Two thousand people gathered in Parliament Square in London a year ago today. They declared a rebellion against the UK Government and its ‘criminal negligence of the climate emergency’.
It seemed to be yet another climate protest, a common occurrence over the past decades and something unlikely to have raised the eyebrows of the MPs travelling in to another day at a major seat of power.
But this one turned out to be very different. Among those who declared rebellion was a then fifteen year old Swedish girl who had travelled from her home in an electric car driven by her mum and dad. In her speech to the gathered crowd, Greta Thunberg stated that the climate crisis set to devastate her future and demanded nothing less than an full-on rebellion to address the threat: “We're facing an immediate unprecedented crisis that has never been treated as a crisis and our leaders are all acting like children. We need to wake up and change everything”.
Few people knew Greta's name then, and nobody had heard of the new climate movement that had encouraged her to travel all that way.
A year later, both Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion (XR) are global phenomena. They had come out of nowhere but have since captured the world's imagination.
XR have large groups in 53 countries, and are particularly big in Germany, France, Netherlands, the US, Australia, Argentina and Ghana. They have a presence in over 70 countries.
In the UK alone, 120,000 people have signed up to take action with the rebellion, their column inches run into miles, their symbol is ubiquitous and, like Greta, they have become a household name. All of this has been achieved without any significant support from the main environmental NGOs or major political parties, nor from many in the established climate activist world, which has often either ignored XR or has been critical of the movement.
Support is on the rise now that XR has grown so significantly, and since rebels have responded positively to criticisms and made changes accordingly.
Bursting the bubble
Naivety and mistakes are inevitable for a group that is still so young. A notable example was an early slide presentation depicting incarceration as a relatively pleasant experience in which prisoners can enjoy yoga among other things. Activist groups highlighted that neglecting the harsh realities of prison, particularly for people of colour, and the prison advice was replaced by a comprehensive guide by a highly respected legal rights organisation that was passed through an equally respected panel.
XR have managed to force the climate emergency onto the news and political agenda amid Brexit, and have inspired people from across the UK - many of whom had never taken part in climate activism before - to take action.
XR has effectively burst the ‘activist bubble’ by attracting support from people from all walks of life, at an exponential rate that has not been seen in a generation. A recent report shows that the climate emergency has become a top issue of consideration for voters in the UK in the lead up to the December general election.
The rebels' remarkable success may simply have been down to timing, as their declaration on 31 October was not long preceded by a UN report evidencing that the world had twelve years to avoid climate catastrophe.
Sir David Attenborough began to make several statements and broadcasts that likewise raised the alarm about the existential threat to life on earth presented by man made global warming, coinciding with Extinction Rebellion's first major day of action, during which they closed five bridges in central London.
Extinction Rebellion is avowedly non-party-political. Their third demand asserts that party politics and representational democracy as it currently exists is moribund and incapable of dealing with the crisis. This argument may explain Extinction Rebellion's success and broad appeal. Retired senior police officers, bankers, farmers, Olympic gold medalists, teachers and doctors have all joined in with actions.
At the same time, XR's strategy of strictly non violent acts of mass civil disobedience has been controversial, but has also served to keep their cause central in the news.
In the April international rebellion we saw record breaking numbers of arrests that alarmed the serving metropolitan police commissioner Cressida Dick, who said that the scale of arrests was “unprecedented” in her 36 years of police service.
Many attributes of this sprawling movement have yet to become more well known. The XR Internationalist Solidarity Network, partly inspired by the New Internationalist, works with grassroots activists from the global south in creating the narratives and avenues by which authentic internationalist solidarity can be achieved.
This exciting network was established in November 2018 and still developing. It indicates that there is much yet to come from this much needed movement.
Up to you
So, can Extinction Rebellion survive the roller coaster ride that has been their first wave of success? Will they grow into the global movement that can force the paradigm shift necessary to avert the catastrophe of climate breakdown?
Really, the best answer to that is to say: it’s up to you. If not now, then when? If not you, then who?
Jamie Kelsey Fry is the author of the Rax Active Citizenship toolkit, a broadcast media news commentator, teacher and activist. Find him on Twitter: @JamieKelseyFry.
Image: Thomas Katan, Extinction Rebellion.