A giant pink dodo and a New Orleans-style funeral procession were used to warn Shaftesbury that climate change could wipe out entire species. Alfred’s Keri Jones watched Saturday’s Extinction Rebellion procession and ‘die in’ on Gold Hill.
‘The seas are rising and so are we – for the children’ proclaimed a banner held by one of the climate change campaigners gathered in Swan’s Yard on Saturday lunchtime. Another supporter of Extinction Rebellion, Shaftesbury’s protest march, held up a placard depicting a bright pink butterfly.
Artist Maaike Pope, dressed in funereal black hat, carried a picture of a Spix macaw, a bird recently declared extinct. “According to the World Wildlife Fund, humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970,” organiser Beth Lewis told the crowd through a loud hailer. “Oh my God!” exclaimed an elderly gentleman standing to my right.
Paul Deacon had driven from The Donheads with his super-sized symbol of extinction. “The dodo is bright pink and it’s about ten-foot tall. It really needs three people to carry it,” said Paul. He revealed that he had taken this dodo to another protest event at the Natural History Museum recently.
People widely use the term ‘dead as a dodo’ and these flightless birds were hunted to extinction in the 17th century, rather than being eradicated by habitat or food chain challenges caused by climate change. Nevertheless, this sculpture on castors offered striking symbolism.
Perhaps more powerful was the image of mourners dressed in black, slowly carrying a coffin up the High Street. A band playing mournful New Orleans funeral jazz followed the protesters as the lunchtime traffic waited behind. “This is the only planet within our reach that supports life. We are in a climate and ecological emergency,” Beth had told the crowd.
“The recent report from the inter-governmental panel on Climate Change at the UN says we are rapidly heating the earth. It says we have only twelve years to change our way of living, to cool the earth. If we do not, the climate will spin beyond our control. This is called ‘the tipping point’. If this happens, our very existence will become questionable. We will be battling extinction because of human activity,” she continued.
On reaching Gold Hill, the group lay down together on the stone cobbles, baked by the sunshine and the 26°C heat. After three minutes, a drum sounded and the participants in this ‘mass die-in’ slowly rose to their feet to sing a Shaftesbury climate change action song, composed by Planet Shaftesbury member Robin Walter.
“I wrote it a little while ago, but it seemed like a good occasion to bring it out. We’ve not really done it in public before, so it went rather well, I thought,” said Robin.
Repetition is the key to a memorable chant. “If you want a lot of people to learn a thing quickly then it has to be quite a simple chant. You repeat it or repeat it with just a few small changes. I was delighted that everyone joined in. It’s a hopeful message – ‘we rise up for life’. There’s been grief, a coffin and the mourning of the loss of species today. But there’s also been a lot of joy in rising up and rebelling against that. And that’s what the song is about really,” said Robin.
“There was good energy,” said one of the event’s organisers, Natalie Carr. Natalie said it was equally important to host an event which brought together like-minded climate change protesters, but which also attempts to change the minds of people unconvinced by Extinction Rebellion’s concerns.
“It’s nice for us to all do something that we obviously are very passionate about, together. Also, it’s nice to let people know what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. People were very receptive to our leaflet, which has some facts about extinctions and climate change. Overall it’s been really good,” said Natalie.
The group has clearly not convinced a large number of Shaftesbury residents though. Social media posts on local forums might make dispiriting reading for many of the group’s members. They have revealed some opposition to this event and XR’s objectives. Some locals claimed a mock funeral was in poor taste, and a few residents believed that tourism could be potentially damaged. Other respondents questioned the factual basis for climate change claims or were broadly dismissive of ‘tree-huggers’ or ‘hippies’. Some posts have been personal or aggressive in tone.
“I think probably a lot of people reacting to it like that maybe don’t quite have all the facts and they don’t understand what we’re doing,” said Natalie. “We’re not doing it to be a pain. We’re just sort of trying to get our message out.”
Beth Lewis said that the majority of campaigners were from in and around Shaftesbury. “Some of them have come a long way. Most of them are very local. To give their time towards this is important at this moment. Hopefully, the town will talk about this together and join us at Planet Shaftesbury or Extinction Rebellion Shaftesbury.”
Beth says the group intends to take affirmative action. “We’re hoping to plant trees, encourage flowers on the verges, have more biodiversity and to lower the carbon footprint of Shaftesbury. So, it’s not only about artistic events like this one, and symbolic events. It’s about practical solutions to climate change in Shaftesbury,” said Beth.
Campaigners have been successful in getting the new Dorset Council to declare a climate emergency. The group finished singing and after applause, some tears and emotion and a few hugs, the protestors slowly dispersed. The dodo had to wait out at the side of the High Street. Manoeuvring the super-sized bird down the steps to Gold Hill proved too tricky.
In September, Shaftesbury residents will be encouraged to head to the south coast in support of a threatened creature that is still with us. “There’s going to be a three-day walk from Shaftesbury down to near Swanage because there are the sea horses in the sea. They were recently given permission to start drilling oil. We are protesting about that and helping the save our seahorses,” said Beth.