by Niall Walker
“The best thing about the factory is this: you can organise yourself. We have done everything we first set out to do and more here.”
Ines, twentysomething, stands over a woodblock and allows her gaze to momentarily leave the print she is preparing and meet mine. We stand in the claustrophobic quarters of Extinction Rebellion’s unofficial art hub. On the walls, dozens of snake-shaped belts hang in line; boxes are stashed away in every corner, labelled with the titles of past projects; and the surfaces are covered in the logo which has become ever more conspicuous on London’s streets.
It's been two months since Extinction Rebellion brought London to a standstill. In November, the non-violent activist network occupied the major bridges in London to bring the world's attention to the imminent climate catastrophe - and to force politicians to act with urgency. Beginning with ten people six months ago, Extinction Rebellion now has a growing presence in 35 countries and the backing of the likes of Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Bill Mckibben, and former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.
But tonight, this certainly doesn’t feel like your typical political gathering. I meet Ines, Miles, and Tyche on a Friday evening as they are reaching the end of a day’s manual work. These prints, all hand made, will be stamped on to roads, walls, and jackets at the next demonstration their network organises. They work with intensity, but also with enthusiasm, borne perhaps from the knowledge that worldwide, there are thousands of others working similarly hard for the cause.
“Key players in the Occupy movement came in to help, and learnt the lessons from that experience.” Explains Miles, handing me another beer. “Likewise many really experienced Eco-activists who have been worn out and disillusioned from it all are joining. They and thousands of others, young and old, are coming out for the last stand, humanity’s last chance.”
“In the beginning we used a post-consensus form of non-hierarchical organising. We don’t have time to vote on everything, we are in an emergency situation! So personal responsibility came first, then you take the criticism from within the movement as we go forward.”
“Now we are trying to create a ‘structure’. We are a worldwide movement, but we need to keep things as transparent as possible. We’ve taken a holacratic approach: empower individuals, allow them to constantly redefine their roles and get the fuck on with it!”
One aspect of this is the Factory. The room we stood in was cramped and claustrophobic, and the lights from within barely kept out the dark of a cold December evening. Yet the sights and sounds of labour were all around, and the objects shimmered in their flourescent production.
“We wanted everything to look good," he adds, attired himself in an effortless punk aesthetic. "The photography, the banners, the logo. We’ve got really talented people involved in all areas, from graphic designers to lawyers, all working for free because they really do believe in this. Any skill you’ve got can be put to rebellious or revolutionary use.”
“People wanted to do something. There was anger and passion and Extinction Rebellion arose.”
For a movement founded less than a year ago, Extinction Rebellion's global expansion has been impressive. “We are continuously growing. We do outreach workshops, and share our printing techniques to everyone interested. This allows us to create an open space to foster debate, listen to comments and thoughts, and eventually get more activists on board.” says Ines. “But I think our ambition has been key too." adds Miles. "Even before the first meeting, we realised this was something to be involved in because people were energised. Then, when we took the bridges, we were looking around thinking, 'Shit, the general public have actually turned up!'. Social media has changed the game completely."
Extinction Rebellion are keenly aware of the impact of their visual presence, something which makes the art coming out produced in The Factory even more significant. “It’s a great way for people to get to know us, and to feel a physical connection to the movement” Tyche, a Biology student by day, adds. "And woodcutting has a real revolutionary tradition," adds Miles.
"It dates back to the English Civil War with the production of radical pamphlets. People used to gather and read them in pubs. Here was a simple object which told them they were important, free, and had rights. The message was in the medium, and that’s what we tried to do with XR’s fold out declaration leaflets."
Despite these roots in radical tradition, Extinction Rebellion's emergence is a uniquely contemporary phenomenon. At the tail end of an era where progressive street action has all but melted away, is it the case that climate change, and environmental action, can resurrect a popular spirit of protest?
"If you see what's going on, you have to feel compelled to do as much as you can to stop it," states Ines, "I am not a scientist, but I can see that this is affecting the lives of millions of people, that crops will fail, no water, air pollution...This is the future unless something is done."
"...And our politicians haven't done a fucking thing about it!" exclaims Miles. "Of course, the issues around climate change are systemic. That's why XR says that we get to a better place firstly by increasing democracy, by getting people involved and mobilised and feeling like they have the power to act to make a difference."
I had entered the Factory with scepticism about Extinction Rebellion. After bleak and unsuccessful years spent campaigning and protesting injustice in obscurity, their form of disruptive civil disobedience felt...contrived? untenable? Maybe these were the fictions I soothed my own cynical conscience with.
Extinction Rebellion appears to be a movement which has formed from a collective emotional response, both to climate change, and the political inaction humanity has addressed it with thus far. Yet, it has codified a playfulness and flexibility in how it operates, one which can potentially appeal to a generation disillusioned with meetings, motions and minutes.
"The best way to see what we do is come along, and see how easy it is to get involved in a really interesting way. How much fun did we have at the Factory?" Tyche says. "Surely transforming the world in to a version of what we want is the most interesting job available?"
Find out more about how you can get involved with Extinction Rebellion here