Whether you were personally caught up in the protests or not, April’s Extinction Rebellion events were impossible to avoid. The activist group successfully shut down central London for 11 days and the government called a 'climate emergency'. Since then, Extinction Rebellion has remained firmly in the headlines thanks to protests up and down the country. This week, as part of the group’s 'Summer Uprising', they staged five days of non-violent disruption in London, Glasgow, Cardiff, Bristol and Leeds.
In tonight's new BBC documentary, Extinction Rebellion: Last Chance to Save the World? journalist Ben Zand goes behind the scenes with the protest group and follows three young people in the four months leading up to the 15th April event. "Scientists say we only have 11 years to act", the headlines read, and Extinction Rebellion (founded in 2018 and known as XR) has radical plans to ensure we do so. "We’re organising a mass civil disobedience event. A rebellion against the British government and its inaction on the climate emergency," Roger Hallam, the leader of the group, tells Ben. "We’re resisting against radical evil. If we don’t, we fail and we die."
The group’s demands on the government are threefold: announce a climate emergency, reduce greenhouse emissions to net zero by 2025 and create a Citizens Assembly for climate justice. The aim of the rebellion is clear: as many arrests as possible. "If 1,000 people get arrested, that’s a major political event," Roger comments.
While Roger, a man in his 50s, has dedicated much of his life to activism, XR is largely made up of young people, many of whom have never protested before. First we meet Dani from south London, a 16-year-old who has seen firsthand the effects of climate change in her home country of Peru. Since joining XR last year she’s been integral in organising school strikes, a key element of the movement. "It’s been a big wakeup call. I’m terrified and I need to take action now," she says. While her mother worries about her missing school, Dani prioritises the protests. "I would be willing to pause my education." As she makes a galvanising speech to fellow school strikers in central London, it’s impressive to see how passionate Generation Z activists really are.
Eighteen-year-old Jack, who Ben meets at the second big school strike, is similarly dedicated. It’s uncomfortable viewing, seeing Jack and a group of children stop traffic in Trafalgar Square and battle with the police, but after a number of arrests Jack isn't worried, just energised.
As the documentary highlights, XR isn’t only about one-off events like the school strikes or the April rebellion but consistent everyday action. Ben meets up with Sam, a 22-year-old graduate working full time for the movement, as he joins protestors glueing themselves to the doors of a London hotel holding a fossil fuel conference. Sam is charged by the police for aggravated trespassing and criminal damage; back at XR HQ he reveals to Ben that he spent 16 hours in a cell. As the pair joke about his time in prison, it’s clear to see why the movement has come under criticism for whitewashing climate change. Sam’s privilege within the justice system as a white middle class graduate is strikingly obvious.
The documentary does not tackle the issue of race but Ben isn’t afraid to ask questions about whether it's right to encourage impressionable young people to break the law. "You are underestimating their intelligence and knowledge," Sam argues. It also asks whether the group should be protesting against climate change without offering up any practical solutions. "Our role is to create the disruption and persuade the government and the nation that the next generation will die if we don’t make radical change," Roger responds.
As 15th April arrives, Ben heads to central London and sees firsthand the commitment of protestors and the mass disruption they’ve caused. "We’ve been protesting peacefully for 30 years and it hasn't worked. I don't want to do this but I'm terrified," a man locked under a lorry on Waterloo Bridge explains. Beyond the main protests, we see additional action across the city. Dani and a group of friends head to the fast fashion shops on Oxford Street to protest against the 300,000 tonnes of clothes that are burned or buried each year in the UK.
By the time the 11 days are up, Roger’s target of 1,000 arrests has been met and XR has been spoken about in parliament. At the protest finale, thousands turn up to see guest speaker Greta Thunberg, and the sense of optimism is moving.
However, the documentary rightly questions how much of a difference XR has actually made to the climate change crisis. Sam meets with Claire Perry, minister of state at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, but leaves despondent that the government will make any significant change. In May, the government did call a climate emergency (the first of XR’s demands) but by June it was revealed that the UK isn’t on track to meet emissions targets by 2025. It’s clear there’s still work to do but with protests at Heathrow in the pipeline and another rebellion planned for the autumn, Extinction Rebellion doesn’t appear to be slowing down.
Extinction Rebellion: Last Chance To Save The World? is on BBC One on Wednesday 17th July at 10.35pm