- Launched last year in Britain, Extinction Rebellion is a non-violent civil disobedience organisation drawing attention to the climate emergency.
- Its dramatic and colourful protests have been very successful in putting the climate emergency on the agenda.
- History shows that civil disobedience actions can bring about lasting change.
In a week of civil disobedience around the globe – dubbed the “Spring Rebellion” in Australia – thousands of Extinction Rebellion activists (including myself) voluntarily got arrested in pursuit of climate justice. Protestors used a variety of disruptive tactics – from road blockades to marches to gluing themselves to the street – to express the urgency with which we believe the climate crisis needs to be addressed. Among those arrested in Australia on various charges of civil disobedience were an assistant school principal, a clinical psychologist, a permaculturalist, many active and retired professionals and many grandparents.
Since its launch in Britain last year, the non-violent Extinction Rebellion movement has marked a step-change in environmental activism. In April this year, after mass disruptive protests in London, Extinction Rebellion (XR for short) achieved spectacular success when the UK became the first country in the world to declare a climate emergency.
We are yet to achieve the same in Australia. However, two days after the Spring Rebellion concluded, the federal Labor party declared a climate emergency and the House of Representatives narrowly defeated a motion to suspend standing orders to debate the declaration of a climate emergency.
Media coverage of Extinction Rebellion – in Australia and elsewhere – inevitably gravitates towards on-the-street drama, with countless stories incorporating the complaints of motorists delayed by protestors. A common argument reiterated by police and conservative commentators is that people are free to protest, but not to be disruptive.
Without disruption there is no economic cost, and without economic cost the guys running this world really don’t care.
Extinction Rebellion co-founder, Roger Hallam
But the very point of XR is to be disruptive. In the words of the movement’s co-founder, Roger Hallam, “without disruption there is no economic cost, and without economic cost the guys running this world really don’t care”.
And what is crazier, after all: dancing on a bridge, blocking a road, holding a banner to push for urgent action on climate change, or continuing as if nothing is wrong? Going home and switching on the TV might be easier than attending a protest. But the right thing to do and the easiest thing to do are rarely the same thing.
History has countless examples of civil disobedience leading to meaningful change, from the civil rights movement to the suffragettes. As citizens, protest and civil disobedience are among our most important tools, and they can be powerful factors in influencing political will. The recent student climate strike demonstrated to power that hundreds of thousands of Australians from all walks of life see climate change as a key issue.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) believes greenhouse gas emissions around the world must be halved by 2030 in order to give humanity a 50/50 chance of preventing unmanageable climate outcomes. Extinction Rebellion considers those odds unacceptable. Yet, Australia is currently led by a fossil fuel-championing Prime Minister who recently dismissed young people’s concerns about the climate crisis as “needless anxiety”.
Extinction Rebellion has three demands:
- Tell the truth – government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change
- Act now – government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025
- Beyond politics – government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice
One of the things that differentiates climate activism from other protest movements is the urgency of the task at hand. The symbol of Extinction Rebellion is an hourglass inside a circle, signifying that time is running out.
History has shown that societies have the ability to rapidly mobilise in times of crisis. During World War II, for instance, toy factories became munitions factories virtually overnight. We need to take the same approach to implementing renewable energy and other environmental solutions now.
Change is coming – we can all feel it. But, as environmentalist Bill McKibben has said, “When your ice caps are melting fast, winning very slowly is another word for losing”.