Who are Extinction Rebellion, the UK-born activist group holding cities to ransom?

An explainer on the environmental activists currently seizing landmarks and headlines

With many major London thoroughfares brought to a standstill for the third day running, activist group Extinction Rebellion have succeeded in making a statement it’s impossible to ignore. Oxford Circus is blocked off, Waterloo Bridge has become a makeshift bunkhouse, and countless similar protests are popping up across the city, country and planet.

But who are Extinction Rebellion, and what do they want? How have they organised so quickly, and what’s that symbol all about? We’ve rounded up everything you need to know about the group currently holding the country to ransom.

Who are Extinction Rebellion?

Extinction Rebellion (or “XR”) are an international movement seeking new approaches to how governmental bodies address and climate change. The group are centred around the belief that humanity is approaching the point of extinction as a result of man-made climate change.

Operating with non-violent civil disobedience, their actions include sit-in protests, headline-grabbing stunts and large-scale gatherings and marches, all with the aim of demanding a fast-acting governmental response to what XR see as “the risk of human extinction and ecological collapse.”

They largely unite under the Extinct Logo – a logo used to represent the threat of extinction for a number of years. A design based upon a bold ‘X’ (for ‘eXtinct’) and an hourglass, it has been called “this generation’s peace sign”.

Environmental campaigners block Oxford Circus during a coordinated protest by the Extinction Rebellion group (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Where did Extinction Rebellion come from?

The group first formed on October 31, 2018, with an assembly in London’s Parliament Square which drew upwards of 1500 participants. In the following weeks, they reassembled to block five major bridges across London, plant trees in Parliament Square and super-glue themselves to the gates of Buckingham Palace, drawing attention in the press and across social media.

From there, numerous other groups adopted Extinction Rebellion’s mantra, with factions now present across the globe, “from Solomon Islands to Australia, from Spain to South Africa, the US to India.” XR has since grown from its London origins to a fully-fledged international movement.

The ‘demands’ of Extinction Rebellion, on Waterloo Bridge (Photo: NME/Hannah Mylrea-Hemmings)

What are Extinction Rebellion’s demands?

In more general terms, Extinction Rebellion are calling upon the governments of the world to address, with haste, the rise of climate change and the potential environmental disaster that approaches.

As part of their protest process, Extinction Rebellion have laid out three core demands:

  1. “Tell the truth”: The government are called upon to tell the truth about the climate situation, and declare an official “climate and ecological emergency”. They are also called upon to work with other institutions, to communicate the urgency with which change is required.
  2. “Act now”: XR have demanded a net zero on all greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2025 – an action they state will only be possible if their demands are met with immediate effect.
  3. “Beyond politics”: Putting aside the partisan approach that governments tend to operate under, XR are calling for the creation of a Citizen’s Assembly on climate and ecological justice. This is an impartial, randomly selected body of people, chosen to reflect the demographic composition of the UK. In the UK, there is already a Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care. Such things are usually enacted in order to address problems considered of greater importance than the needs, views or biases of any one political party.

What tactics are Extinction Rebellion using?

On April 15 2019, Extinction Rebellion began their two-week ‘International Rebellion’ protest in London with a sit-in protest at both Waterloo Bridge, blocking off access to one of London’s major train stations, and Oxford Circus, parking a shored boat at the centre-point of London’s busiest shopping street.

April 16 saw further sites “shut down” by the group, with April 17 onwards planned under the title “Open Rebellion For As Long As It Takes”. Roads and transport systems leading away from the initial protest sites will be be blocked, with the aim of “shutting down” London’s infrastructure to such a degree that the Government must respond to XR’s demands.

“Participants will peacefully break the law in order to stop the Tube and then will wait to be arrested. We sincerely apologise to all those who may suffer as a consequence of this disruption. In any other circumstances we would never dream of disrupting the Tube but this is an emergency,” the group have stated. “We request that workers do not intervene in the protests to ensure that they go as smoothly and safely as possible for all involved.”

What’s been the response to Extinction Rebellion’s actions so far?

Thus far, Extinction Rebellion have garnered both support and disapproval online and in the press.  Over 425 people have accepted arrest by the Metropolitan Police – a voluntary form of arrest which Extinction Rebellion members and protest attendees can opt into in support of the greater aims of the group. Three protestors have been charged with obstruction of trains and carriages on a railway, after gluing themselves to a Docklands Light Railway train at Canary Wharf station – the heart of London’s banking district.

As of April 18, the Government are yet to officially respond to the actions, though Environment Secretary Michael Gove has stated “we’ve got the message”. XR activists are demanding to meet the government more formally.

Speaking on the BBC’s The One Show, Gove stated: “I do worry sometimes about some of the scenes we’ve seen and some of the activity that goes on. So I think it’s appropriate for people to make their feelings known but I also think, we’ve got the message, we understand that action needs to be taken.

“And in fact some of the activity that’s been going on on the streets has actually stopped people doing their jobs and also impeded, for example, people getting around London in a way that’s appropriate.”

What’s next for Extinction Rebellion?

Extinction Rebellion’s ‘International Rebellion’ protests are scheduled to continue until April 29, 2019. Further action, protest and shutdowns of infrastructure are promised by the group, though details are kept scarce so as to avoid detection and dismantling by police services.

“The plan is for ongoing escalation,” Extinction Rebellion co-ordinator Howard Rees told NME from Waterloo Bridge on April 16. “Beyond the sites that we’re holding, we’re planning to roadblocks on adjacent roads and possibly some further, more secret actions. I don’t necessarily know what all of them are, because we’re a decentralised group and act in autonomy in line with our main principles: the key one is non-violence.”

Asked what it would take for the protests to be brought to an end, Rees replied: “I imagine that if we were invited to discuss them with the government, then we might ramp things down. Discussions alone aren’t enough, though. We’re in a state of emergency and we need it dealt with.

“We’ll keep going until we win. We’ve suggested that people take a couple of weeks of work, but that by no means that we’ll only be at this for two weeks. We’ll be at it for as long as it takes.”

How do I join Extinction Rebellion?

Protests are occurring around London, and can be tracked via Twitter at @ExtinctionR – attendance at one of these protests does carry with it a risk of arrest. A more formal sign-up process can be found at the group’s website, as well as a donation page.