Extinction Rebellion actions in London

  • Phil Kingston

Phil Kingston

Phil Kingston

The following talk was delivered by Phil Kingston at the quarterly meeting of the National Justice and Peace Network on 9 February. He is a member of Christian Climate Action.

I'm glad to be in your company because I imagine each of you walking a path towards what Pope Francis called 'a poor Church for the poor', a People of God who 'listen to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor' and who keep in mind always the generations who follow us. I am particularly happy to be here at CAFOD because some 30 to 40 years ago, I may well have left our Church if I hadn't been inspired by staff who were here. I recall especially CAFOD replacing the Archbishop Oscar Romero's radio station when it was blown up by people who were determined to stop him being heard. I thought 'this is the kind of Church I want to be in….'

I've been invited here to speak about an organisation called Extinction Rebellion and a small group called Christian Climate Action. I will first share two experiences which I regard as vital in bringing me here today. The most important was the sudden death of my father when I was three, something which blew a hole through two of my basic human needs: to trust and to be secure. Over many decades, I've been fortunate to come to a place of greater wholeness where I am now able to help others to embrace some of their suffering. Something else which left its mark occurred in 1984 whilst watching a news item about the Ethiopian famine. A mother was shown nursing a very sick child and the reporter then said that the baby had died a few minutes later. That this death could occur in a world of plenty was a vital experience in my commitment to work for justice. There's a saying that some things can only be seen with eyes which have wept.

There is a vitally important debate which is suppressed worldwide by a combination of business, mainstream media and politicians of almost all parties. I am speaking about the relationship between the global market economy and the destruction of the Earth, a destruction which includes climate breakdown. According to research by the World Wide Fund for Nature (1), we humans are now using the Earth as though we have access to 1.7 Earths. This is at a terrible cost to future generations, the poorest peoples and other-than-human creation. Many parts of civil society are involved in this suppression of debate, and that includes almost all NGOs. There's a useful website called Wrong Kind of Green (2) which explores the pressures on NGOs to avoid breaking the silence on this. The foremost world statesperson who speaks bluntly about the relationship between this economy and these outcomes for people and planet is Pope Francis. In The Joy of the Gospel (3), he described the economy as 'flawed at its root' and stated ''The worship of the ancient golden calf (cf. Ex 32:1-35) has returned in a new and ruthless guise in the idolatry of money and the dictatorship of an impersonal economy lacking a truly human purpose.'' (para 55). See also (4) and (5).

I now want to note the warning in the IPCC Report last September that if we don't halve CO2 emissions within 12 years, then staying within the temperature increase of 1.5 degrees C. will not be possible and we can expect serious further warming. Three days ago the UK Met Office issued a report which predicts that one in one of the next 5 years, the world average temperature will likely pass the 1.5 degree limit. (NB, when I gave this talk I said that the BBC news item about this report stated that the reaching of 1.5 degreesC could occur within 5 years. I apologise for not checking this more thoroughly because the process is more nuanced though still very serious). The Guardian report includes this:

''Dr Doug Smith, Met Office research fellow, said: "Predictions now suggest around a 10% chance of at least one year between 2019 and 2023 temporarily exceeding 1.5C." "It's a warning that we're getting close to that level," Prof Adam Scaife, the head of long-range prediction at the Met Office said. "We're not saying there is a current risk of breaching the Paris agreement. What we are saying is that for the first time, we are seeing a chance of a temporary rise of 1.5C due to a combination of global warming and natural climate variation." Scientists at the Grantham Institute noted that the probability of 1.5C years would steadily increase unless emissions were rapidly scaled back. (6). See also the November 2018 Met OFFICE Report jointly published by DEFRA and DBEIS (7).

A key question is whether emissions are falling. Between 2014 and 2016 they did seem to have plateaued but then 2017 showed a new record high. When last October, Fatih Birol, the Executive Director of the International Energy Agency addressed diplomats preparing for the December UN COP talks, he said ''I have very bad news for you. ….we're going to have the COP meeting when global emissions reach (another) record high.'' In a Guardian interview the same month, he said that the increasing emissions were a result of the global economy driving coal, oil and gas use. (8). See also the International Energy Agency Report for 2018 (9).

So what is Extinction Rebellion? It developed from an organisation called Rising Up which stated its concerns in this way: "We are facing many crises resulting from the system we live under, a form of extreme capitalism called neo-liberalism. This system is based on unsustainable and increasing amounts of debt. It is causing gross inequality, poverty, mass misery, and species extinction. It gives a lot of money and power to a very small number of people, who use that money and power to shore up their position. This system is destroying our planet's capacity to sustain life, by destabilising the climate. We have to change this system to support the most basic of universal values - the right to life." One of the core messages of Extinction Rebellion is this: ''Our Government's inaction makes them criminally complicit, so it is our right and our duty to follow our conscience and rebel through peaceful civil disobedience.'' (For information about Extinction Rebellion see (10).

The quote above refers to species extinction but the XR statement also includes the possibility of human extinction. If you haven't come across an article by Prof Jem Bendell (11) I urge you to read it because it outlines current global warming processes which are usually called non-linear. For example, the rapidly increasing warming in the Arctic melts more and more sea ice so that it no longer reflects the sun's rays. Instead it warms the water, which in turn releases methane from the surrounding tundra and the sea-bed, which in turn leads to more warming and so on. His thesis is that the process of warming is now unstoppable but that our efforts to keep fossil fuels in the ground can slow its speed and give more time to prepare for the food shortages and social collapse which he regards as probable during the first half of this century. He is not a doom and gloom character and in fact sees the possibility of a much more truly human relating coming out of these crises. One aspect is the need for peace-making on a massive scale.

If today is the first time that you are meeting these ideas about the probability of imminent food shortages and social collapse across the world, including here, this is likely to be a horrible shock. So I invite you again to speak with your partner for two minutes regarding this question: As you consider the possibility of these crises, what do you feel? I deliberately ask what you feel, not what you think, because that will likely get you nearer to your heart.

The group I was part of during these actions in November is Christian Climate Action (12) and (13). It is concerned primarily with keeping fossil fuels in the ground. We acknowledge that each of us is complicit in taking them out, and we each have a responsibility to reduce that. Whilst we seek dialogue with everyone who we regard as most promoting climate breakdown, where that doesn't bear fruit we are committed to take actions which break the law but which aren't violent to persons either physically or verbally.

One of the most meaningful was being with members of the police. I was arrested on four occasions so spent many hours at police stations including one bed and breakfast and a shower. I was treated with respect and consideration. This may partly be related to me being white, elderly and probably middle-class, but we have general evidence that the ER and CCA commitment to nonviolence to all persons in word and deed played an important part in police responses.

In conversations with the police I tried early to say: "You have your job to do and I have mine; and there are no hard feelings either way". Whenever the opportunity arose, I spoke about taking these actions because I am a grandfather and followed that by asking if they had children. My concern about climate breakdown was clearly shared by many, even if not always verbally expressed. One senior officer said: '"We have 12 years in which to turn this around before my children face disaster''. A policewoman said: "having nice people in the cells hurts my heart''. When I said that there are likely to be thousands in future, she winced. The general demeanour of a large number of us in the same police station led one constable to say ''You're the best customers we've had''. Whilst this is my experience I recognise that when the chips are down, the police are employed by a State which often doesn't work for the common good of all, and often puts corporate power before the rights of citizens. Freedom of protest has strict limits in law, and current laws offer virtually no protection for Earth's ecosystems, nor for future generations. Hence the necessity for us making a moral stand through civil disobedience and hoping to have the opportunity to speak about our concerns in court.

I am happy to have met so many police who share the concerns and values of Extinction Rebellion whilst not condoning some of our methods. I added this verse to a song of Marshall B. Rosenberg's which I sang to them in a number of contexts. It's basically a song of appreciation: "You have a difficult task, I can only ask, that you keep your care going, despite the cut-backs….''
The most controversial actions we took, for ourselves as well as for the public, involved blocking roads. Some of this was done in conjunction with the police so there was little difficulty in ensuring that emergency vehicles got through. But some weren't in conjunction with the police although they were informed about the days on which they would occur. I hadn't previously heard about a system called swarming which involves a number of small groups blocking road junctions for seven minutes and then letting traffic pass for thtee minutes.

We were seeking to achieve two objectives by doing this, one of letting Government and all politicians know that inaction or half-hearted action is at an end. The second was to alert citizens to the reality of the deepening crisis and to offer those who are concerned about it, possible avenues for taking action. We in CCA had many discussions about the costs of this to others as well as the potential gains. If you are critical of this, or of anything else we did, we ask if you will tell us. We will certainly appreciate any alternative ideas which may better help to achieve these aims.

With regard to swarming, I was involved in speaking to the drivers of the first few stopped vehicles to let them know how long we would remain on the road and why we were doing this. Their responses were a mixture of anger, frustration, understanding and support. We told them how long before we opened the road. And if they were willing to listen, we explained why were doing this and offered a leaflet. I soon found myself responding to the drivers on the inside lane where there were many buses. About three quarters of bus-drivers opened their window and the majority of them accepted a leaflet. If their response was at all positive, I asked if they would be willing to open the door for me to speak with passengers. I warmed particularly to one who opened the door before I could ask and said: "Would you like to come in?'' I explained to passengers that I am a grandfather who has big concerns about climate breakdown and what our descendants are heading for, and asked if anyone would like a leaflet. One put up a hand and others followed suit. As I went to leave, the driver said "You've got time to go upstairs!''

We were joined by many young people and our experienced coordinators asked if anyone would be willing to try that role and be given support in developing it. Two of them stepped forward. The job carries considerable responsibility in ensuring that the group gets on and off the road safely and responds to the unpredictability of motorists and pedestrians. I saw these two take charge like ducks to water, and was later amazed to learn that the younger is 17.

Fun within a decidedly serious context

This was alive on many occasions throughout. Our planning and debriefing meetings often had hilarious moments; and fun and repartee enhanced many connections with others. Being chained together across an office entrance or road soon brought along security guards or police liaison officers (PLOs). The latter have the dual task of keeping us safe and gathering information, particularly about how long we intend to be there. Information can be used against our plans so silence on areas like that is essential. Once both sides are agreed on the implicit rules, the boredom of us lying there for several hours sets in so everyone is ready for fun to bubble up. A difficulty with reporting examples is that they have nothing like the life of the present moment. I will have a go:

Police usually handcuffed us but they did that to me only once. One officer said: "We haven't handcuffed you. You won't do a runner will you?" Another policeman was standing with me while we were waiting for a police van to arrive. I asked if I could sing him a song. ''Is it good or bad?'' '"Definitely good''. He still had his video on whilst I sang the song of appreciation referred to above. At the end he chuckled, saying "It's gone through, but I don't know if they'll send it on.''

Sometimes the right words popped up. A freelance reporter with Extinction Rebellion interviewed me whilst being led to a police van: "What are you charged with?'' "Trying to protect the Earth.'' "Where are they taking you?'' "Heaven.''

And a female PLO said she was concerned about me still lying on the road when the police re-opened it and cheekily asked: "Would you like to come aside with me for a while so we can have a little talk about it?'' "Oh I couldn't do that. My Mam warned me about going off with strange women.''

Being with friends, old and new, in Christian Climate Action had deep meaning for me. The integration of prayer with action was an ongoing strength and I experienced the truth of 'Where two or three are gathered in Jesus' name' prayers are answered. Shared prayer at times of uncertainty and risk was a special gift.

I valued the solitude of being in a cell. I appreciated the singing when it travelled along the ventilation system in one police station. Joining in Amazing Grace was a special way of being Church. I read some of Riot Days by Maria Alyokina, a Russian Orthodox Church member and one of the Pussy Riot group. She was incarcerated in a punitive gulag where human rights and dignity had little meaning yet she somehow maintained the courage to keep challenging the abuse which she and others received.

Compared with Maria, the challenges and restrictions I experienced in that fortnight are peanuts; and our actions are only scratching the surface of the power of domination and opposition which we can expect.

I've referred to major concerns which are generally off limits in British political, media and church life. One is the relationship between the global economy and the destruction of the Earth. Another is the utter seriousness of the likelihood of runaway climate breakdown. And a third is the need for a widespread movement of civil disobedience to expose and challenge the current responses to both of these overarching problems. There is as yet no sign of Government or opposition are beginning to engage with them with the seriousness and urgency which is essential. Nor is mainstream media with the honourable exception of journalists like George Monbiot. Nor is our British and Irish Church. Nor are the NGOs. When the Climate Coalition which claims 15 million supporters initiated its Show the Love campaign, I could see that it was onto a crucial source of motivation in caring for the Earth and our descendants. But unless our love is connected with a) understanding the truth about this economy' destructiveness and the complicity of all major political parties in the mantra of more growth, and b) the utter seriousness of unstoppable climate breakdown, it can become out-of-context sentiment.

Extinction Rebellion is striking a chord and filling a void. In just 3 months it has taken root in most UK cities and many towns. It has also spread to 40 countries.

You may have picked up that whilst I'm not optimistic about the future, I am grateful to keep re-finding hope. If we can at least slow down this impending catastrophe, that's a wonderful task in which to cooperate. And if the human race is heading towards the suffering which Jem Bendell and other sources predict, and even to possible extinction, I pray that each of us will be given the grace to live that process with mutual love and care. Many times in our group, we've reminded ourselves that the outcome of what we do is unknown; it's in the hands of the God of Love. Our job is to respond to the prompting of God's Spirit, a Spirit who 'blows where she will'. Her presence has been palpable across this burgeoning movement during these two weeks and since.


WWF Living Planet Report 2018 www.footprintnetwork.org/content/uploads/2018/10/LPR-2018-full-report.pdf
Wrong kind of green www.wrongkindofgreen.org/
Pope Francis Evangelii Gaudium (Joy of the Gospel): paras 53 - 60 and 202-216 which relate to the global market economy and some of its effects http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html

Pope Francis Laudato si (Praise be: On Care for Our Common Home)

UK Met Office Report Feb 2019 www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/feb/06/met-office-global-warming-could-exceed-1-point-5-c-in-five-years
UKCP18 Headline Findings, published by Defra, Dbeis, Met Office Hadley Centre and Environment Agency. November 2018 www.metoffice.gov.uk/binaries/content/assets/mohippo/pdf/ukcp18/ukcp18-headline-findings.pdf
Fatih Birol 8th October 2018 www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/08/energy-sector-carbon-emissions-grow-second-year-climate-change-coal
World Energy Outlook 2018

Information about Extinction Rebellion https://rebellion.earth/
Prof Jem Bendell, Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy, IFLAS Occasional Paper 2, July 1918 www.lifeworth.com/deepadaptation.pdf
Christian Climate Action website https://christianclimateaction.wordpress.com/
Christian Climate Action Facebook www.facebook.com/christianclimateaction/
Berta Caceres Acceptance Speech for the Goldman Environmental Prize, 2015
Three minute video of 10 year old Elsie speaking with a representative of BP during the November 2018 actions in London https://tinyurl.com/elsie-bp

Tags: Environment, Climate Change, Extinction Rebellion

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