Imagine you could somehow project yourself 10 or 20 years into the future, and were looking back at the world in the 2020s, in full knowledge of the slow-motion catastrophe that was unfolding. What would you have done differently? I suspect most of us probably would have major regrets, but this knowledge doesn’t make putting your neck on the line today any easier, as I wrote in the Irish Examiner in September.
IF YOU KNEW for certain that something unimaginably terrible was going to happen, yet the only possible way it could be prevented is by breaking the law, would you do it?
And, if by taking this action, you were likely to face public vilification, prosecution, and possible imprisonment, would you still do it? This is the dilemma facing many people in today’s environmental and climate movement.
As British climate activist and broadcaster Chris Packham put it last week: “We are sleepwalking to an apocalypse.” Just hours before his documentary, titled Is it Time to Break the Law? was aired on Channel 4, UK prime minister Rishi Sunak did a pre-election U-turn by abandoning a series of key environmental pledges.
It was perhaps the perfect curtain-raiser to the programme, helping to dispel any lingering notion that today’s political classes have the slightest interest in taking the kinds of courageous (and unpopular) decisions necessary to avert disaster.
We are, Packham noted wryly, “starting here from a point that if we don’t do something, we are doomed”. While groups like Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil have engaged in a series of mildly disruptive actions, none have come even close to crossing the line into violence.
Most of the great social and political struggles, from the suffragette movement to abolishing slavery and the 20th-century civil rights, anti-colonial, and anti-Apartheid movements, have all entailed violent direct action.
British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst was arrested seven times, enduring beatings and solitary confinement. As she said during her trial in October 1908: “We are here not because we are law-breakers. We are here in our efforts to become law-makers.”
Other suffragettes also engaged in arson and vandalism, with Emily Davison killed after throwing herself under the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913. Who now still argues that these extreme actions, in the face of intractable discrimination, were not justified?
Today, climate activists are “depicted as dangerous radicals, yet the truly dangerous radicals are the countries and firms continuing to burn fossil fuels”, in the words of UN secretary general António Guterres.
There have been multiple reports of climate protesters engaged in peaceful actions, such as sit-ins on roads, being assaulted by members of the public, as well as being arrested and imprisoned.
The UK government’s new Public Order Bill, not dissimilar to repressive legislation in Russia, has effectively criminalised peaceful protests as innocuous as holding up a poster.
Other groups in society, from farmers to trade unionists, occasionally engage in disruptive street protests, but it is almost unheard of for them to be physically assaulted in the process.
Anger against climate protesters in the UK “has been fuelled by right-wing media”, Packham observed. “The public has been conditioned to hate them.”
Media coverage frequently employs loaded language like ‘zealots’ and ‘fanatics’ to stoke public antipathy against peaceful protestors who are acting not for their own gain but to draw attention to a dire ecological emergency that is becoming more apparent with every passing month.
For those involved in climate activism, these are dark, dark days. “I’ve been part of a generation of conservationists who’ve completely failed to protect the thing they’re meant to love,” Packham said.
Having been involved for years in peaceful campaigning, signing petitions, and going on marches, he is left with the stark reality that “none of it has worked; perhaps I have to take another route. Is it time for me to break the law?”
Packham’s experience mirrors my own, and doubtless, that of many other campaigners. We are losing badly, and every day of inaction takes us a day closer to irreversible climate breakdown and an unspeakable global tragedy.
We all do whatever we can. As a journalist, I have written hundreds of articles explaining the crisis and pleading for urgent action, attended numerous meetings and protests, and taken part in countless talks and interviews.
Yet, like Packham, I remain haunted by the sense that our best efforts are hopelessly inadequate.
Other than a couple of youthful indiscretions, I have remained on the right side of the law, and am grateful to live in a democratic country with a police force and judiciary that is broadly trusted. My climate activism likewise has been within the law, yet it is manifestly failing to make a difference.
In an era of climate breakdown, with our planetary life support systems unravelling before our eyes, the only truly radical action is to do nothing and meekly accept our fate.
“I’ve reached a point where I consider [breaking the law] the ethically responsible thing to do,” Packham concluded. Or, as civil rights activist Martin Luther King memorably put it: “One has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
If the law seems more concerned with shielding polluters and coddling lobbyists, then yes, maybe we have to fight back. Frankly, what other choices do we now have?