Mike Nell spent decades working in “Big Pharma” and (like many of us) had his mind on the “next big house, the next new car”. Now, he is one of the many Extinction Rebellion activists who have taken part in a series of protests over the last few years to hold the government to account with regards to climate change. Now, Mike plays a crucial role in his local community in Winchester as he lays the foundation for legislative change by reaching out to other environmentally conscious groups such as the Green Party, the Liberal Democrats, WinACC, and Friends of the Earth:
“My big role at the minute is coordinating an alliance of local green groups in support of a Private Members’ Bill (PMB) called the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill (CEE Bill). XR supports it and has contributed to it. We’re trying to encourage our local MPs to support the bill.”
Since the CEE Bill was brought forward by former leader of the Green Party, Caroline Lucas, it will be more difficult to gain majority support in the House of Commons. It is generally harder to get a majority on a PMB if it has not been brought forward by the government. Particularly in the South of England, Nell is candid about the particular hurdles that come with gaining support in Conservative constituencies and why those difficulties are there:
“As our local MPs are Conservative, Drummond and Brine, it’s a big ask. The Conservatives are whipped to not talk to the CEE Bill people because they want their own legislation to take precedent. Getting Conservatives to support us is hard.”
Nell painted a picture of just how vast the support for XR is among government representatives, as supporters have hailed from national parties like Labour and the Liberal Democrats to regional parties such as Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party. Overall, the CEE Bill has the support of 110 MPs from across 8 political parties.
It’s particularly impressive to have built so many bridges at this point considering the looming stigma against protest that has grown over the last year. From police violence at the Sarah Everard vigil to the unpopularity of ‘Insulate Britain’, it seems the press and public opinion may be stacked against XR.
“Our aim is system change […] if you look at successful protests over the last century, most of them have been successful by being disruptive and dedicated, like Gandhi and the Suffragettes. We don’t try to win friends through actions that are populist. We don’t make ourselves popular because it’s not a popularity game. […] People don’t throw themselves onto the M25 because they want to, they have no choice. It needs doing [the insulation of all social housing], and if we don’t, it won’t get done.”
XR has collectively made clear the intentions of the organisation, to disrupt business as usual in a peaceful but impactful way. One of the leaders behind Insulate Britain is XR co-founder, Roger Hallam, who has also been outright in his activism approach, likening XR to the “planet’s fire alarm”. In order to change the system, the law must be broken and change must be achieved through direct action, rather than letters to MPs and leaflets. Although Nell clarifies that this is the only connection between XR and Insulate Britain, he “applaudes what they’ve done”.
While discussing the consequences of complicity with climate change, the reasons Nell is pushing for change quickly became apparent. Even excluding the physical threat of increased natural disasters and extreme weather, the human consequences are already coming into effect around the world. For example, 90% of the Haitian population is at risk of climate-related disasters such as hurricanes, along with the prospect of food insecurity in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. This is will inevitably cause climate displacement and migration to more inhabitable areas.
“I feel that in the Daily Mail and other places like that, it’s all about polar bears and sea levels rising. Can you imagine what it’ll be like across the Channel? One of Hallam’s main examples is the war in Syria which caused massive migration across borders, masses of deaths and human rights violations […] It keeps me awake at night, scared stiff. […] Covid has shown us how people behaven with short-term food shortages. Individual shortages like the inability to source coffee might not cause a collapse but shortages and crimes related to them could soon lead to the rule of law and society collapsing.”
Nell’s outlook on his own participation is a glimpse into the radical mindset shift that must take place in order to survive climate change. Nell acknowledged the clear evidence of the environmental repercussions of industrialisation from decades ago and the responsibility that must be claimed in the Global North by causing such a grave problem. However, he was not only talking about the grand scheme of international relations and urbanisation when he spoke about taking accountability for the climate crisis:
“I feel like a poacher turned gamekeeper, I feel I’ve contributed to this problem. It’s now time I do something about it. […] I’m not a big person in terms of fairness but we are the ones who can do something. I don’t want to be judged by my kids and grandkids for being someone who didn’t do anything at the eleventh hour.”
“I need to fill my time with something meaningful. I spent my entire career doing things for me. This is the first altruistic thing I’ve done in my adult life. It’s okay, I’ve made a lot of changes. And this is a positive change. I feel that I’m doing something that matters. I feel proud of what I’m doing.”
Not only an activist who is building alliances across green groups in his local community, Nell is a perfect example of how anyone can change while making a change. To upturn your way of life always seems unlikely and impossible but Mike Nell shows that the alternative is even more terrifying.