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The radical group has galvanised young and old. But in the year since it formed, what has life been like inside the movement?
In the last week alone, members of Extinction Rebellion have been described as ecomaniacs (Daily Mail), ecoradicals ignoring our economic doom (Times), dangerous and a bloody mess (Daily Telegraph). They have been accused of pulling 83,000 officers away from their normal duties according to the police and costing Scotland Yard 16m. In London last week, dressed in funereal black, rebels tried to paint the Treasury red using 1,800 litres of fake blood and an old fire engine with a sign reading stop funding climate death.
While its actions may seem controversial in some quarters, Extinction Rebellions rise and influence have undoubtedly been extraordinary, galvanising young and old across party lines. Last October, the journalist and activist George Monbiot introduced the group in the national press, a homegrown movement devoted to disruptive, non-violent disobedience in protest against ecological collapse. The hope was to turn a national uprising into an international one by March. In fewer than 12 months, Extinction Rebellion has become the fastest-growing environmental organisation in the world.
We have seen protest movements on climate change before, but they havent attracted anywhere near as many people or had as much impact, said Clare Saunders, professor in environmental politics at Exeter University. For the first time, you have ordinary people engaging with radical action. Its unique I cant think of any [protest movement] historically happening in that way.
There are now an estimated 485 Extinction Rebellion affiliates across the globe and, over the next fortnight, they are promising to shut down 60 cities, including London, New York, Buenos Aires, Sydney, Cape Town and Mumbai. Government buildings, airports and financial districts will all be targeted with protests aiming for maximum disruption to provoke urgent political action. In a bid to pre-empt the action, on Saturday police raided a warehouse in south London and arrested nine activists, charging them with conspiracy to cause a public nuisance and obstruct the highway.
How did they come so far, so quickly? The Observer has watched the movement at work in city centres, at festivals and meetings across the UK to try to find out.
Its maintaining hope in people because people are feeling so worn out by the inaction, said Steven from Cardiff, who joined the summer uprising in the city in July. When the Observer met him, he and his partner Clare were sitting on the green outside the town hall, where Extinction Rebellion had set up base with a boat, an impromptu campsite and stalls serving free food to the public. Im not sure the damage to the planet is irreversible at this point all the science points that way, its grim reading but this is pricking peoples ears up more than any other group, and that can only be a good thing.
The Cardiff rebellion, staged over three days, saw a massive police presence deployed as a procession of families and activists marched through the city centre. Jules Bywater, a builder of eco-homes, had travelled from Powys to join the action. People think going vegan, banning single-use plastic and recycling will stop climate change it wont. Government has to act, and its on us to cause these disruptions to force them to. This has to be a mass movement.
Alice Taherzadeh, a PhD student and one of the key organisers, was buoyant but exhausted. We had less than a month to get this together, she said. As a decentralised organisation, XR, as it is known, claims no hierarchy: it is open to all and operates a regenerative culture.
In theory, this means responsibility and workload is designed to be a shared, collaborative effort with heavy emphasis on community, and mental and physical wellbeing. In practice, a hierarchy does still exist, albeit under the surface, where some people are in the loop, go to the pub together and have access to the latest comings and goings from HQ, while others volunteer more on the periphery. Still, to witness it across uprisings in London in the spring, and across the UK over the summer at festivals and meetings, the spirit of XR is warm and often moving. The culture it has fostered also allows for a surprising amount of internal criticism of its founders, Roger Hallam and Gail Bradbrook.
The movement and its principles are far bigger than both of them; theyre not these messianic figures theyre made out to be, said Taherzadeh wearily.
Hallam is a former organic farmer who went on to study civil disobedience at Kings College London after the weather went weird and caused his business to fail. He formed XR with Bradbrook, an academic involved with Occupy and anti-fracking protests, and the two have championed non-violent resistance and civil disobedience. Their methods, including advocating a shutdown of Heathrow, have been effective but divisive.
I dont think Roger is the best spokesperson, necessarily, said Taherzadeh. Some of his tactics drones at Heathrow for instance have caused huge conflict. But the unity in the movement exists because of the three core demands: get government to tell the truth, get government to act now, and to draw up citizens assemblies.
There is a quiet desperation and sometimes despair at how hard and possibly futile any personal effort seems in the face of the climate crisis. But those touched by Extinction Rebellion find it impossible to ignore the ways in which they are contributing to global heating. This isnt just about recycling, switching to bamboo toothbrushes and buying in bulk; people are re-insulating their homes, dramatically scaling back family holidays to eradicate air travel and, in increasing numbers, deciding not to have children at all.