It was not a flood, a devastating UN report or a video of a polar bear dying, but a simple conversation with a friend that spurred Ali Hashemi to act.
Like many people, he’d long been aware of climate change. But he didn’t realize how serious the situation was until that discussion this past summer. He thought his friend was being alarmist and started digging into the science — what he discovered was grim.
“I terrified myself,” says the 36-year-old. “This existential risk is real.”
He began looking at his own life differently, and wondering what kind of future was in store for him.
“I’m an entrepreneur. I have a business, and I don’t understand what my 10-year plan is,” he remembers thinking. “What does my pension mean? What does my mortgage mean? What am I doing?”
That fear is what made Hashemi join Extinction Rebellion Toronto. The local chapter is an offshoot of a global group, which also goes by XR, that disrupted life in more than 60 cities this week, with tactics that ranged from gluing themselves to a power company’s entrance in Amsterdam, to burying their heads in the sand on a beach in Sydney. One man even climbed on top of a plane at London’s City Airport to delay a flight.
Its members go a step further than climate striking kids, blocking bridges, traffic and even airplanes in a growing global trend of using non-violent civil disobedience to draw attention to the climate emergency. And despite inconveniencing commuters, members say they don’t want to shame individuals for their carbon footprints. Instead, they advocate for systemic change by governments.
In Toronto, the local chapter is less than a year old. Members shut down the Bloor Street Viaduct for several hours Monday, resulting in lines of irate drivers and the eventual arrest of 20 people who were charged with mischief.
Hashemi was not one of those arrested. He did take a half day off to attend but was supporting others, not sitting on the bridge. Rather than protest, he says his focus is on trying to communicate the urgency of the crisis to the public through ongoing community sessions in which he takes attendees through the science that scared him.
That science is dire. A 2018 report from the UN body on climate change found that carbon emissions need to be cut in almost half by 2030 to lessen some of the worst impacts, such as droughts, floods and other extreme weather. To do that, 2020 is a make it or break it year. In May, another UN report found that one million species are at risk globally.
And a review of the science by the International Monetary Fund last month stated “there is growing agreement between economists and scientists” that the “cost of the risk of catastrophic and irreversible disaster is rising, implying potentially infinite costs of unmitigated climate change, including, in the extreme, human extinction.”
Most scientists don’t discuss human extinction as a likely scenario, but all of the environmental degradation that is driving wildlife over the cliff of extinction also makes the planet far less habitable for us.
The symbol of the group, which started in Britain about a year ago, is a stylized hourglass to show that we’re running out of time. There have been hundreds of arrests in the U.K. this week, where members have been causing chaos in central London for several days. On Thursday, they delayed planes at the City Airport and on Friday they blocked the entrances of the BBC. Earlier in the week a group of mothers feeding their babies brought traffic to a halt with a “nurse in” at one spot, and a circus group calling themselves the Red Brigade mimed their way across the city dressed in dramatic crimson robes to represent the blood that binds humanity together.
They have three demands: that government tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, that government act now and that government create and be led on the issue by a citizen’s assembly made up of members of different communities.
Of course, many people, especially drivers stuck in traffic on their way to work, are not happy with the group’s tactics. Even people who are on their side could be alienated, said Ryerson history professor Ron Stagg.
“My experience is it’s very rare that that kind of interruptions of peoples’ days works,” he says. “What you’re doing is you’re getting attention, but you’re also offending people, some of whom are probably supporters of action on climate change.”
It’s much more effective, he said, to have a large group of people marching, as with the global climate strikes in late September. The smaller the group, the more it seems like “a bunch of zealots” rather than a widespread movement of everyday people.
In Edmonton, he points out, there were less than 10 people blocking a central bridge. There were about 150 who participated in Toronto, far less than in some European cities.
Like many at the local protest — organizers distributed pamphlets to passersby, saying “sorry for the inconvenience” at the bridge closure — Extinction Rebellion member Kenza Vandenbroeck is apologetic.
But the disruptions to everyday life are meant to be jarring, says the 21-year-old.
“It’s so easy to not have to think beyond your own daily life,” she says. “You have to have these emotions of uncomfortable feelings in order to get a sense of what it means to be living in a world that’s collapsing.”
The environmental studies student first became involved in the Extinction Rebellion in the Netherlands last winter while on exchange. She sees the bridge closures, which were a theme across Canada, as a metaphor.
“We’re reaching a point of no return, almost,” Vandenbroeck adds. “If you’re stuck in traffic on a bridge there’s nowhere you can go, so we’re approaching this kind of bridge symbolically, that will make us pass into a different world.”
But the group insists it doesn’t want to shame people for their individual choices.
“XR believes in system change,” says media spokesperson Kevin Imrie.
“So we’re not telling people that they’re bad people because they drive cars. We’re not asking people to be saints in their daily lives,” he added.
He recognizes, for example, that many people drive to work because they don’t have a reliable transit connection, and fly because there’s no practical other way to get overseas.
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Local members don’t have any plans to block more bridges, he added, and welcome people at ongoing community orientation sessions.
But member Penny Bettson, one of the 20 who were arrested at the Bloor Street Viaduct Monday, says she’d do it again.
Bettson, 72, joined others sitting in the middle of the bridge until she was handcuffed and put in the back of a police van as a crowd of other protesters shouted “Thank you” and “We love you.”
“It was not a hard thing to do,” she said, adding she believes in the power of civil disobedience, which led to sweeping change from the civil rights movement to the suffragettes.
She had never been arrested before but has been a longtime activist, starting in 1969 with the anti-nuclear movement.
“Marches are not enough, I’ve finally signed enough petitions,” she says. “Without arrests, without civil disobedience, we’re not getting the action we need because we are at the tipping point.”
Bettson doesn’t have any grandchildren of her own, but she does have a daughter in her 30s who’s “on board.”
“She did say, ‘Oh mom, you don’t have to do that, leave it up to the young people,’” she says with a laugh.
“But she knows her mother well and she was quite cool with it when she had to pick up her mother at two in the morning and drive her home from the police station.”
Bettson was joined by many other older adults on the bridge Monday, and other members of her generation around the world.
The actress Jane Fonda was arrested on the steps of the U.S. capitol building on Friday in an act of climate change civil disobedience. The 81-year-old says she plans to get arrested every Friday until the end of the year for “Fire-Drill Fridays,” because she wants to stand with young climate change activists.
Bettson, who also marched with the climate striking kids, first found out about Extinction Rebellion in early April.
“It’s important to stand with the young people, to show them that we understand them,” says the retired church musician. “We’re not flying around the world taking pleasure trips, we’re in the streets protesting with you.”
Despite the urgency she doesn’t believe in giving up hope.
Neither does Hashemi. He says one of the best ways to combat “climate despair and grief” is to become informed and engaged — and talk about it with people around you.
If you have the privilege of doing things such as driving and flying less and eating less meat — do it, he says. But “don’t feel too guilty about the fact that you sort of are living in a hypocrisy right now.”
And, he says, don’t become paralyzed by that guilt.
“More than anything just break out of business as usual, because that is really the worst case for us as humanity, that we continue sort of sleepwalking into this slow moving train crash.”
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