My Green Education – the 2019 XR Protests in London

Giovanna Lewis, a Portland Labour Councillor and Extinction Rebellion campaigner, was a guest speaker at the December meeting of the Swanage Branch of the South Dorset Constituency Labour Party.

Through the magic of Zoom, Giovanna told us about the campaign, led by Lucy Grieve, a former Portland Town Councillor, to thwart the building of a Waste Incinerator on the Isle of Portland. The Incinerator would burn plastic waste twenty-four hours a day. Its emissions would pollute the air those living nearby had to breathe. It would defile a UNESCO World Heritage Site – a fact acknowledged by South Dorset MP, Richard Drax, whom campaigners had deftly and assiduously lobbied. (1)

In recent years there have been increasing numbers of planning applications for Waste Incinerators nationally. Rates of incineration doubled between 2012 and 2018, with at least 90 Incinerators in the UK, and 50 more proposed for development. (2)

Incinerators are three times more likely to be found in deprived neighbourhoods rather than in more prosperous locations, and nearly half are on track to be built in the UK’s top 25% most impoverished areas – as fact touched upon in Richard Drax’s letter noted above. (3)

Research confirms the dangers to health posed by emissions from Incinerators. Toxic ash is produced because of incineration. There is yet no means available to capture the carbon dioxide released into the air.

Giovanna also spoke to us of the campaign against HS2. She told us of ancient woodlands being torn up and despoiled. She evoked the anguish of those losing their homes so that journey times between London and Birmingham might be reduced by 29 minutes. (4)

Pic: Giovanna Lewis 

As Giovanna spoke, I cast my mind back to what I had seen taking place in London, almost one year before.

I had just become a grandfather for the first time. I knew that Climate Change was a reality. I was fearful about the world my grandchild might inherit. I had heard of Extinction Rebellion. I watched the news and saw the mass protests organised by Extinction Rebellion taking place in London. I decided to see for myself what was happening.

I spent two days witnessing extraordinary things. I saw tented villages set up in the heart of London, in Whitehall and in Trafalgar Square. I saw Lawyers for Extinction Rebellion, Doctors for Extinction Rebellion, Nuns for Extinction Rebellion – people of all ages, young and old, united by a desire for a different future.

I stood near Lambeth Bridge, which was re-named Faith Bridge, watching lines of Police advance and encircle those protesting there. I watched, in awe, as young women and young men, robed in red, walked like spectres towards the bridge. All fell silent as they passed.

I saw dozens of Police Vans, with Police sitting inside them, awaiting orders. Sitting down on a kerbstone to eat my sandwiches I was almost arrested as police moved slowly forward, picking up protestors, four policemen carrying each one away. I heard passionate and eloquent speeches by young people who demanded an end to the wilful degradation of the Earth.

I spoke to people from all over the country – from Somerset and from Sunderland. A very elegant woman told me that she had been amused to hear that Boris Johnson had described her and her friends as “uncooperative crusties”. She was a solicitor and assured me that she had not been sleeping the night before in a “hemp smelling” bivouac.

I spent hours in Trafalgar Square, watching and listening. I had a free vegetarian curry whilst wandering through the tented villages set up in Whitehall. I saw, for two days, a different London. This city did not belong to men with smooth jowls and women who smiled whilst they spoke falsehoods.

The speedy and shame making clearing away of this different London reflected, I thought, the unease and panic of those who are blind to the truth. Perhaps they were secretly ashamed of the Faustian pacts they each had made.

I felt that a different future was possible. I was given a warm welcome by Extinction Rebellion. I lacked the courage to take a full part. Yet my Green Education is continuing.

Speaking to Giovanna and to her daughter, both arrested for their ideals and compassion for the Earth, I think I may well find the courage to take the part I should.


(1) Richard Drax, in a letter of objection to Dorset Council Planning Committee, described the Incinerator as a potential “blot on the landscape”.

He wrote: “I cannot possibly support an ERF (Energy Recovery Facility) on the island of Portland. I am not surprised that HMP The Verne, Portland Town Council, Weymouth Town Council and Dorset Area Ramblers have come to the same conclusion, along with thousands of islanders who have signed a petition I shall be formally handing to Parliament” – Dorset Echo, 22 November 2020)

(2)Unearthed, UK Waste Incinerators, Greenpeace:

(3) “I think it pertinent to point out that Portland suffers from deprivation and poverty and residents often feel dumped upon”.

(4) BBC, Newsround, HS2: What are the arguments for an against it? – 4 September 2020


Chris Bradey