Author: Celine Barclay
Walking round tents pitched on the most polluted road in Manchester, I looked up and saw the traffic lights turn from red to green. But there were no cars. The irony of the moment struck me- instead of inviting the usual belch of car exhaust fumes, the changing of the lights signaled a truly “green” movement: the occupation of Deansgate by Extinction Rebellion.
Last Sunday I joined my family on a shopping trip into the centre of Manchester only half conscious of the Extinction Rebellion protest happening that weekend. What could have been a day browsing the shops quickly turned into quite the opposite. My diversion from the shops symbolically achieved the turn away from the excessive consumption which Extinction Rebellion insists must be halted if we are to avoid a climate disaster. More explicitly, they protested against the exploitative impact of fast fashion by staging a “die-in” outside Primark. Each of the five “die-ins” some of which targeted banks for their investment in fossil fuels, involved protesters lying as though dead on the floor to represent looming species extinction.
The tone was not unbendingly morbid however; Deansgate was very much alive with the sounds of reggae, impassioned speakers and the smell of free Vegan food enjoyed by those drawn to the event. A highlight was the invitation of a man from an Amazonian tribe onto the main stage. He sang and lead us in a traditional dance inspired by the Boa constrictor which creates spirals of huge symbolic significance for his people. Instructed to form a line by putting our hands on the shoulders of the person in front, we were to “avoid breaking the chain at all costs”. Such a mantra surely rings true for global climate action also? The dance only took shape through collective participation, an elegant analogy for the collective not individual actions that are required to enact radical changes to our approach to climate change.
Whilst one can praise the symbolism of the protests and the evident enjoyment of the participants, what can be said for the success of the methods pursued by Extinction Rebellion? Many fear that their disruptive methods alienate people otherwise sympathetic to the cause rather than rally them round it. In Manchester the responses were generally positive-many saw the pedestrianization of the road as more of a positive than an inconvenience. When asked by my grandparents whether ‘those protests’ caused any trouble, my dad replied that that in fact they made the dreaded trip to the centre much more pleasant! Who can deny the benefits of the cleaner air, safety and relative calm of a pedestrianized main road?
There were inevitably negative responses- a headline announcing that a “Restaurant 'lost £7,000 in business' last night” or an disgruntled tweet about protestors being “a load of hypocrites creating massive traffic jams and large clouds of exhaust gasses. total toss pots." It is a shame that the press should should focus on such a minor aspect of an overwhelmingly positive event for the sake of scandalising its readers. The true scandal lies in the weak accusations of hypocrisy against a movement that is doing its very best to address the system that makes such hypocrisy unavoidable.
Those wishing to drown out Extinction Rebellion’s message resort to undermining the methods of communicating it. The fact that protestors decided to use a diesel generator to power their main stage instead of a solar panel is the type of logistical detail leapt upon by opponents of the movement. But as the organisers of the ‘Northern Rebellion’ pointed out, transporting the solar technology from London would have used 60 L of fuel, three times more fuel than was used by the diesel generator over the course of the 4 days. Another solar panel for the event would have cost £8000, money they simply didn’t have. This individual example typifies the catch 22 situation which our current system forces us to operate within. At the moment, sustainable choices are simply not viable. Coming clean about the use of a diesel generator therefore expounded rather than undermined their aims by proving the need to overhaul a system naturally geared towards damaging the environment.
From a broader perspective, regardless of whether the media attention is positive or negative, there is a sense in which “there is no such thing as bad publicity” when it comes to Extinction Rebellion. Regardless of whether “Extinction Rebellion” appears alongside words of praise or disparagement, the very ubiquity of the group’s name is a success in itself. Thanks to the disruption caused by protesters, climate change is increasingly framed in the urgent, apocalyptic terms connoted by the name of their organisation. This linguistic shift may seem insignificant but a discourse of urgency will precipitate the urgency of action required to tackle climate change.
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