It’s all so surreal I can’t quite believe it. I’ve been sucked into a giant game of cat-and-mouse on some of the most famous streets in central London. Leaning towards the window, I crane my neck this way and that, taking in vital intelligence on the movements of the opposing team. Outside, along Regent Street — one of the grandest and most well-known shopping streets in London — there is a suspicious lack of shoppers or traffic. Instead, the street is teeming with police officers, their many vans parked in long, neat rows at the sides of the roads. It’s lunchtime and inside the cafe where I’m sitting, they’re doing good trade with hungry officers.
“Are you a rebel?” the grey-haired woman standing next to me asks abruptly. “Yes, I am,” I tell her, a proud glow rising in my chest.
I recognise her instantly by her adopted name, “Storm Granny”. She’s been on stage regularly at the Extinction Rebellion protests, talking to the crowds about the importance of keeping our movement non-violent and how to de-escalate any aggression that might arise. Most of all, this is to ensure the peaceful energy of the protesters themselves, making sure that no rogue individuals get carried away and forget our commitment to non-violent action. With this peaceful spirit, our call for an urgent response to the climate crisis will be delivered to the media and the public in as dignified and potent a way as possible.
“I’m having trouble using my phone — can you help me add these contacts? I’m not very good with technology”, she confesses. I help her (“If in doubt, just press all the buttons!” I sagely advise). I glance along the counter and spot another group of “rebels” huddled down the other end, smartphones in hand, discussing the complex, unfolding situation we’re collectively embroiled in.
And what a situation it is! The old adage that reality is sometimes stranger than fiction certainly is expressing itself magnificently today.
Why are all these police here? What could possibly demand such a heavy police presence? Are there riots? Is there a need for high security to protect visiting royalty or dignitaries?
No, all these police officers are here to capture a pink boat named Berta, of course!
The authorities haven’t been too happy about the fact that she’s been parked right in the middle of Oxford Circus, one of the busiest junctions in central London, for the past five days. Now they are trying to tow her away from the area, but their every move is anticipated and countered by swarming groups of protesters who resolutely block all escape routes.
I smile to myself, realising the comic absurdity of the situation. Who ever thought that protesting about the single biggest threat to the survival of humanity could be such fun?! During her five-day “mooring” at Oxford Circus, Berta the boat has been a joyful beacon for gatherings, talks, music and dance, holding a space at the heart of the shopping district in which protesters and members of the public can openly discuss the climate crisis.
Written in bold letters on her side are the words “Tell the Truth” — the first of three demands made by Extinction Rebellion — a call on governments and the media to speak openly and truthfully about the climate crisis.
Berta has developed quite a celebrity status already among the protesters and the media. She’s balanced the gravity of bringing greater public awareness to potential environmental breakdown with her playful pink curves. Crowds have thronged around her day after day since Monday, as speakers and performers have created an atmosphere in which people can have vital and long-overdue conversations about the realities of our shared future together on this planet.
Berta is beautiful. She is an iconic expression of the vibrant, topsy-turvy and deeply human world of Extinction Rebellion, a world I feel glad to be a part of.
A deeply human rebellion
As a new player on the climate crisis scene, Extinction Rebellion has grown fast since its formation in May 2018. Early on, it garnered hundreds of signatures from notable public figures, including Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, and Vandana Shiva, who gave their support to the movement in two open letters delivered to the media last year, the first in October and the second in December.
“We must collectively do whatever’s necessary non-violently, to persuade politicians and business leaders to relinquish their complacency and denial”, the second letter boldly states. “Their ‘business as usual’ is no longer an option.”
It was this boldness, clarity of purpose, and the remarkable endorsement that the movement gained early on that made me sit up and take notice of them. It ignited a hope in me that Extinction Rebellion might be the instigators of political change that I and so many others had long been waiting for. In the midst of the insane apathy of governments worldwide toward the climate crisis, could this be the movement to bring about meaningful change?
I was eager to get involved. Luckily, the Extinction Rebellion events calendar provided just the opportunity I was looking for — a “Rebellion Day” in London on 17th November, 2018. The extent of my protesting experience to date had been participating in a few anti-war and anti-fat-cat marches, but Extinction Rebellion were asking something more of the attendees. The plan was audacious — a coordinated non-violent direct action aimed at simultaneously blocking five major bridges in London. Protesters would simply walk en masse into the road and refuse to allow traffic to pass, blatantly disobeying the law and drawing media attention to the cause.
As I sat on the train that morning in November, I felt pretty apprehensive about the whole thing. Would enough people even turn up to make it work? Would the police start arresting us as soon as they saw us on the road? As I approached Blackfriars Bridge ten minutes before the planned time of the action, my worries were not greatly eased. There didn’t seem to be many protesters around, and those who were there were standing meekly on the pavements. I walked up and down the bridge to let off some nervous energy, occasionally glancing worriedly at my watch as the time of the planned road occupation came and went.
Would-be protesters looked at each other and along the bridge, waiting for some kind of signal that the time had come. More people started to arrive on the bridge, but still no move was made.
Then, all of a sudden, I heard a small cheer rise up as people swarmed across the two lanes of the road. The north and south entry points had been blocked off by small, organised groups of “rebels”. People began to settle down on the bridge; throws were laid down; children’s toys were unpacked; people began to gleefully chat to each other in astonishment at what was happening.
That day was my first real introduction to the spirit of Extinction Rebellion. The people I saw on the bridge were of all ages, from the babies lovingly attended to by their parents, to concerned citizens in their 70s and 80s. These people were not the “hardened activists” or “eco-warriors” spoken of on TV news reports, sitting in tree-top bastions as forests are cut down all around them; no, they were ordinary, concerned citizens.
The atmosphere was bizarrely calm; the diversity of ages and the polite gentleness of everyone there made blocking this normally busy bridge in central London feel like a picnic party.
That day I talked to people, heard inspiring speeches from figures such as George Monbiot, and marvelled at the willingness of the police to allow the protest to go on without intervention until the mid-afternoon. When they did finally threaten protesters with arrest if they remained on the road, I was touched to see that a number of those “locking on” to hold the bridge for as long as possible were elderly people. These included Phil Kingston, 83, who said that he was choosing arrest to protest about the climate crisis because he “didn’t want his grandchildren to suffer”.
As those locking-on lay down for the long haul, friends covered them with blankets and supported their heads to keep them as comfortable and warm as possible. I was deeply moved that day by the willingness of these elders to be arrested alongside younger citizens. It was a noble and timely gesture of their conviction that urgent action must be taken to address climate change, now.
How to start a rebellion and win
In the nearly two-week long protests this April in London, over 1,000 protesters were peacefully arrested — an unprecedented figure that led the London Metropolitan Police Commissioner to comment that during her 36-year career she had never known a single police operation to result in so many arrests.
What is it about Extinction Rebellion that inspires the peaceful disobedience of ordinary citizens such as these, who surrender themselves willingly to the police to be hand-cuffed, hoisted, and bundled off into holding cells?
First and most important of all, the conditions for a “rebellion” are ripe (though some would argue, with merit, that they have been ripe for 30 or even 50 years). Last year in October, the IPCC published an alarming report on the dangers posed to ecosystems and human life of warming above 1.5°C. Debra Roberts, co-chair of the IPCC working group on impacts, gravely summed it up: “this is the moment and we must act now.”
In this alarming climate, Extinction Rebellion’s “Declaration of Rebellion” at Parliament Square in London on 31st October was an impeccably timed call-to-action, coming just 23 days after the publication of the report.
Many news reports seized upon the catastrophic warning that “we have 12 years to limit [the] climate change catastrophe” — and while scientific experts have warned against misinterpreting this warning, their point has been that even the mention of “12 years” is misleading. Prof. Myles Allen, a lead author of the IPCC report, commented “that doesn’t mean we have 12 years to act: it means we have to act now, and even if we do, success is not guaranteed.”
The second demand of the movement, “Act Now”, recognises this urgency and calls on governments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2025 — as close to “now” as can be expressed concretely.
The next key piece of the puzzle that Extinction Rebellion has got right is the homework it has done on the history of civil disobedience movements and what makes them succeed or fail. It has leveraged this scholarship to design a mass movement that maximises the effectiveness of disruptive action (indeed, one of the founders of the movement, Roger Hallam, is doing his PhD on this topic!).
The audacity (as well as the peacefulness) of the disruptive actions carried out by Extinction Rebellion have become a hallmark of the movement. Its use of non-violent direct action (disruptive civil disobedience) and its target of mobilising 3.5% of the population to bring about social change have both been inspired directly by findings gleaned from academic studies.
The last key factor of Extinction Rebellion’s success is the knowledge that it has applied, hard-gained from previous movements such as Occupy, to create a decentralised, grass-roots organisational structure that empowers people worldwide to take action together in their own communities.
This focus on “people power” is echoed in the third and final demand of the movement, “Beyond Politics”, which calls for action on the climate crisis that goes beyond the often petty oneupmanship and short-sightedness of partisan politics.
The solution put forward by Extinction Rebellion is for each government to create a “Citizens’ Assembly” — which works similarly to a legal jury — to guide and oversee the implementation of the first two demands. A Citizens’ Assembly comprises 100 or so members of the public selected at random in a balanced way from the population, who then meet to be informed on key issues by experts, before deliberating together, and drafting and voting on recommendations.
Citizens’ Assemblies have already been used successfully in countries including the UK, Ireland, Canada, Poland, and the Netherlands to guide government policy on thorny issues such as abortion and electoral reform.
Collective decision-making methods such as these are embedded in the ethos of Extinction Rebellion in the commitments to “mitigate for power” and for “autonomy and decentralisation” laid out in the 10 key principles and values of the movement. Anyone who abides by these principles and values — which also include commitments to non-violence, avoiding blaming and shaming, and welcoming “everyone and every part of everyone” — is free to start a local group, whoever they are and wherever they are in the world.
This radical decentralisation has empowered people from all over the world to design a rebellion in their own country that best addresses the realities of where they live. Already Extinction Rebellion has a presence in at least 80 countries worldwide — astonishing growth for a movement that is not even a year old.
The international movement continues to grow and has been bolstered recently by a £500,000 donation made by philanthropists to Extinction Rebellion and other climate action groups. In starting the fund, Trevor Neilson, an investor and philanthropist, emphasised the need for immediate international action on the climate crisis, saying: “This might be the single best chance we have to stop the greatest emergency we have ever faced.”
Across the world, people are feeling the truth of these words and are stepping up to act on the climate crisis while there is still hope.
With love and rage
“Extinction Rebellion” — the very name of the movement is an uncompromising statement about the existential predicament that we and many other forms of life on the planet are in: one of impending extinction if we do not act. As “rebels”, we are implored to rise up “against our Government and the corrupted, inept institutions that threaten our future.”
Through and through, the movement uses language that incites action:
Might this fiery rhetoric backfire? While I believe that the “stick” of stark warnings— of the grave threat of climate collapse or even human extinction —does have a role to play in motivating people to rebel, relying too heavily on this approach risks alienating many. After all, there is already enough fearmongering in this world, not least around the climate crisis.
It is vital that we offer a “carrot”, too — some sense of hope, some food for the soul, some vision of a better world — to spur people into hopeful action in these troubling times.
Hearteningly, Extinction Rebellion is about more than just doomsday predictions and getting us to net zero carbon emissions by 2025 (although some in the movement certainly seem to see it that way, including Hallam himself).
For anyone who had the privilege to feel the warm human energy and communal spirit shared between people at the protest camps in London this April, it was clear that the movement is embodying a deeper message — one of transforming society so that it becomes a “regenerative culture”, a culture capable of sustaining and growing the well-being of human as well as non-human life through an ethic of care and mutuality.
I believe that this is the vision we must nurture and carry with us if we want to move forward together out of this crisis. We each have a little offering we can make — whether it be a song, a commitment to “tell the truth” in our own lives, or simply to be there at a meeting or action to let people know that we care.
Extinction Rebellion is an ever-evolving attempt to put into words and action the grief, love and rage that people the world over feel when they see the callous harm being done to our shared home, the Earth, the precious inheritance of our children and grandchildren.
Extinction Rebellion is human and it’s messy; it’s far from perfect. But in my humble experience, I have found the movement to be deeply human — grounded in a collective, heartfelt wish to wake up to what is happening to our planet and to take decisive action now.
This might just be our single best chance to act on the climate crisis for ourselves and future generations. So “with love and rage” (as the e-mail sign-off of Extinction Rebellion goes), let’s rebel for life and for each other at the time it is most needed — right now.