Last month, more than 1,000 activists were arrested during climate protests in London. What went wrong? Nothing at all; in fact, getting arrested was Extinction Rebellion’s goal all along.
During the 10-day protest, the environmental group blockaded many central parts of the city. Activists glued themselves to trains, buses, and each other. They also staged a “die-in”, lying underneath a giant whale skeleton at the Natural History Museum, to raise awareness about species extinction.
Extinction Rebellion’s co-founder, Roger Hallam, said the protest was the biggest organised civil disobedience movement in British history.
In his only interview with Hong Kong media to date, Hallam spoke to Young Post about why he thinks getting people arrested is actually one of the best ways to raise awareness about the climate crisis, and bring about real change.
“In one sentence, Extinction Rebellion organises non-violent civil disobedience movements to get effective government action on our climate and ecological emergencies,” says Hallam.
The 52-year-old is a former PhD student who studied civil disobedience at King’s College, London. He founded the organisation last October along with a group of scientists.
Hallam had his first taste of activism at the age of 14, when he took part in the peace movements of the 1980s in Britain against nuclear weapons. He turned his attention to the climate crisis after experiencing its devastating effects first-hand.
“Twelve years ago, I owned a small organic farm in Wales,” says Hallam. “It rained every day for seven weeks, which destroyed all my crops. I went bankrupt.”
His personal experience led him to realise that our lack of “emotional arousal” is holding back efforts to fight the climate crisis.
“Climate change has barely been an issue in Britain and around the world during the last 30 years, because there’s not much happening now that will lead to emotional disruptions – where people get upset and angry,” he explains. “People tend not to listen to logical arguments; they change when things in their lives are not going well.”
Just like the non-violent protests led by activists Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr, Hallam believes direct action campaigns are the best way to get the government’s attention.
“We don’t want people to break the law just for the sake of breaking the law,” he says. “People are willing to get arrested because that’s a proven way of pressurising governments to change track on this universal issue.”
He adds that this approach is not dissimilar to that of 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg, who is encouraging students to break the rules by striking from school.
Hallam has had his own brushes with the law; earlier this month, he and another activist were tried in court for vandalism. Hallam had spray painted “Divest from oil and gas” on the walls of King’s College London, to protest the university’s multimillion pound investment in fossil fuels.
“For years, students have marched around campus, sent out letters – none of which has been effective,” he says. “However, after our direct action campaign … there was a lot of emotional reaction from people at the university. In the end, the university agreed to completely divest from fossil fuels by 2020 and become carbon neutral by 2025.”
He adds that the jury used their “common sense” and cleared both activists of all charges.
“The jury accepted our necessity defence, where you can cause disruption to prevent a greater disruption, and gave us a unanimous, not guilty verdict.”
“Direct action creates the upset here and now by bringing reality to the streets, and having 1,000 people arrested led to the government’s decision to declare a climate emergency,” he says.
“We won’t be able to protect the next generation’s rights to continued existence if we use ‘safer’ methods,” Hallam concludes. “Creating social change is [about] reaching a tipping point where the government can’t ignore it any longer.”