Zoe Cormier is the author of Sex, Drugs & Rock n Roll: The Science of Hedonism and the Hedonism of Science.
It started on a busy Monday morning in April. Around 11 a.m., a pink boat emblazoned with TELL THE TRUTH was dragged into the middle of Oxford Circus – the busiest shopping district in all of Europe. It was swiftly followed by dozens of activists who glued themselves to the vessel, and thousands more who swarmed around them, bringing the busy intersection to a grinding halt. It ended a week later with more than 1,000 people arrested in one of the biggest public demonstrations in British history.
Their demand? That the government take real action on climate change by “declaring a climate and ecological emergency.”
A year in the making, the Extinction Rebellion protest set out to bring several of the British capital’s most important traffic hubs – Marble Arch, Oxford Circus, Waterloo Bridge, Piccadilly Circus, Parliament Square and Canary Wharf – to a standstill. If a law-abiding march on clearly demarcated routes doesn’t get the government’s attention, then perhaps bringing transport to a grinding halt in the city’s most commercially crucial areas will.
It’s hard not to see their logic. British protesters have blocked roadways before – way back in the 1990s, Reclaim the Streets held day-long parties that remain the stuff of legend. But Extinction Rebellion (XR) – which was founded in 2018 by a bunch of pensioners, teachers and everyday folk in the small countryside town of Stroud – took things to the next level, camping out at these locations for an entire week. Activists brought tents, sleeping bags, solar panels, yoga mats, artificial turf and carpets, ornamental trees, papier-mâché butterflies, enormous puppets, folding tables, drinking water, sound systems, a skateboard ramp and – of course – banners. Lots and lots of banners.
There was music, there was laughter, there was dancing. Even two police officers were wrist-slapped when a video of them joining in the fun went viral. If there’s one thing this country does well, it’s throw a good party – even if it’s in the process of trying to raise the alarm about impending doom. That the weekend was cloudless and astonishingly warm only worked in XR’s favour. The record-breaking weather not only made it easy for people to camp overnight, it also ensured climate-change skeptics were nowhere to be seen.
Friendly festivities aside, XR made non-violent civil disobedience a key tactic. The protesters’ mission was to be arrested. Activists glued themselves to the boat, as well as to buildings, buses and city streets. A few fearless rebels even glued themselves to the top of a train at Canary Wharf as it pulled into the station. Notably, lawyer Farhana Yamin – who had advised developing countries in climate negotiations for decades – threw herself under a police cordon in front of Shell headquarters and glued herself to the pavement, saying decades of working through the system had failed. Ms. Yamin was among those arrested.
How did Londoners respond? Although some feared that paralyzing the city’s transport networks would spark a public backlash, it appears to have done the opposite: Public donations to Extinction Rebellion quadrupled over nine days, with 30,000 new donors swelling their coffers. To their credit, protesters wisely chose the four-day Easter weekend for the climax of their demonstration, minimizing disruption to the city. It probably also helped that footage of the colourful mass protests provided a welcome reprieve from the Brexit negotiations, which over three years have progressively given the entire country a collective case of chronic fatigue syndrome.
That’s not to say that there haven’t been some very vocal and very reasonable criticisms levied at the protesters – not just from their opponents, but from scientists, policy-makers, NGOs and other activists. For starters, making arrest an active goal inherently leads to an overwhelmingly white crowd. (People of colour have far more to lose from a day in a cell and a mark on their record than a white middle-class student.) But more significantly, the central demand of the demonstration has been maligned as ridiculously unrealistic: XR wants the government to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025” (instead of the current target of 2050). Lofty goals are admirable – but if they are ludicrously unattainable, they undermine the entire argument. Moreover, XR have not laid out any policy platforms or specific means by which the country could achieve this.
But is it really the job of the protesters to lay out all the nuts and bolts of a solution? Or is their job simply to raise awareness? Without question, I think the movement would benefit by stating more realistic targets – there is no way we could achieve net-zero emissions in six years without a mass pandemic on the scale of bubonic plague. But to ask that they draft the legislative minutiae as well as stage one of the most complex acts of civil disobedience in British history is a tall order. It’s easy to glance at any protest from the sidelines and belittle it. But what is phenomenally difficult is staging a demonstration of this scale: Recall that it took a full year to co-ordinate thousands of people at six disparate locations in the busiest city in Europe, bringing enough supplies to spend an entire week sleeping in the street.
I started my career 15 years ago as a reporter on environmental issues. For years – and years, and years – I wrote about climate change. I covered the threat of sea-level rise, about the co-ordinated efforts of Canadian PR companies to distort climate science, about the Alberta oil sands. It seemed that nothing was ever going to change. Governments proposed pathetic emissions cuts and the public either didn’t know or didn’t want to know. Meanwhile, climate change continued to worsen faster than any of the scientists had predicted. I felt like Cassandra screaming to the stars and it made me want to tear out my hair.
Ten years ago, I never imagined that I’d see a public protest of this magnitude – ever. If anyone had told me in 2008 that someday thousands of protesters would camp out for a week in central London in grubby tents on the concrete demanding real action, I wouldn’t have believed it.
No, Extinction Rebellion doesn’t have solutions, and yes, their demands are unrealistic. But if the job of the protester is to get an issue onto the public agenda, and to hopefully shift the general understanding of what is possible – and what is essential – then they have done their job.