WITH A POCKETFUL of superglue, anything is possible. I am sitting with my partner, Mark, in the middle of the road outside Parliament, facing a line of police, the full moon shining over Westminster Abbey. For the amusement of rebels, someone tows a sound system in a trolley around Parliament Square. The police have just put in a request to the DJ to play “Thriller,” and there is a sinuous wave of dancing around a grandmother in a wheelchair, who is here because she is trying to get arrested.
Superglue is good for bonding, superb for attachment. Mark and I have a bonding moment, courtesy of a few squirts from the tube, and we hold hands tightly, stuck fast. “We’re literally handfasted,” I laugh. For me, it is the second sweetest moment of this sweet rebellion.
We are part of Extinction Rebellion, aiming to block the streets of central London. We are rebels, gluing ourselves to almost anything so it is harder for the police to remove us. People are glued to the headquarters of an oil company, glued to the stock exchange, glued to asphalt of the streets. Like Antaeus with superglue, we gain our strength from ceaseless contact with this good Earth. Love and holding fast to the ground we stand on, laying our bodies down as roadblocks, using anything — a boat, an open-sided lorry — as an impromptu stage in the middle of the streets, the rebellion is designed to block business as usual, because what passes for normal is not normal and cannot continue. The very laws of physics preclude it. So whereas the juggernaut of our current way of life is bearing down on us, Extinction Rebellion (XR for short) will stand in its way.
The Houses of Parliament are shrouded in gray veils. This is for practical reasons, for repair work, but it has a symbolic aptness: this occluded ghost speaks of a political system that is moribund. Rebels are using the shroud as a screen to project David Attenborough’s film A Life on Our Planet. As Mark and I hold hands — firmly — the film shows a father and son driving through wildfires in California, the vehicle seemingly about to explode with heat, flames leaping at them. The film’s message is ours: we are taking a road that leads to hell; we have to stop and turn back.
On the first day of the rebellion, some ten thousand rebels, nervous and expectant, gather on pavement and street corners, at various prearranged sites from Oxford Circus to Waterloo Bridge, Marble Arch to Parliament Square. At a minute before the symbolic eleventh hour, a man passes softly through the crowd. “In two minutes,” he whispers, “be ready to go.” As the pedestrian lights turn green, we surge onto the streets and simply stay there and, doing so, slide a new world into being. The police, who have been openly informed of our plans, step forward to talk to drivers, beautifully conveying our message: Stop. Turn back. The way ahead is closed. And closed it will remain for ten days.
The streets become a surreal theater. Central London streams with XR flags in luminous yellow, green, blue, and pink. Pavement, walls, and clothes are branded with the instantly iconic XR logo. One thing is incontrovertible: this rebellion has style. The symbol is the circle of the planet containing an hourglass, the sands of time running out. It is edgy and exact, flexible, easily reproducible, identifiable, and simple — a cultural meme of pure genius. The fluorescent colors have a challenger quality right up to the edge of provocation. Skulls are used as well as bees and butterflies. XR’s style is psychedelic, invigorating, intoxicating, carries an electric message: this is an emergency.
At eleven minutes after eleven o’clock, a bright pink boat of pure panache is towed to the center of Oxford Circus, and a cheer goes up as its mast is raised. Why the boat? Rising sea levels mean that in the future, boats may well float across central London. More, XR stands as an ark for the more-than-human world, and its leaflets and public information offer lifeboats of ideas for addressing the real emergency we are in. “This Is Not a Drill” is the deadpan title of the XR handbook. Ceci n’est pas une pipe.
XR makes the future immediate and now. How do you raise the alarm? By showing that you are alarmed. Any self-respecting meerkat knows this. No sensible mammal would use an impersonal, complicated data set to tell its fellows they are in terrifying danger. Climate scientists thought their studies would be enough, that action would be taken. The scientists had no choice but to stick to the values and register of scientific communications, but too many people in the wider world adopted not just the facts of science but its demeanor and tone: level, unemotional, flat factual. The opposite was required. The facts, yes, but not the voice. What was needed was an outcry of alarm. XR stepped up.
Some time later, having unglued ourselves from each other, Mark and I are at Waterloo Bridge. The bridge is full of woven willow and flowers, cyclists and a pop-up kitchen. I speak to academic Rupert Read, a key figure behind XR’s thinking. “The most important thing is not to trust too much to hope, at this point. For thirty years, campaigners have gone for passive wishing and have been set on not scaring people,” he says. The result is mass complacency. Hope paralyzes. Alarm galvanizes. “We need something more important than hope now, and that is the courage to look at this brutal reality of the situation we are in, and the worse reality that is coming.” Indeed, a 2015 meta-analysis of 152 studies in public health by communications academics Kim Witte and Mike Allen shows that fear changes attitudes. It is also emotionally congruent to the facts.
For the facts are terrifying. Raise the alarm for what the Smithsonian has called death “on an unimaginable scale.” At a two-degree warming, island nations will be victims of genocide. Kevin Anderson, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, says: “For humanity, it’s a matter of life or death. If you have got a population of 9 billion by 2050, and you hit a rise of 4.5 or 6 degrees Celsius, you might have half a billion people surviving.” Since 1970, humans have wiped out 60 percent of the populations of wildlife (mammals, birds, fish, and amphibians). Half of all species could be forced into extinction by 2050.
Language buckles in this heat. What is happening is unhallowed. It is “a drama unfolding at theological scale,” says Roger Hallam, one of XR’s cofounders. The governments of the world are taking us to our deaths and, say many in XR, there can be no greater crime. The grief of it all overcomes me sometimes. When I read about the decimation of insect populations, I cried for three days. Sometimes I feel that I am in a constant state of farewell to the living world, knowing it will not fare well at all.
XR LAUNCHED on October 31, 2018. The date was chosen for its resonance with Halloween, All Souls, and the Day of the Dead to underline our lethal situation. The October 2018 publication of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report stated we have twelve years to turn things around, presenting, says Hallam, a “new realization of immediacy. That was the crack in the collective psyche.” Twelve years is also the lifetime of a young person.
The spring rebellion was chosen to coincide with the full moon of Easter and Passover and with Earth Day. April is the time to plant seeds, the season of growth, and the young are at the heart of it. On Waterloo Bridge, among reams of forget-me-nots, a little girl in a red cape is writing in chalk on the asphalt. THERE IS NO PLANET B SO WE”RE ASKING FOR YOUR HEP. She examines what she has written, then carefully adds the missing L. She walks away. Then she stops, turns back, studies it again, kneels down, and adds please. It is unbearably painful to see a child on her knees pleading for her life.
“Imagine,” says Robin Ellis-Cockcroft, twenty-five, who organized XR Youth, “the grief of knowing that your grandchild might not exist.” Fellow XR Youth rebel Savannah Lovelock, nineteen, says: “The baby boomers literally stole our future to create their present. They stole our dreams. A lot of hurt comes from that. Adults don’t know how lucky they are to have lived their lives looking at the future and not seeing death right there.” Young people hold a banner that reads ARE WE THE LAST GENERATION? and a twenty-one-year-old says to me bluntly: “Young people are angry with older people. You fucked this up for us.”
As the pedestrian lights turn green, we surge onto the streets and simply stay there and, doing so, slide a new world into being.
The young speak with defiance, at once powerful and vulnerable, and with clear-eyed courage and unimpeachable moral authority. None is more famous than Greta Thunberg, who arrives during the spring rebellion to speak to the crowds. Millions of young people now follow her in the Youth Strike for Climate movement, marching onto streets and demanding their primal human right: to live. Some are going on “birth strike,” too frightened to even consider having children.
During the spring rebellion, crowds of children sleep in tents at Marble Arch, making this busy traffic junction a gentle but enormous impromptu campsite. It is awash with XR flags, and I have Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” in my mind: “I’ve seen your flag on the Marble Arch.” On Good Friday, while arrests are being made, the children march to Oxford Circus as moral support.
Honoring the protest movements that preceded it, XR notes how the youth climate movement is this generation’s version of the Children’s March when, in 1963, children and young people of Birmingham, Alabama, poured out of school and onto the streets, willing to speak their truth to power and claim their rights. Martin Luther King Jr. is frequently quoted. Black Lives Matter is referenced. Like Gandhi, XR believes that civil disobedience is a “sacred duty,” while it learns from the anti-capitalist movement and from Occupy to stress the relationship of the 99 percent to the 1 percent. XR has the street smarts of Adbusters as well as its détournement of the clever reversal. There is a lot of Earth First! courage and commitment here, as well as Greenpeace in its 1970s guise. It takes from Climate Camp the importance of using regional gatherings and from the antiroads protests the physical defense of nature, as those ’90s protesters used treehouses and aerial walkways to block bulldozers. From Reclaim the Streets, it learns festive blockades, with pop-up kitchens and skateboard ramps and playgrounds in the middle of the streets. Many protest movements have been damaged by an overuse of alcohol and drugs, leading to sometimes chaotic atmospheres. By contrast, XR bans alcohol and drugs on-site so people really get their shit together. Literally. At Oxford Circus, compost toilets were constructed within minutes, and if there is one single tribute to XR’s organizational skills, it is this: in ten days of rebellion, the toilet paper never ran out.
An unmistakable edge of punk cuts through XR in its fluorescent fuck-thissery and its utter refusal to play by the conventional rule book. It also has a strong scent of patchouli — openly delighting in its hippie roots, steeped in herbs and flower power — and takes a leaf from the book of John Lennon on the Establishment: “The only thing they don’t know how to handle is non-violence and humor.”
There is a red thread that runs from the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common, to XR Peace, campaigning against militarization. The suffragettes influence XR not only with their gender politics but also with their illustration that society is changed through direct action, not through asking nicely. More widely, XR pays tribute to the primal female, the divinity of Earth as Mother.
ON THE FIRST DAY of the spring rebellion, the cathedral of Notre Dame catches fire. It is a poignant symbol of the burning of cultural beauty, for with climate collapse comes civilizational collapse. It is grievous and uncannily apt: Notre Dame means “Our Lady” or “Our Mother,” and as the cathedral burns, so is our mothering Earth burning; the verdant mysteries, wisdoms, and medicines of the Amazon going up in flames; wildfires out of control in the Arctic. One of these mothers can be rebuilt with money; the other only with a radical change of heart, and XR dedicates itself to this, like a chivalric knight-errant to his lady.
When I first came across XR, I recognized something both ancient and strikingly new: chivalry. Construction of Notre Dame commenced in 1160, about the same time when the code of chivalry was created. This code includes courage, honor, devotion, self-sacrifice, and a willingness to endure hardship, and XR follows it while serving Our Lady, the Earth. I hear this rare but unmistakable tone of chivalry everywhere. Rebels frequently say they are “in service,” talk with humility in the face of transcendence. Ronan McNern, who leads the media team, says: “The work I do is an honor. It’s about service.” Many speak of the importance of “virtue ethics,” doing the right thing, no matter the outcome.
That night, as Notre Dame burns, it is freezing cold at Oxford Circus. A group of us are on night watch. It’s three in the morning, and a friend and I are cuddled together for warmth in a hammock slung between two traffic lights at the top end of Regent Street. We are laughing in sheer amazement at the audacity of the Pink Boat. To protect it from being towed away by the police, rebels have superglued themselves to its underside and are immediately known as “the Barnacles.” With ringing simplicity, the words TELL THE TRUTH are stenciled on the side.
“Tell the truth, and act as if that truth is real” is XR’s first demand, asking that we truly inhabit the horror of our situation. XR quotes Gandhi’s “truth-force,” Satyagraha, firmly holding to truth in words and respecting the importance of what is real and good — “the Force,” in Gandhi’s words, “which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence.” Truth is central to ordinary, decent human values. It is taught to children and encoded in spiritual law and mythic lore: the truth will set you free. And yet, in this age of widespread advertising deceit, where both the current U.S. president and U.K. prime minister are avid liars, and where climate scientists receive death threats for their fealty to truth, in this post-truth world, where the media routinely distort or ignore both climate crisis and extinctions, truth is now a rare thing in public life, as radical and unexpected as a bright pink boat anchored in Oxford Circus.
The boat is deliberately placed within sight of the BBC’s London headquarters, and XR’s campaign, titled “Media, Tell the Truth,” includes a “Requiem for a Dead Planet” outside the offices of the Daily Mail, and also the Metro, Evening Standard, and Independent. With skeletons, eulogies, and speeches about those already dying because of the climate crisis (about 315,000 each year, according to the United Nations), the requiem uses a live baroque music performance, and places lilies everywhere. Whereas the media as a whole are fascinated by intellectually feckless and factless infotainment, XR speaks otherwise. There can be no bigger news story than the climate crisis, the potential collapse of civilizations, the extinctions of species, and the threat to humanity’s existence.
On my second day of rebellion, I am transfixed as a troupe of Red Rebels sweep across Piccadilly Circus. They are street theater performers dressed in red with chalk-white faces, who flow through crowds, then take up positions, forming tableaux vivants, living sculptures. Each performer wears a headdress, a chaplet of red roses, long gloves, veils, and ribbons of scarlet at their wrists. Red is symbolic of the spilled blood of children and other species. Red is a warning sign of danger ahead. Stop. Turn back. You are going the wrong way.
The Red Rebels perform in silence, and through silence they speak. Scarlet lips and black eye paint against the white faces exaggerate expressions as they move slowly from one emotion to another, using bodily gestures of grief, love, justice, fear, joy, pity, or victory. Collectively, they distill that feeling into an intensity and transcendence that one person alone cannot create. The somber effect shudders and astonishes the crowds that gather around them. Powerful, ambiguous, archetypal, the performance uses aspects of Japanese Butoh theater and recalls the Furies and the divinities, the mythic psyche on red alert, burning and bleeding. Like the chorus of a Greek tragedy that represents ancestors or the unborn, the Red Rebels assume the conscience of the past and the future. They work from a strong spiritual core, speaking from a place far beneath and a time far beyond this moment. They are an otherworldly presence, seers whose gaze reaches to the far horizons of vision.
SPIRITUALITY motivates many within XR, including the radical Rabbi Jeffrey Newman, who was arrested in his rabbinical robes, kneeling and praying, while protesting with XR. Imams and vicars have joined the organization’s ranks, and supporters include Buddhists, Quakers, and the former archbishop Rowan Williams. One of those most frequently arrested is Phil Kingston, an eighty-three-year-old grandfather who is part of Christian Climate Action. XR’s vision includes a core of Sufi thinking: unflinching truth, reckless beauty, and audacious love. When I met Roger Hallam, he looked to me like a flame-eyed John the Baptist — albeit one who frequently interrupts himself with a huge and self-deprecating laugh. Hallam uses the language of religion and refers to the nineteenth-century “Great Awakening” for this “woke” generation, conjuring a sense of religious revivalism. Indeed, XR has an indubitable messianic quality; how could the vital need to save humanity and the natural world not have a salvationary note?
On the third day of rebellion, I watch from the crowds at Oxford Circus as Daiara Tukano, resplendent in beads and feathers, takes the microphone at the Pink Boat. She is from the Tucano people of the Brazilian Amazon and speaks of the earliest Earth protectors: Indigenous people defend 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity, they have led the resistance to climate chaos, they are disproportionately affected by it, and they are in grave danger for their protest. More than seventeen hundred environmental activists have been murdered this century, a disproportionate number being Indigenous people. The Pink Boat is named Berta Cáceres, after the murdered Honduran Indigenous activist, killed in 2016 for fighting for the land and water rights of the Lenca people in Honduras.
Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, an Indigenous Chad pastoralist, says, “I will likely be part of the last generation of Indigenous peoples.” Interviewed, she speaks carefully and with exactness. Almost imperceptibly, her eyes well up with tears. “The third world war is the environmental one and is much more criminal than the first and second because the third extincts not only peoples but all the environment.”
Indigenous people have suffered genocide at the hands of imperialism and colonialism and for the sake of extractive industries. Within the climate crisis, wealthy nations continue to sow the wind and are forcing the poorest to reap the whirlwind. One XR banner reads: STILL FIGHTING CO2ONIALISM: YOUR CLIMATE PROFITS KILL. XR consciously seeks to educate both the public and indeed itself about the politics of the climate crisis, committed to rebelling with cause, compassion, and creativity.
Perhaps in part because of this, its rebellion is infectious. XR has grown to over 100,000 members in the U.K. and spread internationally to fifty-five countries. In the U.S., rebels protest against the New York Times, and, in Washington, superglue themselves to doorways at Capitol Hill, blocking members of Congress attending a vote and seeking to direct their attention to a motion of climate emergency. They ask, What other choice do we have when our politicians choose money over life? In Australia, XR canoeists take to the waters to draw attention to the Great Barrier Reef. Giant XR symbols spring up around the globe: a sand sculpture in New Zealand, an XR symbol made of flowers in Medellin, Colombia, and one made of human bodies in New York. In Zurich, XR rebels dye the Limmat River a luminous green to draw attention to the impact of climate change on global water supplies. Across the world, people are willing to be arrested for their protest.
I spend days trying to get arrested, along with over thirteen hundred others, including a marine biologist who is seven months pregnant, carrying her own ocean inside her. On Easter Saturday, I am lying in the middle of Oxford Circus with my arm inside a “lock-on pipe,” and I’m here for the duration. This pipe is metal, dipped in concrete, wrapped in roofing felt. Inside is a bar, so if you have a chain around your wrist and a carabiner, you can lock yourself into the pipe, and to free you, the police will have to cut your arm out of the construction. It is a sophisticated kind of superglue.
Around us, children are writing notes to the arrestables. One reads: “I don’t know you but I love you for doing this.” Another: “I can’t be arrested because I am only ten, but I am really grateful that you are doing this.” A mother comes up to me with her daughter, about five years old, who has made a colored-ribbon wristband. “My daughter made this for you. Would you mind wearing it?”
Truth is central to ordinary, decent human values. It is taught to children and encoded in spiritual law and mythic lore: the truth will set you free.
Sparks from the police’s angle grinder fly around my hair, and the heat is powerful. I am suddenly frightened that they could misjudge the blade and my right hand, my writing hand, could be damaged. One police officer regards my situation with bewilderment. “You could just release yourself,” he points out, reasonably. “But then I probably wouldn’t get arrested,” I say. “Why do you want to be arrested?” It’s an important question.
The willingness to be imprisoned for nonviolent civil disobedience is one of the most powerful ways to bring about change. “I’ve prototyped prison as a campaign strategy,” says Hallam. If the police’s strength is their ability to arrest, XR’s strength is to say “yes, please do,” and immediately, by seeking it, to co-opt the strength of the police. Nonviolence is crucial: as research shows, 54 percent of nonviolent uprisings achieve their objectives whereas only 25 percent of violent ones do. Arrest is, says Hallam, “the classic sacrificial move.” Once the public sees large numbers of people taking the climate crisis so seriously that they would give up their liberty for it, the severity of the situation is underlined.
Not everyone in XR is courting arrest: it is a sad truth that people of color have good reason to be far more cautious of any involvement with the police and justice system than whites. I am white and middle class, and the fact that the police are likely to treat me better is an uncomfortable privilege, but the tactic itself works because the media pay attention to it, covering the climate issue as never before. Hallam adds: “In the U.K., when we take to the streets, we write a solicitor’s number on our arms. In other countries people write their blood type. Others just write their names. Who are we not to act when we have the freedom to do so?”
In the hour it takes for the police to cut through the lock-on, I ask an officer to get a message to Mark to sing me something. Mark, knowing the soundtrack of my mind, cups his hands and begins: “I’ve seen your flag at the Marble Arch / And love is not a victory march but it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.” A policewoman is kneeling by me, asking if I am okay. She has tears in her eyes. “He’s got a beautiful voice,” she says. I nod. “He’s a beautiful person.” Many in the crowd are in tears, and some sing with him, until Hallelujahs ring out beyond us, beyond the police, out into the world. This is my sweetest moment.
CELL NUMBER 12.
The door clangs shut. Silence. Solitude. I feel like crying.
I talk to the police when I can. One says this week has been “rejuvenating” for him, and another says: “The thing is, you’re all so nice.” This is at the heart of it. XR is committed to a simple strategy: be nice to the police. They see it immediately, as well as XR’s strict nonviolence, organization, and tenaciousness. On the first night of the rebellion, one officer summed it up for me: “Your attitude is good, so our attitude is good, so your behavior is good, so our behavior is good.” But this is more than strategy, it is the truth: we are all in the same boat together.
The cell is square and tiled, with a toilet in one corner and a sleeping shelf along one side with a thin blue plastic mat and a blue blanket. The door has a three-inch-diameter peephole, so officers can look in. They slide food, water, and blankets through a rectangular letter box. There is a strip of fluorescent light. Extinction is like a prison cell, the bleak and lifeless tiled veneer where nothing lives. Not a shred of earth, except a little potted plant that one of the rebels had with him when he was arrested. The police look after it for him.
The officer doing my ID records (I’ve never been arrested before) is kind and gentle as he takes mouth swabs and fingerprints. Another asks me about my wool-plaited wristband. A little girl gave it to me to say thank you. “Ah,” he smiles warmly, “there is a God.”
Time goes strange in a police cell. I lose all sense of it. It’s hard not to be in control of your own hours, not knowing how long this will last. I dread being released at three in the morning. It is hard on the psyche, no question.
I sing. Leonard Cohen is with me. “Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free.”
Then dawn breaks on Easter Sunday morning, all the light of early spring pouring across London in the sunrise, and I am released from police custody at five a.m.
The police desk sergeant refers to “your fellow protester,” and I correct him, saying “fellow rebel — this is a rebellion.” And he says “sorry, yes.” He looks a little awkward, embarrassed, as one does when using an unfamiliar — taboo — word, one that is also “sexy and transgressive,” according to Hallam, which is why it was chosen. As we leave, the rebel is reunited with his little green seedling, and one of the officers smiles candidly: “You lot have been the best bit of my job in all my life. We’re on your side.” An officer shakes my hand as I leave. “God bless you. Good luck.”
I walk to the tent village at Marble Arch where a rebel is fast asleep in a treehouse and, without the noise of traffic, I hear birds singing a dawn chorus of exuberant joy, birdsong here for the first time in decades. It is miraculous to hear after the cold silence of the cells. When the rebellion ends, the campsite is tidied up, so nothing remains. Nothing, that is, except something potentially priceless: an unconfirmed Banksy artwork that miraculously appeared overnight. In it, a little girl holds the XR symbol as she plants a tiny green seedling in a little pot. Spray-painted words read: FROM THIS MOMENT DESPAIR ENDS AND TACTICS BEGIN. Hallelujah to that. O
Jay Griffiths’s books include A Sideways Look at Time, A Country Called Childhood, and Savage Grace, originally published as Wild: An Elemental Journey, winner of the Orion Book Award.