Fun with Extinction Rebellion

Zuletzt geändert am 11. September 2019


Extinction Rebellion gets increasing coverage in the German press (e.g. in the Spiegel/19.08.2019 and in the ZEIT/37/2019). I looked around for more information and foud this interview with Roger Hallam, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion in BBC’s HardTalk. I also read Hallam’s manifesto. Here are my thoughts.

The video

First let’s have a look at the HardTalk video:

Roger Hallam, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion in BBC’s HardTalk

There were several things about this program that I found interesting:

Let’s discuss them in turn.

Do you want to motivate people with negative messages? Where is the fun about all this?

Stephen Sackur repeatedly asks Roger Hallam how he wants to activate the masses if all the messages he has are negative (e.g. here, here and here). I found this quite strange. Stephen Sackur seems to still have this idea that all we do has to be related to and motivated by fun. This is the stereotype we older people have of the younger ones: they party all weekend, taking drugs and having fun. The youth is not interested and apolitical. But this changed in the past year. The effects of the climate crisis are visible and perceptible. Germany had 42,6° this year. The glaciers are melting (Okjökull in Iceland, the glaciers of the Himalaya). Kids are getting increasingly worried, frightened and frustrated by the incompetence and slowness of the adults. And as John Lydon (aka Jonny Rotten) put it: Anger is an energy. The kids and the adults do not need a fun part in the motivation of a movement although it helps if there is a fun part to the actions. As Hallam put it: it is the science that matters: if a doctor says that the patient has cancer and that it is terminal, it would be inappropriate to spread hope and optimism. But see further below for hope and optimism. And maybe even a bit of fun.

Climate neutral till 2025?

As for the goal of being climate neutral in 2025, I think this is unrealistic. Unfortunately. There is an engineer living in my house who plans power plants based on solar power. So he is probably the strongest advocate of renewable energies one can think of since it is his business that would profit a lot from a complete switch to renewables. He says that it would be possible to replace all fossil fuel needed for heating, traffic and general electricity replacing coal and atomic power in 10–12 years. Of course the question is how radical changes could be. Reduction in consumption both of goods and energy. But looking at the situation in Germany with a government basically acting against renewable energy and arriving at compromises to stop using coal in 2038 suggests that replacing fossil energy by renewables in 10–12 years would be a great goal to achieve. This would be 2029–2031.

6 billion dead in 50/60/70 years?

I am a Scientist 4 Future, that is, I am one of the 26.800 German speaking scientists who signed in support of the Fridays4Future movement. I asked my colleagues about the 6 billion people since I never heard this in the media before. The answer is: It could happen but there are so many unknown factors that it would be dubious to publish respective simulations. Hallam considers a scenario of 5° of global heating, which everybody agrees, we definitely have to avoid. With 5° of global heating it could be 0 or 2 Billion people left. Too much is unknown. However, it is clear that everything above 3° will be catastrophic and this is where we are currently heading at:

Climate Action Tracker: Report for 2018

While we do not find any statements about possible 5° scenarios in the literature, we do find 2° scenarios and they are alarming enough: according to Shindell et. al. it is 110–196 Mio people dying early if we go on to 2°:

We therefore examine the human health benefits of increasing 21st-century CO2 reductions by 180 GtC, an amount that would shift a ‘standard’ 2 °C scenario to 1.5 °C or could achieve 2 °C without negative emissions. The decreased air pollution leads to 153 ± 43 million fewer premature deaths worldwide, with ~40% occurring during the next 40 years, and minimal climate disbenefits. More than a million premature deaths would be prevented in many metropolitan areas in Asia and Africa, and >200,000 in individual urban areas on every inhabited continent except Australia.

Shindell et. al., 2018: Quantified, localized health benefits of accelerated carbon dioxide emissions reductions, Nature Climate Change, 8, pages291–295

A more recent report by the World Resources Institute found that 2 billion people are affected be severe droughts (faz, 06.08.2019). The ICIMOD project did research on the Himalaya glaciers and the effect their melting has on water and food supply for people living at the rivers fed by the glaciers. 1,9 Billion people are affected.

So there is a big problem, no doubt about this.

Using drones to block Heathrow?

The next topic I want to comment about is the drones: the idea to block Heathrow by using drones frightened me. In general it is a bad idea to interfere with air traffic. The number of attacks on pilots with laser pointers is increasing and attacking a plane is a very dangerous thing to do. I live near the airport Tegel which is located in the middle of Berlin. Air planes out of control are not just dangerous for those who are in the airplane but also for those who are below it.

I checked the schedules of Heathrow and there seems to be a break during the night from 23:30–6:00. So there is a period in which no planes are starting and landing. In addition, flightradar can be used to check whether non-scheduled planes (government or transportation flights or delayed flights) are approaching. So the drones could be started in time when no plane is in the air. If the airport is informed about the drones, no planes will be permitted to start or land and hence there would be no danger for passengers, crew and people on the ground. Just a silent and peaceful airport. So, this would be a non-violent action. But to be absolutely clear: Sackur asks about flying drones into a busy airport. And Hallam does not take this up. Such actions would involve a high risk of killing many people. Anyway, even for non-risky drone scenarios, drone attacks are probably a bad idea since people who steer the drones are locatable within seconds, their are means to destroy the electronic parts of the drone to bring it down. This article about anti-drone measurements is from 2016 and I guess much progress was made on this issue since then. There is an industry working on drone protections for us (demonstrations, football events, open air concerts, whatever). By the way: there is a much less risky way to keep planes down. Just block the roads leading to the airports. Berlin taxi drivers blocked Tegel airport this year. Of course with Extinction Rebellion, it would not be cars but people instead.1 So, I guess the statement regarding drones was not serious, but it has an effect: it gets us talking.2

Deaths in relation to Extinction Rebellion and grannies being dragged away by police

There was the statement that people will die in relation to Extinction Rebellion and that we will see grannies being dragged off by the police. Well, no dead people and dragged away grannies so far but severely injured over 70 year olds in civil disobedience actions: people entered RWE’s open mine to save a forest. I cannot find the video of the old guy anymore (it was on twitter, maybe deleted), but there are other videos showing police violence and a man protesting against a project of building the Stuttgart train station lost one eye due to a water gun (the responsible policemen were found guilty by a German court). This is what Hallam talks about. There is a risk and it depends on the movement and on the contact to the police, how future events will develop.

I am not part of Extinction Rebellion, but I take part in pickets organized by Two months ago, we were just finished with one of our events when a police car arrived. I thought: “Oh, no! We are in trouble. We did not register the event with the police!” But they came to tell us that there is another group of climate protesters in front of the Potsdam Landtag (were the government of the federal state Brandenburg works) and that it is small and needs support. So, the police helped us! Thanks for this!

Joint protest by researchers and other protesters after the police made us aware of the fact that there was a small group needing support. 2019-06-12

(From that day on, all our actions were registered with the police or university administration.)

A colleague told me today that the policemen who is responsible for them likes what they do and already checked whether there is something in the net about #CopsForFuture.

So these are two instances of climate-friendly policemen (two men and one woman) and there are probably many more. Of course, we do not violate any laws, so Extinction Rebellion may be a different story as far as police experiences are concerned.

Extinction Rebellion and civil disobedience is only possible in democratic systems, or is it?

Stephen Sackur claims that Extinction Rebellion takes the easy way since it works in Britain, which is a democracy and that “in many parts of the world there is no possibility of Extinction Rebellion”. This claim is a little bit underwhelming for a political journalist dealing with mass movements. I give you some examples: 30 years ago there were big protests on the Tiananmen Square. It was protests against an authoritarian regime and they ended with a massacre. At this time I served in the East German army. Shortly after the massacre the East German TV broadcasted an official propaganda movie of the Chinese government. Everybody in the army had to watch it. We collectively went to the TV room, sat down for 45 minutes and watched this movie. It was clear to all of us what this meant. We were in the army. Outside the barracks people started to protest. At March 7th the government frauded the elections. People supported by the church organized the countings of the votes documenting the manipulations through the government. Since then there were demonstrations every 7th of the month. The army decided to show the movie to us to prepare us for our role to defend the system. I was lucky enough to reach the end of my army time exactly 30 years ago on August 25th. But many of my friends had to stay on. Equipped with riot helmets and truncheons they were sent to Dresden. They waited outside the city for orders to come. Fortunately, nothing happened. My friends could go back to the barracks without having to face their protesting family members. You also may read about this time in the novel Der Turm. I was in Berlin back then. Protesters did pickets, people did a hunger strike in the Gethsemane Church. On October 7th I saw riot police in Berlin. The first time I saw these helmets. The first time I saw Räumfahrzeuge. I was shocked. The next days escalated: we were in the church for a big political meeting and when we left it, there was police everywhere. The land of the church was special: the police had no right to enter and somehow they respected this rule. So one was safe on church ground, but how to get out? How to get home? We were standing there and we were shouting: “Keine Gewalt! Keine Gewalt!” (no violence) The pastor negotiated with the police and we could leave. On the streets (Schönhauser Allee) there were groups of people discussing political topics. If a circle got too big, Stasi members came and disturbed these discussions. They came in platoons. One could tell who belonged to these groups since they wore similar clothing (stone washed jeans). I was careful to avoid them but we know that they arrested many in this night. They kept them, stripped them down naked, and beat them. In the following days, the demonstrations got bigger and bigger and we knew that non-violence was our only chance. We knew that they would have killed us otherwise. They showed us the movie. In the end, we won. The result is not what many (most) of us dreamed of but Honecker/Mielke/Krenz are history.

This video shows the demonstrations in Leipzig. 70.000 were on the streets, the Kampfgruppen were mobilized. People demonstrated because of “Verzweiflung, Angst und Hoffnungslosigkeit” (despair, fear, and hopelessness). No fun was involved.

Another example of a protest movement in a non-democratic system is taking place right now. It is related to Tiananmen. People in Hong Kong are protesting and demanding democracy. China is gathering troops at the border to Hong Kong. So they are in a similar situation. Do they protest? Yes, they do. And ironically, they also shut down the airport.

Hong Kong Airport blocked 26.07.2019 CC-BY-SA:Wpcpey

And now reconsider Extinction Rebellion. Democracy is nice to have and we fought for it and the Hong Kong people fight for it. But we are talking about food and water. For billions of people. As Roger Hallam said: there will be migration, wars, and masses of dead people. And there will be riots. Not because of Extinction Rebellion, which is and hopefully stays non-violent, but because of desperate people without any perspective.

Negative feelings and emotions within recent movements

I am not a part of Extinction Rebellion and I am too old to consider myself part of FridaysForFuture but I take part in FridaysForFuture events (see pictures) and I noticed that these movements are different from what I knew before: they have an awareness team, they care for each other in a different way. They talk about feelings and help each other. The Spiegel article was about this. People help each other dealing with the crisis since once you realized which situation we are in you get into emotional trouble (despair, fear, hopelessness, see above, and read the article about depressions in Greenland). So according to the Spiegel Extinction Rebellion Germany has something to offer. People get out of their paralysis and start to live again, they start to act. I am not into this talking and touching stuff described in the Spiegel. In fact it would be a reason for me not to go to these meetings, but I can confirm that it is important for everybody among the scientists being active in to talk to like-minded people. No fun, but good feelings.

Team 50+ at FridaysForFuture, Berlin 24.05.2019: Nobody is too old to join FridaysForFuture

Academia, Rebellion and Fridays for Future

Hallam describes his argument with King’s College in London. He managed to get them to disinvest into coal by civil disobedience:

Two years ago, myself and a group of students, painted messages on the walls of King’s College London where I do my PhD research. Our aim was to persuade the College to divest from all fossil fuels, something they had refused despite four years of conventional campaigning. Petitions, meetings and sitting on committees had gone nowhere. When we painted the walls of the great hall of the College, we won in five weeks. Direct action worked.
I was immediately suspended and banned from entering the college. However, I openly challenged the ban to the point of getting carried out of the Students Union by security staff and after ten days they removed the ban. The embarrassment was too great. Instead I was invited into negotiations with the vice principal and I then told him I was going on hunger strike until they had a signed statement committing the university to total divestment by a set date.

Roger Hallam, 2019, Common sense for the 21st century, 45–46.

The situation is quite different in Germany. First the universities do not invest into stock. They do not have any money at all (exaggerating a bit). Apart from this the universities in Berlin and Brandenburg were really open towards the scientist who did pickets in support for FridaysForFuture. In the case of the Humboldt University they allowed us to use a booth on the premises of the university.

The TU, Uni Potsdam, and HU announced our initiative to collect self-commitments for not flying short distances via their central mailing lists. The president of the TU gave various press releases regarding FridaysForFuture and took part in demonstrations. The HU published an interview with me in their university journal. So, big institutions are on the side of FFF. It must be said though that the original initiative for sustainability in University of Potsdam and Humboldt University came from students. It was a student who organized solar power for the university and it were students at the HU who founded the Nachhaltigkeitsbüro (office for sustainability). It is the success of FFF and movements like Extinction Rebellion that climate issues now arrived at the highest level of university administration.

Hallam describes the law suit following his actions in which he was found to be not guilty since there was a higher reason for his illegal actions.

A year and half later the crown prosecution service decided to prosecute me and another student for ‘criminal damage without lawful excuse’ – for painting the walls. We appeared in front of a jury and represented ourselves. We were told by the judge that the trial has nothing to do with climate change. I was interrupted 15 times and told to stop talking about it (something I kept ‘forgetting’ to do).
For the judge it was a clear and simple case. We put paint on the wall, it is against the law and thus we are guilty. However, we argued what is obvious – our case was about climate change. It was about preventing the terrible suffering that will be created by the criminal fossil fuel industry unless there is wholesale divestment and it is closed down. We had a right of necessity to cause disruption in order to prevent massive disruption. This is a no brainer.
The judge couldn’t get his head around it but the jury, ordinary Londoners, certainly did. They considered the case for the minimum time necessary. All of them then came to the unanimous verdict, we were not guilty on all charges of criminal damage. The judge told us ‘you are free to go’.

Roger Hallam, 2019, Common sense for the 21st century, 46–47.

The same is true for German pupils on school strike. They are violating the rules but the opinion of law experts is that this is perfectly legal since it is the right and the duty of the kids to school strike (Dr. Reinald Eichholz, assesment by Prof. Dr. Dr. Felix Ekardt). ScientistsForFuture fully supports FridaysForFuture. Although the kids practice civil obedience. So what about Extinction Rebellion? Many German scientists are state employees. They swore an oath. What would happen if they blocked roads or airports? Would it be their right? Their moral obligation? Do we support others blocking roads? Airports? We support the kids, who are threatened with punishments in some federal states,3 aren’t we?

Is there hope? A vision?

Yes, there is. We should switch to 100% renewables as quickly as possible, we should scale down our consumption of everything and we – the Western world – have to adjust our goals for economic growth. It may be that this is not possible with the political parties we currently have although the protests seem to have some effect. Angela Merkel agreed to a 55% CO2 reduction target for 2030 for the EU, something she rejected for a long time now. Reducing the EU CO2 output by 55% entails a reduction of 68%–73% for Germany. If this goal is reached by increasing the price of CO2 certificates this would mean the end of coal in Germany in 2030 (The current plan is 2038). The question is, whether the current government is capable of reaching these goals. Germany is a car country. Political parties are lobbied and heavily influenced by car manufacturers. The same is true for coal. It is not just the CDU, there are also SPD members being payed by the coal industry. So what can we do? FridaysForFuture is getting stronger, adults are supporting the movement. There will be a huge strike on 20.09. followed by a week of climate actions and Extinction Rebellion will kick in in October. How do we make sure that the climate movement would be successful? Well, I first thought about round tables like in 1989. Representatives of the people’s movement were talking to the government and tried to find some consensus. The results of these talks and the reunion process afterwards were wanting in many respects as it turned out in retorspect. East Germans just did not have a clou about West German law and all the things to take care of. For example, Tegel airport has special noise protection zones in West Berlin. No such zone exists for East Berlin. It was simply forgotten in the reunion contract. But the situation now is different. We have the experts who know what has to be done and what should be done. Nevertheless there is a problem: who is supposed to make decisions? When will we – the climate movement – be satisfied? What is a consensus? I thought a lot about this and I guess Hallam is right in his manifesto. He suggests citizens’ assemblies: people selected by chance, a representative sample of the population. It is probably right that this is the only way in which explosive topics can be handled and in which we could find a consensus as a society. Hallam gives several examples, one was the discussion of abortion in Ireland. This is a topic no political party could deal with without getting into trouble. So, 99 people were selected, they discussed the issue, listened to experts and finally decided to support a referendum, which finally took place (article in the Guardian). You may also watch the following video:

Video about the Citicens’ Assambly in Ireland dealing with abortion

The lecturer in public policy at Edinburgh University stated the following regarding such assemblies:

“It’s quite a milestone in the field of democratic innovations. This is the first time this has been part of everyday politics,” he says. Elements of representative, deliberative and direct democracy came together via parliament, the citizens’ assembly and referendum.
“When these things are combined, you have a democratic system that’s more powerful.”

Oliver Escobar, a lecturer in public policy at Edinburgh University in The Guardian, 2018

Now, the climate change issues are much, much bigger than abortion. Everything is affected: people working in the car industry (>800,000 in Germany, >2,2 Mio in Europe), people working in the aviation industry (330,000), people working in the coal industry (brown coal 5,000 working in coal directly 20,000 including related industries in Germany), plus everybody who depends on their income. We hae to change our lifestyle, nutrition, and general consumption. On the other hand we have people working in public transport, rail companies, renewable energy (80.000 jobs lost in Germany due to change in politics). And these sectors will grow (again). A different type of agriculture would involve more work and hence jobs.

Would it work? I think it would work. Once the climate movement is so strong that a government agrees that a citizen assembly is a good way to solve the problem, people will be sufficiently aware of the catastrophe we are in. To give two example: the majority of the Germans (63 % (Welt) or 57 % (Bild/Targobank)) is for a speed limit, while the government is refusing to introduce it (#ApprovedByGermanAutobahn). The second example is taxes on kerosene. According to a survey of the Verkehrsclub Deutschland in 2014 (executed by TNS Emnid among 1004 people), 78% think it is wrong that aviation industry does not pay taxes on fuel and 69% agreed that the German government should reduce tax privileges of the aviation industry.

Survey by TNS Emnid in 2014 for VCD among 1004 Germans. Most are in favor of reducing priveliges of the aviation industry.

So may be the average person from the street can solve the problems a government cannot solve. But again it is not as easy as the abortion case in Ireland. What is needed is a huge transformation of our societies. It will not be done with some weeks of meetings in a hotel. How will the assembly be organized? Are people willing to serve on it? What if not? How long will it take? How is lobbying controlled? If this assembly works for a long time, how do we prevent lobbying? How do we do this on an international level? And quickly? It is not easy, but I do not see any other way.


Everybody has to act now to convince the general public that there is a problem that needs to be solved quickly and to convince governements to act. A citizens’ assembly seems to be the most resonable way to prepare decisions. All protest has to be non-violent. Let’s hope it works. Let’s work.

Appendix: Is there a fun part in climate Armageddon?

Well, may be there is a tiny little bit of fun. You may check out the following two videos by the German Comedy Metal band Knorkator. I guess one needs to understand German and maybe a very specific sense of humor is required as well. Have fun!

Knorkator (2006): Wir werden alle sterben! (We will all die!)

Wir werden alle sterben. Haltet euch bereit! Die Zeichen sind eindeutig, bald ist es soweit. Vielleicht schon heute Abend, vielleicht in einem Jahr Doch alle werden sterben, traurig aber wahr!

Wir werden alle sterben. Haltet euch bereit! Die Zeichen sind eindeutig, bald ist es soweit. Da gibt es kein Entrinnen, da kommt nichts mehr ins Lot, die Party ist zu Ende, bald sind alle tot.

Wir werden alle sterben. Haltet euch bereit! Die Zeichen sind eindeutig, bald ist es soweit. vielleicht beim Zähneputzen, vielleicht beim Abendbrot, doch irgendwann passiert es, dann sind alle tot.

Wir werden alle sterben. Haltet euch bereit! Die Zeichen sind eindeutig, bald ist es soweit. Die Türen sind verschlossen, die Ampel steht auf Rot, der Zug ist abgefahren, bald sind alle tot.

Knorkator, 2019: Rette sich, wer kann (Save yourself if you can!)

Die Welt ist am Ende kurz vor dem Kollaps Alle wissen Bescheid nützt aber ncihts. Wir machen immer weiter willenlose Dandies Therapie is nicht. Der Arzt isn Dealer. Wir liegen da und fressen. Werden immer fetter. Der Fernseher läuft. Alles ist gut.

Alle sitzen im Bus. Autobahn, Vollgas. Da vorn isn Abgrund! Aber is ja noch n Stück. Wir könnten auch abbiegen. Tut er aber nicht. Da is ja nur ein Sandweg. Schlecht für die Achsen. Bloß nicht anhalten! Leben heißt, Gas geben. Kopf aus dem Fenster! Hoch die Tassen!

  1. Update 2019-09-10: Extinction Rebellion Berlin blocked TXL airport and they used bicycles.
  2. Update 2019-08-09: Hallam really wants to block Heathrow in the HeathrowPause action. The drowns will be started by several activists and they will fly at head hight. The action will not be part of Extinction Rebellion.
  3. 88,50€ in Mannheim, Baden-Würtemberg

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