Extinction Rebellion. Is the Honeymoon Over? Is it the beginning of ongoing commitment to address the Climate Emergency?

2688 words


We need a revolution

Various activists court arrest

More and more arrests

Working with despair

Not for everybody

Deniers of Climate Emergency

To Address the Crisis

Major political parties have fallen into disgrace. Research in the UK shows that around one third of the public have lost trust in politicians, and by default democracy, pariament and the constitution. Politicians have neglected their sacred duty to serve all of the people all of the time. Instead, they promote their vested interests.

More than 9.4 million people are missing from the electoral register or not registered at their current address. That is around 17% of those entitled to vote.

This leaves citizens with two primary alternatives.

  1. A disinterest in politics, the voting system and events in Parliament
  2. A swing away from party politics to non-party politics. Non-party politics represents a rebellion against a system that neglects many people, animals and the environment.

The first option lends itself towards anarchy expressing itself as apathy and a cynical approach towards the leaders of political parties, who have become cult figures. The endless debates about the persona of the leader takes priority over examination of the policies of the party

Television news, radio reports and the rest of the media indulge in irrelevant questions and surveys on our attitude towards leaders instead of policies. Disillusionment and despair pervade the thinking of a growing percentage of the population.

The political effort to pinpoint the widespread reactivity, blame and doubt on Brexit misses the point. Brexit serves as a clear example of disillusionment and doubts rather than a cause for cynicism. The momentum towards cynicism developed long before the Brexit vote.

In a general election campaign, political parties offer the Earth through making many promises to the electorate. No country has the resources to fulfil all these promises.  Manifestos want to appeal to as many as possible. In due course, such statements of intent will give rise to further cynicism.

We need a revolution

I spent several hours each day for three days at the Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests held in London from around 7 October 2019. I posted on my Flickr page around 80 photographs (see link at foot of page) showing a range of imaginative and creative actions. XR held workshops plus put together hundreds of posters.

Participation empowers people lifting many out of despair about the present and future. Protests instil confidence bringing pressure on the government and businesses. Such engagement heals those souls enduring despair for far too long. Joining protests has a therapeutic value, far more effective than hours of one-to-one counselling or suffering in silence.

Extinction Rebellion serves as a model for non-party politics. XR has spear-headed a single rebellion to end the corruption of power in our political and corporate institutions, whose behaviour threaten the Earth and the future of its inhabitants.

I talked with several Dharma friends, met Dharma teachers and people from Totnes on the streets of London. XR organised 11 different assemblies in different parts of London rather than one major protest.

XR organisers worldwide have rebelled against the traditional form of street protest. As activists, we marched in the past with posters and distributed flyers in cities. We started to march in the morning. Rallies would be held at the end of the march with prominent public speakers speaking on the issue. Having engaged in our democratic duty, we stayed until the end of the afternoon and went home.

A few protestors might engage in forms of violence, such as smashing windows of banks, throwing items at the police and encouraging others to support violent protest. Protestors usually left the police to deal with such demonstrators often through arrests under various public order acts.

XR changed all that. Disruption without violence serves as a key theme in the philosophy of XR. Protestors did not go home but stayed all day and all night, often for several days. They contributed to a shift in the debate from climate change to climate emergency. A national survey revealed that 71% of the population regarded the climate emergency as more important than Brexit.  XR can take much credit for that.

The network strongly endorses non-violence, acts of kindness and tolerance of any police reactivity. XR activists develop calm and caring forms of speech. This approach disarms those who wish to engage in violent actions. The police do not have to make arrests for violent behaviour.

In the centre of the main street (Whitehall) outside Downing Street (the residence of the Prime Minister), groups of mother breast fed their babies in their support for disruption of access. Buddhist meditators meditated on the same road in Whitehall outside Scotland Yard (the headquarters of London Police). Parents brought their children to the demonstrations knowing families would be safe. This is protest for the many not for the few.

Various XR activists court arrest

Plenty of participants appeal to the police to be carried away in police vans and taken to the police cells. Knowing the willingness of demonstrators to join the ‘arrestables,’ the police kept 1000 cells in police stations available for XR activists. London police arrested 1838 participants. Arrestables found themselves driven away to cells in and outside London.

While talking to three or four demonstrators in the middle of the road in Whitehall, near to the Houses of Parliament, two police officers approached us. One officer said that we faced arrest under Section 14 of the Public Order Act. The Act serves to “prevent serious public disorder, serious criminal damage or serious disruption to the life of the community.”  Our discussion continued on the pavement rather than arrest.

XR lawyers challenged the London Metropolitan police in the court. The judges decided that the police arrests were ‘unlawful’ because the arrests went beyond police powers under the Public Order Act. The judges said the protests did not consist of a single public assembly. The ruling gives the right to those arrested to sue London Police for unlawful arrest.

The attempt by the police to end these peaceful protests put out an undemocratic message: the government and police refused to tolerate the freedom of citizens to show non-violent, peaceful dissent.

I remember decades ago speaking on behalf of a person in a court on a matter of an alleged visa violation. The Judge said to me the British Government has the power to apply laws to stop anybody from doing anything if the government see fit to invoke a law to serve the desires of the government. (We won the case).

XR have three demands.

  1. The Government to implement real change for help end the climate emergency
  2. The Government to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse emissions to net zero by 2025, not put off until 2050.
  3. The Government to create citizen assemblies to climate and ecological justice.

More and More Arrests

 A small group of British activists planned the first XR street rebellion in London in October 2018. Social media circled information about the action. Activists occupied bridges – only allowing ambulances to cross the bridge. The police arrested 89 activists despite the appeals of activists to the police for more arrests. XR had hoped for 500 arrests as this would garner front page publicity. A lot of publicity puts more pressure on the government to act to slow down accelerating climate change. Police told activists that there were happy to arrest but cuts in the police force and numbers of vans limited their capacity to carry or march protesters to the police vans.

I heard from friends engaged in actions in October 2018, June 2019 and October 2019 that the police were cordial as they carried away demonstrators, often in the horizontal posture requiring four policemen. The Police had to bring in numerous police officers from different parts of the country to address the rebellion. The Police said the protests around the country have cost £37 million so far in 2019.

I understand that arrested pay court costs for the day (around £600 per day) with a conditional discharge. Sometimes the judge allows the protestors to share the cost for the day.

XR speakers using a loudspeaker need to show a certain precision in language. I listened to the speakers verbally attacking the police who dragged away people, tents and equipment and handling roughly some people. Plenty of police officers showed sympathy for XR. Some police officers said that their children told them they should look after demonstrators because the demonstrators are thinking about the future of children.

As the police and government lose their patients with the core philosophy of disruption, they will seek to impose greater punishments on those arrested. Heavy fines, jail sentences and a criminal record deter those who consider becoming an arrestable. A criminal record can prevent a person finding work in the public sector, reduce chances of employment in the private sector and find themselves denied a visa to visit or work overseas.

The initial flourish and passion for protest and disruption would then diminish. Under the direction of the British government, the police will employ strategies to discredit XR and invoke laws to undermine disruption through street protest. The honeymoon period lasted for a year. Protesters will need a calm and steadfast presence when the police obsess about taking control of a situation and dealing with the anger of those inconvenienced by XR disruptions.

If the numbers of protestors shrink, then the appetite disruption on the streets will reduce and fade away.

I noticed by the third evening of my engagement with the demonstration in London the numbers in the centre of London between Trafalgar Square, Whitehall and the Houses of Parliament had significantly dropped. Many joined after work for an hour or two then went home.

We appreciated their presence. XR has much reflection to engage in. XR cannot rest on it laurels and keep finding creative ways for disruption in numerous locations around the country from council offices to shopping malls and harmful factories and businesses. XR meetings need to continue to be lively, inspiring and generate fresh initiatives to keep people coming. The signs are good but it takes personal and group energy to sustain a long term commitment.

Working with Despair

People remain vulnerable to despair if the mind overloads on internalising painful information about the state of the Earth. Eco-psychology has entered into discussion in the campaigns as more and more people report levels of stress around the global realities.

The self and the world get muddled up together. Identification of the self with the situation of the state of the world functions as the fuel for despair. Such people then justify the despair through a certain mode of thinking about the world. The belief in such thoughts as a true statement of reality feeds the despair.  The world and despair lock together. A person finds themselves unable to distinguish their reaction called despair and the conditions impacting on the world.

Such a situation cripples the capacity of a person to act with calm, clarity and wisdom. The mind has determined that it has every reason to feel despair. Despair connects with other movements in the inner life such as anger or a leaning towards depression. The ability to respond to the ecological crisis, climate emergency and consumerism fades due to a loss of energy, passion and vision.

Despair does not inform us of the state of the world but only of the state of mind.

Not for Everybody

I did not see much cultural diversity among the activists. Climate emergency affects everybody and the entire eco-system. Street protests do not suit everybody. White citizens made up 90% of the colour of the demonstrators– even though white is a minority skin colour in London. XR requires an exploration of outreach to develop a worldwide sense of concern and protest.

There is a sideways impact upon white activists.

Activists friends, who were arrested, told me that the police treated them in a polite and caring manner. Every activist had their own cell. I heard a cell is an excellent location for meditation. Every hour a police officer would open the grill. “Is everything OK? Do you need anything? Would you like a cup of tea?”

Activists expressed appreciation for such treatment. One white activist said to me: “We are fortunate to live in such a country with such a benign police force.”

People in the Black community may well have a very different view of their treatment by the police when they find themselves under arrest. We can draw very positive conclusions about the police in general not realising police treatment may depend on the colour of our skin, education or accent.

Yes, plenty of police officers offer an even-handed approach but not all.

Deniers of Climate Emergency

Around 100 companies face responsibility for more than 70% of global emissions. 25 corporations and state-owned companies cause half of industrial emissions.

Governments and businesses currently engage in a new strategy to ensure business continues without disruption. They now agree with the scientific evidence of climate change. The strategy of powerful figures express the need for change. They advocate a change in personal behaviour. They say we need to consume less, travel less, reduce the amount of plastic we use and eat less meat and dairy products. Families and individuals must all take responsibility for changes to support the Earth.

The powerful place the responsibility upon us as individuals and members of a family to save the world from the developing catastrophe. Governments and corporations make infinitesimal small changes, such as charging 5 pence for a plastic bag in the supermarket to show they are doing something.

This approach means that governments and international corporations can continue to engage in economic growth, exploitation of fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and gas, environmental destruction and expansion of factory farms.

We might even think real change comes through turning off the tap while brushing our teeth.

Personal virtue in global concerns matters. Yet, society must stay realistic.  Personal changes rank as infinitesimal in significance to the changes needed to our major institutions. Governments, corporations, the military and food industry abuse, exploit and destroy our fragile eco-system at an alarming rate. We exert pressure on the powerful through disruption, ongoing criticism and campaigns for change.

Every little personal change helps a little. We need to walk the talk. Rebellion against governments, CEOs and the boards of directors of harmful businesses take priority while we also address sustainable ways of living for ourselves, family and local community. Citizens hold to account the powerful and the rich, as well as pressurise governments who support exploitive industries.

We live in a culture riddled with self-blame. Citizens experience guilt for being victims of endless marketing strategies to get us to buy more, consume more and pursue more in terms of money, goods and pleasure.

A billion or two very poor people have no reason to take responsibility for the climate emergency yet they find themselves under attack from the middle classes for having too many children, eat cheap junk food in the West or small farmers clearing land for crops.

We require disruption of the system, make clear alternatives and work for significant structural changes. Development of societies based on a sustainable way of life serves as a worthwhile goal rather than irresponsible pursuit of pleasure and luxuries.

A sociology survey asked teenagers what they most wanted. Over 85% said they wanted to be rich. That is the outcome of propaganda.

To Address the Crisis

XR reminds us of the importance of non-violence, civil disobedience, application of the arts, and staging protests in iconic locations. We remember the extinction of 60% of creatures on the Earth in 50 years.

Billionaires including Bezos, Gates, Musk, Zuckerberg and others, exploit people and resources so their empires expand at the expense of small business, shops and the poor while heavily publicising their donations to good causes. Amazon, Google, Facebook and other corporations function as surveillance agencies to buy our attention.

We require creative ideas to keep the public alert to the ecological crisis, to find numerous ways to reach out to people and to stay true a vision for humanity. Frequent naming of abusers of ecological life can trigger a disruption in their sense of self-importance. It could reach the stage where thoughtful people do not wish to work for such companies who engage in such global abuse.

XR need to consider targeting large businesses, banks, homes of the super-rich, offices of government ministers and the media, who have replaced news with promotion of ideology of media barons. Wise actions for changed require commitment to its philosophy of strength and determination supported with kindness. The Buddha’s teaching offers the tools and practices for ethics, kindness and right action. The link grows between the Dharma and the politics of disruption. Dharma teachers from Gaia House meditation centre in south Devon and elsewhere make an important contribution in XR towards caring and fearless actions alongside mindfulness and meditation.

We require support for public transport and massive cutbacks in travel for pleasure or business conferences. One XR protestor climbs on top of a plane in London city airport flying business managers to meetings instead of making conference calls. One activist buys a ticket for the same flight and stands up in the gangway to speak about the climate emergency. This is an action to applaud.

Another activist climbs top of an underground train carrying workers during the rush hour. This action upsets workers who we needs to support for using public transport.

XR has an important voice. There is much to applaud in terms of what it has accomplished in its first year. We will see the level of commitment year by year. The days of the big political party can come to an end. Social co-operation, assemblies and a radical protest  can usher in an authentic participatory democracy addressing the present and future.

Click on photo to go to 80 photos of XR protests and posters

taken in London between 7 – 9 October 2019

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1 thought on “Extinction Rebellion. Is the Honeymoon Over? Is it the beginning of ongoing commitment to address the Climate Emergency?”

  1. Thank you for this Christopher. I was also at the rebellion in October acting as a legal observer. I think the lack of ethnic diversity is due to the police being more likely to arrest people from ethnic groups rather than white people. So ethnic groups stay away. This is indeed a problem. Although the October rebellion was in many ways a success not much has changed. It might have been better to have had fewer sites and a central demand which necessitated the agreement of the Government in order to halt the rebellion. In retrospect it was a protest rather than a rebellion. Moving forward I think XR needs to realise the importance of structure in the movement, something it rather resists. There is also a danger of fratcturing as there is some disagreement as to the best way forward. We are stronger together, acting in peaceful protest. Best wishes to you.

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