AS the urgent calls from Extinction Rebellion, for everyone to wake up to climate catastrophe, make front-page news, I attend an impromptu talk by the movement’s co-founder, Roger Hallam.
It’s in a small park in Brighton, on a hot day, surrounded by Extinction Rebellion banners, and I am not quite sure what to expect. More people, for a start. Maybe everyone’s on the beach, enjoying global warming; while we still can.
Roger Hallam, a social scientist, and Dr Gail Bradbook, a molecular biophysicist, formed Extinction Rebellion last October. Hallam researched how rebellion works, and has come to the following conclusion: when it comes to diverting life on Earth from imminent mass extinction, online petitions won’t cut it. Neither will writing to your local politician, or subscribing to environmental charities. We’ve been doing this for decades, and are closer to extinction than ever. It’s bigger than plastic straws and disposable coffee cups.
Hallam uses a ‘chilling’ — sorry, poor choice of word — analogy for what is happening to the ice caps. Imagine an iced cocktail, he says. The ice cubes keep the drink cool, but the moment the ice melts, the contents of the glass quickly warm up, and cannot be cooled down again. The ice cubes of our planetary cocktail are melting ten times faster than previously thought, and when the temperatures rise further, Hallam does not mince his words about what will happen. There will be social breakdown: war, starvation, rape. It is already happening in areas within the Global South. He refuses to use euphemisms. He says that without immediate radical action,
The only way to ensure rapid social change, he says (because we don’t have decades left to rattle tins or knock on doors), is civil disobedience. Break the law, and fill the jails. This is how the suffragettes got the vote, how the US civil rights movement got segregation overturned, how the Stonewall riots kick-started the gay rights movement. When Gandhi instigated his Salt March, in 1930, he offered a form of protest that Extinction Rebellion modelled last Easter in London: non violent direct action. There were 1,200 arrests; the biggest mass arrests in UK history. And not a single moment of violence.
But Roger Hallam says that for real change to happen, we need to go even further. The jails need to be filled: hundreds of non-criminal civilians locked up in jail tends to focus the minds of those in power rather more than going on protest marches, because protest marches only last an afternoon. (One million Brits marched against the Iraq War, remember?) Yet there’s a quite difference between spending a night in the cells for non-violent civil disobedience and spending several months in prison for non-violent criminal trespass, or whatever, and we have all been socialised to sensibly stay on the correct side of the law. It’s a big ask. With no guarantee of outcome.
And yet, what else is there to be done?