MANY MOONS AGO, THE MODERN green activism movement started with a boat. It was an old fishing trawler captained by John Cormack. A group of young Canadian hippies, Quakers, and ecologists hired it and tried to stage an intervention in the US-led nuclear tests being carried out on Amchitka Island (about a thousand miles off the coast of Alaska) in 1971. Words matter. They could have called the boat anything: The White Peace or The Green Goodwill. The Magenta Hush. The Teal Quietude. Anything. Instead, they got the messaging right: Green is the color of trees, grass, chlorophyll, life itself. Peace was their mission. The hippies were able to broadcast their message to the world via an onboard radio, but they were intercepted by a US Navy patrol boat and failed in their mission to stop the testing. The tests went ahead; the island was more or less cracked open by the underground nuclear bomb blast. But by the time the hippies returned, and despite their bitter infighting, a movement had been launched. The world watched as a group of everyday citizens actively intervened in a crime against the planet committed by a superpower state: previously unthinkable.
Almost fifty years later, in April 2019, another boat appeared. This one was candy pink, an old yacht, named the Berta Cárceres, after a murdered Honduran environmental activist. Again, the messaging was strong and expressed a tangible revolutionary force. TELL THE TRUTH was emblazoned across the hull. Audaciously, under cover of night, Extinction Rebellion (XR), a group of climate activists who’d only months before declared a rebellion against the UK government, snuck into the center of London with a small yacht concealed under tarpaulin, which they then secured to the tarmac in the middle of Oxford Circus, blocking two main roads. For five days a pink boat was unmissable in central London, conjuring a coming apocalyptic flood. For me, this wasn’t just startling, but eerily poignant. My own brother, based in Trinidad, once owned a very similar yacht which he sailed as a young man. Later, in 2008, his family home was devastated by a flash flood, while he and his young children and family pets were in it—our family’s firsthand experience of climate change.
For centuries, lasting civil change has mostly been forged via disruptive protest, sometimes violently, but often nonviolently, using what Gandhi called satyagraha, or “soul force,” often creatively, often in a well-organized fashion, often in a dignified fashion (think Rosa Parks), and often at high human cost: imprisonment, intimidation, censure, surveillance, blacklisting, and the like or, worse, death. Disruption, rebellion, and uprising, by common people, are the stuff of world history. This includes the ecological activism of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
As Extinction Rebellion UK gears up for The Big One for Earth Day 2023, it’s hard not to feel the momentum of a growing and unstoppable force. A force which is gathering its might, its collective message and will. For months, XR have been planning their biggest march, ever, a march which will swell their ranks as they reach out to join forces with other large and not-so-large protest groups: Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, The Climate Reality Project, CND, Global Justice Now, and dozens of others. They plan to gather a hundred thousand people to march on Parliament for Earth Day 2023. At this rate, this will be easily achieved.
As a founding member of Writers Rebel (WR), working closely with Extinction Rebellion for the last four years (a group of writers inside XR), I’ve been involved behind the scenes in mobilizing for action on the cusp of Earth Day. XR is de-centralized and organizes over Telegram and Signal. My phone, as Earth Day looms, is constantly buzzing. Messages for plans come through on the hour. Drummers, Buddhists, writers, Dirty Scrubbers (a theatre group who pillory greenwashing companies and climate deniers), and groups from all over the UK will be gathering at 55 Tufton Street on the 21st of April as part of the People’s Picket, a day of picketing government departments all over London. Thousands of XR activists have signed up, a massive mobilization. It promises to be four days that will make history, when those coming to protest and fight for our planet’s future will generate a power which cannot be ignored and, yes, comes from the collective cry of the soul on behalf of our planet.
Earth Day will be a landmark day in London; momentum has been building for at least six months. Since the middle of October 2022, climate change activism in the UK has exploded, becoming an ongoing rolling story of revolution, one so eventful and dramatic, it’s been hard to keep up. Mostly, but not entirely, this has been led by a new activist group called Just Stop Oil. JSO is centrally run by a core inner team of ten activists, but also by ex-XR cofounder Roger Hallam. Almost weekly, since October 2022, news of environmental NVDA and arrest has made national headline news. The sheer quantity of activists involved in NVDA, the bravery shown by many (including elderly people), and the ingenuity and creativity of these actions has been unprecedented in the UK.
The reason for this upsurge of what can be seen as a spirit of dissent, a spirit of true disaffection, is the new UK Public Order bill, which was passed in the middle of October 2022. It is a bill designed to clamp down on the likes of Extinction Rebellion, JSO, and other similar protesters. This bill bans every type of protest used by XR and others: locking activists onto buildings or to each other with bike locks, handcuffs, and other devices, tunnelling, gathering in groups, making any noise. It will make almost all effective protest illegal and arrestable. This will be true for feminists and women’s groups, LGBTQ activists, those working on disability rights, human rights. Everyone. When this happens, democracy is lost; imagine not being able to actively shout out in the streets, “Save the planet!” Imagine not being able to protest the loss of: countless species of mammals, reptiles, and insects, the Amazon rainforest, other forests, our reefs, our oceans, rivers, our harvests, the air itself, the temperature, our biosphere. The data showing losses in the natural world is off the scale. No. Reaction to the bill has been to fight, compassionately. Earth Day will see an uprising, a concentration of heart-soul power that should inspire and move the population beyond the status quo of daily life. Politicians fear this type of power, especially when mobilized and on the move. But this is what is needed. A huge collective shift, from passive non-engagement to active engagement with the climate crisis, a shift from despair to hope, from no to yes, “yes we can do something about this.” We need to see hundreds of thousands protesting, with intent, with an open heart, and with an iron will, saying no: no more fossil fuels.
It promises to be four days that will make history, when those coming to protest and fight for our planet’s future will generate a power which cannot be ignored and, yes, comes from the collective cry of the soul on behalf of our planet.
Preempting the bill, on October 1st, 2022, JSO, led by Hallam, declared a solid month of relentless nonviolent direct action. Much of it was breathtaking to watch. JSO activists not only marched, sat down in roads, slow walked, and shouted for the government to stop new oil licences, they sprayed orange paint over many institutions, including the Bank of England and Scotland Yard. Activists waited, patiently, to be arrested. They were taken away in handcuffs, packed into the back of police vans. Each one spoke the same message, articulately, eloquently, to the camera: Just Stop Oil.
An ex-nightclub bouncer, Peter Harrison, sixty-eight, sprayed the now famous pillars of 55 Tufton Street with orange paint and was later carried away in a police van shouting, Just Stop Oil! We at Writers Rebel had been the first to target 55 Tufton Street (home to influential climate denier think tank Global Warming Policy Foundation) back in September 2020. We’d held one of our marathons on their doorstep; Zadie Smith, George Monbiot, Mark Rylance, and many others stood outside those same pillars and spoke truth to power; it felt like a moment. Two of XR’s founders plus one of our members were arrested at this event. Such was 55 Tufton Street’s dark, mercurial invincibility that our event and accompanying arrests received almost no press attention. But two years later, last October, when the same white pillars were cannoned with orange paint, something changed. The action was jaw droppingly intrepid. It’s hard to express the joy I felt watching this action. The clip went viral on Twitter. The paint-splattered address, 55 Tufton Street, no longer seemed so obscure and unknown.
In the middle of this crazy month, two young female activists threw tins of Heinz tomato soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in the National Gallery. It was hard not to gasp at the act. Again, Twitter erupted. Controversy raged. The action was viewed over sixty million times on the platform, making it one of the most seen NVDA actions ever. Their point? To start a dialogue about the fossil fuels industry, about licenses and subsidies granted by Liz Truss. Van Gogh himself said: “It’s not the language of painters but the language of nature which one should listen to, for the reality is more important than the feeling for pictures.” Van Gogh was a nature lover, a conscientious advocate of the natural world. In that “soup on sunflowers” moment, too, a sea change: NVDA didn’t just attack art. It fused the climate movement with a painting that embodies the soul of nature.
In those heady October days, I couldn’t stay home and watch; since 2008, I’ve been haunted by the memory of my much-loved older brother, drenched, blue and shivering, outside the rubble which was once his home. My novel, Archipelago, evolved from his loss, telling of a man who sails away from the aftermath of a flood only to be met with another climate disaster on the other side of the world. My activism, since then, has sprung from this direct encounter with climate change. As with the pink boat in April 2019, XR’s actions had a gravitational pull. As someone prone to activism, I’m guessing others left home and headed towards the action, too, often unplanned. Twice I left my desk; once, it was for Downing Street, where I found two fellow writers, WR’s James Miller and Tom Bullough, waving XR flags. Round the corner, Scotland Yard had just been sprayed orange. The atmosphere was one of insurrection, an organized creatively constructed chaos. Rebels were burning their energy bills in oil drums. People were sitting down in the road. A huge poster of Liz Truss with the words “Employee of the Month” was erected outside No 10. (Days later, she resigned.) Again, another moment. Climate change activists were moving politics, in the thick of it, doing what they are supposed to do: making mischief, and, in so doing, creating dialogue. This was a time of enormous political instability in the UK. Our new prime minister, Liz Truss, had announced a mini-budget which favored the rich and backfired spectacularly, crashing the economy; she lasted only forty-nine days. In that time, the Queen died and Britain went into ten days of official mourning. Also in those forty-nine days, Greenpeace infiltrated and interrupted the Tory conference with a banner saying, “Who Voted For This?” (i.e., fracking). Generally, green activists are funny; we create political satire. Of course, all of this looks great on social media. A type of agitprop art. With a government limping so badly, activist humor landed again and again, a zeitgeist soul force.
Then, in early November 2022, another upping of the tempo. JSO activists began to stop traffic on motorways, risking their lives climbing gantries across the M25. These gantries are very high up, and cars speed past below. It takes nerve and skill to get up onto them. Young people, older people, university lecturers, and even a woman who could hardly see climbed those gantries. All appeared clearly frightened yet resolute. Many spoke of how they’d never done anything like this before but were so scared of our planet’s future they were compelled to act. They stopped traffic and sparked the country’s imagination. Dozens were arrested and jailed.
Since October 2022, XR- and JSO-linked groups have also been active in Europe: In Amsterdam, bicycles flooded the runway at Schiphol Airport, aiming to stop private jets from taking off. In Germany, activists threw mashed potatoes at a priceless Monet, while Greta Thunberg was carted off and others arrested at Lützerath, a village being destroyed for a coal mine. All of this has put desperate, noncriminal people in prison and made activists more resolute and entrenched. At one point, late last year, dozens of activists were in prison, and some of them have reported being badly treated. Writers Rebel responded by formally announcing our support for political prisoners in JSO on January 6th. One hundred writers signed our statement of support. It felt crucial for us to voice our solidarity. We, in the UK, haven’t seen activism like this in a generation, not since the miners were striking under Thatcher in the ’80s. Ironically, today’s activists are anti-coal mining.
When this happens, democracy is lost; imagine not being able to actively shout out in the streets, “Save the planet!”
The good news is, it’s all working. In January, at Davos, Switzerland, Labour’s leader, Keir Starmer, announced that under a Labour government there would be no new oil and gas fields. If Labour sweeps to power in 2024, as is now predicted, this statement bodes well. In a recent poll by the ONS (Office of National Statistics), 74 percent of adults in Britain said they were “very concerned” about climate change. But while many are feeling moved to act, this type of NVDA isn’t for everyone. This is why another XR cofounder, Rupert Read, has now set up Moderate Flank, a group dedicated to mobilizing this large proportion of the electorate. Also in January, the Lords rejected the new Public Order Bill. It had been sent there for the final report stage, the stage before Royal Assent, but it was turned back, with the most extreme parts struck off for good. Even they recognize the collective power of the climate change protesters, and that this is the kind of bill you’d see drafted in an undemocratic state.
Within ten years, 2033, we’ll reach 1.5 degrees warming, a catastrophe for planet Earth—extreme weather, famine, floods, crop failures, and mass migration from the Global South to the North. We will need to adapt. We also need to act. Those who have been protesting climate change and those who have been imprisoned will be considered twenty-first century pioneers, as were those who sailed the Greenpeace to Amchitka Island in 1971. Greenpeace is still badass; they are still leading the way in terms of direct action. In January, a handful of their professional climber activists managed to scale and clamber aboard one of Shell’s platforms (massive structures, hundreds of feet high) as it was being dragged out to join a major oil and gas field in the North Sea. Of course, the enfants terribles of current UK activism, Led By Donkeys, are ex-Greenpeace activists too. Recently, they painted the Ukrainian flag on the main road in front of the Russian Embassy in London. What choice do we have but to be active in some way? Activism is a broad church, not just the kind that might cause arrest. There are many ways to be active, and to be part of a collective effort, from writing to your MP, to recycling your plastic and bottles, to using social media to creatively speak truth to power.
Since April 2022, when JSO started their campaign, two thousand of their protesters have been arrested in the UK alone, and 138 have spent time in prison. Many others from XR, Greenpeace, and Insulate Britain have also faced arrest. XR and JSO activists locked themselves to football goalposts, stuck themselves to famous art, blocked national sporting events like Silverstone, locked onto oil trucks, sprayed institutions with paint and fake oil, broke glass at major oil funding banks, and went on hunger strike. Over the last four years, XR, a decentralized movement, has trained up thousands of people in NVDA; no activist group has done this since the civil rights movement in the US in the 1950s and 1960s. XR, too, are strategic, using many of the ideas around NVDA suggested by Gene Sharpe, the American academic who wrote the playbook for nonviolent revolution, and this is why XR have survived the pandemic, large-scale arrests, and both admiration from the public and condemnation from the press. XR are smart, creative, and on message. XR have protested relentlessly for the last four years for the UK government to tell the truth, to curb carbon emissions to net zero by 2025, and to let common people play a part in deciding our future. XR does not plan to stop.
Soul force, a truth force, is inside each of us, an inherent power. When we interconnect with others and collectivize, we resemble how the universe works, in sympathy and harmony with everything else.