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Extinction Rebellion London hunger strike
Photography Gareth Morris

Meet the protesters on hunger strike for climate action

Extinction Rebellion activists are refusing to eat until political party leaders support a climate emergency bill

Bundled up in layers outside the Conservative party’s London HQ, hats tugged down over ears, coats zipped all the way to the top, the protesters signs plainly announce why they are there: ‘NO FOOD. NO FUTURE’; ‘Hunger for Climate Leadership.’ It is day 22 for some of the Extinction Rebellion hunger strikers here, who have vowed not to eat until their demands are met and politicians take decisive action on the ecological crisis.

Despite the aching tiredness and rattling cold, Peter Cole and Marko Stepanov, two of the hunger strikers campaigning outside the UK’s political headquarters, stand quietly determined in their third week battling against climate apathy. Both have pledged to continue their hunger strike until the general election: 25 days without food.

76-year-old Peter Cole, an emeritus professor of respiratory medicine at Imperial College London whose history of protest includes marching with Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, has been camping outside Conservative headquarters with Marko. In a conversation with Dazed, he admits the strike is becoming increasingly difficult: “After day three you cease to be hungry, which is good, but then you lose weight, feel tired, you speak slowly… every day you feel a bit worse”. Nonetheless, he is determined to persist. “Health permitting, we will continue until the election… we’re pretty tired but as we have an emergency, we are really well motivated.” 

Marko Stepanov, a 67-year-old artist, mirrors Peter’s resolve. “Already if we have a little time we’re contemplating what to do next, because this issue is so pressing, we cannot rest”.

Peter and Marko are part of a global hunger strike which began on November 18, involving 28 countries and over 500 people. They are two of the remaining five in the UK that have still not broken strike. The campaigners have been writing letters to party leaders requesting recorded meetings and support for Extinction Rebellion’s ‘three demands bill’. This would mean ‘telling the truth’ about the emergency, acting to halt carbon emissions by 2025, and creating a citizen’s assembly.

Another impetus for the strike was highlighting global food vulnerabilities and the deadly impacts of climate change already being felt all over the world. Petra Metzger, 37, a lecturer at Central Saint Martins art college who continued to teach despite embarking on her third week without food, believes there is “power in vulnerability… we need to acknowledge our vulnerabilities. We are all vulnerable to not having food, not having water”. 

“Health permitting, we will continue until the election… we’re pretty tired but as we have an emergency, we are really well motivated” – Peter Cole, hunger striker

This is something that 18 year-old Marina Tricks, who undertook a two week hunger strike alone in Ghana while touring schools for her period poverty work, has witnessed first-hand. Her voice cracks as she relates her reasons for joining the strike: “Being here in Ghana re-emphasised the need for it to happen… to think that these people have done nothing to cause it – I watch them living their lives, growing their own food, not flying in planes – and they are the ones that are going to suffer the most”.

Marina says that while locals understand her motivations for striking and the realities of climate change, they are bewildered by her belief it will make a difference. “Minorities have been shouting this for so long and no one has done anything,” she says. “They know that people are dying because of drought, diseases… for them it seems inconceivable that the government would care over just our lives.”

A string of events over the past few weeks have underlined the UK’s own vulnerability to food disruption. Europe has seen a sequence of extreme floods and fatalities; millions of tonnes of crops lie rotting in fields. The UK imports 50 percent of its food, 60-70 percent of its vegetables – 20 percent of the supply chain is from countries at risk of climate breakdown.

But the hunger strikers do not believe that the ecological emergency – or their actions – are being taken seriously enough. Marko states: “The technology is ready. The science is conclusive. We know what is happening – not what is going to happen but what is happening right now around the world. We see all these events. Nature being damaged, species going extinct… whose interests are people in power protecting? There is very little time left.”

When asked about the reactions of the UK’s political parties to the strike, Marko laughs: “Oh, that was a huge disappointment.” So far, they have had meetings with Plaid Cymru and the Greens and informal chats with Labour’s John McDonnell and the Liberal Democrat’s Ed Davey, but none of the strikers are enthused by the responses.

And the Brexit Party and Conservatives? “The Brexit Party have not only refused to talk to us, they quite violently threw us out of their offices,” Marko relates. “So far I’ve delivered three letters to Boris. We’ve seen him coming in and out but he would just wave from a distance and not answer any questions… I believe he doesn’t actually know the answers”. This rings particularly true in the wake of Boris Johnson’s refusal to join the Channel 4 climate debate, where he was replaced by an ice sculpture.

Peter echoes Marko: “This present government has had 10 years and has virtually done nothing. Their manifesto is in line with that. They say carbon neutral by 2050, well, they will be swimming by then.”

Eric Tien, 27, faced a similar response – or lack of – during his strike in the US. He quit his job working on a congressional campaign to join the hunger strike but was unable to convince Speaker Nancy Pelosi to meet. “The main thing was public awareness and we were successful there… our Speaker probably wouldn’t schedule a meeting if we were in hospital. Maybe if we died.”

Eric went on hunger strike for 13 days: “It was a lot harder than I thought… I was very weak. I would be dizzy standing up, and the hunger just didn’t go away for me. My whole chest started to feel like a cave it was so empty.” But it was necessary, he says, “to show how real we are about this”.

Each hunger striker expresses the absolute urgency and enormity of what is ahead and the need for us all to come together to face it. “This is beyond politics,” Petra says. “It is so urgent. There’s no time for political infighting, or thinking in small parties… we need to come together and understand that this is a crisis”.

“We need to acknowledge our vulnerabilities. We are all vulnerable to not having food, not having water” – Petra Metzger, hunger striker

Marina reinforces the need for unity: “One person doesn’t solve climate change. You can’t keep saying, ‘Oh I don’t use plastic bags, I recycle, I compost’... we need to drop this idea of ‘I’ because collectively we need to work together to create real change.”

What for some remains existential and intangible, has been felt in a very real way by these activists, and is felt every day by the 820 million people who go hungry and those already suffering as a result of climate disasters around the world.

Recent figures reveal the alarming rate we are hurtling toward irreversible climate catastrophe. The carbon levels in the atmosphere are at a 3 million year high and the limit of 2 degrees set out in the Paris Agreement is looking increasingly impossible. 200 species of animals and plants are already going extinct every day. Australia and California have been ravaged by wildfires. Large parts of India are crippled by drought. The risk of extreme weather hitting several food producing regions in the world at the same time could triple by 2040. These facts alone are frightening. 

Peter says that it is best encapsulated by a Cree Indian proverb: ‘Only when the last tree has died; and the last river been poisoned; and the last fish been caught; will we realise we cannot eat money’. Let’s hope we don’t leave it that late.