Last weekend saw two marches of protest in the UK.
By far the largest and most reported was the march in London for a People’s Vote on the final terms of Brexit. ‘Hundreds of thousands’ is the reported scale, comparable with the estimated 750,000 who marched in 2003 to stop the war in Iraq, with coaches, funded by a host of pro-Remain celebrities, descending on the capital from across the country.
Meanwhile just outside Blackpool in Lancashire, around 1000 people gathered for a rally at the gates of the Cuadrilla fracking site at Preston New Road. It saw the highest number of people to gather at one point and time to protest fracking in the north, a swelling of the ranks driven in no small way by the draconian sentences of imprisonment for the offence of Public Nuisance, passed on three protestors who had spent three days on top of lorries in July 2017. The fact that the ‘FrackFree 3’ had been released on appeal just days before the rally, their sentences deemed by the appeal court judge to be ‘manifestly excessive’, and the IPCC report on the imminent threats of climate change had been released that same week, hit the sweet spot of motivation for anyone who’d been weighing up which march to attend on October 20th.
Since reading of the case in September, I had intended to be at the Lancashire rally. I have considered myself part of the environmental movement for some years now, a member of the Green Party and, in a soft way, politically active my whole adult life. But the imprisonment of three people for non-violent, community-supported protest suddenly unmuffled the alarm bells that had been softly but insistently ringing in my head for the past few years.
We have not done enough to safeguard the future for our children. We have not put pressure on those we’ve elected to govern us to make change happen economically, technologically, socially to avert environmental disaster. We have not taken seriously the warning signs that our democracy and civil liberties are being eroded and that all the indicators of authoritarianism are at our gates – or more likely, already within them.
Yesterday I watched online a talk by Gail Bradbrook of Extinction Rebellioncalled Heading for Extinction and What To Do About It. Extinction Rebellion (XR) is a network of activists who recognise the facts as climate scientists present them, and organise acts of civil disobedience to disrupt the ‘business as usual’ policies of governments who are doing nothing to safeguard the future of life on earth.
The presentation is in two sections, between which there is a two minute silence for audiences to start to process the facts. And their grief.
Grief is the only response to what we know. What climate scientists have known for a while and even in the conservative, consensus seeking rigour of the IPCC, now have no choice but telling it like it is.
Even the IPCC reports are conservative. For example, their modelling of arctic sea ice loss gives us up to 25 years before it’s all gone, whilst observational studies forecast it could be gone by 2023.
Yes, 2023. That’s five years away.
Loss of sea ice is just one of the ten tipping point ‘feedback loops’ – the albedo effect, darker ocean water reflecting less heat than ice, quickens climate change. The others include permafrost thaw, loss of methane hydrates, boreal forest die-back and warming ocean currents. ‘Hot House Earth’ as the 2018 paper by the US Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) has titled it. In that scenario, there is a very likely possibility of human extinction.
Imagining that our governments are taking any heed of this is an exercise in futility. Still citing ‘growth’ and ‘jobs’(nowadays, a popularist proxy for corporate profits) the UK government has scrapped support for onshore wind, axed solar subsidies, killed off the Green Homes schemes and green tax targets, overturned local democracy to give fracking in the UK the go ahead – with tax subsidy – and approved the third runway at Heathrow. Not surprising given that the Conservative party accepts £390K in donations from the oil and gas industries. But it’s not just our government who are actively promoting policies to hasten mass extinction. The Australian government has abandoned its emissions reduction target and just announced its renewed backing of the coal industry, whilst the USA… well in Trumpland, climate change is Fake News.
Our political systems manifestly will not deliver the radical global actions that are needed to keep to the 1.5ºC target agreed by the Paris Climate Summit. The University of Washington emissions, modelling and UN warming estimates that we have only a 1% chance of hitting that. There’s only a 5% likelihood that it’ll be less than 2º, with a 95% forecast range between 2 and 4.9º, median rise of 3.2ºC.
The consequences of that kind of temperature increase are… well for most people, unimaginable. Sea level rises alone will displace a tenth of the world’s population by 2050. And not just in faraway places where brown people live. Here in the UK, Bradford and Sheffield will be worrying about an influx of folk from Hull and Middlesborough, whilst Hampstead Heath sites refugee camps for the displaced communities of Waltham Forest and Barnet.
That will happen before my children are the age I am now. Probably.
And that’s just the start. Other potential consequences are : forests burn, becoming nett carbon producers ; massive crop failure ; desertification including large areas of Europe; a breakdown of the systems that sustain life on the planet. There have been five previous global extinction events. The last one, caused by runaway climate change, wiped out 97% of all life on earth.
But before that, we have societal breakdown to look forward to. When resources start to become scarce – possibly now, already – history tells us we humans start to organise for the worse. Increasing authoritarianism and fascism. The early warning signs are with us.
Why aren’t we alerted to the dangers ahead? Why is our narrative tramlined into an ending where everything turns out OK and Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum save the earth? Why is it impossible for us to imagine the lives we are leading, the freedoms we have won and the comforts we have come to know, disappearing slowly, or more likely, rapidly. It’s not like we don’t have the personal histories of people still alive of how the holocaust happened in Germany, or genocide in Bosnia. Those who’ve been watching The Handmaid’s Tale, where Margaret Atwood shows us how quickly ‘normal’ civilised life is transformed into the hells of totalitarianism, will have made the narrative connections to what’s happening right now in the USA and across Europe.
So why aren’t we doing anything? I mean, my social circle – as represented by my facebook friends – are politically active on numerous important fronts. From the secondbiggest act of self-harm being committed by our government in the faux name of democracy – Brexit – to the #MeToo movement, from gender identity to disability rights, from racial justice to the NHS, from homelessness and poverty to mental health and social care for older people, there are so many critical issues where we feel we really might have an impact. But – and this is not to underplay any of them – they all pale into the background when faced by the possibility of extinction, preceded by fascism. Because history tells us that in totalitarian states women, LGBTQ people, disabled people, sick people, poor people, old people don’t get treated well. People don’t get treated well unless they are part of a very small number of rich and powerful elite who are right now organising to ensure that if only a few humans survive it will be them.
So yes, this really is the only thing that counts. Stopping governments and corporate interests from destroying the planet we live on.
The sixth mass extinction is already well underway. Not human extinction, so far – but it may take human extinction to save the earth. But the annihilation of species, of nature and wildlife, the ultimate cause of which is the human race, and in particular the wealthier nations, groups, corporations and individuals. A 2018 study of British mammals indicates that a fifth could be extinct within a decade. The RSPB ‘red list’ – of British birds under threat of extinction – includes the corncrake, lapwing, curlew, puffin, woodcock, lesser spotted woodpecker, kittiwake, turtle dove, linnet and mistle thrush. Our landscapes will fall silent.
The world which just a few years ago we thought we’d pass on to our kids… a Ladybird Bookworld of birdsong and abundant seas; a world which, whilst it might contain some distant threat, would sustain at least a modicum of continuity for them, for our grandchildren and great grandchildren….that world is gone and all we can do is mourn.
Maybe not quite all.
After the two minutes for silent grief, Bradbrook’s presentation goes on to suggest ways we can approach living before we die.
Climate Scientist Dr Kate Marvel says ‘We need courage, not hope’. Not hope that ‘they’ will sort it out, they manifestly won’t. But courage to force change through building mass movements of non-violent resistance.
Protest is not enough. The 700,000 strong march for a People’s Vote on Brexit may well have no impact. The march to stop the Iraq war failed to do so. On the other hand, the 1,000 strong rally at the gates to Cuadrilla’s fracking site at Preston North Road blocked the gates with people chanting KEEP IT IN THE GROUND – and the attendant security staff, police and fencing. That rally, whilst peaceful and nonviolent, was arguably more effective, because on that day, at PNR, we kept it in the ground.
As George Mombiot has eloquently argued‘Our politicians under the influence of big business have failed us. As they take the planet to the brink, it’s time for disruptive, nonviolent disobedience’.
At a local café in my town there’s a small exhibition of photographs, publications and memorabilia from the Greenham Common Peace Camp in the 1980’s and 1990’s. I visited the camp a couple of times to take part in days of action, sat down in front of the gates, got removed by police. Then, we had the fire and the fury to go and do that, and the conviction it was the only way to stand up to powerful men. Forty years later I’m going back into direct action and have signed up for Extinction Rebellion and Reclaim The Power, both organisations dedicated to disruptive, nonviolent disobedience in the face of human extinction.
We should have been doing it before. Maybe it’s not too late. Maybe it is. But this is the way I now have to live, if the grief isn’t going to defeat me.
Sky heaves upwards in clouded severity,
pale with shock at the new day’s deeds,
plays at movement with tight throated levity,
musters flattery, brisk and bright:
“Earth, you are lovely in my light
Even in your dying weeds”