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Members of the Red Rebel Brigade in London on 24 April 2023.
‘I’ve decided to shut up and wrap myself in a red sheet instead.’ Members of the Red Rebel Brigade in London on 24 April 2023. Photograph: Jordan Pettitt/PA
‘I’ve decided to shut up and wrap myself in a red sheet instead.’ Members of the Red Rebel Brigade in London on 24 April 2023. Photograph: Jordan Pettitt/PA

Why I stopped arguing about the climate emergency and tried the silent treatment instead

The sensible methods didn’t work, so I became a member of the Red Rebel Brigade. Now I feel I’m doing something useful

Helena Echlin. Circular Panelist DO NOT USE FOR ANY OTHER PURPOSE!

My clown-white facepaint makes my skin feel tight and I’m scared my elaborate headdress is going to slip. It’s my first outing with the Red Rebel Brigade, the silent climate activist performance group. About a dozen of us are clad in robes, veils and evening gloves – all a bright blood-red. We glide to our local Barclays bank to stand in a tableau of grief. We are meant to aim for the faraway stare of “a watcher through the ages”, but I’m afraid I look more like someone stuck in a slow queue at Sainsbury’s. I suddenly catch the eye of someone I know as they walk past, staring at me like I’m bonkers. But I’ve tried the sensible ways of doing something about the climate crisis. I’ve written letters to politicians, carried placards and had endless conversations. At best, I just put people’s backs up. So I’ve decided to shut up and wrap myself in a red sheet instead.

Two years before this, on the morning of 9 September 2020, I woke in my home in Berkeley, California, to a Plutonian twilight. Smoke from the latest wildfire had mixed with the fog in a blanket that shorter wavelengths of light couldn’t penetrate. I tried to explain away the darkness to my kids but I felt like a parent in biblical Egypt, claiming everything was fine while frogs rained from the sky. My husband and I had worried about California’s escalating drought and wildfires for years, but after Orange Skies Day we decided we’d had enough. Time to move back to my native UK. (Unlike millions displaced by the climate crisis, we were privileged to have this option.)

Once we got here, people wondered why on earth we’d leave sunny California. I told the truth: “Because of the climate apocalypse.” After politely ascertaining that wildfires hadn’t actually burned our house down, people couldn’t change the topic fast enough. But I didn’t take the hint. Since nearly everything we do has a carbon cost, every conversation led to the climate crisis. When my parents posted pictures of themselves basking in the Spanish heatwave on the family WhatsApp chat, I responded: “The world’s getting hotter fast. Who wants to join me at the next climate protest?” Awkward silence ensued. In his book Don’t Even Think About It, about why we ignore climate breakdown, George Marshall says that when he brings it up “the words collapse, sink and die in mid-air, and the conversation suddenly changes course. It is like an invisible force field.” Yep.

A wildfire in Oroville, California, 9 September 2020.
A wildfire in Oroville, California, 9 September 2020. Photograph: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

I joined my local Extinction Rebellion group and they told me the best way to start conversations about climate was not to talk, but to listen. After that, instead of telling people how worried I was, I asked if they were worried. “Yes, but I recycle,” said a neighbour at a picnic. “Can I have your tart recipe?” That night, while doom-scrolling, I saw a picture of the Red Rebels and felt an instant connection: here were people who didn’t downplay their climate grief for the sake of others. They flaunted it. At last, here was an outlet for my climate emotions.

At my first outing as a Red, I expect to feel anxious and exposed, but it’s unexpectedly restorative. I can’t answer texts during our performances, and my kids can’t ask me for snacks. Passersby follow us and even want to strike up conversations. But I just raise my hands as if holding an invisible chalice, my go-to pose. I’m blissfully silent. It’s relaxing to be the one exerting the invisible force field.

A week later, at a barbecue, something amazing happens: I don’t feel the urge to tell everyone about plant-based burgers, but just enjoy myself instead. And when I go to see my sister’s new kitchen extension I don’t ask about its carbon footprint, but admire her stylish skylights. I no longer feel the need to rant about the climate in daily interaction. I’m less angry with other people because I’m less angry with myself. I feel as if I’m doing something useful.

But in April, I have a moment of doubt. I join more than 70 Reds as part of Extinction Rebellion’s protest weekend in London, and afterwards, looking at all the photos, I ask myself: is this just about looking amazing? But then I remember the wonder on onlookers’ faces. Some cry. Some call us “spawn of Satan” or shout about “climate conspiracy”, but we always inspire big emotions.

I hope the emotion that people tap into will drive them to act. Other forms of activism are valuable, but as a Red, I can see the effect I’m having on people’s faces. Talking to people about the climate crisis made me feel hopeless. Striking a mute pose of despair? Remarkably uplifting.

  • Helena Echlin is a journalist and the author of Clever Little Thing

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