To the surprise of know-it-all climate commentators like myself, the Extinction Rebellion (XR) protest movement successfully and joyously locked down parts of central London for over a week in April. Riding a wave of momentum that was unleashed by the school strikes, and spearheaded by Greta Thunberg's singular leadership, the spring uprising surpassed all expectations.
Draped in the rhetoric (and flags) of impending apocalypse, XR articulated the message – expressed in varying degrees of nuance by scientists and campaigners for nearly three decades – that we are well and truly fucked unless unprecedented changes to the status quo are enacted in a profoundly short space of time. Or – at least, according to the gnarlier end of the XR spectrum – that we're fully fucked already.
XR's April antics adroitly shoved climate change up the political agenda and into the middle of the public discourse. So how do you follow a decade-defining moment of activism only a few short months earlier?
This week, XR have descended on five separate cities (London, Glasgow, Cardiff, Leeds and Bristol) and extended their nautical armoury beyond the original pink TELL THE TRUTH boat, to a range of smaller vessels and kayaks. Here's how the demonstration went down on Tuesday night in Bristol, a city still proud to claim the crown of crusty HQ after all these years.
17.30: Clocking off for the day, I catch up on events via XR Bristol's Twitter. I'm heartened to see that 80s activist and musician Billy Bragg has led the "youth" delegation of XR activists to their base on College Green, like an end-times Pied Piper, while Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has astutely pointed out all of the roadworks in the city. I prepare myself for a night of cutting edge culture.
18.00: As I reach the centre of the city, it's hard to immediately pick out the climate activists hanging around in the city's parks and green spaces from the Bristolians who normally hang around in the city's parks and green spaces.
18.25: Filled with pre-protest idealism, I try out a pitch I was working on just this morning – for an "eco rave" involving simultaneous video-linked DJs in two European cities – to a group of ambivalent friends. The pitch needs more work.
18.56: At Bristol Bridge, the main location for the protest, someone appears to be doing bad karaoke to 90s dinner party D'n'B stars Kosheen while a helicopter hovers overhead.
18.59: The MC asks the crowd to put their hands together for the one and only Kosheen.
19.06: The climate crisis is not going to be solved by bullishly imposing "solutions" on people who don't feel any ownership over those solutions. So one of XR's best elements – reflected in the "people's assembly" held at this time every night across the week-long demo – is its focus on climate conversations. We aren't going to undergo the most radical transition ever attempted without talking to each other about how we get from A to B.
19.30: About 100 people are gathered in groups of eight, sitting in circles and discussing their reflections on the day. The people's assembly seems more focused on the nuts and bolts of the logistics than the magnitude of climate change. But as the old saying goes: you don't solve climate change without some sub-committees.
19.40: The wellbeing area has couches, cups of tea and, of course, free hugs. An amateur acrobat stands one-legged on a lamppost. It's like the healing fields at Glastonbury, only nobody's K-holing. This was the kind of climate protest I was expecting from the crusty capital of the UK.
20.03: The youth march to College Green has disbanded by the time we get there, but chatting to the younger activists, it's clear how critical the youth wing of XR and the school strikes have been. Their heartbreaking sincerity has changed the game. Surely they deserve better entertainment than Billy Bragg?
20.28: Back at Bristol Bridge, the ska has started. There is a highly agreeable vibe, extending from the protesters, to the police, to passers by. Across the week there have been more seriously disruptive actions elsewhere (blocking the busy M32 junction where commuters enter the city by locking on to a pink bathtub). But here on the bridge, the revolution will be amicable.
20.50: One of the most impressive aspects of the demonstration is the incredibly well functioning kitchen, dishing out tasty vegan meals in exchange for donations. The whole camping area is spotlessly clean, and the camp feels much closer to an officially sanctioned "gathering" than a raucous protest. There is so little edginess that three passing Brummies arguing loudly over who threw a mayonnaise chip at who quickly attract attention. Welcome to the mild, mild West.
21.07: At the Brewdog over the road, an affinity group resting up after a hard evening placarding provide a sobering counterpoint to the strangely jolly coppers loitering around: that whatever happens next, we've wasted 30 years that we should have spent decarbonising. We won't get that time back. The basic XR message – that life as we know it hangs in the balance unless we step up to this challenge immediately – is a sobering and entirely justified one.
21.37: Just in case anyone was enjoying this too much, the PA announces that alcohol is not allowed; that it's a "protest not a party".
21.58: The outer blockades of the protest are strangely calm. One rebel tells me there's some agitation about this, that the police liaison went a little too well and that more arrestable and imprisonable actions are furtively being planned for later in the week.
22.14: Intrigued by the two young policemen guarding the road block with grins on their faces, I ask why they're having such a lovely time. Their answer confirms the police liaison went a little too well – they know exactly what’s planned and are cool with it.
22.20: From the stage: "This is an emo ballad for the ecological crisis – we really don't want to waste our time, do we?" The song is about not wasting time. The song is an eco-ballad.
22.50: The crowd has thinned. The music has thankfully stopped. Climate change is still snarling away in the background.
23.05: The rebels are disbanding and heading home. The pink TELL THE TRUTH boat remains steadfastly in place, blocking Bristol Bridge. The police remain jolly.
Weirdly, Bristol Bridge had been closed off by the police themselves on Monday morning, meaning the protesters didn't need to confront irate motorists, but also removing that crucial hit of defiance so central to any process of civil disobedience. With traffic signs flashing up warnings around the city before the protest started, and a generally supportive wider public for enviro-activism in a city like Bristol, is it wrong to crave a bit more rebellion? Or should we be pleased that the constabulary are facilitating climate solutions?
It's easy to poke fun at the aesthetics and optics of climate activism. But if the soundtrack to the climate emergency leaves a lot to be desired, the onus is on the rest of popular culture to step up and back some concrete solutions.
The XR crew has carved out a space for the climate crisis to be shouted about, but Billy Bragg can't do that forever, and we shouldn’t let him. So get down to your local XR demo, grab the mic, join a people’s assembly and narrate the story the way you want to hear it – its all of ours to tell.