Routes into the movement
ME. My route into the movement started with anti-war campaigning back around 2003, with the run-up to the Iraq war. In late 2003, I decided to move down to Hastings and work for Justice Not Vengeance for a little while and then I ended up staying there.
TO. I was a bit young, I went on the big march but maybe I was something like 15. I definitely feel that the whole thing of creative protest, like your protest and the way we protest, is kinda like a reaction against the Iraq war march. A million people can march and nothing can happen. But my route into climate change activism didn’t happen until I left university.
The first thing I did was read some climate science and go to Climate Camp and then it was, “Oh right, why didn’t anybody tell me this?” From that point on it’s been a really fast track into activism. Some people do fast-track civil service but I did fast-track activism.
It’s definitely something worth giving up my life [for], probably a comfortable one in a 9-5 job. What else can you do when you realise these issues?
ME. It’s the urgency. How can you not do anything when you know people are being killed in Iraq, innocent people, women and children. Everyone feels compassionate when you hear about lots of people dying in an accident in this country. It’s the same thing, the compassion for another person.
TO. That just baffles me, that whole “It’s happening over there” mentality (except with climate change, “It might not be happening now”), how people can departmentalise their world. I think there’s probably a lot of reasons why that is happening and a probably a great deal of that is due to consumerism and putting yourself at the centre of your world, and the satisfaction of your desires and impulses rather than your feelings of compassion.
ME. It’s like when you read about places like Bangladesh, where they are suffering from flooding because of global warming, additional rainfall, and seas getting higher. People are losing their homes and land, and are being displaced. Climate change is pressing when you think in some cases people are at the point of dying and we’re still taking short-haul flights, driving cars to the shop…. I guess it’s about changing attitudes to what is acceptable.
ME. So you’ve been an activist for around two years. When was the first time you were arrested?
TO. Erm, about a week after I read my first climate science book.
ME. Wow, that’s really quick. What was the process you went through when you got to the point of crossing the line and being arrested?
TO. I think maybe I was a bit gung-ho about it. I knew people from Plane Stupid and I lived with them for my last year at university and I had vaguely soaked up their messages and thoughts about getting arrested. Plane Stupid are very good at media and working out what is going to get media attention. That makes sense, it amplifies your protest so much more if you get arrested. And with climate change, [there’s] the whole do-it-yourself mentality we need to start promoting. Now, with the Climate Rush stuff, the level of change that we need is just so enormous, but if you look back into the past [at the suffragettes’ struggle] you can see changes [that seemed impossible at the time] in the level of how we think now. It’s taken direct action to push the debate into the only thing people are talking about.
Class and activism
ME. In regards to the media, a lot of the well-known climate change activists are perceived as being from the upper classes, would you say it’s an advantage in being an activist?
TO. First of all, the media are obsessed with class, people in England are obsessed with class. The movement is far wider than these three posh people.
ME. Would you say your [upper class] background has been a disadvantage to being an activist. TO. I think there’s definitely something about privilege. People who are privileged can be wankers because they kinda know that everything is going to be OK for them and how people react to that is different. Some become activists and some have fun taking coke every weekend. It gives you a freedom which a lot of other people don’t have because you don’t have the immediate worry of poverty or that or this. And how you use that freedom is the important question.
ME. That’s a really important point because you do need a lot of freedom of time to be an activist because you’re not working for money most of the time, so you do need to have the confidence that everything is going to be all right financially. Most people from a working-class background don’t have that. The mentality that “you’ve got to work” has been so entrenched in you that when you grow up, you don’t sit around at home, you work. For me, I’d say I was from quite a working-class background but I’ve kinda shifted. I went to university, I hung out with mainly middle-class people and now I have an eight-hour a week job and do activism. I do think that to be a full-on activist you need to feel secure about your finances which I guess is quite a middle-class trait.
Role of feminism in the movement
ME. So: the role of feminism. The anti-war movement is really entwined with feminism. In the ’80s you had Greenham Common; a lot of women who are my mum’s generation, who are still in the peace movement, are ex-Greenham Common. There’s also a strong tradition of female affinity groups like the Ploughshares Seeds of Hope action, Women in Black, Aldermaston, CODEPINK. Incorporating feminism into the movement is still quite prevalent. Would you say there is a similar kind of thing in the climate change movement?
TO. I’m quite new to the climate change movement, so don’t know its history so well. I kinda don’t know how the gender thing has been dealt with. Climate Rush is pretty much a female-led group, which I think chimes with a lot of women who more and more are starting to take the lead with climate change. It’s really difficult because for two years I’ve been doing climate change activism, I just can’t be a spokeswoman for feminism because I just don’t know, but I think that it’s important women get involved.
Peace and green
ME. Do you have any thoughts on the relationship between the peace movement and the climate change movement?
TO. It’s annoying, but nothing other than [the issue of] climate change would have turned me into an activist. I guess I see climate activism being very closely intertwined with the peace movement, except one is doing quite immediate stuff and the other is going: “This [climate change] is going to make things so much worse, so let’s try and limit the impact”.
ME. I guess there is a certain amount of overlap; I’ve started to do more climate change stuff.
TO. I think the more you learn about it the more they inter-relate.
ME. They’re so interlinked. I can see myself doing more climate change activism because if we prioritised the environment we wouldn’t have wars. But I don’t feel the two movements really overlap, maybe largely because the peace movement is dominated by the Stop the War Coalition who are entrenched in their traditions and politics, and who tend not to make those links, and tend not to do anything radical at demonstrations. I think they share some responsibility for the fragmentation of the movement and the limited impact of demonstrations, especially the 2003 protests where they didn’t really encourage people to do direct action.
Perils of the public eye
ME. When you’re in the movement you meet so many people who have been campaigning for years, spent time in prison. I just did a small action and got loads of recognition for it, but I’m aware that I am surrounded by so many sincerely amazing people. You also become very aware that what you do is radical in terms of the mainstream but not that much compared to what a lot of people do, so you don’t really get that carried away with it.
TO. The media is its own monster and it’s important to engage with it, but we are actually on the ground with people doing incredible things so it doesn’t make media interest in me that meaningful. I guess we’re both young, photogenic and that’s probably pretty much what it is. The media is the media, and it has its own interests.
ME. I read a quote about you saying: “Bring on long-term imprisonment if it means stopping climate change”.
TO.Can you imagine, how embarrassing.…
It’s really tricky with climate change, I don’t know what I would do to go to prison but it would be something that builds and builds and potentially climate change would be a little more mitigated than if I had done nothing. The immediacy of stopping something that was going to do [harm], and wasn’t able to because you stopped it, I think it [going to prison] would make more sense. Am I prepared to go to prison? Absolutely, but I can’t really see the situation where I’m going to actually go. Maybe that’s because I’m terribly naïve.
ME. Fast forward two years and I’m interviewing you in prison.
TO. Yeah, like: “Oh right, if I disarm that I go to prison.… I thought I would get away with it because I am privileged”.
Movement building in the future
TO. What really needs to start happening in climate change is that everyone needs to see themselves as activists, to start making cuts in their own lives and then everyone needs to start protesting and start shutting down airports or power stations and pressuring the government, it needs to be a big social movement otherwise it’s just a drop in the ocean. The focus needs to be way more outwards, to be more about engaging with people and getting them to talk about climate change and think about direct action, to think about how much things need to happen and change, just loads more engagement and loads more direct action, a mass movement of civil disobedience.
ME. I often think that if everybody in the country did an hour of activism a week, did something like write a letter to their MP that would be enough to pressurise the government.
TO. It’s like “Where’s my blame in the chain that makes us bomb Iraq, where’s my blame in that, or the blame in Bangladesh flooding?”
Feelings about nonviolence
ME. Peace News is a publication which encourages nonviolent civil disobedience and the idea is to bring about a peaceful sustainable revolution in society. What are your thoughts on nonviolence?
TO. I think the only time violence comes about [in protest] is through frustration and it’s not a very constructive thing to happen but it does sometimes happen, like at the front of a march where the police are standing in the way of what people want to do, then something happens and sparks fly. Don’t think it ever helps, but you’ve got to be realistic about the fact that if people keep getting frustrated…. I hope I would never get to that point, which is what I like about the suffragettes as they were nonviolent, except the one who threw herself under a horse. I’m not sure about destruction of property and things. I hope that would never be necessary but really it is frustrating that you know those 4x4s [four-wheel drive off-road vehicles] are emitting whatever all over the place, and they’re everywhere, and you can put as many stickers on them as you want, but you could just take their tyres down, but I’m not advocating that…. I think it’s really important to remind [yourself], when you’re frustrated, that it’s about engaging people, and it’s about making something which is worth joining and a violent revolution is not worth joining.