Why I rebelled against Extinction Rebellion… and went nuclear: In an astonishing and brave volte-face, the eco-group’s ex-spokesperson ZION LIGHTS reveals why she has changed tack over the future of energy
Like many people, I’m planning a small gathering this weekend while government rules still allow, heading to a stretch of beach for a picnic.
My choice of venue is arguably a little less orthodox, however: I’ll be camping out on the precise stretch of shingle in Suffolk over which the Sizewell nuclear plant looms.
It’s not an obvious spot, especially for someone who has long prided herself on being a passionate and committed environmentalist and who until earlier this year was spokesperson for the direct action group Extinction Rebellion, or XR.
Certainly there are several people in that organisation who will be horrified by the very notion of going anywhere near Sizewell — but unlike me, many of them refuse to confront what I believe is an undeniable truth: that a pivot to nuclear power is the only thing that can truly rescue us from our burgeoning energy and climate crisis.
Former Extinction Rebellion spokesperson Zion Lights appears on Good Morning Britain in October last year
Yet like so many lobby groups, my old colleagues peddle messages of doomsday gloom that alienate as much as they motivate, offering little in the way of positive solutions. It is scaremongering rather than inspiring, and while for a time I aligned myself with their world view — and their tactics — in recent months I have come to see things differently.
In fact, after years as a member of one campaigning group or another, I now believe passionately that environmentalism — that umbrella term for the loose collection of organisations that have existed for decades trying to bring about an end to climate change — has failed.
By that I mean that for all the picketing, and the direct action, and the exhortations to use less fuel, fly less and conserve water, nothing has really made a difference to how we choose to live. Day after day, we still hear of energy crises around the world, increasing drought and wildfires, and species facing extinction.
Turn the clock back 30 years, and I was hearing much the same messages in the classroom at my Birmingham comprehensive school. Some of the words and the numbers may have changed, but not much else.
It certainly lit a fire in me: growing up in a working-class, inner-city area, the daughter of immigrants from the Punjab who worked punishing hours in factories to make ends meet, I was an unlikely budding environmental campaigner.
But by the time I went to university I helped found a green organisation and later joined the Green Party.
From there I joined another small climate action group, but when it died out I stayed out of activism for a while to concentrate on my own freelance writing, taking a Masters in science communication because, unlike the slightly ‘crazy hippy’ connotations my unusual name may conjure, I’ve always been a firm believer in following the science.
I was fully briefed and confident, my mind whirling with rubber-stamped facts and figures — until he confronted me with one figure I couldn’t defend. It was co-founder Roger Hallam’s claim that unless climate change was halted, six billion people would die this century (Pictured: Co-founder of Extinction Rebellion Roger Hallam)
It’s one reason I was first attracted to XR. Their mantra — initially anyway — was ‘listen to the scientists’. So when they gave me the role of a spokesperson, it felt like I had a platform to talk about what I truly felt mattered.
That is, until in early October last year, when I appeared on current affairs programme the Andrew Neil Show on behalf of the organisation.
I was fully briefed and confident, my mind whirling with rubber-stamped facts and figures — until he confronted me with one figure I couldn’t defend. It was co-founder Roger Hallam’s claim that unless climate change was halted, six billion people would die this century.
It’s a headline-grabbing assertion — but unfortunately, it’s also not true, or certainly not backed up by any evidence. As was obvious to anyone who knows me — and even to the casual viewer — I was plunged into a PR nightmare.
I could not defend the number, but as the official spokesperson nor could I be seen to condemn it.
All I could do, instead, was flounder under the hot glare of the studio lights for what felt like an eternity.
Even now, the memory of it makes me shiver.
It proved to be the beginning of the end of my relationship with XR: whether it was hate mail from XR supporters accusing me of letting the organisation down, or more measured messages from colleagues saying we could ‘get’ scientists to back up Hallam’s claim, it was clear that my world view and theirs were parting ways.
Then, less than two weeks later, XR members caused sizeable disorder at an East London Tube station, preventing commuters from getting to work.
The ploy made me deeply uneasy — while XR’s entire strategy is based on disruption, targeting London’s public transport network at rush hour felt beyond the pale.
I made it plain that it shouldn’t have been done, a sentiment that, in fairness, many other members came to acknowledge.
Then, less than two weeks later, XR members caused sizeable disorder at an East London Tube station, preventing commuters from getting to work. The ploy made me deeply uneasy — while XR’s entire strategy is based on disruption, targeting London’s public transport network at rush hour felt beyond the pale. (Pictured: XR conduct a protest at East London’s Shadwell tube station in October last year)
Running parallel to this was my sense that like so many other environmental lobby groups before them, XR seem to have fallen into the trap of telling people what not to do, while also peddling the notion that the solution to the climate crisis was to ‘turn back the clock’ to a simpler time.
It’s something that has long infuriated me: try telling that to the people living in poverty in the Punjab. They want clean water, but they also want laptops. In short, they want what we here in the West have had for a long time — and it is rank hypocrisy for those of us who have benefited from the comfortable advances in technology in recent years to suggest they can’t have it.
For that, of course, you need energy. But while renewable energy can and should be part of the mix in supplying energy to the UK and the rest of the world, the reality is that there is only one reliable, low-carbon energy source that we can invest in now.
It’s why, in June, I resigned from XR and took a new role overseeing British campaign group Environmental Progress UK, which is campaigning in particular for the creation of the mooted Sizewell C nuclear power station in Suffolk.
It’s a decision that led to some abusive messages from a small cohort of my old colleagues, wedded to the ancient image of atom bombs and weapons instead of life-changing electricity and a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions. Yet the reality remains, if we are going to service our ever-burgeoning energy needs, then the only way forward is nuclear.
It’s one reason that instead of trying to barricade the gates of a newspaper plants or chaining myself to a barrier outside the Houses of Parliament I will be proudly holding a banner at my picnic this weekend, proclaiming something I believe to be true: Nuclear Saves Lives.
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