The climate emergency can seem so enormous that sometimes it feels like there’s no point in trying. More than 70 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions come from just 100 companies, and nobody is under any illusions about the need for urgent changes to the world order if we’re to avoid environmental catastrophe.
But change doesn’t just happen at a national, or global, level: small groups around the world are taking radical steps to try to mitigate the effects of climate change, and to show others how to do the same. The word “grassroots” has gone out of fashion after being used and abused for years, but community-led action has cropped up in a big way in recent years – including in Ireland.
One group participating in small-scale climate action is Dublin-based guerrilla gardening group Plant Bandits, which is affiliated with Extinction Rebellion. One of its core members, Cillian Byrne, gives me an insight into the world of guerrilla gardening – a practice less dangerous, and far more wholesome than its edgy name suggests.
In short, the Plant Bandits are an affinity group of the wider Extinction Rebellion movement, brought together by a mutual love of plants and a desire to turn Dublin into a biodiverse, pollinator-friendly city.
Byrne explains that they formed at one of Extinction Rebellion’s monthly meetings in Dublin, partially out of frustration with the group’s consensus decision-making practices that can be slow to birth effective actions. “We sat there for about two hours and about 100 people were chiming in and nothing really happened. So afterwards we were kind of thinking, ‘Alright, well, what can we actually do? What’s some direct action that we can do?’”
After one friend with “a little bit of experience making seed bombs” suggested guerrilla gardening, a small group of members formed Plant Bandits, with an initial plan “just to plant wildflowers around Dublin City in little spaces that weren’t being used”.
When I ask him to explain the exciting concept of a “seed bomb”, he dashes my mental images of exploding plant matter: “A seed bomb is basically a little ball of soil that has seeds in it. It’s a really convenient way to plant seeds without having to get down on your hands and knees and dig some stuff up … you just mix some wildflower seeds with 50 per cent clay, or some kind of bonding agent, and 50 per cent soil, and a little bit of water.”
The ease of “seed bombing” seems incredible: as someone who has always lived in cities, I imagined the act of planting anything to be a complex and careful ritual. But Byrne emphasises that “you don’t have to get down, you don’t have to dig, you literally just chuck it in”.
He describes cycling around the city with golf ball-sized seed bombs in his pocket and throwing them into “wasteland with really poor quality soil” – where wildflowers incidentally grow best.
I was a little dubious at first of the potential success of a little ball thrown from a moving vehicle, but Byrne confirms that he goes back to visit spots that he has seed bombed and “sometimes they’ve taken and sometimes they haven’t”.
This ingenious way to plant native wildflowers sounds like a lot of fun, but it also has far-reaching impacts. All the wildflowers that the Plant Bandits plant are native so they are non-invasive, and their main goal is to improve conditions for Dublin’s pollinators.
Byrne stresses that while pollinator populations are declining all around the world, it’s a serious problem in urban spaces. “The bees are the more obvious ones but there are lots of other different kinds of pollinators”, he says. On top of re-pollinating our trees and plants so that they will bear fruit and vegetables, “they play an important part in the food chain”. When insect populations drop, “bird populations and, certainly, small mammal populations drop along with them”.
While the catchphrase “Save the Bees” has often been weaponised by people who like to make fun of environmentalists, Cillian helps me to understand the myriad of crucial ways that pollinator populations support the food chain from the very bottom.
I’m also fascinated to learn that while the so-called “Bandits” style themselves as guerrilla gardeners, they have actually encountered little opposition to their work. Byrne explains that this has been as much of a surprise to the group themselves: “We thought that we would, that people would be suspicious … but we never had any problems.” Even when the group moved onto bigger actions than seed bombing, such as planting disused planters around the city centre, they were met with no hostility: “We went there, cleaned them up, planted herbs, some vegetables, some wildflowers, and then we really thought that people would be suspicious… that Dublin City Council were going to come along … but it didn’t really happen. It was really successful.”
Looking forward, the group plans to start a broadleaf tree nursery by collecting seeds on forest walks, planting them, and “looking after these plants until they’re big enough to be planted either in the wild or in someone’s garden without looking after them”.
But Byrne stresses the larger picture of Plant Bandits as a “really, really good group for getting someone initially involved in Extinction Rebellion”. His belief is that learning about plants “deepens people’s appreciation and relationship with nature”, driving further environmental action.
He states: “It’s quite a small action that we’re taking, and it’s really nice and it’s educational and fun and wholesome and everything, but from an XR point of view, the fight is bigger than that, so my hope would be that Plant Bandits is a great way to pull people in, and to educate a little bit, and then to move on.”
While they envision themselves as part of a wider movement, the Plant Bandits of Extinction Rebellion carry out their ethos of direct action – no matter how small – to make Dublin a more colourful city that can sustain its pollinator population in the face of increasing urbanisation.