Peter Cole (second from left) with fellow Extinction Rebellion hunger strikers

Climate emergency hunger striker Peter Cole explains why he and others took dramatic action in the UK and worldwide

On 18th November Extinction Rebellion (XR), a peaceful civil disobedience movement, began a one week Global Climate Hunger Strike (GCHS) to highlight the world’s governments’ inaction on the Climate and Ecological Emergency (CEE) and to demand climate justice. It linked current food shortages in the global south with food vulnerability everywhere through the slogan “No Food, No Future”, with 820 million hungry and billions threatened with starvation unless we act now. Hunger strikers chose to forgo their privileged access to food to highlight our shared food vulnerability and to pressure governments to act.

Those contemplating striking consulted their doctor. More than 520 people participated worldwide, more than 260 in the UK. They took water and some vitamin and mineral supplements (e.g. vitamin B1, potassium, magnesium and phosphate). The GCHS was flexible, with people able to join for 24 hours or the full week, or do ‘rolling hunger strikes’ with 24 hours or more of fasting interspersed with eating.

Some strikers chose to prolong their strike in the USA (2), Palestine (1), Australia (1), Ghana (1) and UK (5). In the UK this coincided with the General Election, so hunger strikers sat in front of the main political party headquarters seeking to secure their leaders’ support for a CEE Bill to be adopted in Parliament. The Green party, Plaid Cymru, Labour and Liberal Democrats engaged to varying degrees but the Brexit and Conservative parties failed to do so. Hunger strikers were ejected from the latter two HQs on attempting to deliver invitations to discussions. Seven invitations were issued to Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister Boris Johnson – in vain.

Extinction Rebellion is ‘beyond politics’ but sought the support of all MP candidates for the Bill, with 220 pledging their support (15 now elected MPs). The Bill has three demands: for the government to tell the truth about CEE to the public through the media; for the government to act now, committing to halting nature loss and carbon emissions by 2025; and for a Citizens Assembly to determine the policies to achieve this, based on a deliberative consideration of the science.

Non-engagement of the Conservative party and their manifesto seeking carbon neutrality by 2050 means mass death as science shows. It is akin to calling the fire brigade in 30 years’ time when one’s house is now on fire. Hunger striker Marko Stepanov said: “A green revolution will change the economic and social landscape. [The Conservative party] are afraid of losing their vested interests, their privileges and their entitlements.”

Three UK hunger strikers (Stepanov, Julian May, and myself) completed 26 days, feeling no hunger after three days. Slow thought and speech, progressive weakness and weight loss in the region of 10 to 15 kg ensued, and cold, wind and rain took their toll, but morale was boosted by XR supporters. Blood tests monitored electrolytes, kidney and liver function. Infection during the strike and re-feeding at its conclusion are the greatest dangers to life – the mortality of World War 2 concentration camp prisoners increased when liberated and given free food. Re-feeding is gradual over 3-4 weeks.

Motives for adopting a hunger strike varied but we unite in our alarm at the threat of climate change to the world’s children. “I am a rebel so that I can look my grandchildren in the eye”, stressed this author. The UN reports 1,000 children die daily (mainly in the global south) from climate change, this figure increasing as feedback loops accelerate emissions to a tipping point when irreversibility results in the sixth mass extinction.

Extinction Rebellion tells the truth of social as well as climate science, using mobilisation through actions which are disruptive, non-violent, respectful, having an element of self-sacrifice. It has inconvenienced the public to draw media attention to the CEE and build a mass movement but there must always be a balance between causing disruption and building popular support. Hunger striking inconveniences ourselves rather than the public, is socially and psychologically rather than economically disruptive, and can help mobilise ‘people power’ against inaction of the government.

Parliament declared a CEE on 1st May 2019 but failed to act within six months. The CEE Bill is a response to this. We urge everyone in the UK to lobby their MP until sufficient cross party support for the Bill enables it to become law. If there is insufficient progress on the Bill by Spring 2020 disruptive rebellion will occur, including GCHS.

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