Geraint Northwood, Research Postgraduate on the Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet DTP, blogs on his experience with Extinction Rebellion, and how it has turned his frustration to optimism for the future.
The first I knew of Extinction Rebellion was when a sort of business card was handed to me at a climate strike in Westminster, which I pretty much ignored. It had the words ‘rebellion’ on it, for goodness sake – surely this was another empty promise of change from an ambitious but ultimately too small and niche group of eco-warriors. I’ve never been what you would call clued-in to, well, anything really, let alone burgeoning civil disobedience movements. Like so many others at that strike, and across the country, I was just another politically-jaded young adult who’d had enough of the inaction across the world and the political spectrum in response to climate change, and wanted to do something about it.
What I did have in my favour was a Batchelor’s and Master’s degree in geological sciences, in which the climate had been one of my favourite topics. It led me to study for a Doctorate at Imperial in planetary science, looking at the ancient climate of Mars. In short, I was 25, I knew a lot more than most about the climate from a scientific perspective, and I still had no idea what I could do to help save the world.
Cue Extinction Rebellion
In April, the Rebellion, known informally as XR, occupied five major intersections in central London. This annoyed some and amused others. What I distinctly remember feeling, stumbling into Oxford Circus unawares, was something I’d never experienced before in London. A sense of calm, of people with unified determination, of community and, at the risk of sounding like a hippie, of mutual respect and love. There was a big pink boat, people were sitting on the tarmac being herded in by the police, skipping work, facing arrest, doing all the things they weren’t supposed to be doing, and they were the happiest, most confident people in London. It was clear to me that this was more than just a protest against climate change. It was hope for a future where we live differently, according to what matters. Our current form of capitalism is failing to protect the environment for future generations, failing to protect the lives of humans around the world and failing to make us happy. I am looking forward to a future where we live on less, but our lives are much richer.
XR: A new hope
Sometimes, the future is really scary. My girlfriend and I talk about it a lot, and try to live with as low an impact as possible. We won’t have children because we think it’s cruel to bring them into a world with so uncertain a future, and to increase overpopulation. I often think about stockpiling food, or the skills I need to practise to survive in a world where society has collapsed. Doing something that makes a difference makes the future less scary. By actively disrupting the system that is killing us, I feel empowered. I feel hopeful. I feel that, whatever happens, at least I did something when it mattered – I tried. And I met some amazing people along the way.
I am British, white and male: I am riding a wave of prosperity that started with the industrial revolution, and doing something that is seen by my peers as an extreme act – getting arrested – is a relatively pleasant experience. The police treated me nicely, my cell was warm and dry, I got a few hours with my thoughts away from work, and I can afford the costs. This is nothing compared to the people who are losing their lands to rising waters, their crops to drought, their homes to wildfires and have absolutely no personal choice in the matter. I think it’s important to use my privilege for the benefit of others – not all of us can get arrested, indeed most don’t in XR, but the rebellion is full of people eager to do what they can to help. Within a couple months of joining the rebellion, I had initiated and helped organise an action to which hundreds of other rebels came, to organise, to cook, to sing, to make art, to speak and to put their bodies on the line. All I did was send a few messages, and I discovered a reservoir of energy just waiting to act for change. I didn’t need a degree to do that, I just needed to be part of a community where people are ready and eager to help each other. That was uplifting.
XR isn’t a magic bullet – civil disobedience is necessary but not sufficient to secure the future. We need not just scientists and engineers, but the whole of society to find and implement the solutions for a sustainable society. XR is merely there to advocate for change, and demand that the government listen to and empower the people with those solutions. So many of the most important changes in our past, from women’s suffrage to civil rights to ending apartheid, have needed people to stand up and break the law until the government had to listen to them. That’s what XR does for society – what it did for me was give me hope.
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