I first heard of Extinction/Rebellion a few weeks ago when I happened upon one of their founders being interviewed on the BBC’s Hardtalk programme. He promised that on April 15, a few weeks ahead, they would launch a world-wide action of non-violent resistance that would finally make the somnolent politicians of the world awaken to the need to do something effective in face if the growing ecological/climate-warming crisis.
He made it sound as if every government in the world was going to be confronted by demonstrators who would be out to prove themselves to be royal pains in the ass, not just demonstrating passively, marching, shouting, breaking a few windows, burning a few cars and disused rubber tyres, and then going off home (all of which are counter-productive actions) but setting out, rather, to disrupt the exercise of normal business in many a busy city centre, and, having once done so, to stay there almost indefinitely.
It sounded so promising that I mentioned it to a number of my acquaintances, none of whom had even heard of the proposed action. So I began to wonder if it was all talk. To hear them describe it, they would need several thousand followers willing to engage in the sort of protest they were promising ---- locking themselves to railings, climbing the face of buildings, sitting and lying in the middle of the road, and refusing to go quietly. They would need to tap into the sort of fanatics who were prepared to go to prison for their belief in the efficacy of such actions.
But April 15 has come and gone, and Extinction/Rebellion is now on everyone’s lips because of the success of their blockades of four of the central places in London, England --- Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Circus, Waterloo Bridge, Marble Arch. I know each of these places quite well. The last time I was in London --- it was around 1980, already nearly 40 years ago --- traffic in those places was so congested that it was much quicker to get out of your cab and walk, so I could imagine what might result from a determined effort to disrupt the smooth flow of this log-jam.
A new tactic is that of super-gluing the hands to railings, to cars and trucks, to each other, in a determined effort to prevent the police from simply lifting you up and carrying you off to the Black Maria. Yesterday I heard a middle-aged woman lawyer, Farhana Yamin, who has been credited with being responsible for the inclusion of the achievable target remissions in the Paris Accord, signed by 195 signatories in April 2016, explaining on Democracy Now! why she had moved from working within the system to support for the root-and-branch opposition posited by the Extinction/Rebellion protests this week.
She said it was simply because the “legal process is broken right now, and we are having to break law, rather than make law.” She had super-glued her hands to the pavement outside the Shell building, and explained: “I joined the mass civil disobedience movement because of the inaction of companies like Shell who have lobbied governments to not take action, which is why we are here at this difficult time. And just to let you know, this action is supported in about 50 countries each one fighting land degradation, toxic abuse, and human rights abuses, and we are supporting all of those movements around the rest of the world. “
A younger woman, Clare Fallow, asked to explain the movement’s rationale, said it was “well over 30 years of denial and time-wasting, and the emissions are still going up, so the facts are quite clear that we are on a catastrophic course and we are not prepared to stand by and allow this to continue.”
Ms. Yamin said the demonstrators who climbed on to Shell’s balcony did it to honour Polly Higgins, who has been campaigning for an ecocide law, which would hold to account companies and governments for criminal damage to the Earth. "It is absurd that I was walked off in handcuffs for criminal damage to the Shell building when Shell itself has been one of the main polluters causing irreversible harm that is happening all around the world.”
Some 1,000 people have so far been arrested as a result of the X/R actions, and the home office secretary in Theresa May’s government was vowing to use the full force of the law to prosecute the offenders.
I can say, having watched a similar root-and-branch protest in favour of the environment nearly 40 years ago in British Columbia, that when governments feel really threatened, they never hesitate to use the prison cell, the law courts, and the full majesty of the law to punish those who dare to defy them.
I happened to be making a film in the 1980s just as the Clayquot Sound issue came to the forefront: I remember flying in a light plane (and one that was sorely buffeted by those West Coast winds), over the beautiful British Columbia coast and being utterly appalled at the wanton destruction caused by clearcut logging of the magnificent rain forests along that coastline. I recall a young woman telling our camera when she was asked why she was protesting, “Because I get so much energy from these trees.” She was speaking for the 900 people who were arrested during the confrontation that ensued, the great majority of whom were prosecuted and sentenced either to prison sentences of up to six months, or to fairly heavy fines. To my mind these protesters were doing the most important thing that could possibly be done, namely, trying to resist the ruination of our landscape, the destruction of our environment, and the degradation of our Earth. But these noble aims carried little weight with the government compared with the injunction against any action that interfered with the work being carried out by the logging companies.
That these prison sentences were all cruel and unusual punishments, certainly not merited by whatever measure (except perhaps that of a company lawyer, or that of a worker, trying to feed his family) one might like to suggest, seemed to me obvious at the time. I believe the Clayquot Sound protest has remained the biggest act of civil disobedience that has ever occurred in Canada. It did, over many years have an ameliorative effect on methods of logging, although at one time, government and company, in a brilliant demonstration of their bad-faith, managed to string out negotiations with environmentalists and indigenous protesters for a year, while logging continued apace.
I would like to say that if I were thirty years younger I would join the protests of Extinction/Rebellion. But can I really pretend that my advanced age and fragile health are reason enough to excuse me from serving alongside the young right now? It sounds like a pretty feeble excuse to me.
When I was living in London in the 1960s, a close friend of mine was Robert Resha, who devoted his entire life to trying to overthrow the apartheid government of South Africa, his home country. In comparison with his dedication, I used to feel inadequate.
But he told me, “Don’t worry about it. Everyone serves in his own way.” And he was quite content to harness my pen and paper to his cause. Which is what I am doing here.