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04 Oct

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Extinction Rebellion Takes Aim at Berlin

The climate activists from Extinction Rebellion are tired of compromise and are hoping to use civil disobedience to force politicians to take action on global warming. Next week, they aim to shut down Berlin.

Photo Gallery: The Rebels' Yell

AFP

They don’t have all that much in common, this group of people gathered in the kitchen of a flat in a prewar Hamburg apartment building. It is fear that has brought them together, fear of species extinction, of droughts and floods. Fear of storms and famines. Above all, though, fear of political torpor. They, like a majority of Germans, are afraid of the consequences of global warming.

It is a rainy Monday evening in late September, two hours after Greta Thunberg held her combative speech in front of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. The group gathered in the kitchen is sitting on folding chairs and coming up with ideas for how they might be able to bring Berlin to a standstill.

An eclectic group has gathered in the warm glow of the pendant lamp as darkness falls outside. There is 67-year-old Anke, a grandmother of two who enjoys gardening and has two artificial hips. Jan, 34, is a web developer and graphic designer who has never before been politically active — but is now considering whether diapers might be necessary for the days spent manning street barricades.

Nils is a 23-year-old childcare worker who has to get up at 5:00 a.m. the next morning for his early shift. He offers to take the nightshift in Berlin, saying he can deal well with the cold thanks to his experience in the boy scouts. And then there’s Jonas, a 28-year-old single father who says he intends to bring his 4-year-old daughter along to the insurrection. He has just given her a cheese sandwich and he’s putting her to bed in the room next door, which is why everyone is speaking quietly. “Should we get started?” Jan asks, opening his laptop.

Their goal is to come up with a joint plan for their contribution to the fight against climate change. They are unified in their belief that simply signing online petitions isn’t enough, or holding up signs and waiting for the Greta effect to take hold — even if the Fridays for Future demonstrations started by Greta Thunberg are now drawing millions of people into the streets.

Active in 50 Countries

Instead, they have joined the Extinction Rebellion, also referred to simply as XR. It is a rapidly growing international protest movement whose actions around the globe have captured the attention of the police, politicians and media.

In Britain, were the movement was founded, Extinction Rebellion grew to some 100,000 members in just its first year of existence. Now, there are groups in 50 countries around the world, including places like India, Ghana and Qatar. The movement has found some success in Germany as well, with more and more people beginning to wonder what life in the future will look like and how we can survive in that future. At the same time, they believe that governments aren’t doing enough to prepare for and shape what is coming. In Germany, the Extinction Rebellion already has more than 100 local chapters in towns and cities around the country.

Block a Road, What You’ll Need: A banner long enough for the width of the road; Rebels to hold it; literature to explain your action (and XR’s values); a Rebel timekeeper (seven minutes blocking, three minutes off the road, and repeat); cakes for pissed-off drivers (and Rebels to talk to them); flags, badges, stickers and placards; music (it’s hard for drivers to go ballistic if you’re having a disco); well-being and legal-observer Rebels. (From: “This Is Not a Drill,” the Extinction Rebellion handbook)

Jan opens a new document and begins taking minutes. That’s how they always run their meetings: One moderates the discussion, another takes minutes and a third keeps track of time. It is important to be efficient because all of them, aside from retiree Anke, have jobs. But also because there are only two weeks left until October 7, the day the “international rebellion” is set to begin in cities across the globe, including London, Paris and Berlin. The group from Hamburg intends to travel to the German capital and several thousand people in other parts of the country are planning to attend as well. Together, they hope to paralyze traffic and everyday life at key sites in Berlin — and wake up the government. That, at least, is the plan. It may very well be the first protest movement that is just as tightly organized as the system they are criticizing.

“I would be in favor of just doing what we have done before and are good at: sit-ins,” says Chrissy, a young doctor sitting on the windowsill.

“I have realized that we still don’t have enough flags,” says Jan, who has bought some broomsticks and still has a bit of fabric lying around: “enough for a couple of good-sized banners.”

Together, Anke, Jan and the others make up a so-called Affinity Group, the smallest unit in Extinction Rebellion’s decentralized organizational structure, which also includes neighborhood groups, city chapters and working groups. They call themselves Octopus, a name perhaps chosen because it is a bit reminiscent of the secret service. The affinity groups are supposed to be the foundation of all protest actions. They are made up of between four and 12 people who jointly implement their protest ideas and take care of each other during operations.

Important Political Signals

Operations such as the one that took place in London in April, when 6,000 people blocked key transportation hubs with sit-ins, tents and a yacht to which the self-proclaimed rebels attached themselves with adhesives. They paralyzed entire city quarters — peaceful yet radical — for 11 days. Police ultimately detained more than 1,000 people. A short time later, the House of Commons declared a climate change emergency. It wasn’t enough to require the government to take action, but it certainly sent an important political signal.

In Zurich, the group dyed the Limmat River fluorescent green with uranine and some activists floated on the water in XR T-shirts as if they were dead. In Berlin, activists chained themselves to the fence around the Chancellery in June. At the Frankfurt Motor Show, they joined other climate activists to block the entrances. They did the same in Hamburg in mid-September, disrupting the city’s Cruise Days festivities, the large cruise industry event.

You can watch a video of the Hamburg action on YouTube, showing what looks like a funeral march approaching the harbor, complete with violinists, drummers and horns. Nils, the childcare worker, is part of a group of coffin bearers carrying a child’s casket stamped with the XR logo and an hourglass, symbolizing the need to act quickly. Once they reach the promenade, Jan steps forward with other black-clad protesters and dumps artificial blood onto the harbor steps, as French fries-eating tourists look on. The blood is intended to symbolize “the blood of our children,” and the pool of red liquid surrounds the small white coffin.

The images from Hamburg were widely shared, and when he saw the nationwide reporting on the action the next day, Jan says, he thought to himself: “Fuck. It really works!” Non-violent, civil disobedience that disrupts public order in a targeted manner to generate the most possible attention.

Three Demands

The group has three demands: First, the government should declare a climate change emergency and disclose the truth about the ecological crisis, whatever that might mean. Second, emissions of greenhouse gases should be reduced to zero by 2025. And third, the group is calling on the government to establish a “Citizens’ Assembly” to decide on measures that should be taken to combat climate change.

It all sounds a bit utopic, but the message is the most important element: namely that the Earth can’t be saved with compromises. Extinction Rebellion hasn’t yet agreed in detail how the Citizens’ Assembly should be established. But it’s a start, the rest can come later.

The group has also sent an open letter to the German government, in which signatories, including a number of well-known personalities in Germany, indicated their support for XR’s demands and the upcoming protests.

If you are arrested or if you are identified during an action, say nothing that might incriminate yourself or others. It is best to say nothing before you have a legal representative.

The rebels gathered in the kitchen in Hamburg are discussing how they should travel from Hamburg to Berlin for the protests: bus, train or carpool. Chrissy says she’s planning to bring along a four-person tent, with Jan adding that it could be used as their base of operations in the protest camp. Anke, the retiree, says that, at her age, she no longer has any interest in sleeping in a tent and is planning to spend the night at a friend’s place.

Listening to them talk, a number of questions arise. How was this relatively new movement able to mobilize so many young people in such a short amount of time, even though their actions come so close to crossing the line into illegality? How did Extinction Rebellion become socially acceptable? How far should or must protesters go given that all signs are pointing to a global climate crisis?

And: How does one become a rebel in 2019?

Mobilization: 20 Days Until the Protest

The introduction to disobedience can be quite gentle — drinking soda after work, for example, in a small gallery space with high ceilings, hardwood floors and quiet music. The room slowly fills up with university students, white-collar workers and freelancers, ranging in age from their mid-20s to their mid-50s. Jan Volkert-Ulrich, the 34-year-old web developer from the Octopus group, is a bit late, and has come straight from work. “After this, I have to get right back to work,” he says. But he immediately starts recruiting people. “It’s great that you’re here,” he says, shaking hands and going from one chat to the next. “You should all come to Berlin.” He distributes starter packs, recruiting materials stapled together under a green cover.

Inside, it states that “it is unconscionable to us that our children and grandchildren should have to bear the terrifying brunt of an unprecedented disaster of our own making.” The document introduces simple initial actions taken by the group in Britain, including the blocking of bridges over the Thames and the planting of trees in the heart of the city. The starter pack also lists the group’s 10 principles that all participants should adhere to. “4. We openly challenge ourselves and this toxic system. 7. We actively mitigate for power — breaking down hierarchies of power for more equitable participation. 9. We are a non-violent network.”

“Everyone can join us,” says Jan, “even an SUV driver, even someone who eats steak for breakfast — as long as he or she adheres to the principles.”

Greta Thunberg: the speeches that helped spark a climate movement – video

In August 2018, Greta Thunberg, then 15, skipped school to protest alone outside the Swedish parliament in Stockholm for urgent climate action. In just 13 months, she has become the figurehead of a global movement that has pushed the crisis to the top of the news agenda and inspired millions to take to the streets.

These are five of the key speeches that helped spark the #climatestrike movement

Collective action is our only hope for enduring climate breakdown. Calls for survivalism will only hasten catastrophe

Smoke from a bushfire in the Amazon

Climate survivalism will only hasten our destruction Photograph: Stock Connection Blue/Alamy Stock Photo

Michael Mobbs has triggered an important conversation by “coming out” as a climate survivalist. He expects “societal collapse … a total breakdown within the next three to five years”, so he’s selling his ground-breaking and beautiful off-grid sustainable home in Chippendale and planning to move to the New South Wales South Coast.

Mobbs has contributed an enormous amount over many years, but this latest intervention is deeply problematic. It is wrong in fact and wrong in approach, and could contribute to making an already bad situation worse.

While climate breakdown is well under way, and societal collapse is a very real possibility within my lifetime if not necessarily his, there is no serious projection to justify a timeframe as short as three to five years for total breakdown. And the approach of running for the hills (or the coast) is neither sensible nor helpful. It only makes societal collapse more likely, by curtailing action and dividing the community even further. And, in that scenario, it won’t even help you survive.

Far be it from me to criticise Mobbs’ personal choice here. His exhaustion and lack of hope is completely understandable. He has been actively working for solutions to ecological destruction for decades, leading whole communities towards action, while being ignored by the vast majority.

Some of the responses to his declaration, suggesting his approach has been an individualist one ignoring the need for collective action, are ignorant of his work. Mobbs has been working for collective action, using his own personal action as an inspiring example to support others to follow suit and work together for systemic change, as all effective collective organising does. In this way, he has driven vital shifts in building regulations, and more important shifts in understandings of how we humans can and should live as part of the natural world rather than trying to separate ourselves from it. Ecological thinking teaches us that all collective action is made up of interwoven and interlinked individual action. As Greta Thunberg says: “We need system change rather than individual change, but you can’t have one without the other.”

Which brings us to why talking of literally burning bridges is not helpful.

If we’re to survive in the far-less-hospitable world that two centuries of institutionalised greed, selfishness and short-sightedness have bequeathed us, it will only be together. It will only be by using the coming years to cultivate resilient, cohesive, cooperative, equitable communities, embedded in the natural world.

That’s why, while Mobbs is of course entitled to choose to retire with our thanks for what he’s achieved, the criticism of his public declaration of survivalism as embedded in a culture of white supremacy and the right of wealth is also entirely legitimate.

Survivalist retreat shuts off the possibility of action. It assumes that there is no longer any chance of preventing catastrophe, that there is nothing left to be done, that no action to reduce our impact will have any effect. While the scientists whose research I read and who I speak to are increasingly desperate, none condone this view. All argue that, even if we were to pull out all stops now and drive the fastest and largest transition in human history, we will still face severe impacts for generations to come. We will almost certainly lose all corals, including the Great Barrier Reef, for example. Fires and storms and droughts will continue to get more intense and frequent. Make no mistake, things will be bad. But, if we act fast, it doesn’t have to mean extinction. The worst thing to do right now would be to cut off that option and give in to those who want to keep milking profits out of the destruction of our only home. That only makes it less likely that any of us will survive.

Retreat, of course, by definition, is only available to a select few. This is why the focus of the responses to Mobbs’ declaration from the left, in particular Amy Gray’s searing critique, attack it as inequitable and racist. My addendum is that just as survivalism makes extinction more likely by cutting off the option of action, dividing our society even further makes societal collapse even more likely. This would be the worst outcome of all.

At this point in history, now that we have locked in ecological disruption on a scale our species has never known, we must learn the lessons of ecology. And the number one lesson is that resilience is the key. Resilience, not dominance, is the real strength, especially in hard times. And the secret to resilience is connected diversity, cohesion, cooperative coexistence.

That means that in many ways our most important task right now is to build social cohesion while learning to live within natural limits. Luckily, there are ways of making sure that the two go hand in hand. Whether it’s urban community agriculture or local sharing and repair groups; whether it’s models of participatory democracy like Voices for Indi or community renewable energy cooperatives; whether it’s stripping corporations of the rights of legal personhood unless they properly respect social and environmental norms, supporting worker- and user-owned cooperatives to compete with them, or prioritising the long-term interests of traditional owners and workers over the profits of fossil fuel corporations; all these point the way towards holding off the worst ecological impacts of climate disruption while building the resilience to avoid the societal collapse it could trigger.

If, at this moment, we turn even more against each other, we have no future. The strongest will survive for a while. Then they, too, will be lost.

In reality, Michael Mobbs’ solution of urban living in harmony with the natural world, brought together with deep democracy and cultivating social cohesion, is the only path to survival.

Tim Hollo is executive director of the Green Institute

World Politics

United States

The US president is trying to normalise his self-serving breaches of his oath of office. America must hold him to account and restore the rule of law and ethics

Donald Trump speaks to journalists outside the White House

‘Mr Trump’s actions are fuelled by refusal to accept responsibility and by fear of defeat. But he must be accountable.’ Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Until very recently indeed, the idea that the president of the United States might stand outside the White House and call on Communist China to investigate one of his presidential challengers would not merely have seemed far-fetched. It would also have seemed unpatriotic (presidents don’t involve foreign powers in domestic politics), unprincipled (this is the same China with which he is fighting a trade war and which may soon crack down on Hong Kong democracy protests), illegal (US law bans attempts to solicit foreign assistance to fight American elections), and a breach of his oath of office (in which he promises to protect and defend the constitution). It short, such a thing was unthinkable.

It is a mark of Donald Trump’s ability to trash the rules of domestic and international politics, and make up an entire new set of his own, that the unthinkable happened this week without causing much more than a weary collective shake of the American head. Speaking on live television outside the White House on Thursday, Mr Trump openly solicited America’s greatest international rival to help him get re-elected. Next year, Mr Trump may face a presidential contest against Joe Biden, the former vice-president, whose son Hunter – like Donald Trump Jr, as it happens – is a businessman and lobbyist with overseas interests. This week Mr Trump said: “China should start an investigation into the Bidens.”

By all formerly prevailing standards this was an extraordinary act. But it did not come out of the blue. The call to China was simply a much more public, more brazen and more reckless iteration of the very same thing that Mr Trump stands accused of doing in Ukraine, on the basis of which he is now being investigated for possible impeachment by the House of Representatives. In July, Mr Trump used a telephone call to the newly elected Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to press for investigations to be launched into the Bidens. If this did not happen, Mr Trump warned, the US would withhold military aid, a threat that was withdrawn after it became public. This week, however, evidence was produced on Capitol Hill that Mr Trump said he would only permit a White House meeting with Mr Zelenskiy if he publicly began a probe into the Bidens. Soberingly, Ukraine has now done just that.

The shredding of norms does not get more brazen than this. But the Ukraine and China cases are not freak exceptions from an otherwise ethical record. Only this week it was claimed that Mr Trump had used his first phone call to Britain’s new prime minister, Boris Johnson, on 26 July to ask the UK to provide evidence that might help undermine Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian influence in Mr Trump’s 2016 election campaign. Similar White House demands have also been made to members of the Australian and the Italian governments.

All these efforts are egregious. For a US president to press foreign governments to investigate his rivals is not just unusual, unfair or illegal. It is also lethally dangerous to national standing and international law. If there is evidence of unethical or corrupt activity in a foreign country, it should be properly investigated by the legitimate authorities and resolved within established and accountable bilateral processes. It should not be pursued as Mr Trump did with Ukraine, demanding “a favour” in return for aid or access. It should not be multiplied, as Mr Trump has now done with China, by smearing an opponent without evidence. Such acts send a wholly lawless signal to the world, that White House favours can be won by providing dirt on its enemies and that the president is in the market for dodgy dealings with despots.

Mr Trump’s actions in Ukraine were a self-serving abuse of power. His Chinese claims are a reckless attempt to normalise his deviancy. Britain, for one, must have no part in it. Mr Trump’s actions are fuelled by refusal to accept responsibility and by fear of defeat. But he must be accountable. He must answer for his misuse of office. The political problem is that he may get away with it. The more he is criticised and implicated, the more his supporters back him. This cannot be ignored. But nor can the evidence. Mr Trump is in the dock. So are America’s political system and its standing in the world.

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