Beyond Extinction Rebellion: the protest groups fighting on the climate frontline
With the survival of our species at stake, meet six activist groups who refuse to go quietly
Ocean Rebellion: ‘It feels like David and Goliath’
Ocean Rebellion, a group that fights to protect the high seas, emerged from the broader Extinction Rebellion movement in 2020, when it became clear that ocean degradation required singular focus. Cofounders Rob Higgs and his partner, Sophie Miller, are both artists who create theatrical stunts to convey its message.
Higgs has a background in mechanical sculptures, so he builds the props, while Miller, who has worked in film, takes a lead coordinating the performance element. Last summer, she found herself dressed as a polar bear, dancing on the bows of the world’s largest privately owned residential cruise ship while activists projected slogans such as: “SORT YOUR SHIP OUT!” on the vast hull. It can be fun, but hair-raising. “It feels like David and Goliath,” she says, “when you’re out at night on a much smaller vessel with those massive boats.”
Ocean Rebellion works closely with NGOs to figure out how to hit each issue with laser focus. “We work on campaigns from cruise liners and shipping pollution to fishing and deep-sea mining,” says Miller. “So we rely on scientists and NGOs to find out the information from the people who have spent decades studying it – not just to understand what the problem is, but also where the pinch point is.” WC
Choked Up: ‘We want clean air enshrined as a children’s right’
Formed by sixth-formers Nyeleti Brauer-Maxaeia, Anjali Raman-Middleton, Destiny Boka Batesa and Kaydine Rogers from the Advocacy Academy in Brixton, south London, which teaches young people how to create transformational campaigns, Choked Up aims to make clear how air pollution and social justice are inextricably linked – and how people of colour are likely to be the most affected by toxic air.
“We’re lobbying for the environment bill, which is currently in parliament, to include more comprehensive targets and strategies to reduce air pollution,” says Brauer-Maxaeia. Their reach is not only local – the founders lobbied the London mayoral candidates to become a mayor for clean air – but also global. Choked Up works with the environmental charity Global Action Plan to get clean air “enshrined as a children’s right globally”.
“People in the cabinet understand issues hypothetically,” says Raman-Middleton. “They can say: ‘This is how I imagine it feels to be living by one of these roads, this is how I imagine pollution will affect my daily life.’ But it’s very different to be living that.” KC
BP or not BP: ‘Out, damned logo!’
It takes a particular sort of skill – and commitment – to sneak a 12-metre (40ft) sea monster into the British Museum, but for a “merry troupe” of guerrilla performers committed to protesting against sponsorship of cultural institutions by oil companies, it’s all in a day’s work. The group has also wheeled a Trojan horse into the museum’s courtyard, invaded it with a Viking longship and curated living artworks with up to 350 people at the museum. “We take huge pride in our smuggling game,” says Jess Worth, one of the founders. “I don’t want to give away too many of our secrets.”
The BP or not BP story began in 2012, when Worth found herself among a group of people involved in activism against the oil industry. “This group were performers, too,” she says, “so when we saw BP was sponsoring the Royal Shakespeare Company … that got us where it really hurts.” They were inspired by another protest group, Liberate Tate, which used art to challenge BP’s sponsorship of the gallery. “We thought, what does that approach look like for BP sponsoring the RSC?” says Worth. “That probably looks like Shakespearean stage invasions!”
And so, in April 2012, as the audience members at the Royal Shakespeare theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon awaited a performance of the Tempest, the group leaped on stage. The lead actor, who had concealed his Shakespearean garb beneath a long goth coat, launched into a heartfelt, two-minute soliloquy. There were heckles, but as he concluded with the words: “Let us break their staff that would bewitch us! Out damned logo!” and ripped the BP badge from the programme, cheers and applause rang out. After a prolonged campaign, supported by artists and the public, the RSC ended its sponsorship deal with BP in 2019. WC
Pass the Mic: ‘It’s hard for people on the frontline to get to Cop26’
Founded in the autumn of 2020 by Tori Tsui, Dominique Palmer, Frances Fox, George Steedman Jones and Elijah Mckenzie-Jackson after waves of climate strikes, Pass the Mic came together in response to David Attenborough retiring his Instagram account, although it still has 6 million followers. The campaign acts as a call to arms to get influential figures, brands and organisations to #PassTheMic and turn the spotlight on to frontline climate activists and those who are most affected by the crisis. “It doesn’t stop at David Attenborough,” says Tsui, 27. “The climate movement being centred on one person isn’t only a huge responsibility, it’s a distraction from the fact that everybody comes together to create a movement and change.”
“The people who are dealing with the effects of the climate crisis are left out of conversations,” says Fox. “Conferences like Cop26 are inaccessible – it’s hard for people from countries on the frontlines to get there because of visas and expenses. They’re not voiceless – they’re just unheard”. KC
HS2 Rebellion: ‘Direct action has not been seen on this scale since the 1990s’
HS2 Rebellion is a broad church. It encompasses groups such as Stop HS2, members of Extinction Rebellion, eco-activists and local residents along the route. It has united everyone from diehard environmentalists to Ukip. This alone is a remarkable testament to the impact of one of Europe’s largest infrastructure projects.
It has attracted protests since it was mooted, but there has been an intensity to the level of activism that has bubbled up since construction began: protesters have scaled buildings and embarked on hunger strikes. Images of activists trussed up in trees, putting their bodies between bulldozers and woodland, have come to symbolise the resistance to the railway. Many people have faced criminal convictions for the cause.
Construction ploughs on, but activists hope their disruption will at the very least have an impact on how infrastructure decisions are made in future. This style of direct action has not been seen in the UK on this scale since the 1990s, when eco-activists pitched camps and dug tunnels to obstruct expansion of the road network. WC
Planet Patrol: ‘People want to actively participate in solving this’
In 2016, Lizzie Carr embarked on a journey. She paddleboarded the length of the country along England’s waterways: 400 miles over 22 days. She catalogued every piece of litter that she saw and plotted it on an interactive map. As she shared her findings on social media, people got in touch asking how they could help. It all led to the launch of Planet Patrol (originally Plastic Patrol), a global campaign to clean up the planet.
Carr turned her interactive map into an app, so others could log litter, too. Then she started organising events to get more people out on the water.
The project has snowballed: 350,000 pieces of litter have been logged across 83 countries. Planet Patrol uses wellness to engage people with the environment and has expanded beyond paddleboarding to facilitate cleanups combined with yoga, parkour and other health and fitness activities: about 35,000 people have participated. “People feel helpless and overwhelmed about what they can do to actively participate in solving this,” says Carr. “It’s important for me to find a way to get people to come out and be part of the solution.” WC