My action (as part of the Oily Hands protest on 28 August last year) was aimed at encouraging the University of Cambridge to divest from climate-wrecking fossil fuel investments. I did this because there is a climate emergency, which the University of Cambridge is not treating like an emergency. I believe my action was necessary and morally justified by the situation, therefore not criminal. If you break down a door to rescue someone from a burning house, breaking the door is not criminal damage. I’ll also be arguing that what happened was not ‘damage’, and giving evidence that I didn’t intend to cause damage. I’ll be referring to the right to protest, and to cause some disruption, which so far has been respected by the police, and arguing that my action was legitimate and proportionate protest in that sense.
You might possibly sympathise with wanting to do something positive about climate breakdown. But you may think that the situation does not justify tactics like chalk-spraying on a wall, that other means were open to me, my action was not a lesser evil, justified as an attempt to prevent a greater evil.
So what about these tactics, including things like chalk-spraying on a wall? I appreciate that many people don’t like XR and its tactics. But there is a background which makes these tactics necessary. There has been 30 years or so of petitions from environmental pressure groups, of the Green Party struggling to be heard with a political system and media heavily dominated by big business which is almost entirely hostile to green issues. 30 years of almost no substantial action on climate breakdown by governments of both ends of the political spectrum. But the climate situation, attested to by David Attenborough and the climate scientists, is desperate.
I’m not going to throw lots of facts and figures at you. And I’m not in any way minimising the suffering of anyone in the current pandemic. Coronavirus has rightly been front page news every single day for the last year — but we need at least that kind of response to the threat of climate breakdown. In fact the magnitude of suffering on its way to us from the breakdown of Earth’s living systems is far greater than what we have experienced over the last twelve months.
So the situation is desperate. But what about these activist tactics such as chalk-spraying a wall? There is research commissioned by the very reputable Wellcome Trust (1) showing that people don’t like XR and its tactics, but that those same people do know and remember what XR is saying — a lot more than they know and remember the messages of other campaigning groups. This kind of activism is unpopular but has raised people’s awareness and people’s minds are changing. Since our action, the University of Cambridge and Trinity College separately have both announced plans (2) to divest from fossil fuel investment. And in his statement Professor Stephen Toop (Vice Chancellor) explicitly recognised that morally this is the right thing to do. But this is only after 5 years of campaigning by many people. Climate change has shot up the agenda in this country in the last few years, for example the wave of local councils declaring a climate emergency after XR’s actions in April 2019. There are many reasons for that, it’s not just down to XR. But would all this really have happened without the pressure from activists?
So there is evidence that conventional tactics have on the whole not worked, that these more direct tactics have had a positive impact, and that they are needed. I sincerely wish these tactics were not needed, but they are. And I sincerely regret if anyone felt hurt or offended by my action. I did not do this lightly. But what are the consequences of not speaking out on this issue? This is an emergency, the alarm needs raising because action is not happening at anything like the scale or urgency that is needed. In an emergency, you need to get peoples attention, even if that means annoying them.
You may think that comparing my action to breaking down a door to rescue someone from a burning house is far-fetched. But climate breakdown is an immediate threat to human life. The climate scientists have found that people have been dying due to climate change since 2003. And that includes deaths due to climate change in this country since 2010.
I’d like to address the issue of damage for a moment. I used chalk spray, which is very soluble in water, because my clear and deliberate intention was to make a statement without causing damage. I believe that something that can be thoroughly cleaned with water and a little abrasion cannot legitimately be described as damage. I’m a dementia healthcare assistant whose gross hourly pay rate is £9.89 per hour. Whatever the financial cost is of cleaning the wall, I believe it should be met by Trinity College, having profited for so many years from its deeply unethical climate-wrecking fossil fuel investments.
A word about protest. The police and criminal justice system have so far recognised that there is a right to protest, and even that that protest might disrupt other people to some extent. My action falls within that category. Peaceful legitimate protest should not be criminalised.
Lastly, I’d like to tell you a little about myself. I’d like to point out how ordinary I am. I’m not alienated from society, I’m one of the majority of ordinary people in this country who want serious action to be taken on this threat to all our futures. My first real job was 6 years in the Home Office in Westminster (mainly in the probation service policy unit). I chose the Home Office because I believed in law and order, as I still do. I value public service. I’m an ordained Buddhist, and I’ve been a carer for the last 10 years – for the last 6 years on a dementia assessment unit. I care very much about ethics.
Having said that, I’ve no wish to say I or we are the good guys and they are the bad guys. I’ve no wish to polarise or demonise. I know the world is complex, and I know from personal experience that there are some very fine and ethical people working for the University of Cambridge. But the law should be about ethics, and appropriately holding people and institutions to account for their actions. The University of Cambridge has been (and is still being) criminally irresponsible and should itself be on trial. What I did was legitimate and proportionate protest, not a crime.
- On 1st October 2020, Cambridge University publicly pledged to divest from all direct and indirect investments in fossil fuels by 2030. Professor Stephen J Toope, Vice-Chancellor, stated: “The University is responding comprehensively to a pressing environmental and moral need for action with an historic announcement that demonstrates our determination to seek solutions to the climate crisis.” University of Cambridge pledges divestment from fossil fuels by 2030 https://www.cam.ac.uk/news/cambridge-to-divest-from-fossil-fuels-with-net-zero-plan
Posts and articles are the views of their authors and not necessarily of the XR Buddhists group.