How Extinction Rebellion hopes to make a difference

The following article by author and activist in Australia’s Extinction Rebellion Jack Nicholls (25 August 2019 Sydney Morning Herald), provides his take on the rise of the new movement that is bringing back politics in the street, on a scale not seen for a long time. Concerned about this, government moves to bring in harsher penalties, and only succeeds in bringing attention to this movement and adding to its growth.

70 people have been arrested as massive protests against inaction on climate change.

The arrest of 56 protesters in Brisbane earlier this month marked the beginning of a wave of environmental strikes across the planet planned to ratchet up this Spring.

September 20 will see thousands of Australian school children walk out of their schools in solidarity with the Global Climate Strike. Earth Strike, a general strike for workers, is being planned for a week later, and non-violent civil disobedience group Extinction Rebellion have marked October 7 as the opening of their week-long Spring Uprising, when crowds of ordinary citizens across the globe are preparing to disrupt their towns and cities.

In a world where a million species are set to go extinct as a result of human activity, the Arctic is on fire, and our government responds by doubling down on a huge new coal mine, law-abiding Australians are being radicalised to an extent not seen since the Vietnam War and a sizeable minority are, increasingly, turning to symbolic acts of breaking the law. It seems that after years of “clicktivism”, street politics are back.

Caught off guard by this sudden rise in climate and animal rights activism, state and federal governments have introduced bills to heighten penalties for farm trespass, while the Queensland government is also criminalising the possession of “lock-on” devices such as handcuffs shielded within PVC pipes. Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has claimed that such devices have been booby-trapped with butane and glass shards – a trap that would presumably also harm the protester within and would be illegal under existing law.

Queensland protesters deny the claims, stressing their commitment to non-violence. Meanwhile there is little sign that a government crackdown will deter those committed to civil disobedience, meaning Australia could soon be witnessing a high-profile clash between the state and environmentalists willing to go to jail in order to stand against what they see as an existential threat to our way of life.

Photo from AP: British actress Emma Thompson speaking at at Extinction Rebellion action in London in Aoril this year

Although there are dozens of active environmental groups across Australia, the largest group openly committed to peaceful civil disobedience is Extinction Rebellion, which calls for the declaration of a climate emergency, bringing down carbon emissions and a reform of our democracy. The international organisation gained prominence by shutting down five London intersections for a week in April this year, and in Australia 1200 people signed up as “rebels” in the days following the Federal Election. Its membership at meetings tends towards female and middle-class, and most have had no history of activism until catastrophic climate news compelled them to action.

Laura Lucardie, a teacher who took part in the Brisbane day of protest, is frank about the motivation for lawbreaking actions like blocking traffic: “What we have tried in the past has not worked; there is no more time to play with ineffective methods.”

Maddy Butler, a Melbourne mum who joined the group earlier this year, agrees: “It might be uncomfortable, it might inconvenience some people, but I believe that Extinction Rebellion’s philosophy of non-violent civil disobedience is what we need to bring about large-scale change.”

The Prime Minister has called environmental protesters “un-Australian criminals”, but there is a long Australian folk tradition of celebrating outlaws and troublemakers. Civil disobedience was also central to the highest-profile environmental action of the 20th century – the successful campaign to save the Franklin River from a dam.

Before becoming leader of the Australian Greens, Dr Bob Brown was best known for leading the Franklin campaign. In 1982 Brown and hundreds of others were arrested as part of an action which ultimately prompted the Hawke government step in and cancel the dam project.

Photo by Andrew De La Rue: Bob Brown, the face of the campaign to block the Franklin River dam in Tasmania, addresses a protest rally. On July 1, 1983, the High Court overturned a Tasmanian government decision to build the dam.

Retired from politics but still an environmental campaigner, Brown strongly supports the new generation of activists, saying: “It takes a lot of courage to bring a city to a halt, peacefully. Whether common sense can prevail against the greed factor is the biggest question hanging over all of us, but Extinction Rebellion is a very positive plus on the common sense prevailing.”

He also believes the Franklin campaign holds lessons for today.

“The Franklin campaign didn’t stop any bulldozers,” Brown explains. “What it did do is draw national and international attention to what was happening. That is the power of civil disobedience. It is very often confused by people, who say that ‘we are going to stop this by putting our bodies in the way’.

“Well, the companies have the bulldozers and the state have the tanks. And ultimately, successful civil disobedience depends on the only thing that overrides tanks and bulldozers, and that is an activated public opinion.”

Brown successfully mobilised that public opinion to halt the Franklin Dam, but when he used similar methods this year with his high-profile convoy to “Stop Adani”, the mine was green-lit and its backers in Parliament returned to power.

In today’s political landscape, with governments that make a virtue of not confronting our looming environmental catastrophe, and with all citizens complicit in the destruction of our environment, how can activists force change? And is aggravating motorists the best way to get them onside?

Miriam Robinson, an Extinction Rebellion spokesperson, draws a clear line between single-issue campaigns of the past and what the new activism is trying to achieve.

“Extinction Rebellion is different from other protest movements we have seen in recent years because the aim is not to work on individual causes, such as stopping the Adani mine, or ‘locking the gate’ against fracking. Those projects have often been successful, but they come at enormous cost to the people involved, in time and energy and even fines and court appearances. They usually require people to go out to remote locations to blockade or occupy a place for extended periods. And for every victory, there are many defeats.

Photo from AAP: Police arrest an Extinction Rebellion protester after the intersection of Margaret and William streets in Brisbane was blocked earlier this month

“What we are doing with Extinction Rebellion is seeking to bring business as usual to a halt, stopping traffic and blockading cities for extended periods. To apply pressure on such a scale and, if necessary, get so many people arrested that governments are compelled to respond. Research shows that if we can get 3.5 per cent of the population to get actively involved, change is inevitable.”

Whether or not change is inevitable, there are parallels here with Brown’s campaigns that sought to sway undecided Australians, even as they stoked anger among ideological opponents.

In Brown’s view, “it’s about drawing in that great mass of people who sit and go about their daily lives not wanting to be involved. I hear all the time, ‘you’ve got to convert the people of Clermont before you go and oppose Adani, you’ve got to convert the dam workers before you oppose the dam’.  It’s nonsense. That’s like saying we should convert Vladimir Putin before we go for freedom of the press.”

The last time Australia faced sustained large-scale protest was the 2011 Occupy Movement, but that attempt to indefinitely hold territory in the heart of Australian cities made protesters relatively easy to contain. Today’s activists are more agile, gathering for short-notice disruptions then dispersing, or adopting “swarming tactics” to block traffic for short periods while allies wander down the traffic jams apologising to drivers and explaining their cause.

So far, authorities have been cautious in responding to trespass and roadblocks, publicly condemning civil disobedience acts but largely refraining from making mass arrests. It would be hard for them to know where to crack down even if they wanted to, except with a huge display of force.

The environmental movement may seem to be coalescing around the messianic figure of Greta Thunberg, but the experience on the ground is messy and fractured. In Brisbane, young activists shouted “tear this system to the ground”, but the law-abiding school strikers are more notable for their humorous tone, while Extinction Rebellion organisers offer wry greetings to any undercover police presence at public meetings, welcoming them as “part of the world too, and as concerned with this as much as anyone”.

Photo by Julian Meehan

Thousands of students walked out of schools across the country to demand more action on climate change from the federal government.

Even within Extinction Rebellion, local communities plan and launch their actions independent of a central power, and beyond that vegan, Indigenous, anti-fracking and Grey Power climate activists are working with solidarity but little cross-communication.

Technology has also empowered climate activists. The school strikers utilise social media to realise their collective power in numbers that previous generations of young activists were never able to muster. Every action is filmed and shared online, and strategic discussions which once took place around a campfire now play out nationwide over Facebook or encrypted messaging apps.

Today’s lawbreaking activists may be the spiritual successors of 1980s environmentalists, but their fragmented organisation and reactive tactics are reminiscent of their contemporaries on the streets of Paris or Hong Kong.

Violet, a young Extinction Rebel recently arrested for chalking “Climate Emergency” outside the Institute for Public Affairs, makes the comparison herself: “I am very inspired by the Hong Kong protesters’ call to “move like water”. At a glance, it looks pretty effective.”

Once water finds its groove it is hard to stop, as those who wanted to dam the Franklin River once found, and when it gathers in force it can be unstoppable. After decades of passionate climate protests have been largely ignored, will today’s turn to civil disobedience work?

It is easy to dismiss protesters like Violet as radicals, but when looking back at past Australian protest movements – such as those around women’s liberation, the Vietnam War or same-sex marriage – it is striking how many have been vindicated by history, and how fast public opinion can turn once people start identifying with the figures they see being arrested.

Asked to reflect on his own lifetime of activism, Bob Brown is sanguine: “I’m just a 74-year-old human being about to depart the planet, and I think the exciting thing is not the older leaders who have hung onto ideas from the ’60s and ’70s which are starting to get some potency again, but the young people who are searching for ideas and they won’t find any new formula. All the formulae are there, they just have to be taken up.”

In just 20 years, Brown and his fellow Franklin Dam campaigners moved from prison cells to parliament, and the Greens party they helped found has become a mainstay of the Australian political landscape. In another 20 years, our current generation of politicians will be gone and likely remembered for their failure to rise to a moment of disorientating change as climate change tips out of control. When searching for their successors, perhaps Australia could do worse than looking to the young people taking a stand today.

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