Extinction Rebellion Is Creating a New Narrative of the Climate Crisis
“Everybody knows the boat is leaking, everybody knows the captain lied,” Leonard Cohen once sang. In spite of decades of scientific data proving human-caused climate change, we are still spellbound by a story of enlightened progress. Our high-carbon culture is underpinned by a belief system that tells us we are in control of nature and can fix any problem with our superior technology.
There are signs that this story is losing its hold. In 2017 David Wallace-Wells shocked readers of New York Magazine with an article called “The Uninhabitable Earth.” In 2018 Jem Bendell, a professor of sustainability leadership at the University of Cumbria, published an academic paper discussing the need for “deep adaptation” in the face of impending ecological collapse. More recently, Jonathan Franzen caused another stir in The New Yorker, declaring that in the face of the world’s failure to decrease carbon emissions, “a false hope of salvation can be actively harmful.”
Sometimes, though, the story is larger than words.
In April, colored flags bearing the shapes of an hourglass, a skull, bees and butterflies began to flutter over the River Thames. In the space of an hour five bridges were closed down. Thousands of people poured into the streets and disrupted traffic in central London for 11 days, demanding immediate action from the government on the climate crisis.
Six months later, mass civil disobedience returned to the streets of London and 60 cities across the world. In the course of ten days, over 1,700 protesters from Extinction Rebellion, a protest movement that through nonviolent direct action seeks to raise the alarm on extinction and other ecological crises, were arrested in London. The police escorted a giant pink octopus puppet to Trafalgar Square. Activists participated in sit-ins at London City Airport, the BBC offices and the Billingsgate fish market. In the second week the police banned protests, but they continued anyway.
The movement’s first demand — to declare a climate emergency — was met by the British government on May 1, and by 261 local councils to date. Extinction Rebellion has stimulated a debate about climate chaos and wildlife destruction that for decades was pushed back on the political agenda. But it is one thing to formally declare an emergency, and quite another to do something about it.
In 2008, watching a series of “peak oil” documentary films, I had what writer Rob Hopkins calls “The End of Suburbia” moment. I woke up to see that everything, including the toothbrush I used and the clothes I wore, was made of oil. I realized I knew nothing about energy extraction, financial markets or industrial agriculture. I had only learned a narrow history of civilization, not the consequences it brought in its wake, nor the mechanics beneath its glamorous surface. I began to document the community grass-roots projects around Britain that were taking steps to transition to a low-carbon economy, from repair cafes to urban farms.
But it wasn’t until I encountered the Uncivilisation festival, a gathering that explored creative responses to systemic collapse, hosted by Dark Mountain Project, that I knew what was missing from any positive narrative about climate change I might write. The talk around the fire was not about climate data and behavior change, but about an existential crisis — a crisis that made space for people to turn away from the myths of progress, human centrality and our separation from “nature” and, instead, become humbler, more imaginative creatures.
To speak with each other about the complexity of the crisis meant we could not remain in a conventional culture. This is what you could see this month on the streets. Where politicians encourage people to be hostile and individualistic, the “rebels” work together and make rigorous efforts to listen beneath and beyond inflammatory rhetoric. Where the manufactured world wears a slick corporate style, Extinction Rebellion brings color, texture and diversity.
The shape of their rebellion is not the orderly stream of protesters flowing down the streets with placards. It’s a wild, impromptu mix — of circus performers and a funeral procession, of 400 trees left outside Parliament for legislators to plant and 40 “rebel writers” reading in Trafalgar Square, of a mothers and babies “nurse-in” outside Google’s headquarters. It’s a marriage, a game of cricket and a ceilidh (a gathering with dancing and music) on Westminster Bridge, and a singer in a baroque band singing Henry Purcell’s “Remember Me” at the end of Downing Street.
But in spite of all the friendliness and culture making, this is a difficult story to tell: Extinction Rebellion is not just about the political liberation of citizens. Biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, deforestation, pollution — every area of planetary life has been affected by decades of rapacious fossil fuel and mineral extraction. And none of us are on the side of the angels. You cannot walk into a supermarket, fill up your tank or put on a winter coat without getting blood on your hands. We are all embedded in a civilization that wreaks havoc on the planet.
How we extricate ourselves is the challenge at hand. Extinction Rebellion’s demands take a step beyond the Paris Agreement; they insist that Britain reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025. And their creative actions have captured the attention of the public, bringing many more voices into play.
“We need to go through the path of ashes,” Simon Bramwell, one of the group’s co-founders, told me. “This is not a hero’s journey.”
If you ask people why they have sat down in the road, why vicars, teachers, nurses, ex-policemen, electricians, a former stock trader, elderly men and young mothers allowed themselves to be arrested, they will tell you that they have done everything they can on their own: signed petitions, made lifestyle changes. None of it worked.
But when you find yourself among others who know that our boat is leaking, you can play a role in an ensemble act. Nonviolent direct action is effective because you are showing that you are willing to put your body and your liberty on the line. You are standing by your words. Who you are matters, what you say matters. And you are not alone in saying it.
We live and die by the stories we tell each other — and that story on the streets of London is changing.