Photos and Report: Extinction Rebellion and 200 Other Groups “Unite to Survive”, Building a Movement Despite Mainstream Media Indifference

29.4.23

A great placard at ‘The Big One’, the Extinction Rebellion-led gathering in central London of over 200 organisations committed to urgent action on climate change, April 22, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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On New Year’s Eve, Extinction Rebellion (XR), the disruptive but non-violent climate activist group that did so much to propel the climate crisis up the political agenda in October 2018 and April 2019, occupying bridges, and, perhaps most memorably, occupying Oxford Circus with a pink yacht bearing the message ‘Tell the Truth’, directed at politicians and the media, announced a change of tactics.

“We quit”, they announced in a press release, stating that they were making “a controversial resolution to temporarily shift away from public disruption as a primary tactic”, in an effort to build a bigger and more inclusive movement “beyond traditional divides.” As they explained, “No one can do this alone, and it’s the responsibility of all of us, not just one group. It may be uncomfortable or difficult, but the strength of all social, environmental, and justice movements lies in working together.”

It was a bold move, although there was also a certain logic to it. After the actions of October 2018 and April 2019, tolerance for the group’s disruptive tactics had waned after a group of protestors blocked a morning rush hour commuter train at Canning Town, and the Covid lockdowns had then thwarted efforts to mobilise further.

In addition, many of those committed to disruption had joined two new groups, Insulate Britain, who repeatedly blocked the M25 to demand insulation of all the UK’s notoriously energy-inefficient homes, and Just Stop Oil, who engaged not only in traffic disruption, but also branched out into shock tactics; most noticeably, throwing soup at Van Gogh’s ’Sunflowers’ in the National Gallery. The painting, of course, was protected behind glass, but although many of the responses to the action were hysterical and negative, it also demonstrated how newsworthy creative disruption can be, securing more coverage than any other action to date.

After XR’s “We quit” announcement, they began promoting ’The Big One’, an effort to get 100,000 people to gather by the Houses of Parliament from April 21. For those of us of a Romantic revolutionary persuasion, this looked like an invitation to a velvet revolution, but in fact, although that remains a dream, it was fundamentally an integral part of XR’s efforts to build a movement that was much bigger than itself.

Behind the scenes a huge amount of effort went into persuading other organisations to get involved, and by April 21 an extraordinary alliance of over 200 organisations had come together, under the slogan ’Unite to Survive’, including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Avaaz, Earthday, the influential youth movement Green New Deal Rising, the environmentally conscious clothing firm Patagonia, the Fairtrade Foundation, the PCS union, Don’t Pay UK, DPAC (Disabled People Against Cuts), CND, Global Justice Now, NHS workers, War on Want, Stop Ecocide and CAFOD.

The results of this commendable bridge-building were clear to see over the four days of ’The Big One’, which eventually ran from April 21 to April 24.

‘Unite to Survive’

On the Friday, April 21, 15 pickets took place outside various government departments, and at 55-57 Tufton Street, home to a number of opaquely-funded right-wing ‘libertarian’ think-tanks that are actively committed to maintaining the murderous status quo, defending unfettered big business, and denying the reality of catastrophic climate change.

Outside the absurdly-named Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (formerly the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy) on Victoria Street, where XR groups including Scientists for XR and numerous supporting organisations were protesting, I spent some time talking to Aaron Thierry and Emily Cox, scientists who argue that civil disobedience by scientists is necessary to effect urgent climate action, and who have previously been arrested for disruptive action.

Aaron Thierry and Emily Cox of Scientists for XR at ‘The Big One’, the Extinction Rebellion-led gathering in central London of over 200 organisations committed to urgent action on climate change, April 21, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

I also spent some time at Tufton Street, where XR Writers Rebel had a full programme of writers, including Zadie Smith and Ben Okri, who, back in November 2021, issued a powerful declaration that ‘Artists must confront the climate crisis — we must write as if these are the last days.’

The writer Ben Okri outside 55-57 Tufton Street during ‘The Big One’, the Extinction Rebellion-led gathering in central London of over 200 organisations committed to urgent action on climate change, April 21, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

After a visit to Abingdon Street, by the Houses of Parliament, where I heard Caroline Lucas, our only Green MP, make a wonderful speech, and also heard a suitably strident speech by the Dutch actress Carice Van Houten (‘Black Book’, ‘Game of Thrones’), I wandered amongst all the stalls set up by XR groups and other organisations — where I suddenly realised that ‘The Big One’ was a stunningly conscious festival that had taken over the heart of London — before returning to Tufton Street.

The Dutch actress Carice Van Houten at ‘The Big One’, the Extinction Rebellion-led gathering in central London of over 200 organisations committed to urgent action on climate change, April 21, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

There I saw a great performance by the West Country political collective Seize the Day, who first emerged from the road protest movement of the 1990s, and finally made my first ever environmental speech, entitled, ‘We can’t trust the weather anymore’, which I wrote the night before, and which was an emotional experience for me to deliver. After a decade and a half of public speaking about Guantánamo, I hope that it’s the start of a regular new outlet for my activism, and, if the title intrigues you, I’ll be cross-posting it here in the next few days.

Seize the Day outside 55-57 Tufton Street during ‘The Big One’, the Extinction Rebellion-led gathering in central London of over 200 organisations committed to urgent action on climate change, April 21, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

Afterwards, I heard Caroline Lucas speak again, and was introduced to two great organisations, MP Watch and Steve Baker Watch, co-founded by Jessica Townsend, who is also one of the co-founders of XR Writers Rebel. Their revolutionary idea is to expose to largely complacent constituency voters quite how wretched their MPs are on tackling the climate crisis (or, as with Steve Baker, how complicit they are in suicidal misinformation), on the basis that the majority of voters are actually far more concerned about the climate crisis than their elected officials are.

Caroline Lucas supporting MP Watch outside 55-57 Tufton Street during ‘The Big One’, the Extinction Rebellion-led gathering in central London of over 200 organisations committed to urgent action on climate change, April 21, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington).
The academic and environmental author Mike Berners-Lee supporting MP Watch outside 55-57 Tufton Street during ‘The Big One’, the Extinction Rebellion-led gathering in central London of over 200 organisations committed to urgent action on climate change, April 21, 2023, as the Red Rebel Brigade walked past (Photo: Andy Worthington).
A protestor outside Parliament during ‘The Big One’, the Extinction Rebellion-led gathering in central London of over 200 organisations committed to urgent action on climate change, April 21, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington).
A campaigner outside the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs during ‘The Big One’, the Extinction Rebellion-led gathering in central London of over 200 organisations committed to urgent action on climate change, April 21, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

‘The Big One For Biodiversity March’

On Saturday, an estimated 60,000 people turned up for a family-friendly day whose focal point was ‘The Big One For Biodiversity March’, in which, yet again, the many manifestations of catastrophic climate change and the criminal activities of corporations and their political enablers were on full display, and, as on Friday, it was hard to imagine that any conversations taking place anywhere else in the country could have matched those taking place on the streets in Westminster for intelligence, compassion and empathy.

Campaigners with Doctors for XR at the start of ‘The Big One For Biodiversity March’, part of ‘The Big One’, the four-day Extinction Rebellion-led gathering in central London of over 200 organisations committed to urgent action on climate change, April 22, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington).
A campaigner from Cornwall, with a simple but powerful rewilding message, at ‘The Big One’, the Extinction Rebellion-led gathering in central London of over 200 organisations committed to urgent action on climate change, April 22, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington).
‘The Big One For Biodiversity March’, part of ‘The Big One’, the four-day Extinction Rebellion-led gathering in central London of over 200 organisations committed to urgent action on climate change, April 21, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington).
‘Rewild the North’: a powerful message on ‘The Big One For Biodiversity March’, part of ‘The Big One’, the four-day Extinction Rebellion-led gathering in central London of over 200 organisations committed to urgent action on climate change, April 21, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington).
Under the ‘Unite to Survive’ banner, at a stage on Victoria Street, members of the Oxford Art Ensemble, with singer Mila Todd, entertained the crowd, with Ernest Ranglin-style classic roots reggae, and improvised protest-related lyrics, as ‘The Big One For Biodiversity March’ passed by, part of ‘The Big One’, the four-day Extinction Rebellion-led gathering in central London of over 200 organisations committed to urgent action on climate change, April 21, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington).
Banners from Christian Climate Action, who were holding events outside the Supreme Court in Parliament Square during ‘The Big One’, the Extinction Rebellion-led gathering in central London of over 200 organisations committed to urgent action on climate change, April 22, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

The shameful failure of the mainstream media to adequately address the severity of the climate crisis

Unfortunately, the mainstream media, shamefully and unforgivably, almost entirely abdicated its responsibility to cover this compelling four-day event by an extraordinary coalition of organisations, despite the unprecedented urgency of the cause, and the phenomenal intellectual power of those who gathered for ‘The Big One.’

It was a demonstration that, although the media have so often railed against climate activists’ disruption, when it comes down to what passes for the deplorable state of news reporting in this country, all they are really interested in is disruption, which, moreover, is generally portrayed negatively.

I can understand this when it comes to our corrupt newspapers (the Mail, the Telegraph and the Sun, in particular), but I am appalled that our main broadcasters didn’t give the weekend the coverage it deserved, when the topic is so pressing, and the advocates for urgent change to the way we operate are so eloquent, so intelligent, and so right.

All of the major channels could easily have postponed their usual broadcasting, and spent all day on Saturday and Sunday covering the protests, and inviting speakers into their studios, and it would have been the most electrifying and educational experience, but instead they either ignored it, or covered it inadequately.

The evasion was such that I think a liaison group (which I’d like to be involved in) needs to be established to ask those in charge of broadcasting why they won’t take the climate crisis seriously enough. It’s clearly no longer the case that their obsession with ‘balance’ and ’impartiality’ prevents them from comprehending that there is only one side to this story.

With almost 100% of scientists confirming that catastrophic climate change is real, and that it is very evidently man-made, broadcasters have, in recent years, finally (for the most part) stopped giving equal airtime to climate change deniers, but they still refuse to engage with the severity of the crisis, which should be featured on the news every single day, and should be the focus of other programmes investigating in depth what the problems are, and how they can be addressed.

We need to know if it’s because of ratings, or because they don’t want to scare people, and if is either of these then we need them to understand that ratings are irrelevant on a dead planet, and, most importantly, that what’s coming — and soon — is far scarier than where we are now.

This is the only crisis that the human race has ever been unable to run from, and the unbelievably grave consequences of our refusal to curb emissions and to accept that our capitalist model of existence is suicidal are making themselves clear now — not, as was generally assumed until very recently, in the 2030 or the 2040s.

What now? Building a movement and resuming disruption

Another side effect of the media’s indifference, of course, is that disruption is now back on the agenda, although XR cannily prepared for this by tying ’The Big One’ to a ‘Collective Demand’ for the government to “end all new licences, approvals, and funding for fossil fuel projects”, and to “create emergency citizens’ assemblies to lead on fair, long-term solutions to the most urgent issues of our time.”

When the deadline for that passed, at 5pm on Monday, XR issued a press release telling the government,”You had your chance — now we’re stepping it up.” As XR co-founder Clare Farrell explained, “The government had a week to respond to our demands and they have failed to do so. Next we will reach out to supporter organisations to start creating a plan for stepping up our campaigns across an ecosystem of tactics that includes everyone from first-time protesters to those willing to go to prison.”

After canvassing the opinions of tens of thousands of supporters on three ’pathways’ for the future, XR announced the results. In keeping with the non-disruptive aspects of ’The Big One’, 91% of protestors committed to organise locally, “returning to their local communities to mobilise many more people for climate action.”

However, 79% also opted to disobey, committing to “a wide range of civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action.” As spokesperson Rob Callender explained, “Effectively tens of thousands from different organisations have signalled that they are ready to move into a far more challenging and disruptive posture against a government that is gambling with our lives and futures.”

47% also opted for a third pathway, picketing, agreeing to “add their support and physical presence to the wave of union strike actions, from NHS workers and teachers to railway staff and firefighters, that have been challenging the government’s ability to govern over the last six months.”

Will it work? The more burning question we should be asking, perhaps, is ”What will happen if it doesn’t work?” Our government — either through corruption or truly idiotic denial — doesn’t care, our media has apparently infantilised itself while subjecting us to an endless parade of pointless distraction, and so it really is up to us. As I’ve taken to saying recently, including in the introduction to my speech at Tufton Street, it doesn’t matter what our day jobs are, or what our hobbies are, all of us also need to become climate activists.

Chris Packham being interviewed during ‘The Big One’, the Extinction Rebellion-led gathering in central London of over 200 organisations committed to urgent action on climate change, April 22, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

As the environmentalist Chris Packham explained on Saturday, our “mission” now is to “build as wide a community as possible.”

“Our planet is in crisis and if we don’t take action then we will not protect that life, which includes us”, he said. “One thing is clear and that is that we need to step up. We want every last person who cares to get involved because caring is not enough.”

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), 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 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 you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.50).

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 struggle for housing justice — and against environmental destruction — continues.

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14 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my report about — and 15 photos I took at — the inspiring four-day protest, ‘The Big One’, in London on April 21-24, initiated by Extinction Rebellion (XR) but, crucially, with the support of over 200 other organisations, including Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.

    I applaud the efforts to create a wider climate movement through the temporary suspension of disruptive tactics, which was clearly successful, as it was a family-friendly event attracting 60,000 people on the Saturday for a powerful march for bio-diversity.

    However, I also recognise the impact that can be achieved through disruptive tactics, and I’m pleased that, after ‘The Big One’, and the government’s failure to respond to two demands from the organisers — for an immediate end to “all new licences, approvals, and funding for fossil fuel projects”, and for the creation of “emergency citizens’ assemblies to lead on fair, long-term solutions to the most urgent issues of our time” — XR announced that, after canvassing attendees, three pathways will be immediately pursued: joining the pickets of workers struggling to survive, continuing to build a movement via XR’s many local groups, and resuming disruptive action.

    I also voice my dismay at the failure of the mainstream media to cover the event adequately, if at all, questioning on what basis broadcasters thought it was appropriate to behave as though this astonishing gathering of intelligent and eloquent climate activists — with their persistently urgent messages about the undeniable need for major changes to the way our capitalist system operates — wasn’t newsworthy.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Melani Finn wrote:

    Thanks Andy. For those of us not able to escape work to take part this is a welcome documentation.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m very glad to hear that, Melani! 🙂

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Kevin Hester wrote:

    I’ve been attending and organising demo’s like this for half a century, originally whilst holding my mothers hand at demo’s.
    What is it that these people want?
    Citizens assemblies won’t change anything.
    My colleague Guy McPherson has published a new paper regarding “Tipping Points”.
    I suggest the kids time would be better spent enjoying nature before it dies off completely with us when the tipping points overwhelm the balance of the planet.
    https://guymcpherson.com/peer-reviewed-paper-published-april-2023/

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    “These people”, Kevin – these people are us. Roger Hallam tried to mobilise people to get arrested in significant numbers when XR started, but it didn’t work, but we can’t give up, because when you give up hope all is lost. If “the kids” ignore it, it will probably be because they’ve embraced nihilism instead, and that could well be dangerous, so we do what we can.

    Polling shows that a majority of people care about the climate crisis, but most of them won’t do anything about, so chipping away at them to get involved in any way seems be a worthwhile project, while others continue to embark on high-profile disruption, to try and get the message out that way.

    It’s really important for people to gather together, to realise they’re not alone, and to inspire new ideas.The amount of intellectual energy at ‘The Big One’ was phenomenal, and there are great initiatives that have come out of this type of persistent brainstorming, like MP Watch, whose idea, as I noted, is for climate aware constituents to “expose to [their] largely complacent [fellow] constituency voters quite how wretched their MPs are on tackling the climate crisis … on the basis that the majority of voters are actually far more concerned about the climate crisis than their elected officials are.” https://www.mpwatch.org

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Don Clayton wrote:

    Hi Andy, criminal that the mainstream media have very largely ignored this.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    ‘Criminal’ is an appropriate word, Don, and of particular relevance to those in the oiled gas industries who knowingly hid the results of their research establishing that man-made climate change was real decades ago. Have you seen ‘Big Oil v. The World’? It’s well worth watching: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episodes/p0cgql8f/big-oil-v-the-world

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Jasmine Johnston wrote:

    What a really well written piece Andy and great photos too.
    Absolutely beyond abhorrent that there was no coverage of this.
    I know you were covering the event so to speak but it would’ve been great if the Four Fathers were on the stage too 🙂
    Looking forward to reading the “Can’t Trust The Weather” piece in due course.
    Hope you’re well 💪🏻

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Wonderful to hear from you, Jasmine. I hope you’re well, and I’m very glad to hear that you appreciate my report and my photos.
    I emailed the organisers about The Four Fathers playing, but sadly I heard nothing back from them. It would have been wonderful to have played to an appreciative audience. https://thefourfathers.bandcamp.com

    However, attending ‘The Big One’ did inspire me to write a new environmental song, ‘Fire in the Sky’, a great big country rock anthem, which I introduced to the band at our first rehearsal for many weeks last Sunday, when I also introduced them to number of other new songs. I’m really looking forward to us playing it live!

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    In sadly relevant news, CO₂ levels measured at Mauna Loa in Hawaii since the 1960s have reached 425ppm for the very first time. As Prof. Eliot Jacobson explained on Twitter, ‘Here on hothouse planet Earth, on April 28, 2023, CO₂ levels just breached 425.00 ppm for the very first time. This is a horrific day in the record books of what humans have done in their relentless desecration of this once pristine planet.” He added, “‘The very first time’ meaning, depending on how deep you want to go, the first such measurement at Mauna Loa (which is what I meant), the highest it’s been since human civilization has existed, or the highest in the last 4 million+ years.” https://twitter.com/EliotJacobson/status/1652318069086367744

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Johan van der Merwe wrote:

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful post with me, Andy. Great coverage of an immensely important event, great photos. When you do post your piece “We can’t trust the weather anymore”, I’d appreciate if you will then again tag me.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    I certainly will, Johan. I’m so glad you appreciated my article, and thanks for the supportive words.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Emma Arkady wrote:

    Is it possible that one reason why the govt aren’t doing anything perceived as effective by XR is that we are actually way too far into the extinction event for any amount of emissions tinkering to stop it? 🤔 That is certainly my understanding based on my studies at UCL in Earth Sciences.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Emma, and that’s a very question, to which the logical answer would be that it’s a correct assumption, because the scientific evidence is so irrefutable.

    However, although I recall being told at an XR event a few years ago that some ministers know the truth, but are paralysed because they don’t know what to do about it, I honestly believe that the majority of them just don’t get it, as they live in a bubble in which they only listen to people with money and power, and in which denial is deep-rooted. This has been especially true since Brexit, as our leaders are now defined by their unmooring from reality, because they inhabit a fairytale world in which Brexit is a success.

    An instructive figure to examine is Chris Skidmore, who became a convert to the realities of climate change as Minister for Energy and Clean Growth, when he signed the UK’s Net Zero Pledge into law, in 2019, but who is clearly regarded as an outlier in the Party, although his awakening is to be welcomed. This is a recent article he wrote for the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/apr/25/tory-mp-net-zero-rosebank-oilfield

    I also recall how only 70 MPs and peers attended an emergency climate briefing in Parliament by the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, in July 2022, which suggested that the majority of MPs and peers simply weren’t interested. Vallance’s presentation was credited with converting Boris Johnson to the realities of climate change before COP26, but unfortunately, of course, Johnson is so shallow and self-seeking that what he described as his “road to Damascus” moment didn’t actually lead to anything at all. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/jul/11/fewer-than-10-percent-of-uk-mps-sign-up-for-emergency-climate-briefing

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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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