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Interview: Extinction Rebellion

This year's Blue Dot festival showcased a dazzling amalgamation of science and music that provided not only an impressive lineup including the likes of Kraftwerk, New Order, Hot Chip, and 808 state, but a deeper and refreshingly inclusive ambience that seemed to radiate from every corner of the festival.

Whilst the larger tents boomed with the presence of bigger musical acts, the atmosphere amongst the smaller stages was distinctly scientific. From talks delivered by distinguished scientists to a walk through the festival's Luminerium- a labyrinth of cavernous domes illuminated with space-age lighting- Blue Dot had it all. The spirit of innovation and technological ambition was rife in the silhouette of the Lovell Telescope, as people came together to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the moon landings at Jodrell Bank Observatory. However, one would assume that incorporating a movement such as Extinction Rebellion into a festival of this nature would be something of a task. On a weekend celebrating mankind's greatest triumph over Mother Nature, where would a mission to rescue her fit in?

As we approached the stage, it was clear that XR's presence was ubiquitous; their influence spilled out into the crowd in a cascade of banners, leaflets, and representatives sporting neon pink high-vis jackets branded 'Beyond Fucked'. The Rebel Rebel stage was a hub of activity; less of a stage, and more of a communal zone of productive discussion that covered various aspects of the movement’s intentions and aims. We were met by Chris, a member of XR part of the team providing a presence for the movement at the festival. He led us through bustling hive of XR's activities hub and into the team's backstage quarters where we began our discussion:

Hey guys, cheers for having a chat with us. So what sort of things are you doing here at Blue Dot?

So basically, we are running workshops, NVDA- Non- Violent Direct Action training, and having discussions about various aspects of climate change. We're also doing outreach and going out into the festival and talking to people. Yesterday we did a stage invasion during Kate Tempest. She had agreed to it and invited us to do it. We then got dragged off stage by security in front of thousands of people and it couldn't have gone better really. It totally got us what we wanted, and Kate's totally on board. At each festival we are doing different things; we had an extinction parade at Glastonbury, we have some stuff lined up for WOMAD. We're just getting out there and speaking to people.

In short, for people who haven’t heard of you, give us a bit of a brief about what you’re all about.

We are a non- violent direct action movement that seeks to highlight the injustices and criminal activity of the government in facing the climate and ecological crisis now currently going on.

This summer you caused what is being referred to as the ‘summer uprising’, and UK has since declared a state of climate emergency. How does that make you feel?

Very good in the fact that it's making a difference, however the government says that 2050 is the target they are going to go for to cut emissions, whereas we are saying 2025. Basically, 2050 is far too late. We have less than 10 years to sort this out.

So would you say that there is a lack of awareness of how much time we actually have left?

Yes, I believe so. We have 3 demands, and the first one is basically tell the truth about the reality of what’s actually going on to the public.

So leading on from that, your goal of a declaration of climate emergency has been reached. What are your next direct objectives?

So the climate emergency was declared by parliament, and not by government. Therefore, it’s not a binding thing at the moment. And also the 2050 target is not in line with our second demand of 2025. And the third demands is a citizens assembly that can inform the government on how to deal with this. Now, they have called a citizen’s assembly, but they have said it’s just a sort of suggestion of what we could do and not a mandatory system. What we want is a mandatory situation in which the stuff that comes out of the citizens’ assembly is mandated to happen, rather than taking it as a bit of advice and just fobbing it off.

John Humphrys has recently accused you of wanting a ‘permanent state of recession’ in the UK; how do you respond to people who prioritise capitalism as some kind of untouchable necessity in society?

So of course we don’t want a recession to happen, but in order to decarbonise at the rate that we need, it has to cause a lot of economic woes. Of course the capitalists don’t want that because they have money invested in all sorts, what people don’t really get quite yet is the desperation of this situation, you know? We literally don’t have time to sit around talking like Brexit that goes on for three years and is just a total fuck up. We just don’t have that time, so while the government is faffing around saying ‘oh yeah we might do this and might do that and might do half of that’, time is passing and every single day counts now. So we are out there getting in people’s faces to cause to disruption- to bring attention to this fact.

Well that was the next thing I was going to discuss with you actually; how one of the key criticisms that people have of your movement is the nature of protest that you have chosen to use. It’s very direct and does cause a lot of disruption for a lot of people, but I assume you see that as a necessary evil in the face of quite a lot of danger?

Oh yes absolutely. I mean it’s got to be proportionate with the level of danger we are facing you know? And when you are talking about this sort of extinction event, its gets the the point very quickly where the food on the shelves runs out in the shops. We import 60% of our food to this country; once those lines go down, you can quite quickly imagine what would happen. Neighbours will turn on neighbours. People will start to riot and potentially cause civil war over resources. In as little as five years’ time we could be looking at the collapse of civilisation as we know it. So unless we do something about it now and we do it loud and directly and we do it brash and we get in people’s faces, the targets won’t be met. So although it might piss people off, and it might be slightly inconvenient for a person to be delayed on their way to work for two hours or whatever, the other side of it is so much more horrific, that it’s not even worth contemplating. So those people will be pissed off, but, guaranteed, as seen in interviews with drivers at roadblocks for example, that after they have ranted about the inconvenience of their hold up, they end with ‘but they do have a point’. So everyone has it in their minds, you know, everyone has it. But they just don’t have the direction to move that forward, so what they need is a kick up the arse, frankly. And that’s why we are here; to give that shove, really. The theory says that in order to create systemic change, you need 3.5% of the population on board. A revolution has never failed with more than 3.5% of the population on board. So it could even be a lower percentage of that, you know? So 3.5% of this country is 2 million people, so if we can get that number of people involved then its becomes a snowball effect- it becomes culture- it becomes the ‘done thing’. Then the snowball just rolls and continues to get bigger and bigger.

So in terms of the traction that the movement’s been gaining in recent months, are you impressed with the progress you have been making in such a sport space of time?

Oh absolutely, I established a local group where I live in London in December, and it now has over 300 people in it. In the first meeting after the rebellion, 200 people turned up because they were so interested in it. Every day there are more actions going on, there are more people on the streets, and its literally gone from a handful of people in the office at the start- there was maybe 25-30 of us- and it’s grown so rapidly that we are now knocking on the door of 1 million people in this country.

Protestors storm the stage during Kate Tempest's set, a spoken word performer.

So the trajectory of how it’s going now- are you comfortable with the speed that the movement is gaining, or do we still need to pick the pace up?

I think the speed is good. I think what we are struggling with is to incorporate that many people because none of us are professional activists. A lot of us are amateurs in activism, especially direct action, so we are kind of working it out as we go along. Behind the scenes it can get a little bit chaotic even though in the front, it probably seems quite organised. So we are learning on the job and one of the big things we do is take feedback and we take on board that feedback and then change our system to reflect that. For instance the Heathrow shutdown that was planned in July- there was a massive backlash not just from the public but from people within XR that said that it had gone too far. We then took a step back and reviewed it, and went through two feedback processes. It’s still going to happen, possibly in September and for up to two weeks, however what we have done is establish a whole protocol about how we go about it. We give the police and the authorities two months’ notice before any action and we stay out of the direct flight path as there is a 5 Km exclusion zone around the area. But that's the thing about the police; if we do an action and they are seen not to do anything about it, then other people see that and it gives them to confidence to come on board. Conversely, if the police are seen to repress hard, it has the same effect. The backfire effect. So you get more people going 'these people are trying to save the planet. Why are they getting battered by the police?'

Exactly, it's like that video that went around online recently from Paris, I think, where people were getting teargassed whilst sitting peacefully on the road.

Exactly. So when you see stuff like that, you get a lot more attention. So we are putting them in an action dilemma situation. Each time we escalate an action, we then wait for the response from the authorities. We saw in April at the rebellion where they chose to start arresting people; about 1,100 people. That's their job and they have to do it to maintain the peace.

So as a movement you're about adapting to events and making sure the message comes across in a way where it doesn't go too far and have an inverse effect?

Yes, but the thing is is that we don't have to get everyone on board, only 3.5% as I was saying. You can afford to alienate a large amount of the population. Not that we want to, because everyone needs to be on board with this eventually, but in order to get to that 3.5% and cause that snowball effect, you really do have to push and piss people off.

So going back to the actions that the government have taken towards reducing emissions. Are you worried that these supposed positive steps are just a time saving device? 'If we declare a climate emergency, that will keep the activists at bay'.

Yeah, it's lip service. Our role now is to push the government to actually meet the targets that we set out. They said 'we'll tell the truth'. They sort of have. They did declare a climate emergency, but they stated that 2050 was the 0 emissions target. They have also set up citizen assemblies. So in some regards, you could say that they have met all three of our demands. But actually, not one of them really meets any of the demands. We have to carry on to make sure that they do actually follow through. I mean, when it actually comes down to it, there's very little else now that's important, because if we don't sort this out, there's no point. I don't have kids, but I have nieces and nephews, and it guts me to think that we are destroying their future. Civil war, mass migration, famine, drought. It's not gonna be pretty. It's not going to be pretty anyway, and we are going to have to go through a lot of shit to deal with this, but we are trying to minimise that. Damage limitation; that's what its down to now. The longer we leave it, the bigger the cost of that damage limitation will be. We are literally digging our own graves.

So are you guys going to be doing anything in Leeds any time soon? Obviously you have the boat blockades going on now.

Yes, of course. I don't know if that's still there now but that's due to go on all week. It's five cities around the country. There's the northern rebellion happening in August around the bank holiday weekend which will be a festival type scenario. It's going to be in Manchester.

It was at this point that another member of the group, Mina, who currently lives in Leeds, chipped into the conversation and brought attention to what seemed to me as not a conflict of interests as such, but a potential fork in the road for the trajectory of the movement:

The idea is to decentralise the rebellion and to get to people who are maybe ignored by London quite a lot, and to make them feel empowered to make the government work for them.

The conversation then quickly returned to Chris who perhaps epitomised Mina worries with his response:

And then on 7th October we're holding another rebellion in London. And the reason that we go to London is because that's where the power is, you know? That's where the power and the money is. There's no point in going to a little village because no ones going to listen to you, and this time we are looking at possibly four weeks, or even as long as it takes. Hopefully this is gonna be the last time we have to do it. In April we had 3-5 thousand people there constantly with people coming and going. I totally believe that this time round we will have 50,000 people. What are the police going to do? We filled all of the police stations in London last time. They could not arrest anyone else. They were importing police from Essex. Once there's 50,000 people they will have no chance, and at that point they will turn to the government and say 'look, we're not dealing with this any more. These guys have got a point. We're worried about our future as well.' The police have got kids as well, you know?

I suppose beyond doing their job, they have the same anxieties as everyone else, don't they?

Yeah, exactly. We aren't going to stop and we are going to keep inflicting damage on the economy and on the government until they actually listen. It's starting to happen, but it's too slow.

Extinction Rebellion Protests in Leeds

So it's clear that Extinction Rebellion have achieved an impressive level of progress since the beginning of summer. But from talking to the people involved, it would seem that a lot of the so-called steps that the government have taken don't necessarily transpose into any real quantifiable progress. It would also seem that whilst there is general agreement concerning the overall end goal of the movement, there is distinct discord in terms of how things should prioritised. One the one hand, hitting London as the centre of power and wealth may seem like the immediate option, but, as pointed out by Mina, does this risk neglecting a vast proportion of the population? Perhaps there is a desirable equilibrium between the two ends of the spectrum to be found somewhere, but now the message is clear; 'we aren't done yet'.

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