Socialist Review spoke to Jess Lichtenstern of Extinction Rebellion about the aims and intentions of the movement and school student Cyrus Jarvis after the magnificent schools strike last month.
Jess Lichtenstern, Extinction Rebellion
SR: What does rebellion mean to you, and where do you think power lies?
JL: Rebellion in itself, to me, is about doing things that you believe are right regardless of if they are in alignment with the law. It’s about questioning everything you do and making decisions accordingly, and this rebellion is doing that in a very specific way. Extinction Rebellion (XR) is saying we’re in a state of emergency and we’re not acting like it. We’re going about our daily lives, continuing business as usual.
Working within that framework is not going to change the situation. Activism which exists within that framework might be something like lobbying your MP or signing a petition, and that’s not going to do anything within the timeframe that we have available. If you were in a house and it was burning down you would try and put out the flames or run out of the house. How can we do that in this situation? It’s saying we’re not going to play by the rules of the game anymore. We’re going to disrupt the game that you’re playing, this capitalist system which is destroying us all, and we’re going to rebel against it because it’s the only rational response to the situation and the way that the system is failing to engage with it.
In terms of fighting to take on climate change there’s The Guardian view on how you can personally reduce your carbon footprint and there’s the amount of emissions the top companies produce. Where should we put the focus?
Since 1988 71 percent of greenhouse gas emissions were caused by 100 companies, the majority petrol and car companies. The entirety of the carbon footprint of the UK is less than 2 percent of the world total.
So when we tell people to stop using plastic straws or take their canvas bags to the supermarket or take the bus instead of driving — obviously all these things are good and we should be doing them, but to pretend that the onus of responsibility lies with the individual is a lie. If everyone did those things it still wouldn’t stop the companies which are creating the majority of the impact from doing the things that they’re doing. So it needs to be a double-pronged approach of activism targeting governments and corporations and the choices that we make as individuals — whether that’s going vegan or choosing not to fly.
Those aren’t necessarily things that you’re doing because you think it will save the planet. They are good things to do in themselves, and there’s value in not flying, for example, because you’re making a decision about living your life in accordance with the way that you deem appropriate, despite the fact that not taking that one flight won’t actually change anything.
What’s your feeling about what Jeremy Corbyn can change?
It’s a difficult one because the Labour Party getting into power could have some positive consequences. It’s not changing the system though; it’s a better version of the current system. An example of how it could have a positive impact is that London is now declared to be in a state of climate emergency. That’s because Green councillors in London proposed it and all of Labour supported them. What that means in practice we’re not quite sure. Obviously if Labour was in government and declared a national state of emergency that would probably have more impact. That is one of XR’s three demands: to tell the truth so that everybody knows how serious the situation is.
My opinion — there are a lot of members of XR that believe this, although it’s not an official view — is that to have any major impact we must disrupt capitalism first, because the relationship between capitalism and climate change is too strong.
Also Corbyn himself might be a socialist but the party isn’t. I’d worry about how much they can actually achieve within the system where the companies are still extracting oil and not paying taxes and the taxes are still being put towards weaponry and subsidising farms. I’d be interested to see what difference a Labour government in power would make.
What’s motivated you to take action now? Are there struggles elsewhere in the world that inspired you?
Before being involved in environmental activism I was working in the refugee crisis and witnessing a lot of human suffering. When I first discovered XR it was the realisation that the suffering, pain and misery of all these people who I’d been trying, and in many ways failing, to help in Greece was nothing in comparison to what was coming.
I really started to come to terms with the numbers of people who will be displaced as their countries become completely uninhabitable, the number of people who are living in places where there will be scarcities of food and fresh drinking water. I think having these realisations after having come from working within something which represented this pain and these difficulties, it felt very real.
What action can we take?
There’s a stigma around being arrested, from doing things illegally, which means that people are often turned off from this rebellion. They like the idea of going on a protest because at the end you can go home, but when the action is illegal there’s a lot of fear.
The freedoms that we enjoy today are built on the sacrifices of those that came before us who were arrested and ostracised by society, who we now look up to as those who sacrificed themselves in peaceful ways.
We talk about Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela as the best of people. Yet when somebody today says I’m also going to make this sacrifice, I’m going to stand up to the system, I’m going to do something illegal and I’m willing to go to prison for it, suddenly they’re a social pariah.
Do you think getting arrested will hit the corporations or the government where it hurts? With Rosa Parks the crucial thing was that after she was arrested there was a mass campaign and a boycott which hit the bus companies, and so on. It was about linking in the power of protest with organised mass campaigning. Do you see the possibility of that kind of escalation happening today — for example if school students or XR activists get arrested?
There’s two main reasons why we use the tactic of non-violent direct action. One is an ethical decision, because that’s how we want to live our lives and our movement, but another is effectiveness, which looks at historical cases like Rosa Parks.
The tactic works something like this. A small group of people will engage in some form of civil disobedience. They’ll be peaceful, non-violent and respectful. If they are arrested and treated harshly then people who witnessed this event will take the side of the activists because they can associate with them. Much larger numbers of people will then come out in support, and what might happen is that these people get treated harshly by the system. You could get so many people coming out that it’s impossible for them all to be arrested and that’s when the movement starts to gain massive momentum and change happens.
This is what happened with Rosa Parks. There was this group called the Freedom Riders. About 400 people, of mixed ethnicities, who went on interstate buses and sat together. They were arrested, treated awfully and taken to a really horrible prison where there was a lot of violence. It was partly as a result of the outrage at the way these people were treated that the law which required black and white people to sit separately on buses was changed.
So if school students were arrested it would be incredibly powerful. When we had our first youth strike a couple of weeks ago, there was the image of these seven and eight year olds standing at the front of a road block telling the car drivers to stop and turn off their engines, or the police kettling a group of teenagers sitting with their guitars and singing. There’s so much power in these images. It’s not something we’re planning but if the police started arresting children at these events the backlash would be massive and at the next protests there would be an exponential growth at the amount of people who came out in solidarity.
In terms of what we have done already, if you look at some of the photos of those that have been arrested, many are actually pensioners. It’s not as powerful as the kids but it’s on the same level because people don’t expect it. The power of seeing it is a lot greater than if it’s all hippies with dreadlocks.
Cyrus Jarvis, Year 11 school student
SR: What was the atmosphere like on the protest in London on 15 February?
CJ: It was electric. Everyone was quite riled up about the fact that we’d been ignored the whole time.
And what’s the mood like afterwards?
Everyone’s been quite knackered. But now we’ve recovered and we’re looking forward to the next one.
Are there people saying “Oh, I wish I had been on it”?
Yeah, there are a lot of people. Even though we had a really big turnout that we didn’t expect, there are a lot of people that wish they were there. Because of that we’ll be expecting a bigger turnout in March.
How many from your school took part?
Five of us went together and then I saw other people in the crowd while I was speaking. I didn’t expect many would be willing to go because everyone’s under pressure about GCSEs. Even if they’re sick they’ll come in to school. But pretty much everyone knew that I was doing this so a few people came up to me and said “We want to join this”. They’d seen it on the news.
What do you think people learnt on the day from the experience of protesting and how it was reported?
People really learnt that our future is in jeopardy right now. Climate change wasn’t really something we were this passionate about. We had other issues like Brexit, but that wasn’t something for us to get onto the streets about. Now that we’ve realised that we’re not going to have a future there’s no point staying in school; we should get out onto the streets and fight for our futures there.
What was the attitude to the Tories?
We’re officially just against the politicians in general because nothing has been done about climate change. Not enough has been done. Seeing as the Tories are in power right now they’re not listening to anyone at all. They’re not listening to the people who are educated already, people who are the scientists already. The fact that Theresa May made the statement that we should be staying in schools to become the scientists and professors of tomorrow so that we can solve this problem really angered people even more, because we already have scientists, we already have educated people right now who are saying how we can fight climate change. But the Tories just ignore them. It’s not going to make a difference if we just do the same as them. We don’t like the Tories, basically.
What’s the feeling about what Jeremy Corbyn could change?
So Corbyn’s idea about linking with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal is quite popular. A lot of people who were protesting were mentioning that as something that would be a lot more than what the Tories are offering, which is basically nothing right now. So everyone is for that.
What’s inspired you to take action now? Was there a particular struggle elsewhere in the world that was an example?
We knew that strikes were happening in Sweden and in countries like Australia, but seeing how many people came out onto the streets in Belgium and Switzerland in particular, where there were tens of thousands of people, grabbed our attention and we realised that it was a really bad situation. We’ve only got 12 years left to cut CO2 emissions by 50 percent. That was something that really inspired us and we thought, if they can do it then so can we.
Was it your first protest?
People had already being doing school strikes about the climate in the UK. One girl has been doing it in Scotland and I think eight people down here. This was the first official youth strike for climate. This is where we decided we need a movement. This the first time we went on strike as a massive movement of school kids. For most people I came down with, this was the first protest that they had decided to come out on. Now they feel pretty empowered and pretty powerful.
What do you want to happen next?
We’re going to come out on strike again on 15 March and this time it’s not going to be the same thing where we gather in Parliament Square. We haven’t made any decision yet but we’ve got ideas. We’re just going to keep striking every month on a Friday until we’re listened to. And if we don’t get as much publicity, if we’re starting to get ignored because we’re just doing it again and again, we will step up our game every time. We will be listened to in the end.