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4 April 2022

Love or loathe it, Extinction Rebellion is more necessary than ever

A new documentary is a reminder of the tenacious energy it takes to believe the climate crisis can still be tackled in time.

By India Bourke

Another landmark scientific report is about to be released into the world. The latest distillation of facts by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will, as ever, spark a mix of terror and hope: climate breakdown is wreaking devastation, but global governments have the means to prevent catastrophe – if they act now.

How much attention the reports will garner, however, is uncertain. With war raging in Ukraine, the cost of living soaring, and global populations reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic, some are understandably concerned that this latest warning won’t get the response it deserves.

A timely new Netflix documentary charting the rise of the groundbreaking environmental movement Extinction Rebellion (XR) suggests that scientific papers and carefully crafted press releases alone are not enough. Something more radical and urgent is also necessary if climate action is to breakthrough.

Rebellion reveals how a small group’s seemingly fanciful brainchild became a world-spanning platform for climate activism. By April 2019, it had gathered enough momentum to block key sites across London for almost two weeks. Sympathisers flooded to join the colourful, performance art-filled occupations, with more than 1,000 arrested for taking part. The result was a declaration of a “climate emergency” by the UK parliament and domino-effect protests and announcements around the globe.

The journey that the thoughtful film recounts is a tempestuous one. Set against the backdrop of an ever-intensifying climate crisis, as well as an increasingly hard-line crackdown from the UK authorities, quietly intimate moments complement the now-familiar scenes of street drama and arrest. “Gingerbread, a waterproof and a flask of tea?” one middle-aged protester replies to an officer who asks to examine her bag for suspicious items.

One intriguing anecdote doesn’t make the cut, however. It involves the journey made by the lifelong activist and XR co-founder Gail Bradbrook to the Costa Rican jungle, where she took part in various hallucinogenic rituals. Her aim, she told reporters in an interview, was to unlock her unconscious and gain the keys to the universe’s “codes for social change”.

The universe’s answer? A shaggy-haired, Welsh organic farmer, civil disobedience researcher and self-declared “non-violence nerd”, named Roger Hallam. Unaware of her earlier experience, at the end of his and Bradbrook’s first exchange, Hallam announced that he’d given her the “codes” she had been looking for; Bradbrook was “gobsmacked”.

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I bring up this story because it perhaps helps to explain why many observers met XR’s first rumblings with scepticism. Could a group with strong links to such old-school, almost clichéd, associations with green activism’s hippy origins really provide the cut-through that the contemporary climate crisis so urgently required?

What the movement achieved that April, however, blew such doubts out of the water. For consecutive days, the climate crisis broke through into mainstream coverage and conversation; something it had previously failed to do.

The insights provided in the film by the environmental lawyer Farhana Yamin are particularly helpful. Her journey from sceptic to supporter sees her grapple with mixed feelings until almost the last minute. “I feel I’ve come so far as a result of this XR energy… that I’m so far out of my comfort zone,” she worries just weeks before gluing herself to Shell’s London office. Afterwards, however, she’s clearly delighted by the unprecedented media and political attention the cause receives.

Yet as Yamin’s story also reveals, XR’s path to prominence has been laced with external obstacles and internal conflicts. And, in many ways, the film positions Roger Hallam as its tragic hero (more tragic or more hero, depending on whether you judge the charismatic co-founder by his misguided outbursts and intransigent positions, or his passionate commitment to the cause).

At one point in the fly-on-the-wall film, Hallam’s support for a drone-led protest at Heathrow Airport is met with reservations and opposition from across the organisation. “If we want to do anything radically different, we have to start putting different voices at the centre,” his own impressively self-aware and clear-sighted daughter, Savannah, pleads, to no avail, in a statement made on behalf of the groups’ younger members.

How far the organisation has managed to overcome divisions and recover its early popularity will soon be tested anew, with daily “mass protests” scheduled to begin in London on 9 April. But whatever their outcome, this surprisingly touching film is a reminder that empathy and openness can change a great deal.

“I think I’ve learned how enormously tragic it is to be human… because humans find it enormously difficult to get their act together,” Hallam says in the film’s closing lines. How true for us all.

“Rebellion” is on Netflix from 1 April.

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