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8 October 2019updated 24 Jul 2021 3:46am

Can you be in Extinction Rebellion and eat at McDonald’s?


By Anoosh Chakelian

When I was little, the main demo my parents used to take me on was the Armenian genocide recognition march every April. Usually trudging down the route through central London amid April showers, we’d wave our flags, do some chants, forget to fall silent for the orthodox priest’s bit, and then duck into a Costa or a McDonald’s somewhere central.

“They didn’t have happy meals in the Anatolian desert,” was my dad’s dark joke about it. And it did always seem a little ironic to be fighting the West’s complicity in genocide denial but seduced by one of its gaudiest fast food chains – particularly when trying to highlight the starvation suffered by our ancestors. But in the absence of freshly rolled dolma on Whitehall, we went anyway, because we were doing our bit, and we were hungry and tired, and we were humans.

This is what I thought about when a photo of some Extinction Rebellion environmental activists went viral yesterday, on the first day of their latest action in the capital, depicting them queuing in McDonald’s.

“You. Couldn’t. Make. This. Stuff. Up. If. You. Tried,” tweeted the talkRadio broadcaster Julia Hartley-Brewer. “‘Capitalism is killing us all!! We should stop eating meat!! Right then guys, let’s knock off. Maccy Ds anyone!?’” The lack of self-awareness is absolutely staggering,” tweeted the Tory MP for Mansfield Ben Bradley. “They are shameless hypocrites going to the epicentre of mass produced food,” said TV host Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain.

Just like Emma Thompson flying 5,400 miles to join the protests in April, the Extinction-Rebels-eat-McDonald’s story makes a great headline. It’s simple, it’s jarring, and it means you can mock people who believe they are doing something good – the most fun to tear down.

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I’m not going to pretend McDonald’s’ attempts at tweaking its meat production and plastic toy distribution mean it’s a great place to eat environmentally. It will always be a symbol of capitalist excess.

But the whole point of Extinction Rebellion, school strikes and the modern climate crisis movement as a whole is that governments have let us down. Without the adequate, radical policies and global cooperation, we’re in a position where whether we go to McDonald’s or not, the earth is going to die soon.

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Just look at Extinction Rebellion’s demands: the government declaring a climate and ecological emergency; achieving net zero carbon emissions and stop biodiversity loss by 2025; establishing of a citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice.

It’s about policy change, and the empowerment of people to make such changes, rather than individual actions. They’re not demanding we never eat in McDonald’s, and pretending that they have no legitimate cause if they do so themselves is disingenuous.

Also, yes, they are hypocrites. We’re all hypocrites. We live in an imperfect society that does things in ways we don’t like – that’s why anyone protests at all, after all. The campaigning folk at the TaxPayers’ Alliance disagree with beer duty, but they’ll still have a pint at the pub. It seems oddly puritanical of those who mock the assumed moral superiority of “lefties” or “eco-warriors” to demand perfection.

Also, people need food. Perhaps the blithe failure to grasp this basic rule of survival explains why some are quite so relaxed about the world ending.