Extinction Rebellion: Three days of farce – and they’re still going
BY JAMES BICKERTON
It is no exaggeration to say Extinction Rebellion has the potential to become one of the deadliest political movements in human history. Should their policy programme be applied across the globe I am confident that millions, in all probability tens of millions, would die. Famine, preventable disease and the inevitable associated anarchy would take human life as a scythe takes corn. On the face of it this seems quite an extreme statement. Extinction Rebellion, with their yoga mats and pacifist ethos, seem innocuous enough. An irritant perhaps, but certainly not dangerous. Rarely has the term ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing’ been so deserved.
The current Extinction Rebellion action, a two week “international rebellion”, began on Monday at 10pm. Activists from the group, organised by geographical origin, seized just under a dozen key intersections across Westminster. I watched the group occupy Westminster bridge. The police on scene were hopelessly outnumbered and could never hope to hold the crossing. As a consolation prize they managed to seize two of the protestor’s vans, packed with wood. Extinction Rebellion had started using this to build a stage, apparently for speeches and live music, though this was dismantled long before being finished. The police seemed to be focused on seizing infrastructure, rather than removing protestors, presumably in the hope of keeping the protest temporary.
I spent most of the afternoon walking around Westminster, and it was hard not to be impressed by the scale of the organisation. Even though I was out for around eight hours, I didn’t manage to visit all the Extinction Rebellion occupations. Indeed they were so numerous and well attended it was sometimes hard to determine where one ended and the next began. Camp sites, some with scores of tents, appeared on Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, Millbank and outside both the Home Office and Westminster Abbey. Several of these incorporated open air canteens, where activists could collect free meals. Fully to stereotype one, on the roundabout linking Millbank and Lambeth Bridge, was serving hummus.
The biggest encampment was on Trafalgar Square, where protestors also succeeded in building a stage. By Wednesday afternoon it incorporated well over 100 tents, including the kind of gazebos you might more usually associate with a village fate, and a number of wooden structures. Amongst others there was an art tent, science tent and children’s play area. In tune with the hippy ethos there was also both a ‘wellbeing tent’ and ‘sanctuary tent’. When I arrived the latter was advertising a “grief tending circle” at 8pm. Alas it never materialised because at shortly after 4pm dozens of police moved in, ripping down dozens of tents and forcing others to relocate to the area immediately around Nelson’s Column where they were allowed to remain.
As someone who regularly covers protests one thing that really struck me was how polite the Extinction Rebellion supporters were. They didn’t resist when police made arrests, instead refusing to cooperate or even stand meaning at least three officers were needed to carry each protestor. The mood was rarely confrontational, with demonstrators singing and dancing even as their comrades were detained. At one point a woman confronted a group blocking Westminster Bridge, shouting “f**king dickheads there’s a hospital just over there”, but they didn’t say a word in reply. There had been talk of ambulances being allowed through Extinction Rebellion blockades though I never saw any evidence of this, nor did it seem particularly viable.
The tactics of Extinction Rebellion caused a lot of people significant disruption, but it was their belief system that was truly scary. There has always been a section of humanity fixated with a coming apocalypse. Traditionally they associated with organised religion. But in an increasingly atheistic society alternatives had to be found. That’s not to say man made climate change isn’t a serious problem. It certainly is, but it’s one that will almost certainly be resolved by human innovation rather than jumping parts of our society back to a pre-industrial era.
The core demand of Extinction Rebellion is for the UK to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2025, rather than the Government’s target of 2050. This would be an enormous undertaking, requiring a massive restructuring of the British economy and society. It would also be ruinously expensive, with the poor likely taking the brunt of the blow. Alas it would achieve relatively little, with the UK only contributing 1.2% of global emissions in 2017, a figure that is rapidly decreasing year on year.
To actually make a significant impact Extinction Rebellion’s target, or something like it, would need to be applied to a significant proportion of the globe including many developing countries. This would equate to a deindustrialisation utterly unparalleled in human history. A process that is lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty and deprivation would be shunted into dramatic reverse, with enormous consequences for the availability of food, energy and healthcare. This would take place on such a scale that, I’m quite confident, there would be millions of avoidable deaths. Sometimes the most dangerous extremists aren’t those who parade around with balaclavas and assault rifles, but the softly spoken zealot who convinces you that it is decent to do something unspeakable. A section of the western environmentalist movement has, I regret to say, thrown itself into this category.
James Bickerton is a writer and journalist. Follow him on twitter: @JBickertonUK