If you want to sound hip, call them XR. The bane of climate-change deniers and frazzled commuters, Extinction Rebellion is a global activist movement vowing to use non-violent civil disobedience and direct action to address an ecological crisis.
It seeks to compel governments to act on climate change and pollution and thereby halt the mass extinction of species and “minimise the risk of social collapse”.
Extinction Rebellion urges members to step outside their comfort zones and accept that some of them will risk arrest and charges.
“We have a duty to disobey this system which destroys life on Earth and is deeply unjust,” its website says.
Tens of thousands of people have heeded their call, most recently with a week of protests, in cities from Wellington to Amsterdam.
How did Extinction Rebellion start? What are its tactics and how has its message caught on?
What does XR want? And when do they want it?
Extinction Rebellion’s Australian arm makes similar demands to its British parent, stating that the government must declare a climate and ecological emergency, and must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.
It also wants the government to form – and be led by the decisions of – a citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice, including in Australia.
How did Extinction Rebellion start?
The group was founded in Britain in May 2018 by members of the social and environmental justice organisation Rising Up!, which evolved from a group called Compassionate Revolution. Its members were, in turn, influenced by the global Occupy movement, whose activists famously occupied New York’s Wall Street financial centre in 2011 to protest against social and economic inequality.
On its website, Extinction Rebellion expressly rejects the idea that it is “just a group of middle-class left-wing activists” or a “bunch of law-breaking anarchists or economic terrorists or eco-fascists”. “We are strictly non-violent and reluctant law-breakers” from all ages and walks of life, they say.
Its founders include former organic farmer Roger Hallam, who has blamed extreme weather events on the destruction of his business in Wales, and Gail Bradbrook, who formerly worked for an organisation seeking better internet access for the disabled.
In October, Hallam was in a London prison on remand after being arrested in September following a protest called Heathrow Pause by a splinter group of XR, which involved flying drones near Heathrow airport.
What does teenager Greta Thunberg have to do with XR?
The 16-year-old climate activist’s rise – and message of urgent change needed on climate change – has paralleled that of XR.
She has addressed crowds at several Extinction Rebellion protests in London and in July she asked that proceeds from a song by a band called the 1975, which she provided vocals for, be directed to Extinction Rebellion.
What are its strategies and tactics?
Non-violent civil disobedience is central to XR’s modus operandi. (The group says it is “deeply sorry” for any inconvenience this may cause the public.) They say they generally don’t try to conceal their plans from police, except where they require an “element of surprise”.
In October 2018, they issued a Declaration of Rebellion against the British government in London’s Parliament Square.
Weeks later, 6000 protesters blocked five bridges across the Thames and, on other occasions, members performed stunts such as super-gluing themselves to the gates of Downing Street.
This year they have occupied Scottish Parliament, held “swarming” roadblocks outside London Fashion Week venues, poured buckets of fake blood on the road outside Downing Street to represent the threatened lives of children, and undressed and glued themselves to the glass in the House of Commons viewing gallery during a debate on Brexit.
In April, they led 11 days of demonstrations and marches across London and Scotland: protesters again glued themselves to structures – and a train carriage at Canary Wharf station – as well as chaining themselves to Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s front fence, and blocking intersections and bridges, leading to more than 1000 arrests.
Following months of protests in London, organisers claimed victory there: on May 1, the British Parliament passed a national declaration of an environment and climate emergency.
The movement has since spread to countries including the US, Spain, Switzerland, South Africa, India, Australia nd New Zealand.
How have they protested in Australia?
XR emerged in March, in a protest lasting more than 24 hours at a railway affecting coal miner Adani, near Collinsville in far north Queensland. A young woman stopped coal trains by suspending herself from a tree above the railway, and other protesters stormed the tracks, with one locking themselves to a train.
In Melbourne in May, thousands of climate activists staged a “die-in” – lying down in the streets of the CBD to pressure the federal government to take stronger action on the environment.
In August, more than 70 protesters were charged by police after a Rebellion Day rally blockaded Brisbane’s political precinct and brought traffic to a standstill.
In September, tens of thousands of people turned out to protests in Melbourne and Sydney and, in October, activists were being arrested as a week of actions started, part of a worldwide protest.
What is XR up to now?
In October 2019, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth were among 60 cities around the world in the midst of seven days of “highly disruptive non-violent actions”, which XR say is “to demand immediate action in the face of the climate and ecological emergency”.
Four teenage girls were among 30 activists arrested in Sydney’s CBD on October 7.
In Melbourne, 11 people were arrested after activists shut down city streets during the afternoon peak commute. Protester Miriam Robinson said the group must “get right up in people’s grills” to convince governments to take firm action on climate change.
“We always apologise for causing inconvenience,” the retired public servant said. “But this is nothing compared to the inconvenience that is going to start happening when we start to run out of food and water.”
Carolyn Webb is a reporter for The Age.