Talking arrests, climate emergency and sea levels with Extinction Rebellion activist Lennart Tiller

Cara Räker

Spooky. It is October in Amsterdam and autumn has arrived. AH starts selling orange-coated kruidnoten, there is a number of Halloween parties to choose from and watching Netflix all day becomes more socially acceptable. It is a lovely time. But what does it matter if we are all doomed anyway? 

Climate change is back. It is weird to say that of course, but Greta has pulled that old box from underneath a pile of equally dusty Brexit, refugee and Trumpian discussions into the light of day, just to spill the contents onto the streets of London, Berlin and New York. All of a sudden the end seems nearer than ever before. The ice caps are melting, the Amazon is burning, and insurance companies discuss at what point they should stop ensuring ground-floor apartments in cities like London, which would be the first to be flooded due to rising sea-levels.  

As the theme of this Eurovisie is spooky, let me brighten up your day with a couple of climate change facts. The World Meteorological Organisation, for instance, warns that sea levels now rise on average 5 mm per year as observed between 2016 and 2019 as opposed to only 3.2 mm in 2013. On the same note, the organisation has observed a drastic increase in natural catastrophes such as storms, droughts and floods. 3,496 disasters were reported between 2001 to 2010 as opposed to a mere 743 recorded disasters between 1971 to 1980. I am a student of the Humanities but even I manage to calculate that this number has more than quadrupled in a mere 40 years. Spooky

Understandably, people are angry, especially young people. The Fridays for Future initiative has seen students skip school for weeks in a row to force governments to make environmental policies a top-priority. The message is clear: what do we need education for when the end of the world is closer than ever? From the accelerated pace the climate movement has taken on in the past year one voice has emerged especially strong: The group Extinction Rebellion (XR) which, created in 2018, managed to attract thousands of followers all over the world in a matter of months. Their logo, which I didn’t realise until a BBC article pointed it out to me, represents an hour-glass within a circle. Time is running out, action is needed now.  

I am meeting Lennart Tiller, 22, in Café de Jaren. Lennart, who has just finished his Politics Bachelor is devoting an entire year to the work of XR, without being paid that is. Before I get into the why of things, I want to know more about the what. What is Extinction Rebellion? Lennart explains that it is in essence an apolitical movement which is based on a framework of three demands and ten principles. The three demands, which are directed towards national governments, are as follows: declare a climate emergency, reach carbon neutrality in 2025, and create a citizens assembly.  

Extinction Rebellion tries to achieve these goals through mass action and mass participation, all of which are non-violent acts of civil disobedience. Protests, artistic events, road blockades and media presence form one and the same package. There is no centralised power or small group of people that pulls the strings. The movement was able to grow so quickly because people everywhere could simply take the XR framework and start forming groups themselves. That makes it easy for people of all social groups to join in. Inclusivity is a core value of XR’s working, Lennart says. 

I point out that one of the main criticisms XR faces is the fact that participation in their actions is a matter of privilege. The XRs disruptive protests, most notably the road blockades, upset many commuters who cannot go to work. Surely, a student is much more likely to chain himself to a car in the middle of Amsterdam for several hours than a single mom who needs to get to work to support her children. Lennart simply agrees with me. It is an issue we work on, he says. In the meantime, it is especially important for those who are in a position of privilege to take action.  

I am not yet ready to let it go. What about the arrests? One of the main ways XR has managed to attract the media’s attention is a number of arrests, which are officially being encouraged by the organization. Most notably, during the April protests in London over a 1,000 people were jailed. Is that not a matter of privilege too, I ask. Voluntarily entering a prison cell? It comes down to sacrifice, Lennart argues. After all, we are facing a climate emergency. “An emergency requires sacrifice from people. How can you show it is an emergency if you, as an activist, don’t act accordingly? We have to pay this risk of paying a fine, not getting a job, sitting in jail, exposing us to this uncertainty of legal trials.” 

As part of another mass rebellion on the 7th of Octobre launched by XR, the road blockade on the Stadhouderskade in Amsterdam saw 1,000 of people coming out to protest. Many of which were willing to risk arrest but, as Lennart drily notes, the police had different plans. “They put us into busses and transported us outside of the city. We know now. For the next time, there are ways to mitigate this. Glue is a quite effective tool,” he says and grins. I ask for a follow-up on these plans but Lennart shrugs them off as not yet clearly defined.  

Returning to the theme of spooky, I ask for the exact definition of a climate emergency. Lennart offers me a couple of examples, such as the rise in sea levels (a metre in the next decade) or the fact that, due to droughts, entire cities start running out of water. They do? Yes, Cape Town and Chennai which is India’s sixth biggest city. I looked it up later and it is true. A CNN article reports on the Chennai citizens who cue for hours in the burning heat in order to get a gallon of water which had to be transported into the city by trucks. Tap water, previously available daily, is now accessible only every three to four days. The idea that climate change is a thing of the future is an illusion, Lennart says. These things are happening now.  

I think that in the end it boils down to the following: the effects of climate change will sooner or later affect us all, and if it is not us, it will be our children or grandchildren. I am not one to debate climate change or the fact that, in a way, most of us can probably do a lot more. Extinction Rebellion is just one of many groups which try to make a change, raise awareness and take action. The movement is still young and there are many questions to be answered but they have found a way to raise awareness. Climate change is back. Undoubtedly, for most, much of the information presented in this article was not new. We know these things and we have known them for a while. To finish with a quote by the United Nations General-Secretary Antonia Guterres: 

“Scientists have been telling us for decades. Over and over again. And far too many leaders have refused to listen. […] The world’s richest nations are the most responsible for the climate crisis, yet the effects are being felt first and worst by the poorest nations. […] As the ferocity of this summer’s wildfires and heatwaves shows, the world is changing before our eyes. We are careering towards the abyss.”  

Antonia Guterres

If that is not spooky, I don’t know what is.  


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