Just Stop Oil – Criminals or Heroes?

My sixteen year old daughter has challenged me in the past months, asking me why we talk about our concerns around climate change, but never get involved in activism. We talk about it, feel angry, afraid and a whole range of other emotions, but it stops there.

António Guterres, UN Secretary General, stated at last year’s COP27 that ‘We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator.’ You’ve probably heard that before; these words get bandied around a lot. And yet, despite the overwhelming evidence to support Guterres’s words and consensus amongst leading scientists, we continue to live and act as though it’s business as usual. Here in the UK, the government has licensed over one hundred new oil and gas fields. I don’t have sufficient words or space here to express the insanity of this.

So my daughter and I decided to go to an Extinction Rebellion talk. But we weren’t sure about that, so we heard about a local Just Stop Oil talk taking place and went along. There, in small groups, she poignantly expressed how she feels she is living a double life: one life feeds her the cultural narrative of studying hard, getting her A Levels, going to college, finding a job, that the world’s at her feet. All of that. The other narrative is that none of this might happen, particularly if things continue on their current trajectory.

Just Stop Oil has garnered a fair amount of hysteria in the press, nearly always being misrepresented. People talk about ambulances not being able to get to hospital; missed funerals; vast inconvenience. The truth is that their policy is to always stop roadblocks to allow through blue lights, no exceptions. And of course normal people going about their business get caught up in roadblocks and it’s deeply inconvenient. But so too is the climate crisis deeply inconvenient, whilst energy companies continue to report record profits. And It’s far easier to point fingers at chaos caused rather than to ask real questions about the motivations behind action taken. This has come to light in an even starker way recently as climate activists have been banned in court from mentioning the climate crisis. How on earth can they defend themselves if they are not allowed to talk about this emergency which affects us all? I can safely say that all of these activists wish there weren’t the need to be doing what they’re doing.

In mid February, my daughter and attended a Just Stop Oil social to find out more and there I met Mark Skipper, a talented Cambridge-based artist and activist. He has spent the past several months talking to activists, drawing them and capturing their stories in striking images surrounded by words with a project he calls  #FacesOfRebellion. I am extremely grateful to Mark (and the subjects of his portraits) for allowing me to share his art and the stories of these activists here on my blog. These pictures speak volumes – I am only including a few here, but these are intimate portraits of normal, everyday people who refuse to be bystanders. They are grandparents; students; nurses; teachers; people with families and dreams for the future. So, without further ado, I’d like these powerful portraits to do the talking.

Nobody gets more than a page,’ says Mark. ‘Bald people might be permitted a few more words than those with big hair! But we’re always turning the page. Scrolling to the next. And that’s one reason why I feel drawn to get the numbers up. There must be a relentlessness to it; a surprising feeling of: “How many activists?” And I notice, as I write and read their stories, that there are horizontal threads: a kind of longitudinal narrative of love, fear, courage and determination that joins them and to which I might also be joined. Indeed, I believe I chose to sit in the road last October out of a sense of being grounded by this work. Radicalised in its original sense of having a root. It’s that longitudinal rhizome which threads together all these ‘ordinary people’ doing extraordinary things in unprecedented times. I felt connected to it and made my own choice to offer my body as a statistic , as one of the many. The title of your blog asks a question, and you leave us, looking at those faces of Rebellion, to make our own choice in answer. My answer is: neither Criminals nor Heroes, but ordinary people making brave and necessary choices when they face the enormity of the the threat we face.

Deep gratitude to Mark, and to see more of his incredible artwork, visit #FacesOfRebellion here.

George Monbiot, a writer specialising in environmental issues, recently wrote in a Guardian article that silencing activists in court is highly immoral (how can it be a fair trial if campaigners are unable to explain motivations to a jury?) and that today’s climate ‘criminals’ are tomorrow’s heroes.

And what’s next for my daughter and I? I can’t envisage seeing myself sitting on the M25 anytime soon. But if our undemocratic government continues hellbent on this path to destruction, this also remains a question mark hanging in the air.

(With thanks to my daughter for allowing me to include her in this post.)

Thank you for reading this blog. Compliment it with a post on cathedral thinking and why my attitude to flying has changed (this year I have pledged to not take any flights) & why I set up Norwich Writers Rebel in 2022.

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