Risks of resistance

Last Sunday, in Quaker Meeting, a wonderful woman called Marjorie, who is 91, ‘gave ministry’ about risk. She didn’t actually use the word, but she spoke of elderly Ukrainian women not only standing peacefully in front of Russian soldiers but talking to them, on behalf of their mothers. Moved as I pictured this scene, I remembered a tweet I’d seen an hour or two earlier from Peter Kalmus, @ClimateHuman, a climate scientist whose grief and passion is always palpable: I’m often asked, ‘What can I do?’ or ‘How can I be a climate activist?’ Answer: Take risks. There’s a lot of guidance you can get, groups you can join, advice you can seek. But it won’t amount to much, if anything, if you don’t take risks.

I’d taken a risk that weekend by gluing myself to Barclays St Albans in protest at the ever-increasing funding of fossil fuels by Europe’s dirtiest bank, been arrested, strip-searched and charged with criminal damage (although superglue comes off with nail varnish remover). It was a risk I understood and a relatively predictable outcome. I’m committed to such risk taking – emotional, financial and physical – in an attempt to protect Planet Earth and all its life. But most concerned humans are unwilling. Risk can be a powerful deterrent, and in XR we understand the potential cost of activism, which goes deep psychologically. For those of us who have always tried to be good and nice, approved and liked, through school and work and beyond, as a full-time business, there’s fear of losing that respectable identity, and a sense of loss once it’s been compromised by ‘criminality’ and ‘trouble-making’. I feel that loss, just a little, even after three and a half years, and being described by the Crown Prosecution Service as “of bad character” still hurts. I was the girl who had nightmares at school about the detentions I was never given.

There’s something bigger, though, and more powerful: the risk of broken relationships with those we love most. It must be exhausting and painful for anyone living with someone who doesn’t understand or agree with their commitment, or the level of it, or its expression. Someone who believes that the activist’s primary devotion is no longer to them – perhaps even that their marriage vows are being broken. Someone who considers their activism misguided, or dangerous. Too great a risk to that person they love, and the connection between them. I know Rebels in this situation and it must be acutely painful, a constant dilemma, a cause of friction and separation. Those in Insulate Britain who risked prison as well as the vitriol and contempt of the majority couldn’t know, when they sat on their first motorway, how much they would lose. Some served a couple of weeks, others a few months. I hope every one of them felt loved through the experience, which is hard to anticipate emotionally and imaginatively before sentencing.

Would I risk prison? It’s almost impossible to answer, and I believe that risk both worth taking and beyond my personal capacity, with an outcome I fear but could also endure and survive. But what of Mum, 94? What of my beloved husband, older and more fragile? What of my children, who support me but for whom this might be a step too far, and my grandchildren for whom I will soon be caring once a week? What if my relationships with these people I love are weakened by my decision at their expense? What of my bowels; my vegan, gluten-free diet; my depression and need of company? What if I just cry through each day and night?

Those protesting in Russia, like Yelena Osipova, risk their liberty for peace. In Ukraine, the women talking to the ‘enemy’ soldiers about their mothers risk their lives. So here, however much we regret the slide into authoritarianism evidenced by the Crime, Police and Sentencing Bill, we have it easy. No climate protester is likely to be shot (even though I did consider that possibility when I saw the heavily armed militarism of the Lord Mayor’s Show where a few of us from Christian Climate Action intervened). How much risk we are prepared to take may depend on a number of factors, like age and employment, social status, health, our life experience, the information we’ve accessed, the attitude of our friends and family and, inescapably, our own individual temperament. At Barclays on Friday, all bar one of our little group of Rebels identified as introverts, so shyness and lack of confidence are not apparently a barrier to action. None of the activists I know had been in trouble with the police before their first arrest with XR, so being a lifelong law-abiding citizen does not in itself prevent people taking that first alarming step of arrestable activity. The question then is what, psychologically, differentiates the risk-takers from the bystanders, many of whom must also according to the polls be concerned, or very concerned, about climate change. I wish I knew the answer, and the wish is more fervent year on year as time runs out and emissions continue to rise while weather events around the world grow more extreme.

Those I’ve called bystanders may of course be taking action of a different sort, with their local Transition Town, or in local politics where the green agenda is, at least at face value, acceptable. Skill sets clearly influence our choices as much as temperament and the two may be intertwined. For a long time I saw myself as a keyboard warrior, weaving eco themes and climate chaos into my fiction as an author, originally for children and YA. It wasn’t enough. Neither were the changes I made as a flight-free vegan trying to shop zero waste, bank ethically and use a renewable energy provider. One COP after another failed to deliver climate justice for those nations most at risk and least to blame, and pledges proved empty. Desperation made me a Rebel willing to deal with arrest and the courtroom. Desperation and love. Because as Gail Bradbrook said and I like to quote repeatedly, “We can only protect those closest to us when we remember our love for those furthest away.” Desperation, love and faith as a Quaker who has always tried to follow Jesus. I might have assumed that people of faith are more likely to take risks that may involve sacrifice, and there are many in the climate and peace movements, probably representing a higher percentage than outside. But religious people are nonetheless divided on nonviolent direct action, with some relying on divine intervention and others simply seeing NVDA as a step too far, especially if it causes any kind of disruption – which protest is designed to do if it is to have any impact at all. XR is beyond politics, but there are plenty of Rebels who tried that as a route to change before growing impatient with progress.

There is no average Rebel and no obvious determining factor that overrides concerns to make us risk takers. The best I can offer is not simply accepting or knowing the climate science but taking its meaning deep into the heart, soul, mind and core. Once embedded, it’s overwhelming and can’t be removed. But there may still be other considerations that prevent activism. I’m doing what I can to appeal to people I know through blogs, videos and emails, and face to face, because there’s a theory of social change that says we need 3.5% of the population to rebel to effect change. We all modify our behaviour in the light of what those in our social circles say and do. The risks we will be taking in the Rebellion are tiny set against the courage of peacemakers in Ukraine and Russia. They are dwarfed by the risk to livelihood, health and life with which millions in the Global South already struggle thanks to climate change. The cost of protest has become less predictable and is already on the rise. But as humans we take risks anyway: falling in love, crossing the road, cycling or driving, becoming parents, eating a product past its sell-by date, leaving the umbrella at home, quitting one job for another, relying on last-minute prep or revision, accepting another glass of wine or frequenting the chip shop, not making contact, delaying troubling the doctor, booking anything in advance. Saying yes or saying no. The risks Peter Kalmus had in mind are different, though, because they’re not prompted by convenience or self-interest. And unless enough of us really, actively try to save the world, by telling the truth and serving it, the consequences will be catastrophic.

 

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