Rebelling against extinction: new British movement fuels global action

Accepting the truth about the climate and ecological emergency—and acting upon it—is the core message of Extinction Rebellion. Since April, through non-violent acts of civil disobedience, they have globally staged protests and street blockades. During October’s wave of action, Buchsbaum joined them in Berlin.

Extinction Rebellion protests worldwide for climate actions (Public Domain)

When hope dies, action begins

Building upon the momentum of the Fridays For Future and other climate groups, the Extinction Rebellion (XR) has swept cities worldwide.

Relying upon increasingly disruptive acts of creative, non-violent civil disobedience and other forms of “passive” resistance to cut through our normal routines, the movement is trying to refocus media and political attention onto the climate and biodiversity crisis in a desperate bid to change the system before it’s too late.

One of XR’s central understandings is that despite decades of campaigns, thirty years after the first global conference convened to get nations to reduce their emissions, governments have simply not acted strongly enough. Over the years, it’s become clear that traditional systems like voting, petitions and letter campaigns as well as large traditional protest marches have had virtually no effect on policies. Regardless of the near scientific consensus following more than 50 years of study, greenhouse gas production today is greater than at any point in human history even as data shows wildlife and biodiversity collapsing at an unparalleled scale.

With myriad climate killing projects still in the pipeline, it’s abundantly clear that the crisis isn’t being fueled by a lack of scientific understanding, but by capitalism’s lock on governments. In that sense, we face a failure of both democracy and democracies to maturely act upon the crises.

Now as much of California and the planet burns, the San Francisco Chronicle is asking if perhaps parts of our world have become unlivable. “Given what we know about the dangers ahead, not just for this generation, but for the ones to come, what is more logical than a rebellion against their own extinction?” asked the Frankfurter Rundschau newspaper’s environmental expert in an editorial.

Global rebellion

Growing out of the Occupy movement, XR’s two main founders are Roger Hallam (53) and Dr Gail Bradbrook (47). From England, they and their corporate and foundation supporters established XR as something of a PR project: a rune-like logo and three basic principles:

1) That governments tell the truth about the crisis and immediately declare a climate and ecological emergency and work swiftly with other institutions to communicate the urgent necessity of structural reform;

2) Immediately alter policies to halt biodiversity loss and bring greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025;

3) Given the widespread conflicts of interest by government ministers, XR demands the creation and recognition of Citizens’ Assemblies to advise on climate and ecological justice.

Now being called into action in the UK, and already used throughout Europe, these Assemblies empower citizens to work responsibly together, using professional facilitation, members listen to balanced information from experts, NGOs and those most affected by the emergency in order to inform policies.

Waves of global activism

In roughly a year, XR has grown into a network of at least 485 groups across 72 countries.

In April a carnival of protest succeeded in shutting down large swaths of London—essentially making business as usual impossible. The following June, as thousands more were arrested, some Rebels ended up meeting with London’s mayor and cabinet ministers before securing their aim of getting parliament to declare a “climate emergency.”

Across the Atlantic in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, activists scaled the New York Times building, unfurling a banner reading “Climate change = mass murder,” with “change” crossed out and replaced by “emergency.” With protests roiling Gotham, less than a week later, New York also declared a climate emergency.

In mid October, another wave of protest erupted with demonstrations and blockades in dozens of cities worldwide.

Tens of thousands of rebels once again swarmed through London, causing not only chaos but breaking through the Brexit-dominated headlines. Emblematic of the divisive public debates they generated, a day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson dismissed them as “uncooperative crusties,” his father, Stanley, joined the rebellion itself.

Rebellion comes to Berlin

Relatively new in Germany, from an encampment directly across from the Bundestag, the nation’s parliament, over three thousand XR rebels deployed throughout Berlin during October’s week of action. Blockades shut down traffic at major intersections. An occupation of the central Marshallbrücke, situated directly below the ARD, Germany’s public television and radio headquarters, ensured XR wall-to-wall media coverage. This was followed by a multi-day blockade in front of the German Environmental Ministry (BMU) that lured government officials to address the crowd and offer a formal invitation for a wider conversation.

Unwilling to accept Prime Minister Merkel’s increasingly weak climate policies, many of the protestors in Berlin rejected her statement that “politics is the art of the possible.” Rebel Mandy X, countered that patience is no longer an option. First aware of climate change thirty years ago in elementary school, she’s now a mother of two. Throughout her entire life “CO2 emissions have only continued to increase, and I feel powerless to make a difference. I came here to demand governments tell the truth about the crisis and then take the necessary action.”

Helena, who came to Berlin as a legal observer, was quite reluctant to violate any laws, but felt that the science is propelling her to action. Referencing the most recent EU-supported ESPAS study “Global Trends to 2030”, she reminded “that that if temperatures rise more than 1,5 degrees by 2030, we will face increasing droughts, heat, storms, widespread wildfires, and all manners of horror.”

“Politicians have largely ignored the gravity of this issue. So now we must take stronger measures and use more radical means to avert a catastrophe,” said Elmar (50), a teacher of history and philosophy. A veteran of several actions, Nils was infuriated with the tepid Climate Package recently released by Germany’s government. “I feel that if we do not act soon, climate change will massively intensify. Civil disobedience is now necessary since our governments are obviously not acting enough.”

Steffi, only in her early 20s, has already attended dozens of demonstrations. After working within the Fridays for Future movement on various levels, she joined XR’s protests “to stand up for my future.” Despite all the scientific evidence, “we are running out of time to prevent our own extinction.”


L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.

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