In response to the digging up of the lawn at Trinity College in Cambridge by Extinction Rebellion Cambridge Youth and Extinction Rebellion Cambridge on Monday, Trinity College said it “draws the line at criminal damage.”
Yet in 2018, on the centenary of the year that granted women over 30 in the UK the right to vote, Trinity College held a lecture that praised “the noble art of window breaking” undertaken by the suffragettes. This was a year in which Trinity, other colleges and many institutions across Cambridge and the UK held events that celebrated the suffragettes, their sacrifice and those who fought for women’s suffrage.
Too often there is a double standard at play in the condemnation of civil disobedience and direct action undertaken by Extinction Rebellion, or any other group fighting for justice.
In popular culture and our long collective memory, civil disobedience (which by definition involves breaking the law) that happened in the past is held up as necessary and justified, even praiseworthy.
By contrast, civil disobedience that happens in the present is more often than not condemned as counterproductive, unnecessary and unjustified. Never more was this in evidence than following the digging up of the lawn at Trinity College, roundly castigated as vandalism and commented on by many as “a step too far.”
In response we say: if digging up a small patch of grass, an act of pure symbolism that causes no physical harm to anyone, is a step too far on the road to climate action and justice, will we ever have the courage and resolve to fully walk that road?
It can be a struggle to sit with the idea that we live in unjust times, because that would mean we are all complicit, in some small way, in this injustice. Many rationalise their opposition to direct action today versus direct action in the past by claiming “it is different.” As if the fights for justice are over, our problems largely in the past, the hard work done, the present an ocean of equality and fairness. It is of course easier to believe in fairy-tales that don’t burden a person with the responsibility of action, than to internalise a truth that weighs heavy and asks hard questions about responsibility to drive systemic change.
But system change is what we need. The UN said last year that the world is increasingly at risk of “climate apartheid”, where the rich pay to escape heat and hunger caused by the escalating climate crisis while the rest of the world suffers.
Research this week laid out the stark consequences of inaction on the climate crisis, saying the world is failing to shield children’s health and their futures from intensifying ecological degradation and climate change. World leaders are failing, the research said, to ensure children have a “liveable planet.” Could there be a more fundamental moral failing?
We have waited 40 years for politicians and other decision makers to demonstrate the required urgency. They have utterly failed. Because of this deadly delay, scientists say we have 10 years to effect an almost total transformation of economies and societies. Because of this delay, many scientists believe 2 degrees of heating is the floor, not the ceiling of our ability to constrain temperature rise. 2 degrees has been called genocide by the majority world, vulnerable as billions are to the rising seas, heatwaves, storms and extreme weather that are already causing crop failure and driving millions from their homes.
Martin Luther King Jr said that “nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored….there is a type of constructive non-violent tension which is necessary for growth.”
We are not here to win a popularity contest. We are here to sound the alarm and to create the tension that opens spaces for the change we so desperately need.
We will go forward in this spirit, with courage, and with the refrain of the suffragettes ringing loudly in our ears: “Deeds, not words.”