On 26th September 2018, three environmental protestors were jailed for up to 16 months for causing a public nuisance in the UK. The first time since the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the 1930’s. Their crime? To stop some lorries carrying fracking equipment onto a site near Preston for four days. To an operation that the Local Authority had rejected, their decision overruled by UK Central Government.
What does this say about our society today? Local people have rejected a development, but their views mean nothing. People engaging in peaceful protest are tried without the ability to put forward the ‘why’ of their actions. The scientific evidence that fossil fuels need to be left in the ground if we are to reverse our journey towards climate chaos not relevant. The opinions of local people on the development are not considered (many campaigned against), even though their inconvenience is cited as a reason for the prosecution. A blind application of the law to justify a bad political decision that ignores the democratic process at its most fundamental level. It is somewhat ironic in the same year that we are celebrating women’s suffrage, achieved by activists who were also jailed for direct action to achieve their objectives.
As someone who has been on the receiving end of bad politics and planning (a development opposite my house was granted planning permission on land owned by the City Council, even though it was widely rejected by residents), I was shocked to learn that there really is no right to say no. Planning Departments are explicitly expected to work with developers to help them get their plans approved. Communities are afforded no rights in saying what the development should be, how it could be changed to reduce its impact on their lives or the local environment. Science doesn’t play a part in these decisions. Even Local Development Plans seem to be optional if a profit can be detected and a few jobs, never mind the quality or quantity, are offered.
It seems to me that we are stuck in middle of a huge gulf between rhetoric and reality. The UK Government has committed to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than it found it. Fracking for shale gas is categorically not going to deliver that. Neither will expanding our airport capacity. The scientific evidence and consensus of views that supports this position is irrefutable. The targets that global leaders have signed up to will not accommodate them. Our future of climate chaos is becoming more and more evident every year. Heatwaves, wild fires, storms, floods. All of these are happening now. At scale and with greater ferocity each year. Yet both developments are given the go ahead, whilst we know that they are potentially wasteful white elephants if we are to stand any chance of arresting climate chaos, restoring the health of our communities, our democracy and the ecosystems that provide everything we depend on for life itself. Those standing up for communities and our Mother Earth are ridiculed, overruled and criminalised.
The contradictions are immense and seemingly invisible. How can we laud protestors from another time, while condemning our own? How can our Prime Minister be at the United Nations calling for greater collaboration to solve challenges like climate change and unequal economic growth, whilst ignoring the science and the views of her citizens on what is and isn’t appropriate economic activity for the 21st Century? On the same day that these activists were jailed?
The situation within which we find ourselves is one where our lives will change radically over coming decades. As Naomi Klein said, whether we act, or we don’t, climate change will change everything. Our choice is whether we want to design a future that transitions us to a low carbon, resilient world. Or we want to continue to extract every drop of fossil fuelled profit from our current economy, let mother nature decide how we come back to equilibrium and leave the consequences for our children to deal with. Probably while we are old and needing their support, by the way.
As individuals it may seem like this is too big, too difficult and not our responsibility. But the consequences of our inaction are significant. As an affluent western society, we are completely in denial. We believe that life will continue as it is, for us and for generations to come. That our reality is the only reality. In spite of the fact that our reality isn’t even the reality of most people alive today. Our celebrity culture and immersion in TV, games and mindless social media distracts us from the fact that life is not that great. Our brains see virtual input as having the same value as experiences gained in the real world, so we live vicariously. Nobody talks about the existential threats that will impact on us all. Climate change, water scarcity and pollution, soil degradation, mass species extinctions. We don’t think that we can live differently. Better. More attuned to our local surroundings. More connected and embedded in our communities. Enjoying living our lives through having more time to breathe, to find our creativity, get our hands dirty in the soil and experience the satisfaction of becoming more able to care for ourselves. Rather, we are on a constant treadmill of work, responsibility and tiredness.
Another way is possible, but only if we all want it and are prepared to fight for it. And by all, I mean those of us in the privileged position to have the level of prosperity that we aren’t working three jobs to feed our families and still needing food banks to make ends meet. As climate scientist Kevin Anderson says, it is only really the affluent (by which he simply means those of us who can afford foreign holidays, cars, big TV’s and other ‘small’ luxuries) who need to change. It is our only real hope and could make all the difference in the world.