Julia Hawkins [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

April 29, 2019; Hyperallergic and the BBC

Climate activist group Extinction Rebellion has achieved remarkable success and prominence over the months since its founding. This week, the group celebrated a victory when the UK Parliament declared an environment and climate emergency. Activist David Graeme calls this declaration “a previously difficult-to-imagine acknowledgment of the crisis.”

Extinction Rebellion engages in civil disobedience to pressure governments, businesses, and others to respond to climate change in a manner that reflects the urgency of the problem, which most governments have so far failed to do. (Graeme writes that “The world’s political classes are, increasingly, rendering themselves almost completely irrelevant in the eyes of their constituents.”) Extinction Rebellion cofounder Robert Hallam declares in the Guardian, “the only way to prevent our extinction is through mass participation civil disobedience.”

Two of those acts of civil disobedience, though only involving about 100 protestors each, made headlines last week. On April 22nd, protestors came to the Natural History Museum to engage in a “die-in” as “an act of grief to highlight this unfolding catastrophe of cosmic proportions,” according to a leaflet they distributed. They clarified that they were not protesting the museum itself, but rather chose the location in “homage” and “celebration” of the majestic species preserved within. (Hallam wrote that “many more people are attracted to celebratory cultural spaces than narrowly political ones.”) The museum and the protestors worked together to keep the event peaceful and ensure safety and continued gallery access during the event.

Not so at the Tate Modern, where protestors staged another “die-in,” this time to highlight the plight of bees, who have been disappearing from the planet for over a decade. They had sound systems playing the sound of buzzing and yellow bee flags that flew from their bicycles en route to the site. The bees’ disappearance is at least partly linked to climate change, as one of the protestors, Tia Fisher, tweeted:

The insects are dying. We are killing them and nature will die with them. That’s everything, folks. #ExtinctionRebellion die-in at #TateModern—sponsored by Qantas, Deutsche Bank & BP amongst other planet-destroyers.

The Tate responded with a statement, saying, “As a museum we are committed to reducing our environmental impact, helping protect the planet from the global threat of climate change. We recognise there is more work to be done and we are committed to making significant change.”

That kind of response—one that involves no specifics, or pretends to confront the problem with strong language but offers no vision, is exactly the kind of thing Extinction Rebellion was formed to challenge. The group’s premise (like many other grassroots groups, including indigenous-led groups in the US) is that “we have run out of the luxury of time to react incrementally” and “Only a peaceful planet-wide mobilisation of the scale of World War II will give us a chance to avoid the worst case scenarios and restore a safe climate.”

Their frustration is shared by many. Andrew Revkin, who has been covering climate change for 30 years, wrote in National Geographic, “the main issues remain roughly as I and other journalists found them in 1988.” Why is that? The Economist explains, “The harm done by climate change is not visited on the people, or the generations, that have the best chance of acting against it…The better off are more able to adapt to climate change than the poor, and thus have less cause to avoid change.”

Douglas Rushkoff revealed a more dystopian reality when he wrote about how the ultra-wealthy are building bunkers in preparation for “the event” of climate collapse:

They were not interested in how to avoid a calamity; they’re convinced we are too far gone. For all their wealth and power, they don’t believe they can affect the future. They are simply accepting the darkest of all scenarios and then bringing whatever money and technology they can employ to insulate themselves — especially if they can’t get a seat on the rocket to Mars.

Extinction Rebellion and others are forcing the issue. The group relies on a network of empowered satellite groups organized around simple principles of inclusive, nonviolent protest and three basic demands, one of which was just met when Parliament declared the climate emergency. According to a statement on their website, another demand, a Citizens’ Assembly on climate change and economic justice, is being explored by London mayor Sadiq Khan. (The third demand, net zero carbon emissions by 2025, will be a global collective effort.)

But Extinction Rebellion takes nothing for granted, especially not parliamentary declarations that do not legally compel the government to act, though the government called for proposals to get to a “zero waste economy” in six months. The Godalming chapter of ER tweeted, “What fantastic news! But let’s not forget that this comes just after approvals for a new coal mine and Heathrow expansion—we now need to ensure that MPs follow up on this first step and begin taking necessary action.”—Erin Rubin