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Extinction Rebellion: Green rebels with a cause

Convinced that the planet faces imminent catastrophe, XR has redefined environmental protest and made the climate emergency front page news. 

Northala Fields is a west London park featuring four conical hills created with the rubble of the old Wembley Stadium. One recent morning Linda Davidsen and Valerie Milner-Brown stood on the highest of those hills, as endless planes descended towards Heathrow to the south, and triggered three days of high farce – a prelude to what climate change activists hope will prove the biggest act of civil disobedience in British history when they try to blockade Westminster and Whitehall over the next two weeks.

The two women had bought £50 drones from Argos. They reckoned that if they and a few dozen other protesters flew them at intervals in the five-kilometre prohibited zone around Heathrow the airport authorities would be compelled to observe their own safety protocols and halt all flights.

This was to be a demonstration of their drone-flying prowess staged for the media’s benefit ahead of the actual protest, but unfortunately the wind was too strong. The flimsy plastic drones, no more than a foot across, barely lifted from the ground.

The women were members of Extinction Rebellion (XR), but it had declined to endorse this particular protest. It feared that the use of drones smacked of terrorism, that the stunt would deter potential supporters, and that the timing was wrong.

They were instead operating under the name “Heathrow Pause”, which stressed that the drones would be flown at head height only, far from any flight path, and that the police and airport authorities would be notified well in advance. The idea that those toys posed any threat to a giant Boeing 747 was indeed preposterous.

By way of justification, the organisers asserted that Heathrow generates 18 million tons of carbon emissions a year – more than those of 118 countries, while the proposed third runway would generate another seven million tons.

That was a crime against humanity, they said. “As the effects of climate change become more severe, food and water supplies will be endangered and restricted. This will lead to famines, mass migrations and conflict as people contest or seek to defend limited resources. Global society will inevitably break down, and while this may not lead immediately to humanity’s extinction, we will witness deaths on an unimaginable and unprecedented scale, many times worse than all the genocides we have known combined.”

Happily, Davidsen and Milner-Brown’s performed rather better than their drones that morning of 12 September, with both offering impassioned defences of their planned law-breaking.

Davidsen, 49, is a divorced mother of two grown children from Northampton who gave up her job as an accountant earlier this year to fight climate change. Milner-Brown, 64, is a writer from north London with four daughters and eight grandchildren, who has likewise chosen to become a full-time climate change activist.

Neither woman had ever been in trouble before, and knew they would be courting arrest. Both told me they had left distraught offspring behind. Both were scared, but they felt they had no choice.

“What are you going to say to your children and grandchildren 20 or 30 years from now when the world is in a nightmare apocalyptic state, facing death, famine, drought, floods and fires?” Milner-Brown asked. “What are you going to say when violence is infiltrating your children’s lives because people are migrating to find food and water and are prepared to kill and loot? What are you going to say about what you did at that time when you could have saved them?”

“I refuse to bequeath a dying world to future generations by failing to act now,” Davidsen added. “We are the smoke alarms trying to wake everyone up. Are you really going to bash your smoke alarm and say ‘how dare you wake me up in the middle of the night’ when it’s just saved your life?”

In the event, Milner-Brown and Davidsen never reached Heathrow. They were arrested that same afternoon, along with five of Heathrow Pause’s ringleaders, and charged with conspiracy to cause a public nuisance. They spent the night in police custody.

***

Roger Hallam, 53, a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion and its strategic mastermind, was one of those ringleaders. A tall, gaunt man with grey hair tied back in a ponytail, he was finally released on bail late on the Friday evening, still determined to fly a drone near Heathrow the following morning, for reasons he had explained to me in characteristically apocalyptic terms earlier in the week.

“Heathrow is the iconic symbol of carbon-intensive monstrosity, and the [new] third runway will be the largest carbon-intensive infrastructure project in Europe,” he said. “The carbon emissions will be the equivalent of those of Kenya... The British government is engaged in a project which is going to lead to the tropics being uninhabitable for most of the year, and that constitutes mass genocide.”

On the Saturday morning journalists who wanted to witness Hallam flying his drone in blatant violation of his bail conditions received a WhatsApp message instructing us to go to Stanwell village hall, in the sprawl of industrial and housing estates that ring Heathrow. We were then given co-ordinates for a site a seven-minute walk away, where we found Hallam sitting cross-legged on a grassy roadside verge with a pile of new books beside him and a new toy drone from Selfridges still in its box.

Almost simultaneously two police vans arrived and arrested him a second time. Hallam told them he would not resist, but would not stand up, so eight officers carried him – and his books – to one of the vehicles, which took him away.

Returning to Stanwell we found another Heathrow Pause protester holding a drone aloft as a couple of police officers looked on. “I have been flying a drone this morning and you should be arresting me,” Anthony Whitehouse, 67, a retired IT worker from Yorkshire, told them.

“I’m doing this because I have no choice. The climate emergency that’s going on will cause huge disruption to society and the possible extinction of people,” he said as the officers consulted their superiors by radio. Then they drove him away as well – one of two dozen arrested over the course of a week. Another was detained after holding up a drone without batteries or propellers.

On the face of it the Heathrow Pause protest failed. It tied up hundreds of police officers, but came nowhere close to shutting Heathrow down, and caused no disruption to passengers – unlike the recent British Airways pilots’ strike.

The organisers saw it differently. They gained a lot of publicity in the mainstream and on social media. They highlighted the contradiction between the government’s pledge to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 and its approval of the third runway, and the hypocrisy of a prime minister who once vowed to lie in front of the bulldozers to prevent the third runway being built. “The goal was to recharge and ignite the discussion about Heathrow and the third runway, and I think we’ve managed that,” said a spokesperson.

Roger Hallam will have his day in court, moreover. Appearing before Uxbridge Magistrates’ Court on 16 September, he declined to apply for bail and was remanded in custody pending his appearance before Isleworth Crown Court on 14 October. He is expected to invoke the seldom-used “necessity defence”, hoping to persuade a jury that his actions were a proportionate response to the climate emergency given the government’s failure to protect the population.

During the Great Fire of London, he had explained to me, “people pulled down buildings in London to stop the fire spreading. That’s destruction of property, but they didn’t ask permission. They pulled them down to save life and limb in an emergency.”

Outside the magistrates’ court another would-be protester approached Hallam’s supporters, asking what she could do. Her name was Margaret Turner, a grandmother and retired mental health worker two weeks shy of her 80th birthday. She had come from Exeter, armed not with a drone but with a toy glider and an apron proclaiming “No Third Runway!”

She had never done anything like this before, she told me, but “the threat to life on our planet is so huge that anything I can do to change the direction of our culture towards disaster I must do”.


​Spring rights: performance artists at Marble Arch on the last day of the Easter Rebellion, 25 April. Credit: Guy Smallman/Getty

Roger Hallam was born in Manchester, the son of a Co-op factory manager and a part- time teacher. His parents were staunch Methodists who taught him, he says, that “the main point of life is not to make money but to live a life of righteousness”.

From Bredbury Comprehensive he won a scholarship to the London School of Economics, but left after a year “because I thought I could study more effectively by myself”. He explored Gandhi and peace activism. He spent several years in Birmingham pursuing radical experiments in housing, labour and education. “How to organise people – that’s basically what I specialise in,” he said. He also set up a business buying produce from farmers and selling it directly to households because “farmers were getting screwed by supermarkets”.

In 1999, he moved to Carmarthen in Wales “because I was fucked off with society. It’s not my cup of tea… If people want to consume stuff and compete with each other that’s fine but it’s not my deal.” There he grew organic vegetables on a 15-acre plot, successfully replicated the direct sales business he had run in Birmingham, and raised four children – two boys and two girls now aged eight to 19. Then, two years running, his crops were ruined by weeks of non-stop rain that he attributed to climate change, so he switched direction.

He went back to university and studied politics part-time at Swansea. That led to a PhD at King’s College London on how to bring about radical political change through direct action. His studies were practical, not theoretical. He helped organise a successful rent strike by students at University College London, fought for the rights of Deliveroo and other casual workers, and forced King’s to divest from fossil fuel companies.

One day he had an epiphany when he heard an announcement about rising global temperatures while driving back to Wales and realised climate change was real and deadly serious. He broke down in tears.

It was, he said, “like finding out about your own death. That’s when I knew the rest of my life was definitely going to be on the climate crisis. I moved away from doing the labour-organising thing, which I love, because it’s great fun taking down capitalists. I don’t want to do this type of work really because it’s so traumatising for everyone involved. It’s enormously emotionally upsetting.

“With climate change it’s like everything you ever loved is going to get destroyed. Your children are going to die of starvation. What we need to do is completely transform the economy in five years, and take carbon out of the atmosphere, and even if we do that we are almost certainly going to go extinct. As a reasonably intelligent analyst that’s the reality. That’s not nice on any level.”

In 2016 Hallam met Gail Bradbrook, a molecular biophysicist and fellow campaigner for social change. They helped start the radical campaigning organisation Rising Up!, which spawned Extinction Rebellion in the spring of 2018.

Extinction Rebellion was a recognition that conventional environmental campaigning, with its lobbying, petitioning and reluctance to frighten people, had largely failed: the world has emitted as much carbon in the past 30 years as in the previous two centuries. A new model was needed – mass, non-violent civil disobedience based on three principles that Hallam succinctly expressed in a Guardian article: “First, that only through disruption, the breaking of laws, do you get the attention that you need. Second, only through sacrifice – the willingness to be arrested and go to prison – do people take seriously what you’re saying. And third, only through being respectful to ourselves, the public and the police do we change the hearts and minds of our opponents.”

Or, as he put it to me: “We’ve seen 30 years of well-meaning, very passionate action which has totally failed. Now we’re at the shit point of whatever it takes.”

XR set out to alarm, disrupt and force people to confront what Hallam calls “the most important issue in the history of humanity”. It deployed apocalyptic language and imagery. It adopted the hour-glass symbol as its logo, to suggest time running out, and issued three demands: the government must tell the truth about the climate emergency, cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2025, and create a Citizens’ Assembly – immune from lobbyists’ pressure – to oversee that monumental task. XR does not say how carbon emissions could be cut so drastically, but that target would clearly entail revolutionary changes to our present lifestyles.

Hallam, Bradbrook and others spent that summer giving recruitment talks around the country. On 31 October last year a thousand supporters blocked the road outside the Houses of Parliament while Extinction Rebellion issued its “Declaration of Rebellion” against the government’s “criminal inaction in the face of climate change catastrophe and ecological collapse”.

A series of escalating protests followed, culminating in last Easter’s “International Rebellion” when several thousand protesters occupied five sites in central London, including Oxford Circus and Marble Arch, for 11 festive days. More than 1,100 people were arrested.

XR’s disruption of the capital was decried by much of the media, but it caught the zeitgeist. The following month parliament approved a motion that declared a climate emergency. The school strikes inspired by Greta Thunberg gathered momentum. Climate change shot up the list of people’s concerns in opinion polls, and is now one of the top three. Academics endorsed XR, and Emma Thompson, Rowan Williams and members of Radiohead lent their support.

The number of “rebels” signed up with XR soared from 34,000 before the Easter Rebellion to more than 150,000 now, of which around 20,000 have declared their willingness to be arrested. Donations poured in. “It’s like living a dream and living a nightmare at the same time,” Gail Bradbrook told me.

For the most part these grass-roots rebels are not people the tabloids could easily characterise as anarchists or left-wing extremists. While researching this article I met many ordinary citizens, of every age and background, who have never challenged the law before but are deeply alarmed by the increasingly irrefutable evidence that the planet is overheating. More than one choked up as they envisaged their children’s future.

They are encouraged to attend non-violent direct action training courses where they are warned of the legal consequences if arrested, and advised how to act in a way that suggests self-sacrifice and therefore garners public sympathy – don’t resist but go limp, and don’t link arms.

They are taught the importance of respect. “If we go round saying the general public are c***s because they won’t do the right thing you can guarantee that people will hate us,” said Hallam. “If we say, ‘We’re really sorry about closing Oxford Street, it’s the last thing we want to do but we’re just normal people and we’re shit scared and if the police arrest us that’s fine by us,’ that shows first of all respect and second fearlessness, which are the two main components of creating attitude change in the observer.”

I sat in on a course near Euston Station attended by two dozen people aged 15 to 54, male and female, articulate and educated, few of whom had been activists of any sort before. “It bothers the hell out of me. I look at my son and think ‘what kind of future have I left you?’,” Elaine Clarke, 49, a recently retired primary school teacher, told me.

The rebels are encouraged to form local “affinity groups”, which can stage any type of protest so long as it complies with XR’s fundamental rules – no violence, no disrespect, no shirking of responsibility for one’s actions, and no drugs or alcohol.

And that is what the rebels were doing all this summer. As the world witnessed a succession of extreme climatic events – record temperatures in Europe and North America, unprecedented wildfires and ice loss in the Arctic, record droughts in Australia, Hurricane Dorian – XR groups have been staging all manner of protests in towns and cities. They have been blocking roads, glueing themselves to totemic buildings, staging boycotts and “die-ins” – all building momentum for what over the coming weeks could be, according to Hallam, the biggest act of civil disobedience in British history.

***

Extinction Rebellion’s headquarters occupy a bright, open-plan office in a modern block in Bethnal Green, east London. The walls are adorned with colourful posters declaring “Change is Now” and “Rebel for Life”. There are sections for regenerative culture, media and messaging, well-being, legal advisers, art, fund-raising and much else besides.

The place crackles with energy. Between breaks for therapeutic dancing and meditation, and communal vegan lunches, dozens of volunteers – many of whom quit well-paid jobs to devote themselves to the cause after experiencing their own “ecophanies” – are busily preparing for another huge “Rebellion” beginning on 7 October.

The Easter Rebellion in April occupied five sites around London. If all goes to plan, this “October Rebellion” will occupy 12 sites in a circle around the Palace of Westminster and the ministries of Whitehall, blockading the very heart of government for two weeks. Bradbrook hopes 25,000 rebels will participate.

It is a huge undertaking. There will be stages, art installations and other physical structures at each site. There will be music, talks, workshops and free meals. There will be cooks, messengers, stewards, police liaisons, first aiders, and live-streamers working in shifts. There will be people offering legal support to those who volunteer to be arrested, and people ready to greet those arrested when they are released on bail. “For every one arrestee there will be 20 supporting them,” said Sophie Cowen, 28, who gave up her advertising job to work as a “media and messaging co-ordinator” for XR.

The police may seek to remove the protesters by force in a way they refrained from doing in April, but that would play into XR’s hands. “Either they let us stay on the streets and we do the disruption and get the publicity,” says Bradbrook, “or they clamp down on us and we’re not running off. If they come at us with tear gas or batons or mass arrests then you get a kind of upswell because they become repressive of people demanding what the public actually want.”

Roger Hallam will not be there, of course. He will be in a cell in Wormwood Scrubs, awaiting his trial, reading his books and doubtless contemplating what he calls the “annihilation event” hurtling towards us – the point where the heating up of the planet becomes irreversible.

He is not optimistic. He does what he does not because he thinks it will work, but because it is the right thing to do. “We’re fucked,” he told me several times, and put the chances of his children reaching his age at “somewhere between 2 and 20 per cent”.

“No one is saying we’ve not made progress but we are approaching the foothills,” he went on. “Read some history. Look at the rise of Islam. Look at the rise of Christianity. That’s what we are looking at here.” It is too late merely to change a few policies – “you can’t preserve the geophysical composition of the planet through a few government policies”. To save mankind there needs to be a revolution, “a massive social and political and spiritual transformation”, and even that might no longer be enough.

Fond of analogies, Hallam likened humanity’s plight to someone reaching a very high wall as a gunman chases him. He has no chance of scaling it, but a faint chance of escaping if he can somehow find a ladder. “There’s a zero per cent chance of saving us through conventional activism,” he said. “There’s a 1 per cent chance through the ladder option.” That ladder is what he believes Extinction Rebellion provides. 

Martin Fletcher is a New Statesman contributing writer and former foreign editor of the Times

Martin Fletcher is a New Statesman contributing writer and a former foreign editor of the Times

This article appears in the 02 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit revolutionaries