Yesterday Extinction Rebellion (XR) began their latest week of action in the centre of London. I was there with the kids, joining the crowd in Trafalgar Square for the launch and giving out stickers. We marched from there up Charing Cross Road, although it turned out that the march was really something of a decoy to keep the police looking the other way. While that was happening, activists blocked a junction in Covent Garden and erected an enormous pink table. When it was ready and the junction was secured, the march turned and joined them.
Our own involvement was somewhat curtailed. We ducked out of the crowd to do my daughter’s insulin jab before lunch, and when we came back the police had encircled the junction. Nobody was allowed in, and so it remained for the rest of the day.
I have debated the role of XR in 2021. It’s going to be impossible to re-capture the energy of 2018 and the breakthrough declaration of the UK’s net zero target by 2050 – not what XR were demanding, but a very clear response nonetheless. To my mind, it was worth pivoting towards supporting those targets and ratcheting up ambition, which we then saw in the sweep of localised targets, many of which chose dates earlier than 2050. That’s was XR Luton’s experience, and our job now is to hold the council accountable to those good intentions. What would big disruptive actions achieve at this point?
There are a couple of reasons why I still support XR and their London rebellion this week. First of all, the movement can serve as the country’s conscience on climate change. Since the announcement of that climate target, the government has authorised new coal mines and new gas fields in the North Sea. It continues to wave through airport expansions and boasts about the billions it is spending on new roads. We are yet to see concrete policies for delivering on that climate target, and there are constant efforts to undermine them from the back benches, the think tanks and the Conservative leaning press.
In such a context, the theatre of an Extinction Rebellion protest is a way of keeping up the pressure, of reminding people that the climate crisis is only getting worse while we dither. And it is theatre remember – it is colourful noise, signifying urgency and alarm, but also life and joy.
Secondly, Extinction Rebellion is a prophetic voice in the climate change conversation. I mean that in the sense that the theologian Walter Brueggeman describes prophecy. In his view, the role of the prophet is not to foretell the future, but to critique the dominant power in ways that open up hopeful alternatives.
The important thing is to poke holes in the stories the powerful tell, and open up unthinkable possibilities. There is no need to have all the answers. As Brueggeman writes: “The prophet does not ask if the vision can be implemented, for questions of implementation are of no consequence until the vision can be imagined… It is the vocation of the prophet to keep alive the ministry of imagination, to keep on conjuring and proposing futures alternative to the single one the king wants to urge as the only thinkable one.”
As a theologian, Brueggeman explains this through the Old Testament prophets, hence the reference to ‘the king’ above. But this prophetic imagination is in my view not limited to Bible times, Christianity or even to religion. Voices that puncture the dominant narrative of the day can come from anywhere, and Greta Thunberg’s influence is powerfully prophetic despite not coming from a faith perspective.
To give a specific example of how Extinction Rebellion can be prophetic, consider yesterday’s action. The instructions to protestors were to ‘come to Trafalgar Square and bring a chair’. When we got to the protest site, those chairs were arranged around that enormous pink table, which was painted with the phrase ‘come to the table’.*
Why ‘come to the table’? XR explained it this way: “As floods, fire and famine break out around the world, it is clear that climate breakdown is here now, and there is no choice left now but to take urgent action. Everyone deserves a seat at the table to have a say in how to tackle the greatest crisis of our times.”
Everyone does not have a seat at the table. Climate policy is not made in consultation with those affected, who are often on the other side of the world from where emissions most need to be cut. Nationally, the government has made no attempt to create an inclusive conversation around climate change. On the other hand, fossil fuel lobbyists and big corporations all get their say. The story of the world’s response to climate change is littered with policies watered down or abandoned after pressure from those who benefit from the status quo.
Even at the United Nations, a recurring theme of international climate talks is who has been locked out this time. The Copenhagen talks were finalised by just five countries in a back room and announced to the surprise of everyone else. The meeting was adjourned without allowing them to respond, leading representatives (led by Venezuela’s Claudia Salerno) to bang their name plates on the desks in protest. In the Bonn talks civil society groups were unexpectedly excluded from talks. In Paris the chair of the Least Developed Countries Group had to repeatedly talk his way past security on the way into meetings he had every right to attend.
The big table then, is a powerful symbol. It says that everyone’s perspective matters, that climate change needs everyone’s participation and all views should be considered. It celebrates democracy and participative decision making. It is welcoming – it’s a dining table, not a boardroom table. You sit around it as equals, as family. You will be fed. At the foot of it yesterday, I passed a man serving curry, free of charge to all comers, from a coolbox on a cargo bike.
It is not at XR’s big table that climate change will be solved. That is not its role. It is there as a statement, a provocation. It asks ‘what if?’ It invites us to imagine a world where the climate crisis is addressed with justice and inclusion, and it insists that we can do better.
That is prophetic. It is necessary and it is beautiful, and that is why I’ll be back to London later this week.
*Prophetic imagination can operate without religion, but people of faith are often at the heart of Extinction Rebellion actions and yesterday was no exception. In order for the crowds to ‘come to the table’, someone has to secure the table from being dismantled by the police. That involves the highly sacrificial act of locking your arms to the structure. It will end in your arrest, after you have been cut free with a angle grinder.
If you look closely at the picture above, at the foot of the front left leg of the table, that smiling man in black is Reverend Tim Hewes. Opposite him and also locked on are members of XR Quakers and friends of mine from Christian Climate Action (for whom I edited the book Time to Act).