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A Planetary Protest


In the fall of 2011, a few years into the financial crisis and in the midst of the largest economic meltdown since the Great Depression, a group of protesters gathered in Zucotti Park in lower Manhattan. Inspired by a niche magazine called Adbusters and fueled by growing inequality and scanty legal penalties for financiers post-2008, the protests – which came to be known as Occupy Wall Street – eventually inspired demonstrations in over 900 cities around the world. But by the end of the year most of the occupations had petered out, or, as in Manhattan, had been forcibly cleared by local police. Like many protest movements over the past two decades – demonstrations against the Iraq War, Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March – the Occupy Movement felt like a flash in the pan, gone almost as soon as it had appeared. Whether such campaigns have been successful depends, in large part, on your measure of success – awareness and consciousness-raising, or concrete policies? Disruption caused or minds changed?

The latest in global protest movements is the Extinction Rebellion, a UK-based direct action group that has turned climate marches into a daily reality for Londoners. In April, crowds of environmentally-concerned citizens took to the streets of London and other UK cities to protest government inaction on climate change and the environmental crisis. They blocked roads, smashed windows at the London headquarters of the oil company Shell, and installed a bright pink boat by Oxford Circus. After ten days of protests, approximately 1,000 activists had been arrested and public opinion ranged from dismissal (the Daily Mail referred to the protestors as ‘eco-rabble’ bent on ruining bank holidays) to grudging approval.

In some ways, the emergence of a large, disruptive climate protest group seems overdue: scientists have known about global warming for over four decades, and while solutions and policy actions abound (carbon taxes, renewable energy development, reduced fossil fuel subsidies, etc.), global progress has fallen far short of where it needs to be. There seems to be a fundamental gulf between public need and political will, and it keeps widening.

At the same time, climate change has largely defied traditional modes of protest. Global in nature, it lacks specific perpetrators (although many protestors cite the approximately 20 fossil fuel companies behind a third of our cumulative carbon emissions) and also specific victims. While vulnerable citizens of developing countries will suffer and are already suffering the worst impacts of climate change, those impacts are translated through a complex web of extreme weather, diminishing agricultural yields, and other forms of environmental destabilization. The most obvious victims are future generations, whom we are steadily impoverishing through excessive fossil fuel use – but given real-time global inequality it has always been difficult to imagine protesters getting out of bed to advance intergenerational equity.

But after roughly three to four decades of public indifference punctuated by brief periods of global attention, climate activism is having a moment. Last October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report on the possibility of avoiding more than 1.5°C in warming. The report argued that to reach this 1.5°C goal, nations would have to make deep cuts in fossil fuel emissions by 2030; soon, “Twelve more years!” had become a rallying cry among activists around the world. In December, at the 24th international climate conference in Poland, a diminutive Swedish teenager in plaits named Greta Thunberg gave a speech to a small audience of journalists and policymakers, myself among them; by the spring she was an international celebrity.

Extinction Rebellion, or XR as it is commonly abbreviated, has ridden this wave of public attention onto the city streets. XR activists are an eclectic mix of pensioners, parents with families, and young people. They seem to run the gamut between far left-wing activists (XR’s founders, a group of academics and activists from Stroud, hope to achieve a radical, post-capitalist future) and average, environmentally friendly Britons. Their demands are simple, but, unlike those of the Occupy movement, they are also concrete. XR has asked the UK government to ‘tell the truth’ about climate change by declaring a climatological and ecological emergency, to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025, and finally, to create and host a ‘citizens’ assembly’ on climate change, representative of the demographics of the United Kingdom.

Startlingly, two of these demands have been successful. On 1 May, Parliament declared a climate and environmental emergency; in early November, the legislature sent out 30,000 invitations for a citizens’ assembly. One hundred and ten participants will ultimately be selected and gathered in Birmingham in early 2020. The final, remaining demand will be the likely sticking point. In June, the UK government under Theresa May set a net-zero target for 2050, 25 years later than that proposed by the XR activists. Many have argued that achieving net-zero by 2025 is a politically infeasible, if not physically impossible, goal.

One of the great accomplishments of the Extinction Rebellion has been the movement’s ability to put a global, diffuse issue in the face of Londoners. Most climate policymaking takes place at international climate summits attended by heads of state and career bureaucrats, painstakingly negotiating carbon credits and coal phase-outs. Such summits are about as accessible to the general public as a locked door. It is one thing to think abstractly about the future of climate change and wonder whether 10 Downing Street is doing anything about it; it’s another to address a protester standing atop a train on your morning commute.

The movement towards local, intimate forms of confrontation has been dubbed ‘folk politics’ by Nick Smicek and Alex Williams, who are Canadian and British academics, respectively. In their 2015 book, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and the Future of Work, Smicek and Williams argue that in the face of the ‘abstraction and inhumanity’ of contemporary forms of capitalism, political activists turn to familiar forms of left-wing action: strikes, marches, occupations. These movements, they argue, are an attempt to fight back against a system that eludes us; one without clear scapegoats or villains. Folk political thinking, they write, ‘attempts to give a human face to power; whereas what is truly terrifying is the generally a subjective nature of the system.’

Smicek and Williams are preoccupied with capitalism and neoliberalism as the ailments of modern society, but their analysis could just as easily applied to many other systemic problems that have attracted protest in recent decades: institutionalized racism or sexism, global inequality, and of course, climate change. Strikes and boycotts seem logical when aimed at the company or institution at fault, but what about when an issue reaches beyond simple boundaries? What happens when there’s no one specific to protest against? The ‘school strikes’ initiated by Greta Thunberg – now known worldwide as ‘Fridays for the Future’ – are emblematic of many forms of activism today, in which forms of protest originating from unions and old-school labor movements (the strike, the sit-in, the occupation) are replicated under the radically different conditions of the present. Some argue that these forms of action are fundamentally ill-equipped to face modern, complex problems. ‘This is politics transmuted into pastime,’ Smicek and Williams write, ‘rather than anything capable of transforming society.’

But while the authors of Inventing the Future are dismissive of folk-political action, others are

more optimistic about its possibilities. Mark and Paul Engler, authors of This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century Nation (2016), draw on the work of American sociologist Frances Piven to argue that nonviolent resistance is a strategic way for those who lack political or financial power to gain leverage. The representative-electoral pathways of democracy, according to Piven, are often ineffective means for righting wrongs. Citing the continued influence of money in politics, the systematic disenfranchisement of minority groups and the dominance of media conglomerates, Piven contends that civil disobedience and disruption is one of the only ways for ordinary people to bring issues to the forefront of public consciousness.

According to Piven and the Engler brothers, protests should be highlighted by three essential tactics: disruption, sacrifice and escalation. To attract media attention, participants mustnot only march, occupy, and speak: they must also actively break the rules of social decorum, upsetting the patterns of everyday life. For the Occupy Movement, that meant bringing a tent to Zucotti Park and refusing to leave; for Extinction Rebellion, it has meant protesters supergluing themselves to trains, chaining themselves to Jeremy Corbyn’s garden gate, and blocking key intersections in the city of London.

Disruption can be effective, but it is also risky. In October, two activists from Extinction Rebellion climbed atop a train at the Canning Town tube station during rush hour, prompting jeers from a waiting crowd of trapped commuters. A scuffle broke out between one protester and a man trying to pull him off the train; eventually the protester was dragged to the ground and beaten by several commuters. The watching crowd, frustrated and late for work, did little to intervene.

The Englers write, ‘The more that a protest directly affects members of the public, and the more itinterferes with an adversary’s ability to do business, the more likely it is to draw widespread attention’ and ultimately, sympathy. But when the adversary is amorphous, disruption can seem aimed at the citizenry itself – causing backlash.

At the moment, it is hard to say how much public support Extinction Rebellion has. According to the market research firm YouGov, in mid-October 53% of Britons polled opposed the movement, while approximately 36% approved and 10% were unsure. But mass movements rarely aim to change the views of opponents; instead, according to the Englers, they hope to mobilize existing, sympathetic groups into action.

The Extinction Rebellion still has momentum. Their logo, a sharp-lined hourglass within a circle – which the Guardian has dubbed ‘this generation’s peace sign’ – can be found plastered on commuters’ backpacks in London and chalked onto 800-year-old colleges in Oxford. In mid-October, after another week of occupation, the Metropolitan Police of London banned XR protests within the city and cleared activists from Trafalgar Square. But in early November the ban was overturned on judicial review; XR is now considering legal action against the Metropolitan Police, and preparing for the UK’s December general election.

The future is more uncertain. In the aftermath of the Occupy Movement, many argued that the protest had failed to produce any significant results. Smicek and Williams call Occupy a ‘failure’, due to its problematic internal structure and inability to articulate clear goals. But the movement certainly altered public discourse – ideas of ‘the 99%’ and ‘the 1%’ rippled throughout US politics, and almost all current Democratic presidential candidates cite income inequality as a critical policy issue. Four years ago, writer Michael Levitin argued in The Atlantic that Occupy has not disappeared – instead, it has ‘splintered and regrown into a variety of focused causes’, including campaigns for a higher minimum wage in many US states and a resurgent US labor movement.

Perhaps the true measure of a protest movement is how well it can ultimately transition into something else; something more tightly structured and responsive to political exigencies. At some point, marches and disruption must be replaced by more mainstream political institutions. XR has upended expectations for environmental protests, and has galvanized at least some political action in a Parliament splintered and divided by Brexit. But it remains on the fringes of society, battering against the mainstream. In March, XR activists, flanked by the prominent environmental writer George Monbiot, met in the Wesley Memorial Church in Oxford. A nearby table was covered in small prayer flags, painted with the hourglass logo. One speaker, an activist with long brown hair, displayed quotes by John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, and recounted the lack of action around the Paris Agreement. ‘The normal channels are not working,’ she said. ‘We believe that we need to rebel’.

SHANNON OSAKA just completed an MPhil in Geography at Worcester College. She does not endorse nepotism, except when it comes to her family.

Artwork by Isabella Lill.


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