement within the wider Church.

The Fall from Grace

Extinction Rebellion had reached its cult zenith well before the COVID-19 pandemic took their issue off the front pages, silencing their media marketing machinery. Perhaps the turning point was Canning Town Tube Station where morning commuters turned into an angry mob beating up two XR hippies who had tried to stop their train. That same day the two-week October blockade of London was quietly called off well-short of their campaign objectives.

Once the coronavirus lockdowns began to bite and people got to appreciate the consequences of Extinction Rebellion’s demands (no jobs, no travel, no shops…) and the absence of any social interaction that the rebels could disrupt, the organisation went into hibernation. I attended an XR Zoom conference in May, 2020 where their main gurus unveiled their strategy for the next wave of post-COVID-19 campaigns. By the time their philosopher-in-chief, Rupert Read, took to the microphone, there were only 42 listeners on the view-counter (41 if you exclude the Risk-Monger). Today Extinction Rebellion’s various twitter pages have little interaction or post engagement.

A cult with no following is merely a club. The revolution has faded to what was just a flash in the pan – an embarrassing footnote in the history of the climate campaign. Extinction Rebellion has, well, gone extinct.

Even Greta has gone back to school.

But that leaves the challenge of managing the reawakening. The rapid downfall of a powerful cult has left a generation of young people even more cynical and technophobic. Disenchanted, uninspired, the victims of the climate death cult campaigns who have been told everything that is wrong with humanity now have nothing positive to dream for. Who will provide these vulnerable young people with the solutions they crave? How can these post-cult victims reintegrate into a world with bigger (viral) fears on their plate? [….]

While many of these cult opportunists are too smart to fall into the trap of populist extremism that befell Extinction Rebellion, the best lesson from this cult downfall is that hubris and ambition has its own built-in circuit breakers. Cults cannot survive the mainstream scrutiny while maintaining zealot dogma. Radicalism amplified turns quickly into ridicule and leaves any mass movement open to internal collapse.

… and the Threat of Despair

But this hope carries with it a caution. Young people have been broken by the cynicism and campaign bipolarity of these cults. While the force of the fundamentalist dogma has weakened, there is nothing that now inspires them. I often speak with students on their outlook for the future and it is often very bleak. Rather than inspiration and mentors, they have slogans and “menteurs”. As they reawaken from their cult experience, there has to be more than just substance abuse and mental health issues awaiting them. In my professional world, the coronavirus lockdowns highlighted this vulnerability.

Young people need leaders who inspire. Ask anyone why they got into their profession and it was likely some mentor or inspirational character that lit them up at an iconic moment. But we seem to be stuck in a leaderless world of sub-tribes where any inspirational figure gets torn down faster than they can rise up. Social media identifies troll-models, promotes cynicism and deflates positivity creating an infectious breeding ground for such environmentalist cults.

Cults (via their gurus) offer young people hope, promise and inspiration. If we cannot address this hole in their lives, providing positive ideals for humanity via technology and science, restore trust and provide role models, we should prepare for more environmental-health death cults feeding off the despair of young people, making more outrageous claims, obstructing technological developments and spreading even more cynicism and fear.

Full essay

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