On Tuesday, Marble Arch — the London monument just off Oxford Street — was a world away from its usual environment of roaring traffic and tourists. Instead, the grassy area by the 19th-century arch was covered in a sea of tents while the road by it, normally teaming with cars, was blocked off. In the midst of the road was a tent in which volunteers were preparing the ingredients for a curry, swirling them in a large pot.
Tuesday marked the eighth day that ‘Extinction Rebellion’ climate protesters held the central London spot, having been ousted from other locations across the British capital. They were later moved out from there, but their “rebellion” continues.
The rise of ‘Extinction Rebellion’ has been meteoric: it was launched in October last year, when hundreds came together for the announcement of a “declaration of rebellion” against the British government, demanding “concrete action” on the ecological crisis.
“We are in the sixth mass extinction event and we will face catastrophe if we do not act swiftly and robustly,” read the declaration. The movement’s symbol is now well known — a circle (representing the world) with an hourglass inside it (representing the time that is running out for many species).
The truth on climate
The movement has three demands: the government should “tell the truth” by declaring a climate and ecological emergency; it should act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2025; and it should create a “citizens assembly” to find solutions to the ecological crisis.
In November last year, protesters occupied five bridges, while one activist glued herself to the gates of Parliament. In April, at the height of the tense debates over Brexit within the House of Commons, a group of protesters stripped down to their underwear and glued themselves to the glass of the public viewing gallery overlooking the chamber.
The movement has brought together people from across the country — from students to retirees to academics and even the occasional celebrity. Among those to have signalled their support are actor Emma Thompson, author Philip Pullman, and Etienne Stott, a British Olympic gold medallist who was arrested at one of the group’s protests last week.
The movement has coincided with a wider campaign for radical action on climate change. In February, thousands of children from schools across the U.K. joined a strike to draw attention of people to the failure of the government to act on climate change — an action kicked off by the Swedish student Greta Thunberg.
In London this week, Ms. Thunberg addressed the activists. “For way too long the politicians and people in power have gotten away with doing nothing at all. We have chosen the path we want to take and we are waiting for the others to follow our example,” she said.
Over the last two weeks, the group’s activities have stepped up a level to “bring London to a standstill” by taking over high-profile locations — from Oxford Circus to Heathrow Airport and some of London’s bridges. They were evicted from all of them. Several activists even glued themselves to the fence of Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s home, insisting that the party’s policies aren’t radical enough.
Over 1,000 people were arrested over the course of the week — part of the group’s strategy of seeking volunteers willing to be arrested. They have insisted that the action will continue until the government concedes to their demands.
The movement has certainly brought climate change, for a long while overshadowed by the Brexit impasse, to the forefront of the political debate. In a striking intervention, Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, and François Villeroy de Galhau, his French counterpart, co-authored an article in The Guardian, warning financial institutions of the existential risks posed to them if they fail to tackle climate change. “It is no wonder people are disrupting the traffic and schoolchildren are striking,” former Labour leader Ed Miliband said this week. “The only credible answer of democratic politics in response to these protests is to admit that we need to raise our game and show we can act.”
Vidya Ram is The Hindu’s London correspondent