A Personal Experience of Extinction Rebellion
By Bruce Callander
‘Are you up for this?’ I hesitated. ‘This’ was civil disobedience as part of the imminent Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests in London. OK, it was non-violent civil disobedience, but it could still get me arrested, a fine and maybe a criminal record. Having spent most of my 60-plus years being a law-abiding citizen, believing in the power of rational argument rather than loud protest, this was definitely outside my comfort zone. To say ‘Yes’ would alter my identity, both in my own eyes and in the eyes of my family...
Professionally, I had always been involved with the environment in one form or another. Following my Physics degree, I had gone on to gain a PhD in Environmental Science. In 1991 I joined the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to help coordinate the teams of scientists who drafted the various chapters of the second IPCC report, eventually published in 1996. This was a dream job for me, matching my personal conviction that the environment is supremely important, sustaining all of life on earth. What could be better than to be actively involved in protecting it? And surely, if we presented a body of scientifically-sound evidence concerning the dangers of climate change, the world’s leaders would respond rationally and appropriately? Surely.
I was naïve. In the IPCC, I soon came across diplomats who only saw the world in terms of politics, power balance and economic growth. The revenue of a significant number of countries depended hugely on the export of fossil fuels and for them human-induced climate change was – and is – a very inconvenient truth. Aided by lawyers funded by the oil and gas industries, they took every opportunity to oppose the science, attack the reputation of individual scientists or push for watered down text that minimized the predicted consequences of a warming world. My job, to help ensure that the IPCC report faithfully reflected the underlying scientific literature, was a constant battle. Nevertheless, and in spite of the opposition, at an historic meeting in Madrid in November 1995 the world’s nations accepted without dissent the conclusion of the IPCC that humanity was changing the climate. That statement kicked off the series of meetings called the ‘Conference of the Parties’ (CoP) at which the world’s nations committed to work together to solve the problem of climate change.
I left the IPCC in 1996 and for the next two decades observed it and successive climate treaties from a distance. The evidence for human-induced climate change and its associated impacts grew steadily stronger. By 2000, the sea level was rising about 50% faster than the 1996 IPCC report anticipated, extreme weather events were becoming more frequent just as predicted, and land in the Pacific and elsewhere had begun to go under the waves.
At a personal level I tried to be responsible: I switched to a renewable energy supplier, I avoided air travel, I cycled and used public transport where possible. I wrote to my MP and took part in lawful and good-natured protest marches. It might have given me a little self-righteous pride, but it certainly wasn’t making any significant difference.
Increasingly I realised that, like everyone else, I am entangled in a system of global trade and powerful vested interests that is slowly destroying the natural world and the lives of many human beings. The system has to radically change. Tinkering around the edges and hoping that our consumer lifestyle can, with a few tweaks, continue pretty much as normal will just not work. Our own government and much of industry are complicit in pretending to care for the environment while planning for business (and destruction) as usual.
The UK government, which in the 1990s aimed to be a lead nation in responding to climate change, has gone backwards. Austerity following the financial crash of 2008 starved local authorities of the resources needed to take local action such as better bus services to reduce car dependency, or flood prevention. The UK Sustainable Development Commission, set up in 2000, was closed in 2011, and the body set up by government to achieve zero carbon homes was closed in 2016 for lack of funding. To demonstrate its ambivalence towards reducing emissions, the UK government in 2016 approved a third runway for Heathrow and in 2018 gave the go-ahead for fracking.
I had been vaguely aware of the XR protests in London in April 2019. I scanned their website but wasn’t attracted by their confrontational, albeit non-violent, tactics. My instincts for quiet, non-confrontational argument ran deep. But I was impressed by their emphasis on the scientific basis for action, and by their success in challenging the UK government’s lack of commitment to the environment. Then I did some reading, including Justin Welby’s Reimagining Britain and Naomi Klein’s No is Not Enough. I also went back to the Bible’s New Testament and had to admit that Jesus and His disciples were no strangers to civil disobedience. My instincts, and my existing interpretation of what being a Christian meant, began to appear a form of escape, the wrong response to a desperate situation. Like the rest of the population I was sleep-walking towards disaster, but I had less excuse than others; given my background, I knew the serious and growing threat we face but was doing little to challenge the system that locks us all into unsustainable living.
I looked again at XR and found myself in complete agreement with their demands for government to ‘Tell the Truth and Act Now’. I went along to a local XR group out of curiosity and found them planning for the imminent October 2019 ‘rebellion’. I was impressed by the diversity of those present and inspired by their commitment to striving for change. My familiarity with the topic over decades had, I had to admit, blunted my sense of urgency. These people had come much later to the issue and with fresh eyes had recognised the gravity of the threat and the urgent need for effective action. I went home and read what the legal implications might be of participating in Non-Violent Direct Action. I contrasted the minimal impact on government of well-behaved, polite protests with the societal injustices brought to the fore by the civil disobedience of Rosa Parks, the suffragettes and Gandhi. I reflected on the in-depth view that IPCC had given me of climate change, and its impacts. Given the obfuscation, complacency and direct opposition to action that I saw, was I prepared to agitate for change even if it involved personal cost?
So when asked if I was up for the coming XR protest, and after a moment’s hesitation when I said goodbye to some of my preferences and instincts, I raised my hand; ‘Yes, I am up for this.’ Five days later I joined hundreds of others, of all ages and from all walks of life, as we parked ourselves in Whitehall, outside the Cabinet Office, one of a number of London sites occupied as part of the XR October ‘rebellion’.
XR has provided a lightning rod for the pent-up energy and frustration of thousands of ordinary people who recognise that we need radical change. We are appalled and angry that our political leaders are either blind to the threats that we face, or bound by obligations to vested interests opposing change. Or perhaps they lack the moral courage to introduce the radical shift in policies needed to protect us and our families against the adverse impacts of climate change now, and to reduce the emissions that will exacerbate future change. Many people of my age were motivated by deep concern for the environmental legacy that this generation is passing on to our children and grandchildren.
A core value of XR is not to point fingers at others; we are all inevitably entangled in the way the world is currently run. But we have a choice: either shrug our shoulders and watch the world head for increasing environmental disaster, or believe in and work for systemic change, even if that involves significant changes to our own lifestyles. XR is not wedded to a particular religious or political ideology, it doesn’t mandate a particular solution to the problems we face, and it has kept its demands simple: Tell the Truth, Act Now and create a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice. On the streets of London I was surrounded by thousands of people of all persuasions who had never taken to the streets before. The atmosphere was peaceful, creative, optimistic – and determined. In contrast to the characterisations by politicians and the press of the protesters as crusties, hippies or the unemployed, the ranks consisted of people from all walks of life: bankers, bricklayers, doctors, farmers, teachers, civil servants, IT specialists, parents, grandparents, architects and nurses. There were all sorts of political agendas – vegans, animal rights etc – but these were secondary to the recognition that we are joined by a common concern for the future of this beautiful planet and its inhabitants. We know deep down that something is gravely wrong in humans’ relationship with the environment.
Most XR protesters have already adapted their lifestyle to minimise their individual environmental footprint. What unites us is the recognition that this is not enough. The political, financial and industrial organisations – The System – on which the world runs are taking us on a collective path to ruin. The forces favouring the status quo are immense. But ordinary people can make a difference. Acting together, we can bring about change for the better. But it will involve personal cost because change won’t happen by shouting politely, or even loudly, from the sidelines. We have to throw a few spanners into The System and The System will, inevitably, fight back.
I was surprised at the deep emotional impact that taking part in the October rebellion had on me. I had made the decision to participate based on a weighing up of the evidence, and now I was going to stand on London streets to make my point. Straightforward, or so I thought. What I hadn’t reckoned on was being surrounded by so many committed, vulnerable and caring people, prepared to make much greater sacrifices than I had so far made, to protect our world. I was inspired by the generosity and selflessness that I saw between strangers. I drew strength from their belief that ordinary everyday people can make a difference, in the face of the combined might of the state and powerful industries. I also saw the apprehension mixed with determination on the faces of those willing to be arrested when the police decided that it was time to clear the street.
The willingness of many XR protesters to be arrested is also key to its impact. To be arrested carries the risk of fine, imprisonment and a criminal record. Why do this, especially if you have led an otherwise blameless, law-abiding life? One reason is that it demonstrates unequivocally the commitment of the protester to their cause. Further, it highlights the fact that the government is willing to spend millions of pounds and thousands of hours prosecuting people whose motivation for protest is the protection and saving of lives, while organisations who plan for and profit from the destruction of the environment are never called to account. Not only that, the government actively subsidises many of their activities. Magistrates and judges are people too. While their responsibilities may require them to reach a guilty verdict, having to deal with so many admirable and principled people before them, who tell the same consistent story of deep concern for the damage that humanity is doing to the Earth, forces them to consider their personal attitude to this crisis. Many police who attended the XR protests expressed their own deep concerns about the current environmental crisis, even as their duty required them to arrest protesters.
I know that some people’s daily lives were inconvenienced by the XR protests. I don’t enjoy that aspect but my personal preference to be polite and non-confrontational was one of the things that I had to give up for the sake of a higher good. XR rebellions set out to cause disruption, but focused on locations where government and others with power will be forced to take notice. Inevitably, members of the general public will sometimes be inconvenienced. The justification for this approach is that by its inactions or ill-advised actions, government is taking us down a path that will lead to adverse consequences of immeasurably greater scale and gravity than a delay in getting to work today. Everyone accepts that the short pain of a flu jab is a small price to pay to avoid the actual disease. For at least a quarter of a century scientists have been describing in pretty clear terms the potential worlds we are heading for given our historic and possible future greenhouse gas emissions. Serious climate change impacts are already being felt, but the worst so far are remote from Britain. But like many others who have looked at the growing evidence with an open mind, I believe that ‘We ain’t seen nothin’ yet.’ Apart from weather extremes and sea level rise on this island, conflicts over scarce resources of food, water and land, and mass migrations of people from areas made uninhabitable by a changing climate are likely to be on a scale never before experienced or imagined.
So, as you observe Extinction Rebellion protests on the news or on your street, I respectfully ask you not to jump immediately to condemn. The rebels are ordinary people just like you, from all walks of life, who have decided that they must make a stand to protect our planet and all the species, including humanity, who inhabit it. If you were to be asked ‘Are you up for this?’, what would you say?