Inside Extinction Rebellion – London Hunger strikes hit 26 days

18th December 2019 / United Kingdom
Inside Extinction Rebellion - London Hunger strikes hit 26 days

By Danny Halpin – London: At 76 years of age, Peter Cole was the oldest Extinction Rebellion hunger striker and therefore most at risk. For 26 foodless days, he and 67-year-old Marko Stepanov braved the elements as they waited outside the Conservative Campaign Headquarters, asking repeatedly for a meeting with Boris Johnson to discuss the government’s plans for climate action. It was now the final night of their strike, election night, and until now the Prime Minister had failed to show any interest in the starving grandfathers camped outside his guarded gates. 


They were not alone. More than 20 rebels huddled with them around a leafless tree, sharing umbrellas and flasks of hot water, holding candles in paper cups close to their faces for the slightest of warmth. The rain came down in spurts; heavy at times then absent, when the wind would attempt to snatch away the fragile candle flames. Nor were Marko and Peter the only ones to strike. More than 500 others around the world had refused to eat for a day, a week, or longer, to pressure their leaders into taking climate action.

Better progress was made at the other major party headquarters. Senior representatives from Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Greens all agreed to meet and listen to the hunger strikers as they attempted to persuade politicians to endorse the three demands bill, a piece of legislation drawn up by Extinction Rebellion that would enshrine their three demands – to tell the truth, act now and initiate a citizens’ assembly – into UK law. 

The strikers also aimed to draw attention to the vulnerability of global food systems, something not easy to recognise among the endless aisles of supermarket shelves stocked with an overwhelming abundance of seemingly infinite choice. The UK is a country where 64% of adults are overweight, where food from around the world is available at any hour of the day or night and where no revolution or civil war has uprooted families for centuries, so an illusion of permanent stability has settled in. But the country’s food supply is part of an interconnected global system. Half of all food consumed here is imported from abroad on a ‘just-in-time’ basis where supermarkets stock only enough food for a few days. As the average global temperature rises above 1.5°C, climatic shocks put a heavier burden on agriculture and increase the risk of multiple breadbasket failures that can ripple through the global supply chain. The financial crash of 2008 demonstrates how such knock-on effects can occur.


In London, as jubilant Conservative activists celebrated their election win, the breakdown of civil society was far from their mind. Drunk on champagne and victory, they drifted in and out of the campaign headquarters, mostly ignoring the shivering, starving rebels on their doorstep. 


Severe droughts and extreme rainfall are already affecting crop production in the global south. 821 million people go to bed hungry every night and that number will rise if we fail to tackle the climate emergency, according to a report released by the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation in September 2018. Perhaps the most horrifying scenario of societal collapse can be seen in Syria, where an intense three-year drought caused agricultural production to collapse, resulting in a mass migration of people from rural to urban areas, social unrest, rising food prices, government repression and civil war. 

In London, as jubilant Conservative activists celebrated their election win, the breakdown of civil society was far from their mind. Drunk on champagne and victory, they drifted in and out of the campaign headquarters, mostly ignoring the shivering, starving rebels on their doorstep. 


SafeSubcribe/Instant Unsubscribe - One Email, Every Sunday Morning - So You Miss Nothing - That's It

“The major thing is psychological,” said Marko, who is an experienced hunger striker. “If you know why you’re doing something it’s not a burden. Hunger ceases after three days. After that you have a little bit of bad breath, but if you keep good oral hygiene that’s not a problem. You can’t go running or do heavy exercise… but you can work.” Though after 26 days of striking and six hours of waiting outside the Conservative campaign headquarters in the cold rain, his batteries were running dangerously low. He didn’t speak much throughout the night and he stood up only at around 04:30 as the police formed a line between the rebels and the road as the Prime Minister’s blacked-out Jaguar shot through the gates into the courtyard.

When I spoke to Marko and Peter in the first week of their strike, they expressed a firm intention to strike until the election. But as the day approached, many of the rebels who were following their progress were concerned they would continue until they secured a meeting with a senior Conservative official, as each passing day increased the risk of severe health problems occurring. So it came with a relief when they decided to eat again and a celebratory feast was had in their honour in Walthamstow. 

Extinction Rebellion activists have incredibly high ambitions: to save civilisation and millions of lives, to mobilise hundreds of thousands of people, to instigate a major cultural shift and force an uninterested government to do something that decades of activism has so far failed to achieve. Under these circumstances, it is easy to focus on the failures, especially at the end of a campaign when rebels have been galloping towards one specific goal. In this case, to meet the Prime Minister and set the agenda for a general election. But it is important to contextualise individual actions into the wider sphere of the movement. A Yougov survey found that 8% of the British public said the environment was one of the most pressing issues in the 2017 election. In 2019, that figure jumped to 25%, making it on par with the economy in terms of public concern. The hunger strikers have certainly played a role in that. More than 300 parliamentary candidates signed up to support the three demands bill and the strikers were able to secure significant meetings with all the major opposition parties. As they regroup in the wake of the Conservative election win it is possible that those parties could regain seats based on a campaign for stronger climate action, especially if some sort of final resolution is reached on the issue of Brexit. Time is running out and every campaign feels like the last chance, but a major cultural shift is underway. Our hope is that it happens before the temperature of the Earth spirals out of control.


Danny Halpin is a reporter for Extinction Rebellion’s Rebel Radio and is studying for his MA in journalism at Birkbeck, University of London. Image copyright – main image Stefan Lacandler and the second image of the banner was taken by Gareth Morris.



At a time when reporting the truth is critical, your support is essential in protecting it.
Find out how

Related Articles:

The European Financial Review

European financial review Logo

The European Financial Review is the leading financial intelligence magazine read widely by financial experts and the wider business community.