A bridge not far enough

by Maria on November 18, 2018

Yesterday I took part in an act of civil disobedience, helping to close off one of five central London bridges as part of Extinction Rebellion. The campaign takes the view of a couple of the books discussed recently here on CT, that at some point the ‘get out of jail free’ clause on principled political disobedience rises to the level of positive moral obligation; the urgency and devastation of climate change are so severe, and normal politics so unable to conceive of what’s needed, let alone do much or any of it, that blocking streets and other forms of nonviolent escalation are now essential.

On one level, it was just the same as every other protest; make a sign for the dog, stuff my pockets with poo-bags, and be sure not to drink too much beforehand. It was clear once I got onto the bridge – which was already blocked to traffic – that if you wanted to risk arrest you should sit in the road; otherwise you could just show support for those being arrested. There were the usual speeches, singing, drumming, chatting, getting Milo to pose for pictures with people, and even a woman playing the cello. It was pretty white, though with a strong Swampy contingent, a couple of whom had several arrests behind them and were looking at a custodial sentence if they were arrested again.

I stayed on the footpath, cheering for those arrested. But I felt uneasy about it and still do. And uneasy that I feel so anxious about rule-breaking – to the point where, when I was going home, I made sure to thank the police. (For some reason, the bridge I was on had six times the arrests of the next most numerous one.) It’s nice on one level, because it was a well-policed event with no aggro I could discern. But it’s also such a middle class white lady protestor thing to want to do, standing around with my cute dog and his cute sign, wanting everyone to be happy, especially in a country where policing is unequal and often vicious. Even this morning I have that emotional hangover from when you’ve gone a bit far in a political argument and, while winning, have squashed the other person a bit too much.

The reasons I went to do mild civil disobedience were what I’d read here from Chris et al on positive obligation, and also having noticed a week or two ago that a senior Church of England churchman was involved. Reading that back, I see I’ve become such an upstanding churchlady goody two shoes that I want to slap myself! Then I think, well, nothing political or structural gets done without massive, unlikely coalitions. So I just need to get over the fact that now, yes, I’m a mid-forties person who’s now on the distinctly establishment end of the rainbow. It’s a good thing – if galling, I’m sure – that the complacents like me are finally starting to get the message, but God knows we don’t deserve any medals for finally turning up.

There were people there who basically live on fracking protest sites or who have been activists for decades. It occurred to me this morning (yes, in church and no, I don’t know why I’m so sheepish about this, either) that those protestors are like the disciples who heard the New Testament firsthand, took it at face value and then did the only thing they could – tore up their lives to go out and re-make the world in the image of what they believed to be true. Success or failure didn’t matter. If you believed it was what it said it was and followed the logic of it through, there was no alternative but to spend the rest of your life proselytising in a hair-shirt, penniless and relying on the hospitality of others.

The same is true for climate change, obviously. Its severity and urgency and the sheer evil of how we are sliding into it demand that we tear our lives up to try to stop or at least slow it down. But in the same way that every religion gets softened because doing what it actually says on the tin is clearly unreasonable (i.e. incompatible with living comfortably), on climate change we’re still acting as if incremental change is a reasonable response to imminent catastrophe. (Or maybe the rationalisation is the implicit belief that the catastrophe will mostly happen to other people?)

The difference between the radicalisms called for by Christianity and climate change is this; the second coming is highly unlikely (at least), but climate catastrophe is both imminent and already here. We know it is coming, but we are still waiting to be forced by immediate circumstance into a radicalism we feel in our bones is essential right now. When the disaster finally comes to us, some part or number of us will finally embrace it with grateful relief. But till then, many are screaming into the void. Stopping a bit of traffic is the very, very, very least we can do. And no, it is not and will never have been enough.

A friend I called into on the way couldn’t come till later, and by then the bridge was blocked off to other protestors. She stood at the barricade explaining to people who wanted to cross Lambeth Bridge what the demonstration was about and asking them if, now they knew, they felt it was justified. Most of them did, once they thought about it. Maybe they won’t join any future ones, and probably it will be too late, but I think my friend certainly did more for the cause than I did, yesterday.

I will say, though, that by far the best bit was when I was walking along the Albert Embankment and a young man in a suit, driving a very large Mercedes which had just been turned away from the blocked bridge, was screaming out his opened window. Some tourists turned to see what he was about and he roared at them to “Shower, you cunts!”. Result.



Hidari 11.18.18 at 1:05 pm

Good for you Maria!

In a world increasingly beholden to corporate interests, it is going to become increasingly obvious to everyone over the next 20 or 30 years that mass civil disobedience really is the only way to stop our planetary death spiral.


J-D 11.18.18 at 1:57 pm

It was pretty white, though with a strong Swampy contingent, a couple of whom had several arrests behind them and were looking at a custodial sentence if they were arrested again.

I have a strong but possibly unreliable recollection of somebody using the term ‘Swampy’ to mean ‘SWP (Socialist Workers Party) member’. A simple search of the Web produces no evidence to support this, but also no clear alternative suggestions for what ‘Swampy’ might mean in this context.


Maria 11.18.18 at 2:49 pm

Sorry, J-D, I meant to add some links as that reference is very UK-centric. Here’s what / who I had in mind: https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/new-m4-faces-swampy-protest-2409970


Maria 11.18.18 at 2:50 pm

And here is Swampy himself: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swampy


harry b 11.18.18 at 2:54 pm

Successful civil disobedience requires the cooperation of the police: not least in that they actually do the arresting. I’m always grateful when they do that well, having been in so many situations in which police officers were thugs. I also think it is politically sensible to be friendly and to thank them, just as we should thank other public servants for doing their job well, and not badly. Of course, I’m a middle class and middle aged (or old, I can’t tell which) white man, and have never been able to protest without ironic detachment, even on occasions when I was getting brutalized by police officers, but even so, politeness costs nothing and at worst does no harm. I have even been polite to cops while they were beating me up with night sticks though I suspect that is pathology rather than calculation or good sense. But I am only actively friendly when they merit it (and always try to be in those cases).

Don’t be sheepish about churchgoing. At least not here.

Thanks for going. I love the story about your friend and about the Merc driver!


Lynne 11.18.18 at 3:07 pm

Good for you, Maria. No need for the apologetic tone, or the sheepishness about churchgoing, as far as I am concerned. You and Milo did your bit.


Omega Centauri 11.18.18 at 3:58 pm

I’m actually a bit heartened by some of the changes that are happening on the state and local level. Several climate activists have been elected. And here in California, enduring two weeks of air quality like the worst of the Asian cities, people are becoming starkly aware, that’s its not just a matter that we are making things pleasantly warmer. I’m sitting in court on a jury, so I am meeting a cross section of people (you spend a lot of time waiting around, and aren’t allowed to discuss the case). Good to see I’m not the only person on the jury who drives electric. Kicking myself for simply agreeing when a fellow jurist said, this is the new normal. I foolishly agreed. But, its not the “new normal” its the early part of the transition to some unknown future normal. And then only if the new state we are driving the system to is quasi stable. But, its late, and the actions being taken are unequal to the task. But, people are indeed starting to step up.


oldster 11.18.18 at 4:52 pm

Thanks for doing it, Maria.

And do not judge yourself harshly in the five different ways that tempt you. (e.g.–it speaks well for you, not badly, that you feel uneasy about rule-breaking. Like our feelings of agent-regret when something goes wrong that was not our fault, it may be locally irrational, but in a way that manifests a more general ethical virtue.)

People like you do not start revolutions, but people like you make it more likely that, once started, their results become the reality of the future. Thanks for doing your part.


Dipper 11.18.18 at 5:11 pm

“on climate change we’re still acting as if incremental change is a reasonable response to imminent catastrophe.”. Personally, I think it is a reasonable response. Every step gives you more time to take more steps. World population is plateauing, technology is advancing, and proudly the UK is currently leading the way, according to climate change guru Michael Liebreich He is of the view that the current climate laggard in Europe is Germany so perhaps your and Milo’s next trip?


Jonathan 11.18.18 at 7:07 pm

Does anyone know Nordhus rationale for being comfortable with 3.5 degrees of
warming? I’ve tried to find it and failed. He’s the leading exponent of a degree
of gradualism I find nerve-wracking.


Kiwanda 11.18.18 at 9:05 pm

Although the main topic is the issue of protest and civil disobedience, I was curious about what Extinction Rebellion specifcially wants; apparently this:

Our demands:
1. The Government must tell the truth about the climate and wider ecological emergency, reverse inconsistent policies and work alongside the media to communicate with citizens.

2. The Government must enact legally binding policy measures to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 and to reduce consumption levels.

3. A national Citizen’s Assembly to oversee the changes, as part of creating a democracy fit for purpose.

I’m good with (1); (2) seems like one of those “best is the enemy of the good” things: wouldn’t “reduce carbon emissions by a factor of ten in a decade” have the advantage of being both remotely possible, and *almost* as good as getting to zero? I don’t know what to make of (3).


Gareth Wilson 11.18.18 at 11:08 pm

You have to wonder what happens if the Citizen’s Assembly votes to not lower carbon emissions.


Alan White 11.19.18 at 12:09 am

What an admirable contrast to so many who take their power and privilege to be the trappings of moral superiority. Thank you a thousand times.


J-D 11.19.18 at 12:52 am

Thanks for the explanation about Swampy. As a matter of fact, when I searched for the term I did find references to the individual, but I failed to make the deductive leap to the idea that you had generalised the individual name to a generic identifier.


bad Jim 11.19.18 at 7:13 am

Thank you, Maria, for demonstrating, and thank you, Omega Centauri, for driving electric. I joined the club last year and my brother joined last week.

When my sister and I were surrounded by National Guard troops in downtown Berkeley and faced the prospect of arrest, we panicked and sought refuge among the civilian bystanders. I’m not proud of that, but I’m still glad we got away with it.

After one demonstration in San Francisco, featuring horse-mounted assaults, a cop poked his stick into my ribs as I walked my roommate back to our car. It seemed almost like an affectionate gesture.


Chris Bertram 11.19.18 at 7:34 am

Well done Maria!


John Garrett 11.19.18 at 2:08 pm

There are in my view two responsible options in these perilous times: Maria’s, and working locally for clear and defined significant change. I choose the second but completely endorse the first: in fact we need both to change anything.


mojrim 11.19.18 at 8:08 pm

That was extraordinarily thoughtful, Maria. Thank you. England, even Brixton, is a painfully civil place, no matter how badly incivility is warranted. That level of introspection takes a dollop of courage not usually found in the middle class.


Michael 11.19.18 at 11:13 pm

Thank you very much for that, Maria. The honesty all round counts for a lot, and lends weight to the main purpose.


Sumana Harihareswara 11.20.18 at 12:04 am

I appreciate all of this — as I always do with your writing — and in particular wanted to thank you for naming “that emotional hangover from when you’ve gone a bit far in a political argument and, while winning, have squashed the other person a bit too much.” which I now know I am not alone in!!!


Dero 11.20.18 at 7:28 am

Very brave Maria, much kudos to you. I think we all can look back into history and think ‘why didn’t more people step up?’ You did.


MFB 11.20.18 at 10:28 am

Good on you for trying to do something.


Guillaume C. 11.20.18 at 10:52 am

Thank you Maria for that article. It is interesting to see, when you live on the other side of the Channel, how activists are trying to change things concerning the ecological crisis we are in. The hardest thing, if we are to use your christian analogy (which I find quite illuminating), is to keep faith. It is one thing to wait for the second coming of Christ, it quite another to expect everyone to start reducing their CO2 emissions, and therefore to change the way we live. And switching to an electric car is only a fragment of the necessary change. Developping public transportation and not using the car at all would be the next step. And, of course, reducing CO2 emissions is only part of the job. If political ecology can be compared to a religion, it is – in my case – a very pessimistic one. It’s a bit like being a hardcore lutheran or jansenist, with only a faint hope that redemption might come.

Any tip on how to stay optimistic in theses dreary times would be highly appreciated.

(I hope my English is good enough to be comprehensible. No one’s perfect, especially not the French.)


Hidari 11.20.18 at 12:13 pm


The funny thing is, when Swampy and his ilk first appeared in the ’90s, it was de rigeur amongst the chattering classes to snigger at them, or in fact have a big laugh at their idealism and alleged lack of personal hygiene.

People aren’t laughing quite so hard now, are they?


Hidari 11.22.18 at 9:32 am

‘The main greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change have all reached record levels, the UN’s meteorology experts have reported.

Carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide are now far above pre-industrial levels, with no sign of a reversal of the upward trend, a World Meteorological Organization report says.

“The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3-5m years ago, when the temperature was 2-3C warmer and sea level was 10-20 metres higher than now,” said the WMO secretary general, Petteri Taalas.

“The science is clear. Without rapid cuts in CO2 and other greenhouse gases, climate change will have increasingly destructive and irreversible impacts on life on Earth. The window of opportunity for action is almost closed.”’



steven t johnson 11.22.18 at 4:17 pm

Clearly the loss of real estate values in coastal lands is the end of humanity.

The old order will fail under climate change. But then the old older always fails eventually, anyhow. The point is how to deal with it. Putting most of humanity on a meatless diet and terminating the reproduction of poor people RICHT NOW may preserve those real estate values, in theory.

But I say that when the rising seas destabilize Bangla Desh, India will attack. When earthquakes in Antarctica cause tsunamis as massive chunks of the ice shelf collapse into the sea, government committed to getting rid of excess humanity will sit on their hands. And geoengineering projects will fail, because despite the BS from those Freakonomics half-wits who write about the importance of incentives, there will be less incentives for some, no incentives for others and disincentives for a few.

Indeed, that is the situation now. The militant commitment to depriving most of humanity of their excesses must under current conditions be a fierce struggle to deprive the rest of humanity. “We” are not in it together. To continue as we are means to commit to letting the market do the dirty work, except in practice the states deal with changes by force, aka wars. The universal commitment to the struggle against communism means rejecting the only real tools to deal with radical climate change in a radical way.

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