Extinction Rebellion and a New Decade of Activism

At the Siemen's office in London, the protest group are taking the fight to the doorstep of big business. Will it work?

As members of the climate change protest group Extinction Rebellion (or XR) put on their costumes outside the front of the Siemens headquarters in Euston, London, the office’s building manager looks on quietly. Several non-staff members arrive outside for meetings, but are denied entry, not having the correct clearance. They stand in the cold, guffawing in confusion. One of them makes reference to his friend’s Russian heritage, suggesting that, if we were in Moscow, the protestors would have been carted off to the ‘gulag’ by now. The building manager, however, seems unfazed.

Extinction rebellion protest

“They were very polite,” he tells me briefly. “They said they’d be here for an hour and leave straight away. It was all very cordial.”

Although the layman might associate Siemens with the small indestructible phones of yesteryear, the German multinational has their fingers in all sorts of industrial pies. One of which is providing railway and signalling equipment to Indian company Adani, as it prepares to open an extremely controversial coal mine in Galilee Basin, Queensland, Australia. It is set to be one of the largest mines in the world.

“It's kind of unbelievable, unforgivable, that they're making a business case for supporting this unimaginably bad decision,” says Lorna Greenwood, organiser of this particular protest against Siemens’ involvement. “We just basically witnessed hell on earth in Australia. People are dying, people have lost their homes; some species have been pushed to extinction. This is a company that claims it cares about the environment. And yet it's not only providing services to build this disastrous project, it's providing credibility by putting its name on it.”

Extinction Rebellion isn’t just a global political protest – it’s an artistic movement. We spoke to some of those involved about how and why they do it.

The protest, if that’s quite the right term for it (perhaps a placid ‘demonstration’ feels more appropriate), is a far cry from the shut downs of the capital last year. Extinction Rebellion was the name on everyone’s lips last April and October, as whole swathes of London were turned into a sort of climate activist Glastonbury.

People were yanked from the top of tube trains and beaten by irate commuters. Activists were glued to the ground. Poi was performed. Extinction Rebellion’s logo—an hourglass in the centre of a circle or globe—was stickered, etched and spray painted on walls, lampposts, awnings, billboards and everything else in eyeshot.

But in the time since, Extinction Rebellion has gone slightly quiet, save for crashing the Star Wars premier and sticking themselves to Boris’ battle bus. Their patron saint, Greta Thunberg, said at January's World Economic Forum in Davos that, for all the marching and bluster, little has actually been done by way of real change. One wonders what effect, if any, those citywide shutdowns had, though it's worth noting that climate change was "unusually prominent" in the UK media following XR's April protests and polls showed a surge in public concern about climate change.

Businesses are going to have to be a lot more savvy about who they do business with

“I think, in all honesty, we're never gonna be able to recapture the impact that we had in April last year, because certain factors came together to make it happen.” says Lorna. “And I think in a way, it's not necessary to do that, because we've seen a huge shift in the last year—we've won the argument. We've won the argument publicly, for action on climate change, and now what we need to see is that change actually happen.”

If Extinction Rebellion’s primary aim was merely to point a giant foam finger at the impending heat death of the planet, and the people complicit in it, then the mission has been accomplished. But people recycling properly and using paper straws, as instantly noble as it may seem, will not stop us all burning alive. There are a select few people capable of enacting the change that we need to see, and, according to Lorna, they need to be shamed on side.

“They haven't appreciated the significance of what it means to attach their name to something like this. And I think that this is going to become a bigger factor to more and more businesses.”

“If you attach yourself to a project which is climate destroying, you're going to feel the wrath of the public. Businesses are going to have to be a lot more savvy about who they do business with.”

Extinction Rebellion protest

In the brisk morning sun, a woman behind the XR picket line holds the hand of her child, who is dressed in a high-vis jacket and a plastic policeman’s helmet. She is the one wielding the megaphone, and speaks about the coal mine and the wildfires with undoubted passion but next to no confidence. 

While packing up, another cries into the arms of the XR police liaison. Lorna tells me the movement is all about love, which is admirable. But they may have to steel themselves a little more, and be bolder, because to the people they’re coming for—multinational conglomerate CEOs and their benefactors—love is a foreign language.