Rebelling locally

IssueFebruary - March 2019
Feature by Rebecca Elson-Watkins

Although in its infancy, the new climate direct action group Extinction Rebellion (XR) seems to be finding those rare people who are willing to form ongoing campaigns from a one-off protest. [See PN 2624–2625 for reports and a critique of XR. – ed] People who recognise that the type of social change needed to stop climate change simply cannot come from the top down.

Roads have been blocked in London, Middlesbrough and Oxford. Banners have been hung over main roads bearing the XR message. In Oxford, the XR group has made the decision ‘that for the time being, we wouldn’t block more roads in Oxford’.

Quite a few local XR groups have also met with local councils, councillors, mayors and institutions in the effort to have them declare a climate emergency and commit to achieving zero carbon emissions by the year 2025.

There was a rally on the Isle of Wight and funerals for lost species in Yeovil, Abergavenny, Nottingham and Glastonbury. XR leafleted and unfurled banners at the Winter Solstice event at Stonehenge, Wiltshire, before being ejected by security.

Many local XR groups have held talks and meetings, and more than a few have had nonviolent direct action (NVDA) and legal observer training. There were over 70 people at the first Extinction Rebellion Lincolnshire meeting on 20 December – they arranged a follow-up NVDA training in the same venue for 24 January.

XR University of Glasgow is currently taking the lead by creating a Universities Declaration of Rebellion to complement XR’s National Declaration of Rebellion. The draft Universities’ Declaration has five sections: education; striving for zero waste; striving for zero carbon emissions; 100 percent sustainable investment; and social justice.

Glasgow University Environmental Sustainability Team has offered Glasgow University XR the possibility of collaborating in ‘Glasgow Goes Green Week’ and have suggested they give talks in schools.

Notably, the Glasgow students changed the traffic cone on the head of the statue of the duke of Wellington – one of the iconic images of Glasgow – to a green one branded with the XR logo.

Extinction 12

I touched base with almost every XR group in the country, and spoke in depth with 26 of them. Tellingly, two of the representatives I spoke to are environmental scientists, and another is studying to be so.

XR’s claim is simple, but terrifying. We have 12 years or thereabouts to stop climate change, or face up to the fact that we may have engineered our own extinction. Members of XR recognise this, and are willing to take nonviolent direct action, including actions that may result in arrest.

Many local XR groups are working with the Green Party in their effort to have councils declare a climate emergency, but they are by no means only working with the Greens. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and even the occasional Tory have admitted that we are not doing enough to stop climate change.

So far, 12 councils across the UK have declared a climate emergency, including Frome and Scarborough. Unfortunately, some councils feel that they are already doing enough – even those who aim for zero carbon as late as 2050 – and seem to be resistant to acknowledging evidence to the contrary.

“The social change needed to stop climate change simply cannot come from the top down”

The 200-strong XR march on the Isle of Wight (IoW) on 12 January was one of the biggest ever to take place on the island. The IoW XR contact told me that, while ‘the focus needs to be on getting the council to commit’ to declaring a climate emergency, ‘Once that has been achieved, more energy can be put into discussing solutions, in terms of community projects, green industry and so on.’

They also expressed concern about trying to keep people onside: ‘It’s challenging to try to strike a balance between the need for urgent action and not alienating people.’


XR recognises that the psychological realities of climate change are often too much for people to confront. This also affects the mechanisms of government.

This is part of the reason that XR nationally advocates the use of a citizens’ assembly to find the true views of the population around climate change and social justice, to work out the way forward, and to oversee the changes that are needed. (XR argues for using ‘sortition’ or random selection to choose the members of the citizens’ assemblies, just as with juries.)

From 15 – 21 April, XR are planning an International Rebellion Week, and every local group I spoke to is participating. Some will travel to London but many more will be taking direct action in their local areas.

Many will also be participating in the Youth Strike on 15 February, organised by the XR Student Network and YouthStrike4Climate. There are actions planned against the fossil fuel industry and single-use plastics. There will be music, die-ins and of course, more road blocks. The planned disruptions should generate media attention, something that climate change sorely lacks.

Another telling thing about XR is the wide variety of people getting involved, from students and professors, to pensioners and parents. Numbers in XR groups vary from a handful to over 70.

Many XR members already live to minimise their carbon footprint; as the representative from the North East of England, Diccon Johnston, said: ‘I didn’t join XR, I was already doing XR when it came along.’