Extinction Rebellion boomers Gen Z climate protests – left: blond woman in sunglasses, a sunhat and pink top next to young blond kid wearing a white t-shirt and white hat, posing in front of mountains. Right: woman in a sunhat and green vest using a green
Left: Old family photo of the author and his mother on holiday | Right: The author’s mother at an Extinction Rebellion protest on the A12. Photos courtesy of the author.
Extinction Rebellion

When Your Boomer Mum Joins Extinction Rebellion

She's 61, she's occupied highways and she's even reconsidering the use of violence against property.

This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.

Every young person I know seems worried about the world these days. Long-drawn-out conflicts, the climate crisis, the decline in homeownership: We have a lot to blame our predecessors for. Meanwhile, those same predecessors (AKA boomers) are often painted as cranky conservatives with big houses and an even bigger sense of privilege, leaning back in their power recliners as they watch the world burn.


But not all people follow the stereotypes of their respective generation. I – a late millennial – am decidedly less engaged in activism than many people my age. I’m a little introverted and I don’t like putting myself out there, so protests and other public gatherings aren’t exactly my cup of tea. Instead, I try to live in a somewhat eco-friendly way. I donate to charities here and there, but I fully admit that I stuff a burger in my face every now and then. 

My 61-year-old mother Margot, on the other hand, is a signed-up member of Extinction Rebellion – she’s participated in a number of their rallies and is actively trying to reduce her climate impact. (She’s using her first name to protect her privacy.)

Ever since I moved out of my childhood home a couple of years ago, my parents have been much more concerned with the environment and their impact on the crisis. I wondered what changed for my mum and how far she’s willing to go for this cause, so I decided to interview her about it.

VICE: Hey Mum. What does activism mean for you?
For me, activism is more than just participating in a demonstration; it’s what I’ve been doing recently with XR: joining highway protests and acts of civil disobedience, hanging posters around town, things like that. In the past, I would just sign petitions, vote for certain parties or walk in the climate marches. I always hoped things would get better, but I decided to take it a step further when I didn’t see enough results.


When I was younger, I don’t remember you guys being particularly concerned about the climate. Many of our holidays involved flying, and we travelled quite a bit overall. When did you cross over into activism?
I think it happened gradually. The sense of urgency has grown a lot in the past few years. I was constantly reading and hearing about it, watching films like An Inconvenient Truth. There were plenty of people ringing the alarm bell, but still very little happening. 

In the past, I would delude myself thinking ‘I’m going to take a plane for this trip, but I’ll plant a couple of trees to compensate.’ But I know now that that’s just a psychological trick to make things seem alright, to condone your own behaviour. In reality, it doesn’t really help. 

When you were raising me, did you try to instil a degree of social consciousness in me?
I don’t think I was actively trying to make that part of my parenting, but unconsciously, I taught you that having lots of things – like expensive clothes or status symbols – doesn’t necessarily make you happy.

Once, on holiday, I read the book Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, which left a deep impression on me. From then on, I decided to consume less meat, and only eat “good” meat, from organic sources. I’ve tried to make you and your dad do the same, though I feel I haven’t really succeeded. I don’t think I consciously preached to you, but I did invite you to join me. 


I would say it’s something I’m more aware of now, but perhaps not as much as I could be.
Well, you can’t shoulder that whole responsibility as an individual – the system needs to change as well. We live in a capitalist and consumerist society that’s all about profit maximization, and we need to change that. Of course, citizens and consumers should also take their responsibility, but it’s up to the government and large companies in particular to do something about it. 

So what’s it like blocking a highway?
I’ve protested on the A12 [a large highway connecting The Hague with other major Dutch cities] four times in total. There was an almost festival-like atmosphere; people were singing and organising all kinds of fun and interesting activities. There were lots of different people, young and old, from different corners of society... It was truly heartwarming to see. 

Things can be quite suspenseful when the police start arresting people. Everyone starts filming to prevent violence, and that always feels a bit grim. In the beginning, I would walk away before I could get arrested, which we call “low-profile activism”. But at the later protests I remained seated, even after being told, “You need to leave or you’ll get arrested” three times. 

I held my ground at first, but when they tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I was going to cooperate, I did. Some rebels say no and offer passive resistance, and get picked up by the police and carried away. I don’t want to go that far – at that point I feel like I’ve made my message clear, and don’t want to slow things down even more.


How do you feel about other XR protests, like activists gluing themselves to tables and stuff? A lot of people find that cringe. I’m inclined to agree with them, although I’m not opposed to the underlying message.
The protests are always very well thought-out. We don’t want to be destructive or harmful to anyone at all. But they do generate confusion and attention. The XR mindset is: “What the hell can we do to wake people up?”

Some people feel this level of desperation and are willing to set aside their embarrassment and do uncomfortable, disruptive things. Sure, some people might not take them seriously, but they’ll talk about it. You won’t see me do that anytime soon, it’s not really my style, but it does have an impact.

Everyone knows about fossil fuel subsidies now. It was a big point of discussion during our elections, and it wouldn’t have been the case if XR hadn’t done some crazy things. So no, it’s not fun, but sometimes things need to be not fun to change.

We often blame boomers for what’s happening to the world. But do you think people my age are doing enough?
Hard to say. I see a lot of young people at XR who truly feel like they’re part of a community. They come together every Thursday night to eat, make music, come up with ideas, do volunteer work, make art. But you also have young people who just go out for drinks, buy clothes and just don't think about any of this. I don’t feel I can generalize.


What are your thoughts about the criticism that the movement isn’t diverse enough?
XR resists colonialism and capitalism, and shows solidarity with groups that are suffering from systematic and climate changes. It’s true that some groups who experience discrimination don’t feel safe and fear being arrested faster than other protesters, but that’s more due to general social racism. Our movement is largely made up of white people, but we would love to have a more diverse membership. Everyone is welcome to join. 

In the past months, XR has taken on a more intersectional approach by occupying the International Criminal Court in the Hague in solidarity with the Palestinian people. How do you feel about that?
Oof, that’s a difficult question. There are discussions about this within XR. I believe some people have actually left because of that. But keep in mind that XR is a grassroots movement. There’s no leader, boss or hierarchy. Personally, I would like it if we really focused on biodiversity and climate change, but I know there are also rebels who support Kick Out Zwarte Piet [a movement to abolish a Dutch Christmas tradition with racist roots] and Palestine, because these issues have to do with systems of oppression.

In the movie How To Blow Up A Pipeline, which we watched together, we see people actually inflicting damage on polluting structures and entities. Would you participate in these types of interventions?
A couple months ago I would have said, “As soon as there’s an element of violence involved, I no longer want to be a part of it”. But the movie got me thinking. What I liked about the people in the movie is that they were careful and only used violence against properties that were causing damage, not against people. I found that understandable and almost defensible, which doesn't necessarily mean I would do it myself. 

In the end, I don’t think objects and property are worth more than human lives. So I do understand that, at some point, there will be people who are prepared to take it a step further. I found the movie very provocative, it made me think about violence in a more nuanced way.