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Extinction Rebellion’s die-in outside the New York Times building last month. Photo/Getty Images

This Is Not a Drill: Why Extinction Rebellion wants you to panic

A how-to book urges people to shake up climate apathy, even if it means getting arrested.

Douglas Adams’ calm advice about the end of life on Earth – “Don’t panic!” – says much about where we are now with climate change. This, the most analysed disaster-in-progress we have confronted as a species, has stupefied governments, capitalism and technologists. Is it time for another approach?

Certainly that is the reasoning behind Extinction Rebellion (XR), a self-proclaimed grass-roots organisation that aims to shake up climate apathy with old-fashioned protests and sit-ins.

Founded in October 2018, XR is a bit like a 1970s protest movement – its first event was the occupation of Greenpeace’s UK headquarters, an act of homage and an attempt to poke the flabby stomach of an older sibling. Its Naomi Klein-like message is that governments and business need to be subservient to the well-being of the people and the planet, and that is all about climate change.

This Is Not a Drill is XR’s The Little Red Schoolbook (a controversial 1969 handbook for teens) for the climate apocalypse. It asks us to do what our great institutions seem unable to do: act decisively and with a sense of urgency. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Paris Agreement, the greatest minds of Silicon Valley … all are too little, too late.

The book features many voices, with its 30 or so essays coming from environmental lawyers, scientists and academics, British Green and Labour MPs and a Californian firefighter. For the writers of Part One, climate change isn’t coming, it is already here. It’s here in the form of forest fires that consume sequestered carbon at a faster rate than we can plant it, mental-health and labour issues resulting from storms and floods and surreal debates about survivalism, migration and ultra-nationalism. Media guru Douglas Rushkoff writes about hedge-fund managers seeking advice on how to protect their homes and wealth from those of us who won’t have the resources to protect ourselves.

Part Two of This Is Not a Drill is a call to action. Three of its essays advise, should you take up the cause, how and why to get arrested. “I’m not a young person. I can spare a week or longer in prison and it’s a sacrifice worth making. I just made sure to pack a good book to read,” writes English mother of two, yoga teacher and XR activist Cathy Eastburn.

Adds Roger Hallam in his chapter on XR’s six-step approach to civil disobedience: “You have to break the law. This is the essence of the non-violent method, because it creates the social tension and the public drama that are vital to create change.”

Elsewhere, there’s advice on blocking roads and bridges, and how to feed and clothe the thousands needed to make the engine of revolution work. We hear from XR co-leader Gail Bradbrook and her media-savvy team-mates – a rag-tag bunch drawn from numerous similar ventures – as well as more respectable voices, including former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. Stepping back into a world of Che Guevara posters and ¡No pasarán! coffee cups might make you nostalgic for a time when it seemed easier to make positive change in the world.

In places, though, it can read like a manifesto from The Hunger Games. Readers of David Wallace-Wells’ harrowing The Uninhabitable Earth will be familiar with these apocalyptic scenarios.

But as Swedish climate-striker Greta Thurnberg says: “We already have the facts and solutions. What we have to do is wake up and change.” Who knows what will become of XR over the next few years, but for now, its rousing manifesto urges us to panic and shows us creative ways of doing just that.

THIS IS NOT A DRILL: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook, by Extinction Rebellion (Penguin, $24)

This article was first published in the July 20, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.