Extinction Rebellion: The birthday party we really didn’t want
It’s been five years since Extinction Rebellion (XR) charged into our national consciousness and brought the (non-violent) battle to stop climate change to the streets. Mark Engineer of XR Lewes reflects what’s been achieved, what’s failed, and why being a ‘rebel’ continues to give him hope.
On October 31st 2018 I headed up to London to join a gathering of something called Extinction Rebellion. I’d read about it in the paper and thought I’d check it out. I wasn’t expecting much. A few burned out hippies. Some banners. Some terrible songs. But I was desperate enough to try anything.
It was a bright day, and very cold. As I rounded the corner and saw Parliament Square, a line of brightly-coloured flags streamed in the wind. There seemed to be quite a decent turnout.
I met some other people, all of them lovely, and all of whom seemed to be feeling the way I was feeling. I listened to some speeches. One of them was by a tiny Swedish schoolgirl called Greta Thunberg, who I’d vaguely heard of. She seemed terribly shy, looking downwards as she spoke, and struggling to make herself heard over the noise of the wind.
We sat down in the road and held up the traffic. I’d never done anything like that before. It was not a comfortable experience, but I took strength from the people around me.
All in all, it was not at all what I’d expected. (Except for the songs. They were pretty terrible. I got that bit right.)
Five years on and the world seems very different. October 31st 2023 was warm, weirdly warm, and very wet, an indication of the increasingly unusual climate and weather patterns. XR now has some pretty good songs. And as for that shy Scandinavian teenager, what a towering figure she’s become – not only the most well-known activist in the world, but one of the most famous people. So famous that you only need to use her first name and people will know who you’re talking about.
And as for the climate and environmental emergency….Well.
There have been some wins. The Emergency is now firmly set in the public consciousness. The UK Parliament has declared a climate emergency, and enshrined Net Zero into law. Citizens’ Assemblies – one of XR’s core demands – are now a reality, although their decisions are “advisory rather than binding”, and politicians can (and do) ignore them.
But by any real standards, we’ve failed. Emissions are still rising. (When we set out, we called for Net Zero by 2025. How’s that going?) The drilling continues. The mining continues. The deforestation, destructive agriculture, poisoning of rivers, the overfishing. All of them continue.
Petrostates announce huge expansion plans. Our Government commits to a policy of “drill, baby, drill.” And we as a species continue merrily on the path to our own destruction. No. Not merrily. Many of us recognise it and wish it were otherwise. But we just don’t seem to know what else to do.
“This is the birthday party we really didn’t want!” raged an email I received from XR’s central comms team. And I get that. I really do. But I can’t feel completely depressed. Because I have no doubt that XR as a movement has changed the world, and I’m proud to have played a small part in that. I have met many amazing people and been awed by their passion and determination. Most of all, it’s been the camaraderie. The way rebels have drawn strength from one another, increased each other’s understanding. This is a wonderful thing, and it still gives me hope.
You’ve taken the time to read this far, which suggests that you’re engaged, and you recognise the urgency. The need for us all to act. That gives me hope too.
That desire to act springs from the best parts of us; the compassion, the kindness, the desire to protect. Our love of our fellow humans, of nature, of this extraordinary place we call home. All of this gives me hope. Hope that the human spirit can rise to meet this greatest of all crises.
So what now?
So…is it a case of unhappy birthday, XR? Well, to my mind, not exactly. It’s true that it would be far better if there had never been a need to start XR at all. But being part of it remains one of the best and most inspiring things I’ve ever done. So (selfishly perhaps), I can’t feel completely dispirited about it.
Perhaps we were naïve to think that by now we wouldn’t be needed. It seems XR and organisations like it are needed more than ever. And as always, we need people. If you’d like to get involved locally you can email Lewes XR on Or you could visit https://extinctionrebellion.uk
You could get involved with national campaigns like Dirty Water, and take the fight to polluting water companies. Or Cut The Ties, taking action against the many, many organisations with links to the fossil fuel industry. Or getting involved in organising community assemblies, or Money Rebellion. Or take on a regional organising role. Or…but I’ll stop there. You get the picture. There’s plenty to do! You will never be bored, and never feel like you’re doing it alone.