Extinction rebellion at the BBC

St Mungo of Glasgow with his totem Robin - artwork on the side of a building
Artwork by Smug, picture by Corrie Martin.
XR protests outside the BBC demand courage and compassion in the face of extinction.


A fortnight ago at Winter’s Solstice protests were held by Extinction Rebellion across the UK to protest the BBC’s inadequate treatment of dangerous climate change.

One of these took place in Glasgow, on the same day as the anniversary of the Lockerbie bombing. This is an edited version of a speech that I gave that morning. It's a springboard, perhaps, to carry the debate, action and reflection into the new year.

Persistent denial 

I find it painful to have to stand with this protest outside the BBC today. The founding motto of the BBC, displayed in the coat of arms at Broadcasting House, is “Nation shall speak peace unto nation”. 

It paraphrases the radical biblical passages from the prophets Isaiah and Micah, in which we read that we shall beat our swords to ploughshares, and learn war no more. That’s not exactly neutral - it’s on the side of justice, love, and impartiality in the sense of fairness but not of yielding unto falsehoods.

Ten years ago I wrote a book on climate change. While doing the research, I had been greatly helped by the BBC’s coverage of both the science and policy. That’s the reason why it pains me to have to stand outside the BBC today. Especially here at BBC Scotland, which going back to the days of Louise Batchelor and Drennan Watson’s broadcasts has been such a good educator on environmental issues. 

The wider problem is not in the people in the building behind us. It is, I believe, handed down from higher levels, and that, as part of a general chill that penetrated the mass media around ten years ago. 

As growing scientific concern about climate change gained political traction, populist politicians and lobbyists set out to roll it back. First they denied it was happening. Now these merchants of death deny that there’s anything we can do. They’ve done this by demanding not just free speech – fair enough – but by requiring, in the name of “impartiality” a pulpit into the bargain. 

Everyday consumerism 

I remember being invited onto a BBC radio discussion programme around 2010. It was not, I might say, the Scottish branch of the BBC. The producer had prepared me to discuss climate change ethics. Instead, I found myself pitched against a climate change denier. My air time got taken up with rebutting his Flat Earth claims. It felt like being on American talk radio rather than a reputable BBC programme. 

This experience does not help speaking peace, nation unto nation. And we all know why it’s happening. Climate change challenges the profligacy of the well-to-do. It brings discomfort into everyday consumerism.

What is consumerism? In my last articlefor The Ecologist, I pointed out how consumerism, as consumption in excess of what is needed for dignified sufficiency in life, was wilfully created. 

It was created after the first and second world wars by corporations that used insights from wartime propaganda and depth psychology - not to satisfy fundamental human needs, but to drive the creation of wants. It hooked in to our hopes and fears. It also hooked into our hubris, our excessive pride and egotism - and “hubris” is a word that comes from the Greek root, hybris, meaning “violence”. 

Consumerism exploits our being self-centred, rather than being centred selves. What, I ask, can be the antidote? What, when the problem is partly in the political and economic systems around us, but more disturbingly, partly in ourselves?

Higher consciousness 

If our activism, our rebellion, our protest as pro testari - in the Latin, what we protest for - is to be effective; and if it is not to hit out at the wrong targets, we must decolonise the soul. 

We must create heart space for community and spaces for holding the emotional process of our times. Let us show not just what we’re against, but more importantly, show them what we’re for. Such is, indeed, “a basic call to consciousness”. Even, a call to higher consciousness.

Where might be our allies, our guides and inspiration? We’re gathered here on Solstice day, a time of year with robins on the Christmas cards. 

The robin is the totem of this City of Glasgow. Along with the salmon, you see it on the coat of arms. The city’s founding patron, Saint Mungo or Kentigern, revived a robin that had been injured by boys who were cruelly throwing stones at birds. There you have it. Mungo as the patron saint of Extinction Rebellion! But the story’s got behind it even more than that.

Nature and folklore

One of those who lost her life in the Lockerbie bombing was Flora MacDonald Margaret Swire, the daughter of Dr Jim Swire. He’s the figure who has campaigned tirelessly for Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the alleged bomber, believing that there had been a miscarriage of justice. His mother was the Isle of Skye folklorist, Otta Swire, and she wrote about the legends of the Hebrides.

From the Isle of Eriskay, Otta Swire recounted the tale that the robin used to be just another little brown bird, indistinguishable from all the rest. It happened to be watching on the day when, in that old Bible story so beloved of Christian fundamentalists who don’t bother to study the nuances of the original Greek, Lazarus the good man went to heaven. Who should he see on peering down into hell, but Dives, the boardroom baron, the Trumped-up politician, the warmonger or the grasping corporate wrecker of the Earth. 

As he roasted in the flames, Dives looked up and begged Lazarus for just a drop of water that might cool his tongue. A drop that might allow him, we might imagine, to speak for once the truth. 

Such was the distance between them, however, that Lazarus was unable to help. However, in the Eriskay folk-telling of the story, the robin was stirred to pity. It flew down to an island holy well, took a sip of ice cold water in its beak, and dived down through the very fires of hell.

When it came back up, the heat had burned its breast to red. And that - if you’ll forgive the imagination of our culture - is the reddening of the breast, the heart, that we too need today. 

Bridging divides 

Like the robin, we too must dive where others fear to go. We too must bridge divides that seem unbridgeable across the gulfs of power, wealth and capacity for feeling. If doing so does break rules, then let it be so sacramentally. 

As the English road protesters of the 1990s put it, “Break the rules like bread".

We need in the world today the compassion and the courage of the robin redbreast. I leave you with these images to think about this Christmas time, this dreaming dark Midwinter’s Solstice. 

Mungo as a patron saint, a rebellion of gentleness against the stone throwers. The Robin Redbreast as a totem of the bridging between worlds, diving even through the very jaws of hell. 

I leave you with this vision that transcends the powers that drive extinction – extinction of the plants, the animals, of nature’s beauty and of all that’s greatest in the human spirit. A path of giving life. A way that lifts us up into a higher human consciousness. For that, alone, can see us through these coming times.

This Author 

Alastair McIntosh is author of books including Hell and High Water: Climate Change, Hope and the Human Condition (Birlinn 2008) and Spiritual Activism: Leadership as Service (Green Books, with Matt Carmichael).

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