Alexandria Villsenor, 13, has spent every Friday since December wrapped in a winter coat outside the United Nations headquarters in New York City, protesting the glacial response to climate change. Sabirah Mahmud, 16, leads a team of young people in Philadelphia. She has a personal motivation for striking — her family is from Bangladesh. “Sea levels are rising and Bangladesh is one of the countries where climate change is really happening,” she says.
Sabirah and Alexandria are just two of the 1.5 million students who have spilled onto the streets over the last six months in a series of global school strikes. Inspired by Greta Thunberg, who on August 20 2018, at 15 years of age, sat alone on the steps of the Swedish Parliament in protest at the lack of political leadership in tackling the ecological crisis facing the planet.
Greta has since criss-crossed Europe meeting political, economic and religious leaders old enough be her grandparents – if not great grandparents. Inspiring as these young eco warriors are, there is something deeply disturbing about the fact that the ‘adults in the room’ are now children.
Even more disturbing is the alacrity with which many of our leaders seek to have selfies taken with these young conscience-bearers: children who will bear the brunt in years to come of climate inaction now.
Part 1: Extinction Rebellion
On April 15, 2019 around 6 pm, thousands of ordinary UK citizens took over four major landmarks in central London, effectively shutting down vehicular access and disrupting ‘business as usual’ for ten days.
Extinction Rebellion, a grass roots movement, thus launched a campaign of direct action against the political inertia decried by Generation Z. It’s tactics? – rebellion.
After ten days of extensive media coverage, mass arrests, specific actions targeting the city’s financial and shopping districts, tourist landmarks and public transport, the UK government was forced to pay attention. Meetings with the environmental minister, Michael Gove, opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn and other government officials were arranged. On May 2, the UK Government conceded to one of XR’s* demands: the formal recognition of a climate emergency.
This period of civil disruption was notable for its peaceful atmosphere, spirit of generosity and care, and colourful creative street theatre. But it also served to provide intensive civil disobedience trainings, workshops in non-violent protest, education on the formation of Citizens Assemblies, whilst simultaneously encouraging a culture of care and respect.
This included the police, the public, and those areas occupied by Extinction Rebellion.
This mandate of non-violence and respect was remarkably upheld. And although at times XR sites resembled UK’s free-spirited summer festivals, no drugs or alcohol were allowed. At the close of the campaign, as each site was dismantled, street art could be seen being meticulously scrubbed from the pavements, and all debris removed.
As the movement gained momentum and the scale of arrests escalated, legal observers were always on hand to provide names and contact numbers to the arrestees for legal advice once they arrived at detention centres. The length of time held in solitary confinement varied from 7 to 23.5 hours (the legal limit before being formally charged is 24 hours). On release, each person was met with open arms by a small group of ‘co-rebels’ bearing food and hot drinks – a service provided freely around the clock with some volunteers waiting long hours in the sharp chill of British spring nights.
As arrests topped a 1000 and media attention around the globe mounted, on April 21 a massive deployment of police closed down the sites one by one, the last being one of London’s busiest bridges, Waterloo Bridge.
This ordinarily traffic-clogged link between the northern and southern banks of the Thames had been transformed into a veritable garden. Plants and trees were dotted between small makeshift campsites and food tents. A pedestrian’s paradise, it mirrored Boris Johnson’s expensive failed Garden Bridge project which, despite never materializing, cost the British taxpayers 53 million GBP. On the 6th day, the police ordered the removal of the greenery which was then lovingly stored in a nearby church, the priest of which, supported XR’s mission.
Several mainstream news anchors implicitly questioned the seriousness of the campaign, focusing on the ‘colourful’ mix of participants. But on attending several of the many talks given at the various sites; participating in workshops on non-violent civil disruption, and learning about the democratic function of citizens’ assemblies (hosted by the Sortition Foundation), it became deadly clear to me that this was a focused campaign, designed with tactical precision, with both short and long term goals.
I further discovered that XR seeks to embody pre-figurative templates for alternative forms of society. Adhering to non-hierarchal principles, autonomy and decentralized creative actions are encouraged through a network of local and regional co-ordinators trained in NVDA**. During the London campaign anyone could train for the various roles needed in such a large scale operation. Information and support were shared in a variety of ways, with the exchange of experience and skills encouraged. I attended various decision-making groups of up to 100 people, skilfully facilitated by XR founders. Decisions were reached through open discussion. XR does not operate on a consensus basis, nor on a top-down command and control structure.
Open dialogue is encouraged and co-ordinators take responsibility based on this, within the principles of XR. What was striking was the sense of meaning and purpose the campaign evoked. People willingly gave up their time to serve in multiple ways. Strangers, of all ages, engaged freely together sharing their fears, grief, anger and a renewed sense of agency. Regenerative culture is highly valued in XR and all manner of well-being services including meditation and various prayer vigils were offered throughout the week. It’s HQ in Kings Cross has a whole department dedicated to this. Care for those participating is a priority – one that I witnessed being demonstrated in a hundred small and large ways during those ten days.
Part 2: The Efficacy of Protest
Like most, I posted images fairly regularly on social media during XR’s campaign, tracking its unfoldment and impact. Interestingly, this was met with a range of responses from surprise, to support, to silence. There were many who welcomed the strategy of civil disruption, particularly the media attention this drew to the environmental crisis. Others clearly felt I had ‘regressed’ to 80’s style activism. Comments from veteran ‘eco warriors’ echoed a refrain of ‘been there done that’, not without a dose of scepticism. A series of debates on the efficacy of sacred or subtle activism versus street protest began to surface on Facebook, particularly amongst those engaged in various forms of consciousness raising: spiritual practices, philosophy, dialogue, critical thinking and depth enquiry.
The objections felt familiar. Street protest has proved to be ineffective in the West over the last few decades, and I was no stranger to this. What’s more, I too subscribe to a tradition of thinking which predicates consciousness transformation as being foundational to deep systemic change. Simply protesting against, or even adopting new technologies or systems without examining and re-envisioning our existing worldview and value systems, risks replicating old ways.
What we value, how we relate to each other and to the planet as a whole, are pivotal questions facing our generation. These demand more than cosmetic changes to our polity, economy and habits. In the light of increasingly fragile eco-systems and resources, are we masters, or participatory custodians, of the planet?
Over the past five years, I have become increasingly aware of the ‘split’ between the so-called consciousness community, academia, and that of political and social activism. Despite the development of knowledge and understanding in so many areas, there is a conspicuous absence of evolution in the systems we take for granted: those economic and political systems that are currently determining the global realties of today. How far-reaching in impact are the insights that emerge from progressive think-tanks, or academic papers? Has spirituality, philosophical thinking, and intellectual theory in the West become divorced from life itself?
For example, how is the understanding of the nature of complex systems actually demonstrated in socio/economic and political terms today? Furthermore, why is the near universal recognition of the importance of diversity in any meaningful debate, still so poorly reflected in most progressive institutions, including innovative think-tanks, conferences, and spiritual gatherings?
The significance of these disparities, as replicated in the global systems and institutions we currently have in place, started to dawn on me. The fact that the lion’s share of decision-making power is nestled in the global north means a scientific materialist worldview, with values rooted in 200 year-old thinking, remains indisputably dominant. Where is the impact of intellectually sophisticated, or higher consciousness thinking on this, and on the inequities this inevitably produces?
Is investment in colonial-style structures, and the affluence these afford the global north, the explanation for the widespread denial of the damage our outdated systems and industries are wreaking on the environment? Despite repeated assessments, based on reputable scientific data, laying out a perilous trajectory if we don’t make radical changes, chronic inertia prevails. Closer to home, I began to wonder – am I simply one of the millions of Western middle class “informed, concerned bystanders” trading dismay and denunciation with friends or colleagues over the abuse by giant corporations, the daily transgressions of the White House, and general government failings?
The IPCC report came out in October 2018, representing the findings of 2,500 scientists and experts from 130 countries. It gave a definitive timeline of twelve years (2030) to bring down escalating temperatures exacerbated by CO2 emissions, or face irreversible destruction to our habitat. Two months later, a Guardian article articulating our inaction on climate change added to a sense of deep personal dis-ease…“We have worked out, with scrupulous care, what we must do to avoid this or to mitigate the effects of climate change.” it read.” We know what to do. We can see how to do it. There’s only one problem: we do almost nothing.”
Extinction Rebellion was launched in November 2018 with a couple hundred activists rallying to its call. By the end of April 2019, 50,000 had responded, signing up to its mandate to force the UK Government, through non-violent civil disruption, to recognize and respond to the climate emergency we are facing.
Like many of my friends I had been dubious about the efficacy of protest as a tool for social transformation. Nevertheless, I took to the streets to make a statement in the Women’s March in January 2017. More recently (March 2019), I joined the million-strong river of humanity that wound through the streets of central London to Parliament Square, demanding a People’s Vote on the government’s disastrous Brexit negotiations. I was also one of six million signatures on a petition urging that Article 50 (Brexit) itself be revoked. The fact these impressive numbers led to less-than-impressive results would seem to support the view of those who have abandoned popular protest as a means of pursuing social change, at least in the West. Occupy Wall St, despite its publicity and widespread support, is now the poster-child of protest movements without a plan.
However,when compared to the historical successes of the Suffragettes, the Civil Rights and Gay Rights movements, analyses of recent failed social movements show that a lack of sustained preparation and movement building around clear objectives and a post-protest vision, count. A void in leadership, vision, strategic thinking and the kind of painstaking tactics that went into earlier movements, have seen street protests, impressive in size, amount to little. Extinction Rebellion differs in this regard.
Based on the principles of non-violent civil disobedience pioneered by Gandhi and developed by Martin Luther King, XR has simple clear objectives, a keen set of evolving strategies, and ten principles it requests participants to abide by. It is politically non-partisan and, although non hierarchical, has a savvy team of experienced eco activists, lawyers, academics, scientists and thinkers working within its core. Autonomy and decentralization within an ethos of collaboration, is encouraged and supported. It’s blend of traditional in-person participation with innovative technologies and use of social media is attracting an army of millennials previously disengaged.
XR’s primary objectives simply stated are:
- The recognition and declaration by the government of the climate and wider ecological emergency, and the reversal of inconsistent policies; working alongside the media to communicate with its citizens
- The goal of net zero carbon emissions. “The Government must enact legally binding policy measures to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 and to reduce consumption levels.”
- The formation of Citizen Assemblies representing local and regional areas. These would engage with a range of experts and work with government officials”to oversee the changes, as part of creating a democracy fit for purpose”.
XR recognizes that most governments’ attention is devoured by competing political issues. MPs have neither the time, or the expertise, required for the systemic solutions needed to address the scale of ecological crisis we face. Although zero carbon emissions is one of its targets, XR recognizes that ecological breakdown and its implications cannot be solved in isolation from issues such as the governance of markets, finance and banking, agricultural policy, protection of the global commons – earthy, sky, seas and forests.
New policies in turn require a radical transformation in our current worldview and the culture we create. Consciousness and activism are needed as one interactive organism. Vision, theory and action can no longer be atomized, therefore political engagement should not be ignored. New ways of thinking, and alternative forms of knowledge, need to be brought to bear on mainstream policies.
XR is a developing movement, barely six months old. As one speaker pointed out, it “stands on the shoulders of the work of those in the global south who have been battling against ecocide for generations”. One of XR’s tenets is “reflection ….and learning from other movements and contexts as well as our own experiences”. The Global South, on the front line of the effects of centuries of Western extractive polices and an economic system that maximizes profit over people and planet, is home to vast intergenerational knowledge systems based on unity with nature. XR to be successful needs to learn from, and collaborate with, those who have up to now been excluded.
Launched on October 31st 2018 in the UK, it has grown quickly. There are now over 130 Extinction Rebellion groups across the UK from Cornwall to Glasgow. Other groups are forming across the world. Based on non-violent disruption, XR goes beyond protest. Its goal is simple: it is an evolving movement committed to breaking the ‘denialism’ that grips our world leaders and in many cases their citizens. Through civil disobedience XR calls on us to compel our governments to engage in a meaningful and urgent response to the ecological emergency defining our era.
In its own words:
“Time for denial is over. It is time to act. Conventional approaches of voting, lobbying, petitions and protest have failed because powerful political and economic interests prevent change. Our strategy is therefore one of non-violent, disruptive civil disobedience – a rebellion. Historical evidence shows that we need the involvement of 3.5% of the population to succeed – in the UK that’s about 2 million people.”