Isabella Zou

A group of New Haven residents gathered on Thursday night to learn about Extinction Rebellion — a UK-turned-international climate crisis movement that has rapidly gained prominence for disrupting people’s everyday “business as usual.”

The event — a talk delivered by Stephen Axon, an assistant professor of sustainability science at Southern Connecticut State University — had 11 attendees and was organized by New Haven Climate Movement, a local organization that runs various climate justice-oriented efforts. After months of advocacy by the Movement, the New Haven Board of Alders passed the Climate Emergency Resolution in September, declaring a climate emergency and creating a task force to lead a renewed push to end city-wide greenhouse gas emissions within a decade.

Axos began by describing the context in which Extinction Rebellion — abbreviated as XR — came to be. In an age when the planet is being irreparably damaged, Axon explained, climate issues are not being attacked with the immediacy that a crisis calls for. He said that sustainability is about people, and humans are part of both the problem and the solution.

Extinction Rebellion confronts governments’ lack of immediate, drastic action with its signature declaration: “We are facing an unprecedented global emergency. The government has failed to protect us. To survive, it’s going to take everything we’ve got.”

The organization’s hallmark is its urgent treatment of the climate crisis and its use of nonviolent civil disobedience to motivate otherwise indifferent governments and citizens. For example, protestors have soaked the Treasury in London with fake blood and hosted “die-ins” in key locations throughout the city, shutting down traffic for days. Originating in London when 1,500 people announced a declaration of rebellion on Oct. 31, 2018, the movement has since grown into a global one, with XR protests rising in Australia, Samoa and recently New York City.

These actions have been criticized by some as counterproductively radical and disruptive. Axon showed several frustrated tweets from citizens whose commutes were disrupted by protestors blocking traffic.

“I agree with freedom of speech but if I can’t get to work it’s costing me money,” one Twitter user said.

Axon said that organizers need to be aware of taking actions that are meaningful and not wasteful, but argued that the very point of XR’s approach was to “disrupt the consciousness of ‘business as usual,’” forcefully bringing climate issues into the vision field of those who usually don’t pay attention.

“I’d be willing to find a different route to work for three days, if it meant doing something to prevent ecological collapse in the rest of my life,” he said.

XR has three key demands: that governments tell the truth about the scale of the crisis, that they enact legally binding policies to reduce carbon emissions to net-zero by 2025 and that they form  a citizen’s assembly to oversee the changes needed to achieve this goal. The last point emphasizes XR’s desire for widespread participation around the globe. Axon said that the movement encourages anyone to join the movement who shares their ten fundamental principles, which range from maintaining a shared vision of change to avoiding “blaming and shaming.”

Axon said he considers himself a holder of those principles and therefore a part of the movement. He stressed the importance of feeling like part of a larger group acting collectively, rather than an individual actor with only so much ability to make change. In order for real climate action to be pushed, he said, everyone needs to take part, whether it’s by listening attentively to the various stories of people whose lives have already been drastically harmed by climate change, or having more urgency-driven conversations about the climate crisis.

“It requires everybody,” he said. “The movement is inclusive of your opinions, your attitudes, how you feel and how you respond to it. We need to know from everybody — whether you believe in climate breakdown or not, it’s going to affect you. Whether through a societal element, an environmental issue, or an economic dimension, it’s going to affect you. We need you.”

Chris Schweitzer, director of the New Haven Climate Movement, said that he was encouraged by the dramatic action that XR has taken and continues to take.

“Ideally, the adults in power will recognize that [climate change] is a complete disaster, and the public realizes that too, so that there’s really strong policies pushed through both here and at the state level,” Schweitzer said. “But if that’s not happening, then the way that democracy works is that you push, and direct action is a great tool for that.”

Adrian Huq, a senior at Metropolitan Business Academy, is involved in New Haven Climate Movement’s Youth Action Team. Huq said that learning more about XR heightened their excitement to keep incorporating XR’s techniques — which they described as “in your face and disruptive” — into their New Haven advocacy. Recently, they organized a Sept. 20 rally that attracted more than 300 people. Huq said that the theme of the rally was directly taken from XR’s “business as usual = death” motif. Protestors staged a “die-in” where ralliers slumped across Church Street and City Hall, and they used tombstones and coffins as symbols.

Melinda Tuhus, a Hamden resident and attendee at the event who has been involved in various climate initiatives in New Haven and New York, said she enjoyed learning about the work of XR.

“I appreciate them exploding onto the scene with the need to act like it’s a crisis,” Tuhus said.

Derek Faulkner, a junior at Southern Connecticut State University, said that he appreciated the depth and clarity of the presentation, but wished its impact had been larger.

“I wish there were more people here,” he said. “I’m optimistic though, because the people who are here are committed to change.”

According to NASA, gases that contribute to the greenhouse effect include water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons.

Isabella Zou | isabella.zou@yale.edu