With the alarming warning from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in late-2018 that we have only 12 years in which to act to avoid unprecedented disaster of runaway global warming, the nascent Extinction Rebellion (XR) group, established in Britain by 15 academics in May 2018, has suddenly galvanised the public imagination as a way out of the powerlessness felt by so many, particularly the young. Together with the School Strikes for Climate, begun in Sweden by Great Thunberg in August 2018, the actions of XR have been key in raising the awareness of the likely effects of climate change and by confronting governments with their responsibility to act decisively and quickly, even as they have mostly so far failed to do so.
The tactics of XR are simple but spectacularly effective: in well-organised groups they ‘retake’ urban spaces normally given over to petrol-guzzling vehicles and transform them into temporary encampments open to all. One of their first large-scale actions, on 17 November 2018, was to block the five main road bridges over the River Thames in London for several hours, causing major disruption. Their most significant UK actions to date have been a ten-day occupation of four key sites in central London from 15-25 April 2019, a four-day occupation in central Manchester in September, and a week-long campaign of actions in London in early October (before they were temporarily banned from further actions in the capital).
In the April protests, activists blockaded Waterloo Bridge, Parliament Square, Oxford Circus and Marble Arch, as well as engaging in other smaller-scale actions. Over the course of the ten days, over 1,000 activists were arrested by the Metropolitan Police – a move that mainly served to bring more protestors to the sites where arrests had been made. This tactic of multiple occupations was made possible by instantaneous online communications through social media and it created a highly fluid protest that was very difficult to police effectively. It also powerfully disrupted the conventional everyday flows of traffic, people and goods that modern cities take for granted as normal. For a brief period, large areas of central London were largely car-free, the city’s air seemed cleaner, its streets dominated by the noise of people rather than vehicles.
At the same time, XR protestors brought with them a range of structures to sustain the occupations. A pink boat was ‘moored’ in the centre of Oxford Circus, around which a sea of protestors gathered, some gluing themselves to the boat. Potted plants and small trees were brought to Waterloo Bridge; while coloured chalks enabled people to transform the surface of roads into a canvas for art. Tents dominated in the pedestrianised space at Marble Arch – barricades made of traffic cones, canvas banners and wooden palettes marking the edges of the zone of occupation. The protestors’ everyday needs were met by a variety of ad-hoc structures: a small raised platform balanced on used car tyres supporting a sink on Waterloo Bridge a place to wash dirty cups and dishes; toilets at Oxford Circus constructed from salvaged wooden panels and doors; a free shop from similar materials at Marble Arch. In addition, structures were built simply for pleasure: an improvised stage made with palettes in the heart of Parliament Square hosting musicians and other performers; a skateboard ramp one of the first things to be installed on Waterloo Bridge; sculptures and assemblages at all four sites melding protest and art in the mode of the Situationists in 1960s Paris. Finally, in a similar way to the 2011 Occupy movement, the day-to-day organisation of the protest sites was facilitated by easy-to-erect gazebos and other inexpensive demountable structures. As with Occupy, a consensus-based politics emerged within small groups of protestors, each of which took responsibility for different tasks assigned to them. Indeed, one of the three key demands of XR – that a citizens’ assembly be created to hold governments accountable for the transition to a zero-carbon society – came directly from anarchist thinking, namely to make political representation a truly bottom-up process.
Since the April 2019 occupations, there has been much celebration within the XR movement, particularly after the UK became the first government in the world to declare a climate emergency shortly after the end of the London occupations on 1 May 2019. But its breezy optimism has been tempered by criticism of the movement as overly concerned with generating a spectacle (arrests seen as a status symbol) at the expense of the hard graft of long-term negotiation for concrete results. XR has also been criticised for paying little attention to wider anti-capitalist struggles which are inextricably linked with climate change and ecological collapse, as well as focusing attention on developed-world communities that probably already have enough privileges and resources to escape the very worst effects of environmental breakdown. And, despite the bringing together of young and old in XR occupations, it still lacks a broader social basis, particularly in relation to minority groups, the old working class and the new precariat. In the more recent October actions, XR protestors came into direct conflict with a hostile public. Two protestors who occupied the roof of a Tube train were forcibly removed by commuters, who were angered by XR’s counterproductive targeting of public transport.
It remains to be seen how the movement will develop in response to these criticisms; but what it has undoubtedly achieved is a spectacular demonstration of the power of occupations to transform the nature of urban space, even if this is only temporary. When streets become places to live, when the dominance of cars is powerfully challenged, when politics grows directly from full participation, when everyday life itself merges with art and festival – then, the city is truly transformed into a new kind of space that prefigures more sustainable, emancipatory and hopeful futures.