Hope in the dark? A personal response to Extinction Rebellion
How a week of arrests, speeches and music under an unusually hot April sun gave me some hope amid climate breakdown.
Last week my colleague was arrested. If you’ve been following the news recently you can probably guess why – she was committing an act of peaceful civil disobedience, alongside over a thousand other Extinction Rebellion protestors, leading to arrests of protestors on a scale which the UK hasn’t seen for decades.
Extinction Rebellion’s week-long and counting uprising has swept through London streets, and our consciences, stirring some difficult and conflicting feelings and questions, for those in power, the police, ordinary non-protestors getting around in the city, and of course, those of us who work in the environmental sector.
For me, last week was one of awakening, and, surprisingly amid the repeated reminders that time is running out to act to avert catastrophic impacts of man-made climate change and ecological collapse – of hope.
Working on, thinking about, these issues on a day to day basis is beyond difficult, it’s nigh on impossible. As another colleague has said, what we are all facing, whether we can acknowledge it or not, is grief: grief for the loss of our planet as we know it, and all its many beauties, as well as for the many impacts climate change will have on people’s lives. And it is dangerously easy to feel, amid the highs and lows of any job and the scale of the challenge, that anything we can do is too little, too late.
On Monday morning as I took the tube to Marble Arch to see the beginning of the rebellion, I felt anxious. I’m not a natural rule-breaker, and Extinction Rebellion’s model of deliberate civil disobedience and acceptance of the consequences – arrest – felt intimidating. I was there because I felt compelled, and more than a little guilty, not because I was a fired up, signed-up rebel.
A week’s worth of visits to the different rebellion sites – Oxford Circus, Waterloo Bridge, Marble Arch and Parliament Square – later, and though I still wouldn’t describe myself as a natural rebel (some things don’t change so easily), something has shifted. I found myself passionately explaining to both a dubious family-member, and a scathing fellow charity worker, that it didn’t matter that Extinction Rebellions’s three demands had little detail in the way of ‘how’ to achieve them: the point was that it had succeeded in giving a larger than life demonstration of the huge urgency we face. We live amid an ever-growing emergency, as Greta Thunberg reminds us, but most of the time we don’t act like it. Extinction Rebellion had made manifest that emergency in the streets around us, and for me at least it was a huge relief. It was as if something unacknowledged but deeply painful was finally being spoken aloud.
A few moments stand out: my first encounter with the police in arresting mode on Waterloo Bridge on Tuesday night, which I found much more frightening than I expected (unlike my mother, who drew on her Greenham Common experience and blithely sat at the police’s feet chatting to fellow protestors and eating curry). The passer-bys who said ‘thank you for what you’re doing’, as well as the one who called me a ‘stupid c*w’. Poignant singing and tears among a group at Parliament Square as more arrests were made. The banner apologising to the police for their cancelled leave, because ‘the government is failing all of us’. A samba band leading a joyful, frenetic procession around the statues of our former Prime Ministers. Above all, how normal and right the car-free streets, atmosphere of kindness and impressive levels of tidiness at all the sites felt.
Extinction Rebellion, in all its messy, human, yet surprisingly disciplined glory, has given me hope. Not delusion: the reality is that outside this bubble of climate activism there is a long, long way to go. And the question of ‘what now’ looms large: with no official response from the government, I think about the need to force a shift from a policing response to a political one, and about how Extinction Rebellion will make a transition from organising to negotiating.
And I think about what we as Feedback – an environmental organisation that is trying to work within the frameworks of our charitable status – will do next to make our small contribution to this tidal wave of fear, hope, rage, and longing for change. Internally we have been asking ourselves how we ‘up our game’ – an acknowledgement that Extinction Rebellion has changed the game for environmentalists, as well as that traditional tactics are manifestly not bringing the change we need, or at least not fast enough. There will always be a role for serious research, policy and political advocacy as well as offering ways to support nature to the many parts of the population for whom Extinction Rebellion’s approach is bemusing, infuriating or simply unappealing. But there is also a tangible sense that more is needed.
At Feedback, we have some ideas: our Executive Director Carina Millstone blogged recently on our nascent campaign to expose the financers and banks funding ‘Big Livestock’ – a sector of the food system with an awful lot to answer for when it comes to ecological collapse; and we are also setting our sights on the UK sugar beet industry, another profit-driven food system which is bad for our health and for our planet’s health. And more is on the way, with Feedback asking itself some tough questions about what sort of organisation it wants to be.
But for now, it feels important to hold on and celebrate the sense this extraordinary week has given me, and I think many others, of – as Rebecca Solnit would put it – finally finding some hope in the dark.
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