October 11, 2019

At times this week Extinction Rebellion (XR) made London feel apocalyptic. Or post-apocalyptic. Perhaps it was their intention to give a demonstration of what it might look like when people start to lose their heads.

As I emerged from Westminster tube onto Whitehall, the other morning, I came across three women dressed in the XR red-goddess outfit at the top of the steps. With faces painted chalk-white, they had linked their raised hands and were descending quasi-ceremonially. Londoners, being fairly unimpressible — like the residents of any megacity — simply wove around the trio and hurried to their next meetings. But the scene brought an awful lot of things to mind. Whatever else you might say about them, the performative weirdness of XR does make you think. Not about the environment, so much as the cultural and moral tributaries that go into making a protest of such oddity.

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There’s the pop-cultural reference points, of course. With the echoes of films such as the appalling V for Vendetta, it feels like those involved are doing what they think people ought to be doing when protesting. The parade behind Westminster Abbey of elderly people in silver cloaks with ensigns protruding from their heads was another such moment. It all was the product of a particular type of person: affluent-seeming, elderly, well-informed and significantly mad.

The scenes on the pavements of Whitehall put me in mind of an older reference: Samuel Pepys, who had married and worshipped at the nearby church of St Margaret. At various points in his Diaries, in gaps from relating his latest amorous guilts, Pepys will note the emergence of some new oddity of the city. The emergence, for instance, of a new group of ‘fanatics’ — in one case comprising a group who begin stabbing Londoners at random for some newly discovered apocalyptic cause.

London has seen cults and sects come and go since Roman days at least. But there is something about XR that is fascinating precisely because those involved both seem to be putting themselves in that lineage and yet would resist the comparison. This time — they insist — it really is the end of the world. All the earlier fanatics were just faking it.

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There were moments in their performance that were quite convincing. It was sobering walking behind Downing Street at night as that day’s activists crept from tent to tent in their St James’s Park campsite. The dimmed torches allowed you to make out the signs of the various communal spaces that had been set up: a food tent, an A&E tent.

The protestors were enjoying themselves, as people tend to do when they are permitted to break the law, but they were serious. And in the quiet, and with the low light, it did feel for a moment as though this were a prelude to what might happen if a city like London ever did run out of power. I recognised the feeling from a novel I read earlier this year, a marvellous, reissued book by RC Sherriff called The Hopkins Manuscript, in which the moon crashes into the earth and those who survive have to find ways to reorganise and bind together in the aftermath. People congregate in London and eke out their last days in the city.

There is human solidarity in such moments, at first, as there was at XR’s protests, despite the extraordinary inconvenience it caused. But though it all seemed to point to one purpose, it wasn’t the one that those involved claimed.

The claimed purpose has been put under the national microscope this week; it has been a pleasure to watch Britain doing what it does best by allowing the fanatics of XR to explain their arguments across the airwaves. Nobody could begrudge them or the broadcasters the opportunities this presents. The fanatics get to try to put across their point of view, and the broadcasters attempt to help by exposing them. There is nothing unfair about this. It is the give and take of democracy.

On Sky, two perfectly pleasant and reasonable sounding women explained their case. The presenter asked them whether they would prevent patients getting to St Thomas’s hospital and the viewing public was given a fine opportunity to see the reasonable and fanatical minds both struggling for supremacy in the same heads. On the one hand, a pre-agreed line had to be held. On the other, lives were at stake. What to do?

They did what people always do — which is to delay. The nice young lady explained that people who had medical emergencies could speak to the XR people blocking the bridge and could perhaps be let through as an exception. No particular thought had been given to the St Thomas’s question at an organisational level. So here was one of the fanatics trying to balance being extreme and being human live on air.

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Andrew Neil, meanwhile, did what he does best and forensically exposed the most outlandish claims that the group makes. Taking serious studies and building a great pile of exaggeration and assertion on the top of them would appear to be XR’s operating mode. Turning ‘possibly’ into ‘certainly’, truncating timelines, making worst-case scenarios into certain-case scenarios and much more has this week been demonstrated — by Britain’s broadcasters — to be what XR does second best.

But what it does best — its actual purpose — is something that has got almost no attention this week even though it is visible just beneath the surface of the pantomime. In The Times on Thursday, a man called David Copus was quoted. A software engineer aged 47, Mr Copus had apparently taken unpaid leave in order to be at the protests in London. And he was clearly gaining a lot from it. “This struggle bonds you to people immensely,” he said. “I feel like I’m really doing something with such purpose. I’m going to find it very difficult going back to work after this.”

And having observed them for a week, I would say that Mr Copus’s is the authentic voice of XR. Who would want to return to their IT job when there is an apocalypse to warn about and prepare for?

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The predominance of white people at the protests. The predominance of elderly people. All pointed to the great chasm which the modern democratic world sees scant need to address but which groups like XR provide. It is the ever-present gap of meaning and purpose.

In societies such as modern Britain we have means and comforts that our forebears could never have dreamed of. But having achieved them, we don’t know what to do with them, and some people are bored. Bored with their jobs, bored with the lack of struggle, bored with the lack of heroism and purpose that security brings.

So, unsure what to build next, or how else to gain purpose, a certain number of people are finding meaning in self-denial and self-blame. They’re finding ultimate meaning in the call to repent before the imminent, partly longed for, apocalypse.

XR has risen — and will fade — like similar fanatical movements before it. But aside from some happy memories for the participants, the thought it most clearly leaves behind for me is the question of why, when people in modern democracies reach out, yearning for meaning, XR answers their call.