extinction rebellion
Melbourne climate protesters lying in Bourke Street Mall (Image: AAP/David Crosling)

Last Saturday I joined a couple of hundred others in the Perth CBD for the launch of Extinction Rebellion WA. As the rain began to pour, the melancholy call of the Carnaby’s black cockatoo rang out over Murray Street Mall, and everyone dropped to the paving for the inaugural “die-in”.

It blocked pedestrian traffic through Perth’s main drag for half an hour — a small taste of the national disruption that’s to come.

Extinction Rebellion (XR) launched in the UK in October last year with a “Declaration of Rebellion” in Parliament Square, but the group really hit the big-time this April when tens of thousands of protesters occupied central London for more than a week. Emma Thompson read poetry from a boat in Oxford Circus, there were dance parties on Waterloo Bridge. A week later, the House of Commons declared a climate emergency — the first of Extinction Rebellion’s three demands. It’s whimsical and reckless, but direct action works.

It arrived in Australia around the same time. On May 24, a couple of thousand people shut down Bourke Street Mall. The night before the first Perth action, they were at it again in Melbourne and other cities. My friend called me from an obstructed tram — “I mean, I agree with them, but it’s been a really long day and I’ve got dinner in literally one minute”.

This is the tension with direct action, of course, between getting attention and alienating people. Thus far, XR seems to be walking the line. A poll taken during the April shut-down found support for the protest at 46%, a remarkable swathe given the nebulous threat and very immediate annoyance. UK membership had increased from 10,000 to 40,000 by the time the group wrapped up a week later. Although subsequent polls showed a spike in opposition once the real crunch hit, they’re still taking a decent chunk of the mainstream with them, somehow.

The fundamental premise of XR is mass civil disobedience, deliberately breaking the law to create a transformation of political structures. “The whole strategy is centred around one primary objective — getting thousands of people into capital cities on a specific date,” explains Roger Hallam, one of XR’s founders.

The three organising principles are disruption, sacrifice, and respect. The first gets attention, the second means you’re taken seriously, and the third is about hearts and minds. “We must appeal to people who don’t join or support environmental causes, be that because of ideology, social class, culture, religion or race,” says Hallam. “Only when the message is put in a culturally neutral language can a mass movement be built.”

The language disguises Extinction Rebellion’s revolutionary meaning. Hallam again: “The task at hand [is] radical collective action against the political regime which is planning our collective suicide … This involves mass participation civil disobedience. Tens and hundreds of thousands of people breaking the law to create a transformation of political structures.

Another founding member, Stuart Basden, wrote a Medium post earlier this year titled “Extinction Rebellion isn’t about the climate”. “If we only talk about the climate, we’re missing the deeper problems plaguing our culture,” he says. “To focus on the climate’s breakdown (the symptom) … is a form of denialism … that takes away from the necessary focus of the need for all of us to de-colonise our selves.”

At the Perth rally, the two largest banners read “Rebel for Life” and “Decolonisation”. Local elder Uncle Ben Taylor spoke about how Noongar people have been warning about climate change and damage to country from the start. “But we are still refugees in our own country,” he said. “It’s spiritually, mentally, physically heartbreaking.”

Noongar writer Cassie Lynch speaks about Aboriginal cultures as a model for repairing our relationship with the natural world and responding to climate change. “Supporting the return of traditional knowledges to the mainstream is not just about righting the wrongs of the past, but can contribute to the survival of all peoples in danger of obliteration or displacement.”

Some mornings I drive along the Derbarl Yerrigan, the Noongar name for the Swan River, and it stinks. You can’t eat fish caught there any more. The XR die-in happened on land that used to be wetlands — Perth train station sits on an old lake, and CBD buildings still need pumps to fight back the returning water.

The Carnaby’s black cockatoos’ distribution is almost exactly the extent of Noongar Boodjar — the country of the traditional custodians of the south-west who call the birds ngolyenok. The birds feed on banksias that have been widely cleared — new trees can’t put down roots quickly enough into the depleting water table, and will mostly die. The cockatoo numbers are declining 15% a year; they could be gone within a decade. The bird is XRWA’s emblem, a local stamp on a global flag. 

I attended my first meeting a week before the first action, wary of wasting my time looking at yet more upward trending graphs. Instead, I walked in to a local Noongar leader speaking about traditional land management and connection to country. Oh cool, I thought, these guys get it. I’d gone along to write about it — by the end of the night I was a member, and a week later I was on the radio promoting the launch.

Celebrated British theorist Mark Fisher spoke of “capitalist realism” — the collective subjectivity that he described as “a pervasive atmosphere, acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action”. Margaret Thatcher was pithier: “There is no alternative”. Fisher’s central idea is that “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”.

It’s increasingly apparent that it’s a choice between one or the other. In one sense, though, Thatcher was right: at this point there’s no alternative but to pick a side and fight, us or the machine. Time to get out on the streets and bring it to a standstill.

Jesse Noakes is currently doing voluntary media work for Extinction Rebellion, and was not paid for this piece.

What do you think of Extinction Rebellion’s protest tactics? Send your comments to [email protected]. Please include your full name.