By Dávid Szőke and Sándor Kiss.

While Extinction and Guardians of Life declare “nonviolent open rebellion” and the urge to action for the survival of our natural world, the divergence between their stated ideals and their disruptive tactics in shaping public understanding of climate-related issues point toward starkly opposite directions.”

“We are in the state of nonviolent open rebellion against the UK government,” reasons a climate activist Heeba in Extinction Rebellion’s 2019 short film Extinction, adding some seconds later: “I think it’s important to say that we aren’t going to stop—blocking bridges, shutting down roads, occupying buildings. This isn’t going away, right? Right. Until we start to see some action from the UK government.”[1] Written and shot during the XR protests in April 2019, the film uses satire with slight didacticism to provide ideological support for the rebellion revolutionaries’ performative exhibition. The motto of “nonviolent open rebellion” rather efficiently masks radical actions like activists damaging artwork, adhering themselves to museum railings, defacing Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, obstructing bridges, and employing tactics reminiscent of widely publicised guerrilla actions.

As offshoots of the 1960s New Left, radical environmentalist groups like the Animal Liberation Front, the Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front emerged. The radical movements of the era can be interpreted as responses to social issues like the Civil Rights, anti-war movements, gay liberation, and animal rights movements. While initially concentrated in the UK and the USA, these groups have garnered widespread global appeal. Their tone, originally militant and uncompromising, gradually shifted to adopt more approachable and milder strategies. They demonstrated adeptness in significantly shaping public discourse and directing media attention. We view Extinction Rebellion as an effective successor of these movements and their media savvy approach to shape public discourse deserves attention.

Extinction and Shaun Monson’s Guardians of Life (2020), two films produced by Extinction Rebellion, are perfect examples of the successful advertising strategies with which radical climate activists seek for drawing attention to themselves. Taken from the Quran (25:74), the title suggests an exploration of whether these films serve as reference points for the viewers to sustain ethical principles with respect to environmental concerns. In their pursuit, Extinction and Guardians of Life adopt methodologies akin to the tactics utilised by PETA and others, including sponsoring, producing, and distributing educational and training materials, documentaries, street theatre performances, and leveraging partnerships with Hollywood celebrities to amplify their purported message. One of Extinction Rebellion’s contentious moments evolved in 2019, when Emma Thompson flew from Los Angeles to Central London to join protesters aboard the Bertha Cáceres, a boat named after the assassinated Honduran activist. While Extinction Rebellion promoted this event as a peaceful form of civil disobedience aiming at “deliberate decisions about the most effective way for the UK to become carbon-neutral by 2025,”[2] Thompson’s involvement raised many eyebrows, given the environmental impact of her transcontinental flight. The Extinction Rebellion’s actions raise many questions: Is there a clear line between nonviolent protest and disruptive action in XR’s aim to live in peace and harmony with one another, across cultural and religious borders, and with “Mother Earth”?[3] How can humanity grapple with the conflicting tensions amidst the urgent need for global, environmental, and social transformations? Moreover, how might meticulously crafted media content, including films with heavily publicised celebrity participation, detract or even distort the audience’s perception of critical climate-related issues?

Extinction opens with the citation from Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014), where she condemns the capitalist economic system, which prioritizes profit and resource exploitation, for fundamentally undermining or resisting the necessary measures to address climate change: “Clearly, there is something about climate change that has some people feeling very threatened indeed.”[4] In On Fire: the (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal (2019), Klein lauds Extinction Rebellion as a grassroots movement mobilising a “people’s emergency”[5] and echoes their slogan of being “a wave of nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience,” citing the mass shutdown in Central London as part of their outstanding strategy.[6]

These questions are particularly relevant to Guardians of Life (2020). Starring Joaquin Phoenix, the short is the first installment of a planned twelve-part series addressing “the most pressing issues facing the human species as we move into what most scientists, politicians and the public see as the make or break decade for the survival of life on the planet.”[12] Perhaps not without coincidence, the film was released three days before Phoenix accepted his Academy Award for Joker (2019), making a tearful acceptance speech on stage about “the fight against the belief that one nation, one people, one race, one gender, or one species has the right to dominate, control, and use and exploit another with impunity,”[13] and about “that we’ve become very disconnected from the natural world and many of us what were guilty of is an egocentric worldview—the belief that we’re the center of the universe.”[14] By posing as the champion of Nature, Phoenix shed tears for the practice of artificially inseminating cows, stealing their baby from them shortly after birth, and using their milk intended for a calf that we put in our coffee and cereal.[15] While it is true that intensive dairy production puts profits way ahead of animal welfare, statements like this make it impossible to work on sensible alternatives as it puts ethically sound, animal welfare conscious practices alongside industrial dairy farming.[16] Phoenix reiterates his call for action in an interview with Extinction Rebellion about the making of Guardians of Life, stressing the impact of the meat and dairy industry on deforestation and climate crises, and calling for our “personal responsibility to make changes in our own lives and act now.”[17] Notably, on February 21, 2020, 14 days after his heart-rending Oscar-speech, Phoenix made headlines by saving a calf and its mother from a slaughterhouse, strategically leveraging publicity across esteemed media platforms from the Vanity Fair to CNN. Yet, what is rather mind-boggling is that the discourse centers less on the issue of the calf and its mother or the exploitation of our natural world, and more on Phoenix in the leading role as the savior of our planet, raising questions about the narrative’s alignment with his environmental activism.

In Guardians of Life, Phoenix assumes the character of a physician in an ER, joined by A-listers Rosario Dawson, Matthew Modine, Q’orianka Kilcher, Oona Chaplin, Adria Arjona, and Albert Hammond Jr., rushing a patient, the “Mother Earth” herself, injured from wildfires. Time and hope are running out as the doctors make futile efforts to revive her failing heart with bumper paddles. All hope left, the senior physician, played by Modine, declares the time of death, and everybody starts leaving the room. Suddenly, in a particularly poignant moment, Kilcher rises on top, persisting in resuscitation until the triumphant resurgence of beeping signals renewed anticipation. It is “Mother Earth,” revealed to the viewers, with South America ablaze, followed by the globe’s rotation, showcasing Australia engulfed in horrifying flames, which imagery not only undermines the premise of a successful operation but, through its visual storytelling, does so in an overtly didactic manner.

It is no doubt that film is one of the most meaningful ways of facilitating changes in our world. While Extinction and Guardians of Life declare “nonviolent open rebellion” and the urge to action for the survival of our natural world, the divergence between their stated ideals and their disruptive tactics in shaping public understanding of climate-related issues point toward starkly opposite directions. Despite their alleged advocacy of environmental issues, the involvement of such movie stars as Emma Thompson or Joaquin Phoenix redirects attention to their celebrity status, eclipsing the focus on the ecological solutions they should represent. Thus, these films can be viewed as nothing more than glossy facades, effectively disguising the radical environmental actions of XR activists under a more inclusive, media-friendly veneer.


[1] Extinction, directed byJack Cooper Stimpson (Extinction Rebellion, 2019), access:, accessed: December 09, 2023.

[2] “Today, 11am, London: International Rebellion begins,” Extinction Rebellion,  April 15, 2019, access:, accessed: December 09, 2023.

[3] Jane Goodall, “Mother Earth,” Inspiration Journey, April 22, 2017, access:; accessed: December 09, 2023.

[4] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (New York – London – Toronto – Sydney – New Delhi: Simon & Schuster, 2014), p. 38.

[5] Naomi Klein, On Fire: the (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal (New York – London – Toronto – Sydney – New Delhi: Simon & Schuster, 2019), p. 21.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Stimpson, Extinction.

[8] European Commission, “Climate Action: 2050 long-term strategy,” access:,” accessed: December 11, 2023;
European Commission, “The European Green Deal: Striving to be the first climate-neutral continent,” access:, accessed: December 11, 2023.

[9] “Emma Thompson stars in new short film about Extinction Rebellion, released online on 1st May,” Extinction Rebellion, April 29, 2020, access:, accessed: December 09, 2023.

[10] Stimpson, Extinction.

[11] Ciara Nugent, “A Revolution’s Evolution: Inside Extinction Rebellion’s Attempt to Reform Its Climate Activism,” Time, July 9, 2020, access:, accessed: December 10, 2023.

[12] “Joaquin Phoenix Makes Film with Extinction Rebellion & Amazon Watch,” Extinction Rebellion, February 06, 2020, access:, accessed: December 09, 2023.

[13] “Joaquin Phoenix wins Best Actor: 92nd Oscars (2020),” Oscars, March 11, 2020, access:, accessed: December 09, 2023.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] The Ethical Dairy,“About The Ethical Dairy,” access:, accessed: December 11, 2023; Tom Levitt, “Rise of ethical milk: ‘Mums ask when cows and their calves are separated’,” The Guardian, 29 June, 2019, access:, accessed: December 11, 2023.

[17] “Joaquin Phoenix Makes Film with Extinction Rebellion & Amazon Watch,” Extinction Rebellion.

Dávid Szőke holds a PhD from the University in Szeged in Hungary. He is currently researching counter narratives to antigypsyism in literature and culture at the Heidelberg University, Germany.

Sándor Kiss is a PhD candidate in the North-American Literature and Cultural Study Programme at the University of Debrecen and an assistant lecturer at the Institute of English Language and Culture at the University of Nyíregyháza. His field of research is environmental policy and environmentalism in the U.S., its current state, and its relationship
with contemporary political trends and the new media. Contact

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *