on civil disobedience, privilege and ecocide
I’d tend to say I’ve not much use for hope in the face of ecological collapse, but of course XR has a wild, improbable hope written all over it. Despite how bad things look, I still feel the visceral pull of that hope or I wouldn’t be caught up in this. A great many people, it would seem, already know the game is up on this ecocidal civilisation, but with no coherent way to act on that knowing, they’ve been left lying awake at 3am with the truth of it quietly gnawing at them. Until now.
I spent four days in London with XR’s October 2019 uprising. On the last of those days I ended up sitting in a road-block at the top of Whitehall, peering between the legs of the police at a troupe of teenage dancers who’d formed themselves into a ghostly, pulsating strangeness – a composite creature meandering the open space between us and a row of police vans in complete silence. The Shimmer, as I later learned this many-limbed being was called.
As I sat there transfixed an officer told me to move from the road. When I refused, he asked if I understood the consequences of refusing. I remember replying that what I understood were the consequences of this movement failing, and that the prospect of its failure filled me with grief and terror. A bit hyperbolic maybe, but true.
I’ve heard others speak of the intense emotion that being arrested evoked in them. For me it was rather different. Mainly it was just a relief. To be finally doing something, maybe. The following nine hours were among the most interesting of my recent life. There’s been much discussion, since, about the privilege-bias of XR’s mass-arrest strategy. Certainly the whole encounter offered a forensic examination of the privileges that have shaped my rather sheltered life. Being on the wrong side of a police counter seemed to enable that quite effectively. But about privilege itself: what the word means is ‘exemption’, referring to an old tradition of papal exemption from communal taxes. And that’s how privilege plays out in our culture, isn’t it? It grants us exemption from what others are left to carry.
What would you say was the most significant privilege you currently enjoy? For me the answer to that question has to be the living biosphere itself – the miraculous web of life that all of us rely on, even as it begins to tremble and fray, but which we can no longer assume to pass on to the young – our own, or anyone else’s. The biosphere that’s taking with it, as it dies, every good or beautiful thing you can name or point to: a survivable world; a world worth surviving in.
So how are we to respond, finding ourselves born into a cannibal economy – a culture knowingly devouring the future lives of its own young? The dilemma of how to spend our own obscene exemption from what they’ll have to face still seems to me to far outweigh all of these other, unevenly distributed privileges.
Has XR failed? Perhaps it just hasn’t quite figured out what it is yet. If it can’t stop runaway global heating – if it can’t even convince government to try – what’s it for? Curious, looking back, that the biggest obstacle to returning to arrestible action for me was that fractious argument around privilege. But however exposing such questions may feel, all things considered I reckon they’re best negotiated by going back and doing it again, and then again, as we work out together where this meandering, slow-motion uprising goes from here.
Note: beginning life at The Way of the Rose and Extinction Rebellion Buddhists, this letter was published as The Shimmer in a November 2021 in a COP26-facing anthology of Cornish writers called Warming: 26 for Voices For Change. My thanks to Megan Chapman and the team who made that happen.
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