On April 3rd 2022, myself and a group of other activists from Just Stop Oil blockaded an oil refinery. We stopped the distribution of fuel from a site owned by the biggest private oil company in the world, for a total of eleven hours. As a result, I went to court with eight other activists, charged with 'aggravated trespass'. You can read my blog about the week here.
Most of us represented ourselves in court, which means we had the opportunity to give a an 'evidence statement'. This is where we are given free reign to lay out why we were doing what we were doing on the day of our arrest.
None of us were there to deny what we'd done, so we pled the 'necessity' defense - meaning, essentially, that we did it because we had no other choice. Here is the statement I gave, under oath, in a court of law, as evidence that taking direct action on the climate crisis is absolutely necessary.
Standing in a courtroom, as a young person with what the legal system describes as “good character”, the remainder of my life, my future legal status, my career prospects and my “good character” description hanging on one moment, one judgement… I am experiencing what can best be described in the language of ecological science: I speak to you now from a “tipping point.”
When something shocks a complex system frequently enough, it flips, in an incredibly short period of time, from one state to another. It tips. The change is irreversible. The Amazon rainforest, a forest twice the size of India, will probably pass one in the next two years; the ‘lungs of the Earth’, having sustained this planet’s life for millennia, will suddenly snap from forest to savanna in mere decades. It may have already passed this point.
As someone born into the 21st century, I’m pretty familiar with tipping points. They play quite an informative role in my attempts to make life plans. The question “what do you want to be when you grow up?”, difficult enough for a child with no knowledge of the world of work, becomes near-unintelligible to the child who doesn’t know if there’ll be a world of work when he grows up, given the forecast economic tipping points that could snap the value of money to a society-crumbling zero. I’m not saying I was fully cognizant of the economic predictions made when I was a child, but the creeping fog of impending mass extinction is surely now seeping under the skin of even the most innocent young people.
By the time university applications rolled around, I’d had the world in my pocket for the better part of a decade. I use the word ‘better’ there with ambivalence. Day after day had been dire climate prediction followed by natural disaster coverage followed by a cute video of frogs followed by a video explaining why that entire species of frog was about to leap into extinction followed by videos of politicians dancing, clapping, and cutting funds to mental health services. I applied for university despite this, still somewhat hopeful for my own future.
Cue COVID-19. My first year of university was conducted entirely online, and it was illegal for me to converse with most of my friends during that time, so 2020 and 2021, dominated, as they were, by the often-fatal phenomenon my generation have pioneered - “doomscrolling” - provided the continuous shocks necessary to launch me towards a mental health tipping point.
The reopening of the economy hardly scoured my mind of any images of devastation. On July 31st, 2021, I wrote a blog about a breakdown I’d had, one that had been urgent enough to warrant my parents driving up immediately to bring me home. I wrote: “I’ve passed a tipping point. My mental health will continue to be impacted by the climate, and it will continue getting worse, regardless of what I do to help it.”
My parents read this blog and suggested I try therapy. I tried therapy. I told the therapist I was there because I’d read a paper called “The Future of the Human Climate Niche”, a frequently-cited paper that models a future scenario in which we follow our current emissions trajectory, something pretty likely given current government behaviour, and predicts what the world will look like in the decades to come. It forecasts that, by 2070, around the time I’d like to be thinking about retirement, one-fifth of the planet’s land surface will be Sahara desert temperatures. A fifth. That’s not empty land, either. Those temperatures would scorch the habitability out of land where 3.5 billion people live. Just below half the world’s current population. Migrating, more or less at the same time, from the same areas, to other countries, themselves destabilised by their own interactions with the climate crisis.
We know that companies like ExxonMobil, and the rest of the fossil fuel industry, knew about this, since the eighties, were familiar with these kinds of predictions, and instead of taking actions to stop issuing new fossil fuel licenses, flooded the ocean with oil rigs. They didn't feel any moral obligation to sound the alarm about the coming crisis when their own scientists made similar predictions to those I've just given - in fact, they funded think-tanks and advertising campaigns to spread doubt and disinformation. If they hadn't done that, legislators might've taken necessary action long before now, and we wouldn't need to be in this courtroom today.
I’d like to repeat the key findings of the Climate Niche paper, for clarity - because these statistics should be clarifying. As a young person still working out what to do with my life, reading a scientific paper that says, essentially, “act now or 3.5 billion people’s lives are at risk within your lifetime”... there’s not much left to think about. Certainly a clean CV seems an absurd priority. The wars, uprisings, societal breakdowns and sheer volumes of grief that would (and still might) ensue this century are unimaginable. And yet, I told my therapist, my mind was stuck imagining it every day regardless.
She listened to all this, nodding and making notes, then smiled, and said: “it sounds like you read a lot. That’s good. Do you do much exercise?”
Suffice to say, I didn’t find the answers I needed from therapy.
Giving up on that, I made a quick appraisal of my other options, desperate now for something that would help me feel like I had some control over the maelstrom barrelling towards me: I could take up the advice of relatives, and wider society, and write to my MP. My local Conservative MP, an unashamed member of the same political party that had just given the green light to forty new oil and gas fields in the North Sea.
Okay, well, I could sign a petition - an online petition, to stop an industry that has made three billion dollars a day for the last fifty years, and is the most powerful lobby in the world?
One by one, each possible port of political salvation washed away under the turbulent waves of my anxiety; the grim fuzz of future catastrophe seemed sharper, more tangible, than the ‘real’ world of essay deadlines and nights out. Everything shut down, until I could conceive of only one action, only one response appropriate to the magnitude of what lies ahead:
Early last year, head heavy with thoughts of apocalypse, I went and stood at the side of a road. I was terrified, but filled with the kind of certainty that comes from thinking this is the only thing I can do. I breathed deeply, and lifted myself up onto a low fence, swinging my legs over to the other side. I looked down at the traffic passing below me, inhaled the carbon from their exhaust pipes, and closed my eyes.
My first response to the full weight of the climate crisis was not direct action. It was to throw myself off a motorway bridge.
Naturally, as you can see, I didn’t do that. I didn’t pass the tipping point. I sat up there, thinking about it, for about forty-five minutes, and then climbed back to the side of the road.
What Just Stop Oil offered me, in the first talk I attended weeks later, was not just a theory for creating political change. It was physical proof that other people were willing to do something. To really do something - beyond the petitions. That other people thought there were things worth doing. It was a concrete barrier between suicide and genuine hope. It’s one the rest of our culture, with its euphemisms, its denial, its preoccupation with keeping your head down and just getting by, is incapable of giving. It saved me, and it let me act publicly enough to advertise the escape route to others approaching the same mindset.
Because I didn’t just act to protect the lives of those hundreds of millions who happen to inhabit low-lying islands. I didn’t just act on behalf of those communities whose houses are reduced to ash every year when the wildfire summer rolls around, nor those who have dug their wells deeper and deeper over the decades, and now find that, however far they go, the buckets keep coming up empty. I was also acting to save the people who, like myself, know about all that, whose emotional dams are about to burst from the cumulative pressure of constant flood and hurricane content online; who will choose the road below the motorway bridge over another day of uncertainty; those young people who will choose a knife to the wrist over another conversation with a friend who says “I’m sure the government and the scientists will sort it all out”; who will choose despair, denial, doomism and death, unless they see someone stepping up with an alternative.
As the years pile on, and temperatures continue to jitter in yelping spasms, ever upward, as the phrase “record-breaking” loses what little capacity it has left to shock us, as we numb ourselves to water wars, genocides, unprecedented famines, and more atrocities as-yet unimaginable to us relatively comfortable dwellers on a crisis-spattered planet… What’s gonna happen to the minds of today’s young people?
In the testimonies of my fellow defendants in this courtroom, there has been a common theme: what kind of world are our children being born into?
Well, speaking as someone who landed on this dying rock shortly after the turn of the millennium, I’m just as concerned with a connected question: when they discover what lies ahead, how will these children respond?
What saved me from utter nihilism was the prospect of hope. While we can’t say with certainty that we haven’t already blown past major ecological tipping points, the science remains blurred enough that we can still act on the assumption that we haven’t. The “brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity” that the IPCC wrote about is not yet conclusively closed. There is still time.
But we need to get a move on. Nothing in human history has prepared us for the impact our decisions now have. No moral or political philosophy has prepared us for an object like a plastic bag - which, used on average for fifteen minutes, will stay in the ocean for four hundred years. Our decisions in the next few years are amplified in moral magnitude by the existence of objects like oil refineries - these things, which could exist for maybe sixty years, will alter the quality of life for hundreds of generations.
The decisions of each of us in the next one to two years - the choices of governments, corporations, unions, activists, and judges, will impact the content of the atmosphere, the extinction rate of millions of species, and determine, ultimately, how many carbon feet continue to make carbon footprints on this carbon-cooked clod of earth for thousands of years to come.
Prior to the protest, relatives warned me that, by risking arrest, I could be throwing away my future. But given the context I have laid out here, the predictions of a future that anyone in their right mind would try desperately to throw away, I hope it is clear that, whatever results from my actions, I can live with the consequences.
Because it is taking action that allows me to live at all.
Despite the judge finding our testimonies 'deeply moving', he still found us all guilty. I now have court costs of around £250 to pay, on top of a small fine to Esso. If you would like to support climate activism, and myself, please give a little to our crowdfunder:
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