Fighting Human Extinction in London and Beyond

Over the past week, governmental officials and police say, protesters have wreaked havoc in London—but it’s all part of an effort to address the sociopolitical factors wreaking havoc on our planet.

Parliament Square on April 19. DAVID HOLT. CC BY 2.0

Parliament Square on April 19. DAVID HOLT. CC BY 2.0

In the early afternoon of Monday, April 22, about 100 people entered London’s Natural History Museum and made their way to Hintze Hall. As sunlight streamed in from the skylights and illuminated the Romanesque arches that punctuate the stone walls, the protestors positioned themselves underneath Hope—the enormous blue whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling—and lay down on the ground. After about half an hour, most concluded their “die-in,” but a few remained; wearing face paint and crimson robes, they gave a classical music performance on the steps beneath the skeleton.

This unusual demonstration was part of a massive mobilization by Extinction Rebellion (abbreviated as XR), a non-partisan movement aiming to revise environmental policy with the goals of slowing climate change and minimizing the possibility of imminent human extinction. The group launched in the United Kingdom in October of 2018—in response to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report announcing that we have just 12 years to halt catastrophic change—and quickly proliferated worldwide.

Today, the movement boasts about 130 groups across the UK, and is active in countries from the U.S. to South Africa to Australia. Its core demands are threefold: Honesty and transparency from governments regarding the ecological crisis; reduction of carbon emissions to zero by 2025; and the implementation of a participatory democracy to monitor progress towards these goals.

The current actions in London, advertised on XR’s website as “UK Rebellion—Shut Down London!,” are the focal point of a constellation of protests planned in 80 cities across 33 countries. Beginning on April 15, thousands of protestors poured into the heart of London, blocking five major landmarks: Waterloo Bridge, Marble Arch, Parliament Square, Oxford Circus, and Piccadilly Circus. From the beginning, group members made it clear that they weren’t going anywhere, filling the bridge with trees and flowers and even setting up a skate park and stage. Live music emanated from Oxford Circus, and a life-sized model of a boat with “Tell the Truth” painted on the side blocked the center of the bustling junction.

Nearby at Piccadilly Circus, younger protestors chalked messages on the pavement, while inside an open-sided truck at Marble Arch, bands entertained hundreds of onlookers. In Parliament Square on April 15, Jamie Kelsey Fry—contributing editor for the Oxford-based New Internationalist magazine—encouraged demonstrators from an octagonal stage.

Chalk message on April 17. Felton Davis. CC BY 2.0

Chalk message on April 17. Felton Davis. CC BY 2.0

The audience waved flags and banners emblazoned with the symbol of the movement, dubbed by Steve Rose of The Guardian as the ubiquitous logo of 2019. According to Rose, the “X” signifies extinction, and the horizontal lines suggest an hourglass—reminding us once again that time is running out.

A high point for protestors was a visit from 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg on Sunday, April 21. The Swedish teenager, who staged a “School Strike for Climate” at Sweden’s Parliament last year and initiated the weekly #FridaysforFuture school walkouts, received chants of “We love you” as she took the stage at Marble Arch.

Demonstrating on London’s Blackfriars Bridge last November. Julia Hawkins. CC BY 2.0

Demonstrating on London’s Blackfriars Bridge last November. Julia Hawkins. CC BY 2.0

While the protests have in some ways resembled a modern-day Woodstock, full of music and goodwill, London authorities—who have deployed some 9,000 police officers in response—see a different side of the story. As of April 22, more than 1,000 people had been arrested since the demonstrations began; the youngest to be charged was 19, and the oldest 74.

London mayor Sadiq Khan said that the protest was taking a toll on London’s police forces and businesses, commenting, “I'm extremely concerned about the impact the protests are having on our ability to tackle issues like violent crime.” Protestors, for their part, view the stress on police as unavoidable: “We wish we didn’t have to distract police resources,” their website states. “80 year old grandfathers would rather not be putting themselves in the physically uncomfortable position of being in a police cell and children don’t want to be skipping school  – but 30 years of government inaction have left us with no choice.”

Tent set up in Parliament Square. DAVID HOLT. CC BY 2.0

Tent set up in Parliament Square. DAVID HOLT. CC BY 2.0

As protesters continue to be removed from the scene one by one by the police, with more rushing in to take their place, the question is whether or not the government will be responsive to XR’s message. On the first day of the mobilization, XR wrote to Prime Minister Theresa May outlining its demands, requesting talks, and issuing a stern warning: Failing government action, the group’s disruptive demonstrations would only escalate over the coming weeks. On April 22—the day of the Natural History Museum die-in, and also Earth Day—the group said that they would soon hold a “people’s assembly” to determine next steps. The next day, protesters marched on Parliament in a renewed push to open dialogue with government officials.

London’s Energy & Climate Intelligence Unit has said that XR’s demand for carbon neutrality by 2025 “technically, economically and politically has absolutely no chance of being fulfilled,” but nevertheless supports the message behind the movement and the actions it has engendered. For XR, surmounting the impossible is the only way forward to ensure that human beings can continue to inhabit the earth: Their website reads, “Only a peaceful planet-wide mobilisation of the scale of World War II will give us a chance to avoid the worst case scenarios and restore a safe climate.” Only time will tell whether those in power agree.

TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.

These 5 Major Cities are Sinking Rapidly into the Sea

Photo: Artistpix/Shutterstock

Photo: Artistpix/Shutterstock

WE’VE BEEN HEARING about the dangers of climate change for quite some time. Scientists routinely caution against warmer temperatures, rising sea levels, and melting ice caps, but sometimes it can be difficult to imagine the impact of these phenomena on our daily lives.

Gradually sinking cities may be the first (and most alarming) way climate change manifests in a tangible sense. Due to rising sea levels and other environmental factors, several of the world’s major cities are slowly sinking into the ocean — some at a staggering pace. No continent is immune, either.

Dr. Katherine Kramer, lead author of the research paper “Sinking Cities,” notes that rampant development has also weakened many cities’ natural means of flood protection, and poor city planning only make matters worse. “The global metropolises may look strong and stable,” she told The Guardian, “but it’s a mirage.” From the United States to Africa to Asia, here are a few of the cities most in danger of being overtaken by the sea.

1. Jakarta

Photo:  dani daniar /Shutterstock

Photo: dani daniar/Shutterstock

The capital of Indonesia has the unenviable privilege of being the fastest sinking city in the world. Forty percent of the city currently lies below sea level, and it’s sinking at the alarming rate of 10 inches per year. The cause is directly related to the city’s infrastructure as Jakarta does not have a reliable network of piped-in water. This is leading to an abundance of private wells used by residents to obtain groundwater. According to The New York Times, this causes underground aquifers to become drained, “like deflating a giant cushion underneath the city.” The unfortunate result is a two-pronged assault on the city from above and below. Rains flood neighborhoods while the heavy skyscrapers sink into earth whose stability is compromised by a lack of groundwater.

2. London

Photo:  Marc Pinter /Shutterstock

Photo: Marc Pinter/Shutterstock

London can’t blame its sinkage on skyscrapers or faulty infrastructure. It’s actually the result of the last ice age and a phenomenon called “glacial isostatic adjustment.” According to Kramer, London’s sinking is caused by “the weight of the glaciers pressing down on Scotland 11,000 years ago. These depressed the north and allowed the south of the UK to relatively soar.” Since the UK’s glaciers have since melted, however, Scotland is now rising — at .04 inches per year — while the south of the UK is sinking back into the sea. Although the metallic gates of the Thames Barrier were designed by engineers to protect London against flooding, they were only expected to be needed a maximum of three times per year. Currently, they’re being used six or seven times per year.

3. Dhaka

Photo:  Sk Hasan Ali /Shutterstock

Photo: Sk Hasan Ali/Shutterstock

The capital of Bangladesh is sinking at a rate of a half-inch per year. While this may not put Dhaka in as dire straits as Jakarta, the sea level in the Bay of Bengal is rising 10 times faster than the global average. Millions in the city’s coastal areas have already fled, migrating to Dhaka’s overcrowded slums. Like Jakarta, the situation is being exacerbated by groundwater extraction at an unsustainable rate, as well as shifting tectonic plates. To solve the groundwater problem, officials have endeavored to improve the city’s water infrastructure though it’s unclear whether these efforts will be enough.

4. Bangkok

Photo:  Artistpix /Shutterstock

Photo: Artistpix/Shutterstock

Bangkok finds itself in a precarious position. Currently sitting just five feet above sea level, and sinking at a rate of one inch per year, the city is projected to be submerged by 2030 unless drastic measures are taken. Bangkok does not suffer from the same groundwater issues as Jakarta and Dhaka, but its towering skyscrapers are, however, causing the ground to cave in on itself. “Bangkok’s sinking feeling has ironically been made worse by its reaching for the skies,” Kramer writes. “The sheer weight of its buildings are pressing into the riparian sediments and compacting them as the sustaining water is depleted from them.” Thailand’s National Reform Council has recommended building a huge seawall around the entire city to help curb the problem.

5. New Orleans

Photo:  Victor Wong /Shutterstock

Photo: Victor Wong/Shutterstock

According to a 2016 NASA studyNew Orleans is projected to see 14.5 inches of sea level rise by 2040. That’s one of the highest in the world. NASA’s maps show parts of the city sinking at a rate of two inches per year, mostly areas near the Mississippi River and industrialized sectors like Norco and Michoud. Like other major cities, the rising water level is being caused by groundwater pumping; human withdrawal of water, oil, and gas; compacting of shallow sediments; and continued land movement from glaciers during the last glacial period. The danger to the region is so immediate that the government recently set aside a $48 million grant to move residents of Isle de Jean Charles — among Louisiana’s fastest-sinking communities — to drier land.


EBEN DISKIN is a staff writer at Matador, and pizza connoisseur with a serious case of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out); he has traveled to over 30 countries and lived in the UK for a year. Follow him on Instagram @ebenflow_.