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15 April 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 1:41pm

Extinction Rebellion wants to save the planet. Could it save the arts in the process?

By India Bourke

In 1920s North America, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera painted public frescos confronting the effects of industrialisation. In 1969, Yoko Ono and John Lennon sat in bed for world peace. And now this week, in London, a new collaboration of activists, artists and performers have united to protest the biosphere’s erosion.

On Monday, under the banner of the Extinction Rebellion movement, thousands of protestors took to the streets to take part in road blockades and performance art.

At Waterloo, the bridge burst into life as protestors covered it in potted plants and played the songs of endangered British birds. In Parliament Square, a New Orleans brass band lead a puppetry procession of extinct creatures.  They hope to keep up traffic disruptions of this kind throughout the working week.

And these examples are only the tip of the activists’ iceberg: in Berlin, protestors have declared a rebellion in front of the Reichstag; in South Australia, elderly activists have occupied the House of Assembly.

The demonstrators want politicians to act on the climate crisis: first by declaring a Climate and Ecological Emergency, and then by planning to reach net zero emissions by 2025.

They would also like the entire process to be guided by a Citizen’s Assembly, in which randomly selected members of the public discuss and inform government policy.

These are ambitious demands, but political attention seems to be slowly swinging in their favour. Earlier today, Labour’s shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, joined Swedish climate-icon Greta Thunberg in tweeting his support for the movement.

As the UK parliament continues its Brexit in-fighting, the case for reforming the present system of representative democracy seems ripe. The addition of a randomly selected People’s Assembly (as conducted to great effect before the abortion referendum in Ireland) could help forge a sense of greater public ownership over the sweeping emissions reforms ahead.

But while the government’s response is still unclear, one thing emerging from the movement’s brightly-coloured activities is Britain’s dynamic and resolute arts scene.

On a personal level, I find the line-up of contributions to the protest inspiring: performances by the folksinger Sam Lee recall an ethereal evening spent listening to him sing with nightingales in an ancient wood. A speech from director Simon McBurney recalls his theatre company’s numerous mind-shifting productions – from the story of a self-taught mathematical genius, to a surround-sound trip deep into the Amazon rainforest’s soul.

Yet even as I write the above, I am aware of just how limited access to such experiences has become. In recent years the government’s austerity push has cut more than £100m of annual arts funding. And it’s not just the big museums and galleries that have suffered; libraries are struggling; school trips and plays are dwindling. Local authority spending on culture has also declined by almost £400m since 2010, according to research by the County Councils Network.

While this artistic aspect of the movement largely revolves around inputs from middle-class exponents (who also risk less in getting arrested than other members of the population), the free, public displays are hopefully also giving back to the city in a way that mitigates some of the disruption caused.

Finding the most inclusive and effective way to highlight climate change’s existential threat is no easy task – but in harnessing the power of spectacle, the movement is reminding the country of a cultural strength it cannot afford to lose.

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