Note: this is the third in a series of three blog posts (see parts one and two). Please note I’m not repeating the critiques of XR arrest strategy or approach to the police from a social justice perspective, much as I agree with them, since these are already well-known and have been well-made by voices more important than mine.
With some discomfort, I read back my words in an email to Alastair McIntosh from April 2019, in the weeks following my participation in mass protests in Edinburgh and central London that made Extinction Rebellion a household name, and arguably led to the Scottish and UK governments declaring ‘climate emergency’.
I was writing in response to Alastair’s hitherto-mentioned concerns with the dangers of the 2025 demand, and I said: ‘I fear you’re right that it’s not possible to make the changes needed to avert the worst of the catastrophe without some form of authoritarian environmental policy, but for me this is preferable to the alternative, and preferable to the toxic market-worshipping neoliberalism we have now’.
What causes my discomfort is not so much my rather dualist, apocalypse-patterned sense that ‘the toxic market-worshipping neoliberalism we have now’ is in no way to be preferred to any eco-authoritarian dystopias. Although I emphatically do not want green dictatorships I also believe that the world as it now is in no way ‘free’, or even safe, for the majority of people, even if those of us in social locations of privilege may live with a convincing illusion of freedom and safety.
Instead, what discomforts me, in the context of an email written at a time in which I was exhausted and low-level traumatised, and would go on to exhaust and traumatise myself continuously for another six months before burning out, are the words ‘to avert the worst of the catastrophe’. Here my activism was driven by two facets of the eschatologically-charged, Christianity-inflected, late-capitalist concepts of time.
Panic and Productivity
First, that time was running out to avert catastrophe, to save the suffering victims, the duty of the privileged inheritors of colonialism in the Global North, anxious for our future but not already living with the worst consequences. Second, that I was obliged to use as much of my time as possible in being productive for the cause, that I was only worth to the movement what I was able to do for it.
With the first, I was re-enacting the patterns of my childhood and teenage background in charismatic evangelicalism, that very real belief in eternal damnation to Hell for all nonbelievers that one only had a certain amount of time to ‘save’ people from. With the second, I was rehearsing the steps of my experience of trying to make a career in academia in part-time and temporary posts.
I saw—and still see today—these patterns being drawn again and again by others like me in the climate movement, whether that’s the wing that chants ‘One solution! Revolution!’ or those who focus instead on net zero by 20-whatever. Whether we think there is X amount of years left, or that the fundamental catastrophe is five centuries old, much of the movement is stuck in a conception of the climate and ecological crisis as a problem that needs fixing, something that needs a solution, rather than wounds and disconnections, damaged relationships in need of healing (Nish Doshi). And, in the mindset of Whiteness and neoliberalism, that it is down to us, as individuals, to solve ourselves.
We run on a constant treadmill of coordinating, campaigning, marching, organising, scrolling, social media posting, flyering, giving talks, mazes of Google Docs and endless, endless meetings, keeping going because it’s so important, and there’s this major global summit and that parliamentary debate, and we have to do it now, no matter how worn out we are. And this is just as exclusionary a model for activism for disabled, racialised, working class and other marginalised folk as XR’s mass arrests strategy.
I remember a friend saying to me about an intense and high-risk direct action that didn’t work out as planned, but took a huge amount of resources, stress, and danger to all the people involved: ‘Even though we’re all a mess right now, even though we’ve fucked up our lives, if we had pulled it off, wouldn’t it have been worth it?’ At the point of hearing this, my answer was an emphatic NO, however epic the action, it is never worth ruining lives for.
I had always felt that any model of activism as sacrifice would be damaging to the individual and collective health of the climate movement. ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’ (Hosea 6:6a; Matthew 9:13b): and while there were more merciful self-compassion and collective care elements of our principles and organising structures, this was in constant tension with the sense of the importance and urgency of our mission no matter the personal cost. And even because of the personal cost.
Easter weekend, 2019. I am lying on my back on a road outside the Houses of Parliament, my outstretched left arm inside a metal tube reinforced with concrete, attached to it by a chain around my wrist, a fellow activist also locked on at the other end. We are with others similarly locked on, glued to the floor or each other, or just sitting and determined to stay where they are. Beyond this circle a larger crowd is forming, slow drumming keeping the beat of the singing, led by the Shakti Sings women’s choir all dressed in red.
My friend, in a role of communicating with the police on behalf of the activists, speaks to the crowd while gesturing gently with lifted hands: ‘The police will now make arrests. Please continue singing, please continue to be calm. You’re doing an amazing job. I love you all’.
The sombre-faced police officers dressed in black and white have finished dismantling our gazebo, and we can see the sky again. I realise it is Holy Saturday, that tomorrow it will be Easter.
For the last couple of days my affinity group have been one of several trying to ‘hold’ the XR blockades in Parliament Square. This April International Rebellion is a transformative and empowering experience for some, but I and some others are finding it very stressful. We’ve been on constant high alert for the police coming to make arrests and clear us out, others returning having already being carried off and arrested, those working as Wellbeing support finding it hard to watch happening to people they care about.
That morning, I had felt the tension in my shoulders and chest, and realised how it was affecting my body, this fear of police presence. But for me this was temporary; I could go home from it. What this feeling must do to the bodies of those in communities that live with this all the time.
But right at this moment, a glimpse of what I swear are wild geese flying overhead, I feel calm, knowing my place as an ‘arrestable’ within this now familiar ritual—of police ungluing, cutting out and carrying away limp-bodied activists to chanting, cheers, and applause. But the mood is different now—the singing, the setting sun and the unity of crowd in song together. A surprisingly joyful, not doomy, prophetic act of collective lament. Lots of people are weeping—including me.
I feel at peace for perhaps the first time ever in London, and maybe more than I ever have. I hear a woman behind me saying to the police: ‘they are doing this for you’. I have made my choice. This is what I had to do, in this time, and this place. Even while being cut out, which takes nearly an hour, my mind deflects the real physical danger I was in, the sparks from the angle grinder against the night sky were like fireworks, or shooting stars.
That was edited a little, but this is verbatim from something I presented at an Activism in Sociology Forum event less than a week after the events described.
Fourteen hours later, in a police cell, when I’d realised I’d been there for twelve hours and still hadn’t seen a solicitor, that this was really happening, I was trapped here and could not get out, I was no longer at peace. It was my second arrest that week, and I was in crisis. The night before, surrounded with the love of comrades and strangers, I’d felt invincible, but in that cell on my own I thought ‘I can’t cope with this. I don’t have what it takes’.
Those of us that put ourselves in arrestable positions are lauded by the movement as heroes, as ‘conscientious protectors’ putting our bodies on the line. But in that crisis the question that wouldn’t leave me was: ‘Why are we doing this to ourselves?’
Several hours later, I’d been released and made my way to the ‘designated protest zone’ of Marble Arch, without my phone or my friends because the site our lock-on had held the night before was now being cleared, others going through what I had the previous evening, but in the heat of the afternoon sun. A kind stranger asked me: ‘Do you think it’s worth getting arrested?’ I replied, ‘Right now, I really don’t know’.
Yesterday we held XR Glasgow’s first meeting since the start of the International Rebellion, and there were at least forty new faces. For the last couple of weeks the climate crisis has been in the mainstream news every single day, because of what we did. Our non-violent direct action has inspired and empowered others to get involved, including those not in the privileged social locations that allow some of us to be ‘arrestable’.
My joy at these things is tainted, however, by the knowledge of the suffering that has resulted from this. The feminist theological field I work in critiques the notion of redemptive suffering and self-sacrifice in the Christian tradition, and I’m deeply uncomfortable to find XR echoing this in the rationale for this mode of activism.
I don’t believe that movements should have martyrs. I don’t want to believe that any crisis requires that human beings become expendable, collateral damage. But I also fear that we have no other choice but to take these risks, although I think it’s vital we become more critically careful in how we frame them.
On a more positive note, what will keep me here are the bonds that those of us who took part in the Rebellion have formed with each other through collective decision-making and struggle, bonds of solidarity and love.
I was a feminist theologian, believing with Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker that ‘suffering is never redemptive, and suffering can never be redeemed’ (Brown and Parker 1989, 27). I had always balked at XR’s use of the word ‘sacrifice’ and their valorisation of it as a strategy. In my time with XR I was a big advocate for not taking unnecessary risks, for making sure everyone was fully trained and understood the implications of their actions.
But I had ended up putting myself in these situations that did lead to mild post-traumatic stress in the weeks following. And I felt terribly guilty at how my privilege had protected me from the danger and harm that others face in police custody, that what I had been through was nothing in comparison to what it might have been if I wasn’t white and middle-class.
Yet the experience of being cut out of a lock-on opened up all sorts of complicated memories and trigger points from my history of self-harm, itself tied in to the kind of atonement theology I was raised with. I knew these were unhealthy patterns, but I kept enacting them. The Christ-figure allusions of XR’s messaging and imagery made me cringe, but it was still compelling.
That sense of self-emptying kenosis, of being in the centre of the circle, of the purity of purpose in making yourself completely vulnerable before the mightier enemy of the police and their threat of violence… These (apocalyptic) affects are powerful, and can be addictive.
The flipside of sacrifice is saviourism, of making it all about you in taking selfless action to save the helpless other (whether the ecosystem, your future grandchildren, or people in small-island nations about to be drowned by the rising seas). a perennial curse of the activism of the white middle class, as explored by Jordan Flaherty in No More Heroes: Grassroots Challenges to the Savior Mentality (2016). Instead I advocated for an ideal of ‘solidarity not sacrifice’.
What was so powerful about that evening in Parliament Square was not the arrests and the lock-ons, not individual acts of partly well-meaning, partly self-indulgent ‘heroism’. It was the collective power; the togetherness of hundreds of people, friends and strangers, all singing.
But collectivity is complicated, and group solidarity, at least one form of it, became part of the problem for me. I think of my words ‘what will keep me here are the […] bonds of solidarity and love’ when a friend tags me in a post by US racial justice activist Leslie Mac on Twitter: ‘We need to build TRAUMA INFORMED ORGANIZING STRUCTURES […] how trauma affects our connections with each other – even if the effects FEEL GOOD RIGHT NOW.’
What kept me with XR long after it had ceased to feel good is what Tada Hozumi calls ‘activist trauma-bonding and cultural codependency’. I felt so close to these people because of what we had been through together, something that outsiders would never understand. I needed the group and thought they needed me, even though I had worn myself out to a point where there wasn’t much of me left any more. Beneath this, the fear that they wouldn’t love me any more if I stopped.
Not an Ending
Maybe it took a global pandemic for me to break out of these patterns, to finally recognise the deeply prophetic truth of Tricia Hersey of The Nap Ministry: rest is resistance, and my worth is not my work.
Instead I am trying to learn new patterns: my activism now is slow and juddering, with long breaks in between short bursts of activity. I am reminded of political theologian Karen Bray’s call for ‘a bipolar temporality [that] refuses the cruel optimism and happy efficiency of neoliberalism and affirms […] collapsing into bed, embracing one’s feelings of overwhelming exhaustion’; accepting my ‘porosity to the world’ (Bray 2020, 60), a state of sensitisation that means I can’t cope with hardcore activism but do choose to allow myself to be soft instead.
I need to take it slow because we are in this struggle for the rest of our lives, not until any some future goal is reached, some specific victory won. Maybe we will see revolution, or collective awakening (or ‘Great Turning’, as Joanna Macey calls it), or whatever your apocalyptic hope. But, even then, collective liberation is a continuous practice, it is not an end point (Niamh McNulty). While the looming climate and ecological crisis may seem like a vindication of the linear, end-oriented, once and for all, apocalyptic Christian view of history, we need not repeat that in our own lives and activism.
Mine are familiar stories and patterns from activist movements since the 1960s (and no doubt before), of burnout and conflict and trauma and privilege. Attempting to think in a more cyclical mode than the eschatological linearity of my heritage, I expect a lifetime of making and learning from and forgetting similar mistakes, bearing witness to others doing the same, hoping that we will retain some of the wisdom as we go. ‘Walking, we ask questions’—the maxim of Indigenous Mexican revolutionaries the Zapatistas (Flaherty 2016, 33).
This reminds me of Micah 6:8, a line from the prophets that has come to me at various points in my life and now represents for me what a healthy and prophetic climate activism might look like: ‘what does God require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?’
We need lovingkindness, to be merciful to ourselves and to others (and that means plenty of rest). Love may yet go with rage, and doing kindness does not mean letting go of an uncompromising demand for justice in all aspects of our lives and selves. Walking humbly means being prepared to keep going, to acknowledge what we do not know, to ask questions and keep on questioning, to make mistakes and yet forgive ourselves, yet again.
Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly. Facing apocalypse, listening for the breath of a new world as the whole creation labours (Romans 8: 22-23), this is all we can do.
Bray, Karen. 2020. Grave Attending: A Political Theology for the Unredeemed. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Brown, Joanne Carlson, and Rebecca Parker. 1989. ‘For God So Loved the World?’ in Joanne Carlson Brown and Carole R. Bohn (eds.), Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse: A Feminist Critique. New York: Pilgrim Press.
Flaherty, Jordan. 2016. No More Heroes: Grassroots Challenges to the Savior Mentality. Chico, CA: AK Press.