The writer is a lawyer, author, activist and director of Climate Reframe
This weekend, I’m taking part in the Unite to Survive protests outside the UK’s parliament co-organised by Extinction Rebellion (XR) and other groups working on social and environmental justice. We are demanding action from our leaders on the multiple crises threatening the stability of human society. I am an environmental lawyer and worked as a legal adviser in the UN climate negotiations for three decades. But four years ago I decided that trying to “make” the law wasn’t enough.
The message I wanted to convey was that the old way of doing things isn’t working. The oil barons are flouting laws and committing ecocide and we need to alert the world. That’s how I found myself on the streets during XR’s April 2019 actions, supergluing my hands to the pavement outside Shell’s HQ in London. How else could we get people to pay attention to the climate crisis already upon us?
Thousands of other ordinary people have been arrested in the UK and globally for taking direct action on a variety of issues since 2019. Our inspiration is our children — and not just because it is our responsibility to leave a sustainable planet for them. Greta Thunberg and her fellow students in the Fridays for Future movement, and the young people of colour who launched the global Movement for Black Lives after George Floyd’s murder in 2020, reminded us of how effective and important direct action can be.
Time isn’t on any of our sides. We have to be disruptive, even if this sometimes makes us seem unpalatable, even destructive. Recent protests by Just Stop Oil activists interrupting the World Snooker Championships in Sheffield, by animal rights demonstrators invading the course at the Grand National and by French opponents of pension reform storming the Paris headquarters of luxury goods company LVMH are all cases in point.
Arts, fashion and sporting events attract large audiences, corporate sponsors and extensive media coverage. Actions that disrupt these gatherings generate headlines and convey a message to a wider swath of society than traditional forms of green campaigning. Of course, hundreds of smaller scale and less controversial actions are also taking place — choirs singing protest songs at annual shareholder meetings, for instance — but these just don’t tend to get press and public attention.
So while I don’t like the throwing of soup at art works, as happened to Van Gogh’s sunflowers at London’s National Gallery in October with activists from Just Stop Oil, it’s important to understand why such actions are multiplying. It is because politicians and corporate leaders are not listening to their customers or the scientists who are telling them to change.
Of course, direct action is nothing new. Indeed it is a longstanding tool for bringing about social change. Apartheid, equal rights for women and basic health and safety laws were all won by decades of collective action taken by workers, women and people of colour. They combined protests and traditional political campaigning with an array of direct action techniques — including, in the last resort, recourse to hunger and general strikes.
Many of the steps taken by campaigners today draw on the past for inspiration. Emily Davison and dozens of suffragettes were forcibly fed in prison for going on hunger strikes before she tragically threw herself in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby in 1913.
Nor does it have to be one thing or the other. I would not, under any circumstances, want to abandon diplomatic and legal victories such as the 2015 Paris Agreement upon which our net zero by 2050 climate laws are based, and in which I was involved. But governments, including the UK, are not delivering their targets. We are stuck in an incremental mindset, with too many corporates trying to do as little as possible, and attempting to get one over regulators and consumers through so-called greenwashing. And while climate litigation ratchets up the pressure, such cases tend to ask governments to control air pollution, or do a little more mitigation of greenhouse gases.
As the peaceful protests unfold this weekend, I hope all of us will examine how we can imagine a different kind of economic system that is not based on private profit at the expense of the planet and the poorest sections of society. That starts with having more empathy with those taking direct action, and figuring out what we need to do so they do not have to put their bodies, their jobs and their reputation on the line for the sake of a safer future.