When the Spirit Rebels
by Rob Lewis
It would have been a strange vision for any one of our great grandparents, if they had tried to imagine one day the emergence of something called Extinction Rebellion. “What? A rebellion against the end of life itself?”
Yes, I am afraid.
And yes, finally.
Finally, some people have gotten together and openly declared rebellion against the ruin of the earth. And others around the world, lots, are joining them. If you want to become a part of it, you’re in luck. Bellingham has a chapter.
I attended one of their meetings recently at the Alternative Library, a restored church which was once a karate studio, and where remnants of a long red dragon still snake across the flaking white clapboards. We made a small group: humble beginnings. Humble words too. Most spoke of their kids and grandkids, trying to explain the moral vertigo of watching their little ones having to strike from school because their world is being destroyed by the adults.
We voiced grief over so much loss, with many references to our local orcas, who face another season of famine, with meager salmon returns expected due to the warming ocean. Not surprisingly, every one of us spoke of our personal wrestling matches with hope and hopelessness. In the end we agreed it doesn’t really matter how much hope there supposedly is or isn’t left in the world. Each of us has to decide for ourselves whether or not to fight for what we love. We were there because we had already answered that question.
Herb Goodwin, who started up the Bellingham group, and has his eye on a Cascadia-wide Extinction Rebellion network, occasionally interjected to explain how they did it in England, where Extinction Rebellion (XR) got its start. What they did was create rolling waves of civil disruption unlike anything seen in decades. After proclaiming a declaration of rebellion on October 17, 2018, 6,000 thousand volunteers amassed to block off the five main bridges over the River Thames into London. In the days and weeks that followed, more bridge occupations and traffic blocks, mock trials and funeral processions, and even the peaceful occupation of the Scottish Parliament’s debating chamber, continued to rock England.
The demands were simple:
• The Government must tell the truth about the climate and wider ecological emergency, reverse inconsistent policies and work alongside the media to communicate with citizens.
• The Government must enact legally binding policy measures to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 and to reduce consumption levels.
• A national citizens’ assembly must be created to oversee the changes, as part of creating a democracy fit for purpose.
But this being England, the demands didn’t come without a certain courtesy. I am talking here about cookies. To ease the frustration of motorists delayed by traffic, the rebels handed out home-baked cookies, lowering the heat of confrontation, and perhaps even making some friends.
Though XR’s heaviest presence is in the UK, chapters are popping up around the planet. There are, as of this writing, over 300 chapters globally, with more than 30 in the United States. Extinction Rebellion has kept their operating guidelines simple and flexible, allowing each new chapter flexibility in forging their own identities. For instance, XR in the United States has modified its demands to include just a transition plank.
It goes without saying that something like this would have its detractors. XR’s demand for net-zero carbon emission by 2025 has been derided as technically impossible. Their concept of citizen assemblies to oversee the necessary changes is so new to the discussion that it’s taking time for people to get their heads around the idea. But the need for such assemblies becomes apparent when you consider how corrupted and dysfunctional most governments are right now, particularly the one in Washington, D.C. It may well be an approach that, though untried, could be of consequential value to us.
And even within chapters, there is disagreement around the tactic of blocking roads. It’s not appropriate for every place. XR suggests numerous other actions people can take, and focuses their call for major disruption to be aimed at financial centers and centers of governments. On their webpage, they even acknowledge the drawbacks and apologize for inconveniencing people. “If there were a better, less disruptive way of doing this, we would do that instead!” they write.
But again, chapters are free to choose their own actions, and road blockades are only one of many possibilities. NYC’s inaugural action, for instance, did involve a road blockade, for which eight were arrested, but there was also street theater and marching, and a “die in” at the Rockefeller Center’s famed ice rink. There, amidst the skaters, a group solemnly laid on the ice and made with their bodies the symbol of an hour glass inside a circle — XR’s logo — signifying that time is running out for planet earth.
Someone else climbed the bronze statue of Prometheus, Western symbol of human advancement, and draped a banner around the shoulders saying Climate Change = Mass Murder, and Rebel for Life. It was a scene unlikely as the fact that the poles are melting. Haunting and pregnant with symbolism, it made a simple, but poignant start to America’s entry into the rebellion.
All chapters are busy right now, getting ready for the International Week of Rebellion, beginning April 15. That’s when chapters around the world will do their best to make a ruckus big enough to be felt by the powers that be, and to inspire a mass response to heed scientific warnings that we now have only 11 years left to turn this ship around.
It is no small vision. They aim for a species-level shift in consciousness, and acknowledge that “transforming our relationships to each other and the world we are part of — will not be easy. Yet it’s what is required of us.”
Again, their strength may be in their flexibility. Their Principals and Values statement expressly states “we are based on autonomy and decentralization.” Elsewhere on its website, it refers to itself as “fast becoming a decentralized mass movement belonging to everyone who cares about our future.” They seem to recognize that every chapter will face its own political and social realities, that the spirit of the work is more important than the details.
I appreciate that because for me it is precisely the spirit of rebellion which draws me to Extinction Rebellion. We have inherited a system which is demonstrably unable to stop itself from destroying life as we know it, and is rushing us toward climate catastrophe. We have been watching its plunge into political absurdity. We find ourselves mourning loss and desecration in all directions.
We see the poor and disenfranchised around the world given the brunt of polluted landscapes and extreme weather. And now we see children striking school to try and wake us up. In such circumstance, the spirit doesn’t carefully examine, it rebels.
Besides its meetings, XR Bellingham’s first venture was to greet the young climate strikers during the Bellingham Climate Strike on March 15, at Bellingham City Hall. We set up a table as the students arrived from various schools, passing out flyers and showing the youth that not all adults had abandoned them. I read a poem for the students, introduced as “a Poet from Bellingham Extinction Rebellion.”
It was a beautiful day, March sun pressing through hazy clouds, and an invigorating chill in the air. Wandering amongst the 200 or so middle and high schoolers, I found myself thinking of earlier conversations around hope and hopelessness. In the midst of all the young faces, the question “is it hopeless?” simply evaporated. It’s impossible to look in a child’s eyes and throw your hands up, saying “oh well, it’s hopeless, no sense in trying.” The spirit again rebels.
And that may be the key to this movement, that we are not rebelling for ourselves, but for something else, everything else. For the children and the generations behind them. For the creatures, insects to orcas, succumbing around us. For desperate farmers who have had the earth pulled out from under their feet by drought, for old people being evacuated from nursing homes as the floodwaters rise. For backhoe operators incinerated in their rigs trying to save their towns from climate fires.
Has there ever been such a rebellion? Everywhere at once and for one common thing? I don’t think so. Will it work? Will people show up? Are these the best tactics? Will it make a difference? Is it too late?
Those are the wrong questions.
A better one might be, “Have I had enough?”
Rob Lewis is a poet and house painter, and author of “The Silence of Vanishing Things.” He lives in Bow, Washington.