In the Midst of the Coronavirus Lockdown, Environmental Lessons from Extinction Rebellion, One Year On

19.4.20

Extinction Rebellion’s ‘Tell the Truth’ boat in Oxford Circus on April 18, 2019, during a week-long occupation of sites in central London to raise awareness of the environmental catastrophe that is already underway, and the need for urgent change to combat it (Photo: Andy Worthington)..

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As we all continue to try to make sense of — and live with — the extraordinarily changed world in which we find ourselves, I’m reminded of what a different place we were in a year ago, and also how some of our insights from that time so desperately need to be remembered today.

One year ago, we were five days into Extinction Rebellion’s occupation of four sites in central London (Parliament Square, Waterloo Bridge, Oxford Circus and Marble Arch), which largely brought the traffic to a halt for a week, and enabled anyone paying attention to directly appreciate what a city not dominated by the choking fumes and noise of relentless traffic felt like, and what that, in turn, said about so many of capitalism’s priorities in a major capital city.

It was, to be blunt, something of revelation, as I explained in an article at the time, Extinction Rebellion’s Urgent Environmental Protest Breaks New Ground While Drawing on the Occupy, Anti-Globalisation and Road Protest Movements, in which I also related XR’s efforts to those of earlier protest movements, and noted how we had, it seemed, all become so accustomed to how loud and dirty London was, with its relentless traffic, the incessant din of its numerous building sites, and the lorries servicing those sites, which were the most unpleasant of all the vehicles incessantly filing our streets — other huge lorries, buses, taxis, white vans, and an inexplicable number of cars — that the sudden silence and clean air was astonishing.

As I explained in my article, when Extinction Rebellion’s occupation began, “I wasn’t sure that the ongoing intention of crashing the system through mass arrests, and waking people up to the need for change by disrupting their lives was going to work.” However, on return visits I saw something that “gave me hope that a genuine disruption to the system is possible.”

On April 18, to get to the Waterloo Bridge occupation, “I had cycled through a smog-shrouded London, making my way from my home in Lewisham, in south east London, over Southwark Bridge, through the City with its absurd and endlessly greedy building projects, and passing through Temple, where, with a few noble exceptions, lawyers have spent centuries protecting the wealthy, and no one has given a damn about the environment.”

I added, “All this changed as I reached Waterloo Bridge, normally hideously choked with heavy traffic, which was empty of all but cyclists and relieved pedestrians. As I approached the Waterloo end, there was a stage, various stalls providing food and information, people happily lounging around, and trees brought to the bridge by campaigners — and it wasn’t lost on anyone that, with no expenditure whatsoever, we now had a garden bridge without the insane amounts of money squandered on the ludicrous garden bridge vanity project that Boris Johnson had thrown his weight behind during his eight execrable years as London’s Mayor.”

Extinction Rebellion campaigners on Waterloo Bridge, having stopped traffic and re-claimed it as a “green bridge”, on April 17, 2019 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

As I also stated, “On Waterloo Bridge, everyone realised how pleasant London would be if there was, suddenly and permanently, signficantly less traffic. And it has been the same elsewhere in London as so many major roads have been shut down: most of Regent Street, much of Oxford Street, Marble Arch, Parliament Square.”

In conversations that I had on the people’s green bridge that Waterloo Bridge had suddenly become, I took to asking what all our hectic noisy pollution was actually in service of. Critics of the occupation made a big deal of discussing how it was obstructing buses taking people to work — not, apparently, noticing that all the other bridges were still open — but little else that was suddenly not on the roads appeared to be even remotely essential. Most significantly, it seemed to me, what had mainly shut down was unnecessary car use, on an insane scale, and an entire network of vehicles delivering — to give just one example — millions of corporate sandwiches, snacks and drinks, part of a network of petrol-guzzling recklessness that involves giant warehouses located up and down the country, the absurdity of which only became apparent when it was suddenly all switched off.

The coronavirus and the economic shutdown

Since the coronavirus lockdown began a month ago, what we glimpsed a year ago has now spread to almost the whole of our hectic, globe-trotting, and insanely environmentally destructive culture.

To start with, the horribly polluting cruise ship industry — whose monstrous ships plagued Greenwich every few weeks throughout the summer — has collapsed, and most of the airline industry is grounded — something that only the most extreme environmentalists wanted to see a year ago, as discussions took place about how often a year it would be acceptable to take a flight. Furthermore, the roads are almost empty, as most shops are now shut, and the upshot of all this is a huge drop in pollution. Clean air abounds, and bird song is ringing out everywhere.

Obviously, none of this is sustainable in the long run. Millions of people have suddenly been made unemployed, and, while the government has committed billions of pounds to supporting them, profound and irreparable damage will end up being done to the economy — to say nothing of people’s mental health, and their very lives if they are trapped in abusive relationships — if the lockdown continues for months.

However, while those who learn nothing from history, and don’t even want to, are salivating at the prospect of resurrecting the pre-coronavirus world in its entirety as soon as is possible, that would clearly be deranged, as the problems identified by Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg and numerous other climate activists and experts are just as severe now as they were a year ago.

The culture that our leaders love, and that so many people have bought into, is an environmental disaster. Having tourism as the planet’s number one business is unsustainable, as are our patterns of consumption — a “fast fashion” clothes industry that is environmentally destroying vulnerable eco-systems around the world, a food industry that is also insanely environmentally destructive, and a building industry that is also massively responsible for catastrophic climate change. Check out a good analysis of major polluters here, and this Guardian article about how polluters are being bailed out (and another here).

How do we get to where we need to be?

So the big question, as countries begin contemplating how to ease the lockdown, weeks or months from now, is how we can somehow prevent the entire pre-virus world of mad over-consumption and deranged self-entitlement from picking up where it left off on our suicidal dash to environmental destruction.

Our politicians, sadly, are almost all likely to betray us, given that we tend to alternate between one major party of another, both of which are fatally wedded to the status quo, and to doing everything in their power to appease huge and powerful corporate interests.

In addition, the mainstream media are also almost entirely useless, as we can see from their coverage of the crisis, with very little space — if any — given to forensic analyses of what it means for the future of our reckless, suicidal culture.

However, I suspect that the virus itself might provide a brake on the return of “business as usual”, given that there is no magic wand that can be waved that will result in the creation of an instant and effective vaccine. Even if one is developed — and it may be a big if — its arrival is not imminent, leaving us with an ongoing situation in which “social distancing” of some sort is likely to have to remain in place for some time, wreaking havoc with airlines, cruise ships, the tourist industry, and all manner of sporting and entertainment events.

Shops can probably re-open, with “social distancing” in place, and offices too, but the notion that the whole of the pre-virus world can be magically revived looks extremely unlikely, and if that’s the case then opportunities not only exist to put forward cases for alternative way of operating, but necessity will dictate that those discussions have to take place.

When so many aspects of our economy rely on both a huge number of consumers, and, simultaneously, the massive exploitation of workers, change will have to come as demand will inevitably struggle to recover, with so many millions of people having lost their incomes for a period of many months.

With demand down, the furious exploitation of workers — in “fast fashion” around the world, in just-in-time food production, in hospitality and entertainment both at home and abroad, to name just a few sectors of the economy — will, surely, no longer be tenable, leading, I hope, to two particular outcomes: prices kept artificially low will have to rise, and rents kept artificially high will have to drop.

I’ll leave you to work out how both of those outcomes play out across the economy, but, in conclusion, to return to Extinction Rebellion and the environmental crisis that is already underway, don’t forget that this pause in human activity is already the most significant brake on catastrophic climate change that we’ve seen in our lifetimes, and don’t also forget that, in response to XR, Greta Thunberg, and the increasingly vocal and doom-laden warnings of scientists, governments and local governments scrambled to declare “climate emergencies” last year, to show how clued-up they were — although these promises then ended up looking monstrously hollow, as they were, essentially, followed by no action.

If we don’t come out of this with an even greater appetite for necessary changes to our idiotic behaviour, in order to safeguard our very future, and to have some chance of preventing an unthinkable and imminent environmental catastrophe, I might have to conclude that we deserve everything that is coming our way.

However, I hope that meltdown can be avoided, and that we take advantage of the pause that the coronavirus has so forcefully imposed on our hectic rush to self-gratifying self-destruction, not, lazily and self-righteously, to try to resume where we left off, but, for once, to actually learn some important lessons about who we are, why we are not as clever as we think we are, and why we urgently need to change direction before it really is too late.

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and see the latest photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (click on the following for Amazon in the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or here for the US, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.55), and for his photo project ‘The State of London’ he publishes a photo a day from seven years of bike rides around the 120 postcodes of the capital.

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and he also set up ‘No Social Cleansing in Lewisham’ as a focal point for resistance to estate destruction and the loss of community space in his home borough in south east London. For two months, from August to October 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody. Although the garden was violently evicted by bailiffs on October 29, 2018, and the trees were cut down on February 27, 2019, the resistance continues.

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, The Complete Guantánamo Files, the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

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35 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    One year ago, Extinction Rebellion activists (myself included) occupied several sites in central London, bringing traffic to a halt, in an environmental precursor to what the collapse of “business as usual” currently looks like under the coronavirus lockdown.

    In my latest article, I look back on those protests a year ago, and ask how we can make sure that, in the weeks and months to come, as the crisis passes and the lockdown is eased, we don’t simply return to the suicidally irresponsible consumer culture that existed until just a month ago, which was speeding us towards environmental destruction.

    I hope it provides some food for thought, in the general absence of a focus in the mainstream media on what the world should look like after coronavirus, and what lessons we urgently need to learn to avoid simply returning to where we were when the virus arrived, and to avoid the impending environmental catastrophe that, of course, hasn’t gone away.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalya Wolf wrote:

    I can’t believe every day becomes more nightmare, more oppressive, more sick …

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Hang on in there, Natalya. Thinking of you, my friend. I’m sorry that so many of us are being let down by such chronically inept leaders – Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Jair Bolsonaro are three who particularly spring to mind.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Natalya Wolf wrote:

    Thank you Andy … I know I am not alone

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re definitely not, Natalya. Those of us not blinded by the idiocy have long been a global community, drawn together despite being separated by geography.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Patrick Lyons wrote:

    The two are connected.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Patrick. Good to hear from you.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Anna Giddings wrote:

    Thank you, Andy.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re welcome, Anna. Thanks for your interest.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Strain wrote:

    This is the time to plan for that future. The old way doesn’t work as proven by the very pandemic we are in and the poor response to it as well as the statistical relevance of the high percentage of those of color, those in poverty and the aged. We see openly and glaringly the oppression and abuse of human rights.

    This time is for planning – the best thing we can do. What the hell else do we have to lose except our lives and liberty?

    There needs to be a storm of humanity falling on the heads of those who diddled as people died; those who gutted the institutions charged with caring for the people; and those who profited of the misery off those very same people.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, well said, Jan. Our leaders have been useless, their bailouts intended primarily to provide more free loot to the corporate looters, and yet we’re supposed to know our place, and sit idly by as they resurrect the deranged economic model that got us into this mess in the first place, and that is driving us to extinction, and then thank them as we come out of it with who knows how many jobs lost forever, and an untold number of people consigned to penury who, previously, were at least just about managing to get by.

    There really should be a lot more anger than there is – or maybe there really is, but it appears not to be because this is the first time in supposedly “free” countries that we haven’t been been able to gather in significant numbers to show our outrage. I fear that although there are many of us who are implacably angry, far too many other people have been co-opted to accept that “stay at home” means “don’t ask questions.”

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Heather Gilmore wrote:

    How about a general strike led by frontline workers & mutual aid centres expand to provide for strikers? Rent strikes, fuel payment strikes. Squatting buildings & arable land. The establishment cares nothing for anything that doesn’t involve expanding their wallets and sycophantic praise of their power.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    It’s difficult to see how a general strike could happen when every narrative is encouraging us to be powerless, Heather – to trust our leaders, or at least not to criticise them until “afterwards”, to stay at home passively to allow the NHS to save lives, and not even to think about, say, going to a park and safely engaging in a spot of isolated sunbathing, because apparently that makes you into a murderer.

    But I would hope that all the dispossessed will find a way to come together when the lockdown eases – those in jobs that will have been airbrushed out of history, in entertainment and hospitality, those sunk into outrageous debt because the landlords have been protected while the workers have been hurled onto the scant mercies of Universal Credit. I can’t see how there aren’t going to be millions of losers at the end of this.

    Another route might be to try and rally behind support for the NHS that is more generous than what the Tories will try and wriggle their way out of when they think they can get away with it. Since they got in in 2010, I thought the NHS might provide the key to a successful opposition, but somehow it never happened. If it doesn’t happen after this, there’s surely no hope for any of us, is there?

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Damien Morrison wrote:

    It’s funny there are some benefits to the lockdown.. The space the peace and quiet the sweeter air.. It’s a grim time but it’s in a way like a holiday from the daily grind.. Going back to normal back to the way things were…. The destructive MADNESS. Led by destructive mad so called leaders.. It’s like a holiday away from the hassle and struggle of trying to keep your head above water and staying sane in that society that grim rat race.. Where we know due to how it’s rigged that all most of us can do is frantically tread water, we’re not living we’re drowning slowly.. The thought of a return to how things were all that pressure.. Makes not just me but lots of people feel sick.. Sick in the pit of our stomachs.. It’s a paradox the horror of this virus and all the deaths..yet at the same time it’s given us a taste of freedom

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, absolutely, Damien. The freedom from that pressure is extremely significant – the pressure, for some, to screw over as many people as possible, for others to manically spend all their days trying to show off, to try to show their worth, to give just a couple of examples. I think a lot of people are taking deep breaths and wondering what the hell it was all about. Did you know, for example, that in an average city centre context in London, the noise was so loud on a permanent basis that, in a domestic context, your neighbours would be calling the police round to shut you down.

    Or to put it another way, via Erica Walker, a public-health researcher at Boston University, in a fascinating article in the Atlantic:

    “Before the coronavirus pandemic, the acoustic environment in Kenmore Square [in Boston], a busy intersection near campus, is usually about 90 decibels during rush hour. Yesterday, Walker’s rush-hour readings were just under 68 decibels. (For comparison, a subway train rumbling past nearby registers at 95 decibels — the level at which chronic exposure could result in impaired hearing — and the sound of normal conversation is 60 to 70 decibels.) In some spots in the Fenway Park area, where Walker has studied noise pollution for several years through her program Noise and the City, her latest data show reductions close to 30 decibels. ‘It’s unbelievably a huge difference,’ Walker said.”

    See: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2020/04/coronavirus-pandemic-earth-pollution-noise/609316/

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Damien Morrison wrote:

    Andy it’s not just the noise it’s the pressure.. It’s about trying to survive.. It’s about the constant robbing Peter to pay Paul.. The juggling all the time.. Juggling the debt collectors the benefits system what can I not pay for this week so I can eat.. That shit.. The noise of the city is the last thing people are worried about you get used to that.. It’s everything else.. It’s about survival

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I’m sorry if I drifted off-topic, Damien. What you were pointing out is much more significant than decibels. Unfortunately, though, a lot of people are under more pressure than they were before, those suddenly made unemployed and trying to get Universal Credit, those with creditors breathing down their necks because they’d had to accrue debts while trying to build a career – particular applicable to a lot of creative people, I think. This was a bit of an insight: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/17/coronavirus-finances-personal-debt-out-of-control

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    On the environmental front, I see that Richard Branson is renewing his call for a £500m loan to bail out Virgin Atlantic, his airline, which was turned down by the government. Branson, to be fair, said, “This would be in the form of a commercial loan – it wouldn’t be free money and the airline would pay it back”, but as critics have pointed out, he “has paid the exchequer no personal income tax since moving to the tax free British Virgin Islands 14 years ago”, which, to my mind, should make him ineligible for financial support, as with every other business owner seeking financial assistance who personally avoids paying tax.
    See: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/apr/20/richard-branson-renews-virgin-plea-for-coronavirus-support

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    And this is surely extremely important as the furlough scheme comes into play – today – with employers able to claim 80% of the wages of workers whose jobs are frozen while the lockdown lasts.
    Explainer here: https://www.itv.com/news/2020-04-20/how-does-the-covid-19-furlough-scheme-work/

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Damien Morrison wrote, in response to 17, above:

    This system is rigged for people’s personal debts to become out of control.. Especially the poorest they are set up to fail to become entrapped in debt cycles.. Like we discussed before.. Vulture capitalism.. We cannot have the system going back to before.. The whole thing needs to be brought down.. All off it.. It’s all about control

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    I think there’s a conscious element to the “vulture capitalism”, Damien, but I also think that the system was initially set up primarily to punish the “undeserving poor”, that nasty Victorian belief that the current Tories love so much, and also to cut costs as part of their “age of austerity.” Whichever way we look at it, though, it’s a system of horrible cruelty.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Damien Morrison wrote:

    Yes it’s a vile system the poor must be punished the funny thing look at a.. BUM.. Like Boris it had never done a days work till it was over 40.. I mean look at the Cameron osborne lazy idle indolent upperclass.. Bums.. They are the undeserving rich

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Absolutely, Damien – and yet so many people don’t see it. It’s so horrible that people trying to convey a message about the need for solidarity amongst the 99% being screwed over can’t compete with a message of self-interest and despising others that the right-wing media have been pumping out at people since Thatcher’s time. It doesn’t say much for the human spirit, I have to say.

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Heather Gilmore wrote, in response to 13, above:

    Andy, let’s see what they do. I reckon they’ll give health workers an insulting bonus (& a badge of course) then back to business as usual. The negotiations will continue with private health providers – perhaps they’ll stock up with PPE & tests ready for the next wave – who knows. I cannot see how we are going to turn this around without taking mass drastic action ourselves. Obviously, not now. Maybe when they have got the vaccine out there. Could be at least a year. It’s not gonna be pretty whatever happens.

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    Your comments made me realise how important it is that there’s some sort of “all clear” to allow people to mobilise, Heather. I don’t think we can force any kind of change online, even if the will exists to do so. That’s why I think we need to do as much taking as possible toward out exactly what;’s going on, and what we want to see, given that the mainstream media will almost certainly not be helping us very much.

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    Zoe Young wrote, in response to 18, above:

    Denmark and Poland are refusing to bail out companies based in tax havens. Sensible enough.

  27. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, that’s absolutely what needs to happen, Zoe. Is anyone making any noise about it here in the UK?

  28. Andy Worthington says...

    Neil McKenna wrote:

    Another Angry Voice has posted about it.

  29. Andy Worthington says...

  30. Andy Worthington says...

    The academic and researcher Richard Murphy published a good post about it yesterday, stating:

    “I have made it clear that I think it is reasonable for the government to apply conditions to the bailout funding it supplies including:

    – An end to tax haven links;
    – Publishing country-by-country reporting for tax;
    – Better tax governance to end use of any known tax avoidance mechanisms;
    – Adopting better environmental standards;
    – Setting net-zero carbon targets;
    – Recognising unions;
    – Tackling gender pay inequality;
    – Paying real living wages.

    I think society has a right to expect a return that is more than just financial from the support it supplies.”

    See: https://www.taxresearch.org.uk/Blog/2020/04/21/question-of-the-day-should-we-bail-out-companies-that-use-tax-havens/

  31. Andy Worthington says...

    This from Tax Justice UK:

    Tax Justice UK Executive Director, Robert Palmer, said, “The UK should follow Denmark and Poland’s lead and exclude tax haven companies from coronavirus relief. Companies that seek to dodge their obligations to society by cutting their tax bills shouldn’t expect a bailout when things go wrong. The UK should ensure that all bailouts come with conditions to ensure good business behaviour. After the crisis we need a new deal between business and government to ensure that all companies contribute properly, including by paying their fair share of tax. Bailouts should be accompanied by reassurances for workers on furlough that they’ll still be supported.”

    See: https://www.taxjustice.uk/blog/there-should-be-no-bailouts-for-tax-haven-companies

  32. Andy Worthington says...

    And the High Pay Centre published a briefing paper about a month ago that also looks good. Their press release was entitled, “Conditions are critical: publicly-funded bail-outs for private companies”, and began by stating, “Government bail-outs of large businesses affected by the coronavirus must include social and environmental conditions including fair pay, fair tax contributions and worker representation on company boards.”

    See: http://highpaycentre.org/pubs/conditions-are-critical-publicly-funded-bail-outs-for-private-companies

  33. Andy Worthington says...

    George Turner, the director of Tax Watch UK, wrote an article for the Guardian on March 27, in which he quoted the Italian journalist Fabio Fazio saying, “It has become evident that those who do not pay their taxes are not only guilty of a crime, but of murder: if the beds and the respirators are not there they are partly to blame.”
    See: https://www.theguardian.com/world/commentisfree/2020/mar/27/tax-avoiders-coronavirus-bailouts

  34. Andy Worthington says...

    And here’s the peer and former Green Party leader Natalie Bennett writing in Left Foot Forward. On the issue of tax avoiders – and not specifically those seeking bailout money from governments – I particularly like that she describes Amazon as “the Great Parasite”, and notes that “on the road outside your house today there was almost certainly a van carrying parcels for Amazon and you contributed to the cost of that road. Amazon did not.”
    See: https://leftfootforward.org/2020/04/natalie-bennett-why-should-taxpayers-bailout-tax-dodgers/

  35. Eurasia Review: Coronavirus And Meltdown Of Construction Industry: Bloated, Socially Oppressive And Environmentally Ruinous – OpEd | FBI Reform says...

    […] our carbon emissions to zero, and, in response, the activism of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion helped to persuade central governments and local governments to piously declare “climate […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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