22 March 2021: Protesters including XR Buddhists Nick Clarke and Zoe Solomans outside the Namibian High Commission in London highlighting the risks posed by oil drilling licences granted to Canadian oil company ReconAfrica.
Licences for oil exploration (with a 25 year licence for oil production if oil is discovered) cover an area of approximately 35,000 sq kms of which about 25,0000 are in Namibia. In total this is an area larger than the size of Holland! The boundary of the licenced areas include the main river flowing into the Okavango Delta which it abuts for about 270 kms and up to the edge of the Delta. The Delta is an oasis in the middle of the Kalahari desert, so large it can be seen from space and home to the largest remaining wildlife populations in Africa and a UNESCO world heritage site. It also remains the home of the San people, so ancient that all modern humans can trace their DNA to them. All of this is under threat from the inevitable pollution from oil drilling.
Drilling is being conducted by a Canadian company, ReconAfrica. A number of its chief officers have a background in fracking, from its founder Craig Steinke and including its VP of Drilling (who pioneered fracking in the US) and its current CEO. The company believes there are 125 billion barrels of oil in the region. If burnt that would release 1/6th of the worlds remaining carbon budget!
This is a project of such insanity it is hard to find the right words. All of these plans were under the radar until drilling began this year. However the world is waking up.
Activists in Namibia, Botswana, South Africa, Germany and Canada are challenging these plans. In the UK we are linked to them and are uniting under the banner of ReConOut! This network includes people within XR (with a strong XR Buddhist and faith flavour) and from the region. ReConOut were at the Namibian High Commission to present a letter to the Namibian High Commissioner, HE Linda Scott describing their concerns. You can find a link to this letter below.
At this action Nick Clarke said: “Today is World Water Day and I am joining with activists across the globe highlighting threats to water systems. The Okavango Delta is a jewel of biodiversity, its value is beyond all measure and its waters sustain the livelihoods of more than a million people. Oil exploration inevitably risks polluting the Delta. If we were to burn the amount of oil ReconAfrica believes is there it will contribute to catastrophic levels of climate change risking billions of deaths and the collapse of our human societies. In solidarity with activists in Namibia, Botswana and Canada and indigenous peoples of the region I am imploring the Namibian government to think again and look for sustainable alternatives to meet its economic and energy needs. We understand this would come at a cost and we demand industrialised countries support Namibia to fund these alternatives.”
Moving forward the network will be focussing on G7 leaders as they meet in Cornwall in early June. These G7 talks will include much on climate change and plans for the COP climate talks in Glasgow in November. ReconAfrica has corporate links with the US, Canada, Germany and the UK. The failure of industrialised countries to regulate their companies, to allow further oil exploration at home and globally, to not meet their commitments to fund alternatives to fossil fuels for countries in the global south to meet their energy and economic needs and the UK cancellation of much of its overseas aid… these and others are all issues it will be demanding leaders address. The Drilling in the watershed of the Okavango Delta needs to be urgently stopped: it is profiting shareholders in the global North and the wealth of a small company above the lives of millions in the short term and all of life in the future and sacrificing a priceless pristine ecosystem. In challenging this project we can also show how it exemplifies so many issues that must be addressed globally.
ReConOut will be starting with actions in April and May, building momentum towards the G7 talks and then on to COP.
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
I’m not sure a typical activist exists – but it’s definitely not me. It was quite late in life before I can claim to having strong eco concerns and I also arrived late to Buddhism. I’m afraid I worked in the City as an IT consultant for many of the banks funding the eco crisis. I did fairly well from it, and looked after my family, including frequent flights to the Caribbean to see the in-laws. I can’t say I had a sudden ethical awakening and left the city because of it. But some sort of unknown, little understood crisis was emerging in me. I left my well paid City job to work repairing wooden boats, maybe being in the outdoors and on the water so often brought me back to my youthful connection with nature.
Just six years ago in 2015 during a difficult life period, the rumbling internal crisis caught up like a Tsunami and severe anxiety led me to Buddhism in 2015. In 2016 I read the book “This Changes Everything” by Naomi Klein and was incensed to learn about all the Ecocide going on. I had no idea what to do with that feeling. My poor wife’s ears. I continued to meditate, my anxiety subsided in some ways but rose in others as my concern at the injustice of what was happening increased. I floundered for a while, I’d seen so many petitions etc come and go over the years. I gave up meat and made many other personal changes. I have many more to do, I am quite the hypocrite still. I eventually discovered XR and also Joe at DANCE and went along to an incredibly noisy Barclays meditation protest in Trafalgar Sq the same day XR occupied the bridges. As a newbie at some point I found myself locked outside the Bank in adhoc liaison with a crowd of Police while Joe, Mark and Rowan meditated on inside. I just told the police to wait, these people will surely need the loo soon.
Taking action worked wonders on my anxiety, I was alive again, a human in touch with the cries of the world. My local XR group grew and we did lots more actions locally and together in London. Waterloo bridge supporting the Wellbeing tent was one of the highlights in my life. The prospect of blocking four lanes of traffic in Marble Arch – one of the scariest. ‘Go in with your knees knocking, it’s good spiritual practice’ I was told by Rowan.
But my background and personal circumstances meant that my high levels of anxiety returned, occasionally this turned to depression. So eventually I started to step up self care, meditating more regularly, more personal ethical lifestyle changes helped the despair a little bit. I found the excellent guide by Vessantra called “20 steps to avoid overwhelm” very helpful. A year later I eventually gave up my Facebook addiction. While posting stuff about the eco meltdown felt good in some ways it was probably stressing others. I tried to balance it for a while with hopeful and humorous Facebook posts. Now I rarely look at it and I feel so much better, less distracted, more focused. The world still goes on, I do need to establish a less distressing and balanced way of keeping abreast of news and contact with friends.
On and off I tried my luck to get my lovely local Sangha to take on board environmental concerns within the context of Dharma but this was a struggle so for a while I decided in practical terms to separate my Dharma practise and Eco efforts. Inside me they were inseparable. I’m glad I now have this sangha too.
I was invited to take up Samba drumming with my local XR, this was hugely therapeutic – music, outdoor practise, friends and laughter. Making a noise to protest was a strange contrast to sitting quietly in protest outside a bank. Even the Parliament Sq arrest for I can only guess drumming out of time was enjoyable.
We all know what we face in the world but at times we must have fun.
I did a workshop with Parami along the lines of Joanna Macey’s ‘seeing with new eyes’ where we role-played eco concerns. I was paired with a young girl, 17 who I could see was really very scared for her future, as an older guy with a past life far from ethically perfect – I felt ashamed. That memory drives me. I never feel I do enough activism but I have to balance that with my own well being. I’m not an academic which can limit my confidence in speaking out which frustrates me. I’m currently doing an excellent course on having difficult conversations which may help with that perhaps.
In part helped by Catherine Ingram’s article called ‘Facing Extinction’ I started to grieve for the world I knew and loved, I started to accept that much of it was gone or going. Bizarrely this helped. Grieving helped ease the tension in me of what we faced. I started to let go.
I of course still feel the urgency and the weight of what we face but I’ve come to realise this – I may not have the genius and appeal of Star Treks 7 of 9 but like her I need to plug in and regenerate on a regular basis. Our self care is equally if not more important than the activism. Be kind to yourselves and dare I say – May we all “live long and prosper”
Today I received a conditional discharge for my third arrest on September 3rd last year. Here’s the mitigating statement I included with my guilty plea. Onwards, dear friends. Our Dear Earth needs us. With love & grief <3
“I have been a law-abiding citizen all of my life and I respect the difficult job that the police and our courts have to do. I made a conscious decision to break the law as a part of the Extinction Rebellion protest as I have felt increasingly desperate about the climate and ecological emergency.
As we know, climate change is already having catastrophic effects across the world. Governments are continuing to fail to meet their own targets of carbon reduction, and the effects of this are spiralling to a frightening degree. After spending a long time with climate science and observing the actions of our own government and big corporations, I no longer have faith in these institutions to handle this emergency. They are not making the radical changes that are necessary to mitigate the worst of the effects of climate heating and ecological devastation, and their actions continue to be woefully inadequate.
I understand why it is difficult for these institutions to take the radical actions they need to take, and, I can no longer stand by and witness their lack of action. In the tradition of other movements demanding radical change, I stand with Extinction Rebellion and their strategy of non-violent direct action, as I strongly believe that these last-resort strategies have the best chance of effecting the kinds of changes we need to effect.
I know that this doesn’t make Extinction Rebellion popular with large sections of society, especially those resisting drastic change and those with the most to lose. I know that this uses up precious police and court resources. I deeply regret the inconvenience and distress that our disruption causes to the public.
I also believe that this disruption is ethically necessary in the face of the much huger catastrophes that await us if the current levels of emissions continue – food shortages, mass migrations, more catastrophic extreme weather events, extinctions… We all know about this crisis, but we turn away.
I can no longer turn away. I am willing to accept the consequence of my actions, which I carried out in the name of our precious Earth.”
Satya Robyn is a Buddhist teacher, writer, psychotherapist, and you can find out more about her love letters to the planet at www.dearearth.co.uk.
I have recently retired after for 26 years in the NHS as a psychotherapist. I am also a mindfulness teacher in the Buddhist tradition. Over the years of my practice I have developed a familiarity with my inner life which ensures that I do not act impulsively. My decision to occupy the road on the 18th October was based on a long period of reflection, research and discussion with friends.
My reasons are as follows:
That we are in a situation of climate and ecological breakdown is now established beyond any reasonable doubt. The IPCC report in 2018 stated that: ‘only rapid far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’ will hold any chance of reduce the effects of climate disruption, which includes armed conflict over resources, famine, flooding, mass extinction of species including insects and coral reefs, increasingly frequent weather events such as wild-fires, hurricanes. This is not some dystopian science fiction, or a wild alarmist shouting about end of the world, but the conclusions from thousands of research papers around the world by our best scientists over many years.
The crisis is not just happening at some comfortable distance or happening in a remote date in the future. From various studies across the world in the last year we know that we have already lost 75% of insect species, half of all wildlife, half of our tropical forests, and 24 million people were forced to move due to climate instability this year and this set to increase hugely. To take a couple of statistics in detail: we have now lost 90% of our nightingales, and 75% of our butterflies. Will our children grow into a world without butterflies – without the song of the Nightingale? What kind of a world is it that does not respond in the face of such tragedy?
I am alarmed and dismayed that in the face of this widely known and well-documented and proven evidence, that our Government’s response has been utterly inadequate.
As a psychotherapist I am only too aware of the potentially lethal costs of denial of reality. Just as an alcoholic or a drug addict continues to destroy themselves whilst claiming they have everything under control, as a species we are sleep-walking toward the precipice. In the face of this I must ask myself what am I called upon to do? What truly matters? I have 2 children in their early 20s who on our current trajectory stand to inherit an impoverished, nightmare world ravaged by famine, storms, mass migration and war.
What am I to do as a parent, as a Buddhist, as a human being? What is the path of compassion, the path of wisdom in our current terrifying predicament? If there is anyone in this courtroom who has a better solution than the action I took on the 18th October, sitting in peaceful meditation on Oxford street, please tell me. I have been an activist for most of my life and believe me, have done everything else: petitions, planning responses, marches, letters to my MP, street actions. All worthy in themselves, but the evidence is clear to me: they were not enough, not nearly enough. My decision to engage in non-violent civil disobedience was not an easy choice, but I can see no other.
I would like to submit the defence of necessity. On this I note the following definition from Archbold (2019) .. (17- 117):
Stephen, Digest of the Criminal Law, p. 9, says that an act which would otherwise be a crime may in some cases be excused if the defendant can show:
(a) that it was done only in order to avoid consequences which could not otherwise be avoided and which, if they had followed, would have inflicted upon him, or upon others whom he was bound to protect, inevitable and irreparable evil;
(b) that no more was done than was reasonably necessary for that purpose; and
(c) that the evil inflicted by it was not disproportionate to the evil avoided.”
To take each in turn:
a) That my actions were taken in order to avoid ‘inevitable and irreparable evil’ is I think beyond reasonable doubt. I can think of no other disaster in the history of our civilisation that comes close in scale and magnitude to the tide of horror and suffering which is gathering pace as we steadfastly look the other way.
b) I submit that sitting in the road was reasonable in that it was a given that all previous strategies to raise the alarm have failed to change our course.
c) I hope it is self evident that the evil inflicted – which was at the level of inconvenience to the public – was not disproportionate to the evil avoided . Here we are comparing the possibility of some inconvenience to some members of the public with the certainty of incalculable suffering on already occurring on a global scale and which is set to intensify.
And so to conclude I submit that the defence of necessity applies in my case.
And from a personal perspective, non-violent civil disobedience is the path I have chosen, and did not choose lightly, but only after reflection and an examination of the evidence from my own experience of activism and from the evidence of its historical efficacy.
My conclusion, to summarise, is this:
As a society we are out of time.
And I am out of options.
Joe is a a vipassana meditation practitioner and teacher, psychotherapist and long-time activist.
I am 67 in March and up until 2019 I have been a law-abiding citizen. I have spent my working life in business and organisations as a leadership professional focusing on Leadership Responsibility and business practice, with a strong belief that principle centred businesses could contribute to a sustainable and safe future.
However, when in 2019 I became aware of the compelling scientific evidence around the immediate climate crisis, I realised that it was too late to rely on business to drive the agenda for change, particularly in view of the wide spread ignorance and denial of scientific evidence.
It was then I decided to actively see what I could do to help build awareness of our predicament. I am pleased to say that we now are living at a time where awareness of the climate crisis is widespread. However, response to that knowledge falls short and it was this that dro.ve me to add my voice to those with growing concerns that we are moving past key deadlines that will radically impact our environment and future generations
In the UK I would like to be able to say that our Government is responding accordingly, and indeed we are hearing the right words being spoken, but unfortunately in many instances the actions are directly contradictory to what was being said(see below).
This was made evident to me when, just before my arrest in September, I visited the HS2 camp at Jones Hill, and unfortunately directly witnessed this hypocrisy. I also witnessed it again at the Euston Square site in London and it was then I decided that I wanted to use my legitimate right to protest by sitting in protest on Lambeth Bridge.
Below I have listed the factual evidence of the duplicitous statements made by the Government and the reality in terms of the HS2 project
“At home we are putting biodiversity targets into law; removing deforestation from our own supply chains” (Boris Johnson )
“We are going to make sure the natural world stays right there, top of the global agenda” (Boris Johnson 2020)
“Left unchecked the consequences will be catastrophic for us all” (Boris Johnson 2020)
“Extinction is forever” (Boris Johnson)
Fact: HS2 is currently the biggest deforestation project in Europe
Fact: HS2 will not be carbon neutral in its 120 year lifespan-HS2 Review
As well as destroying our natural ancient woodland heritage, there is scientific evidence, endorsed by David Attenborough, which points to a direct correlation between pandemics and the displacement of virus carrying smaller mammals through deforestation and biodiversity breakdown.
Our PM’s recent words reflect the urgency of the climate crisis and yet continuing projects like HS2 directly contradicts his own declarations. Opposition from the public to HS2 is increasing daily and a growing number of MPs are also beginning to question its legitimacy and need.
In summary I felt compelled to call out and hold the government to account for not living up to it’s strong and public commitments and for actively pursuing such projects that demonstrate that their words are merely that, just words – but ones with damaging consequences.
Paul Wielgus combines his Buddhist and secular mindfulness teaching with Eco-Dharma practices such as Joanna Macy’s ‘Work That Reconnect’; he is currently engaging in an enquiry into Buddhist attitudes to racial justice and related issues.
I’m staring at my screen as a handful of American road blockers are all but beaten up by a passer-by on his way to work. I keep replaying his high-pitched, furious shout: “What is wrong with you people?”.
The rebels’ vulnerability is palpable but the scene evokes a deeper sense of frailty than that. The idea, maybe, that obstructing a few commuters might head off the relentless extermination of the living world that both rebels and motorists are caught up in, like it or not. For all its nastiness, a sort of unfunny silliness seems to hover about the scene.
Anyway, whoever those road blockers are, this letter’s for them.
Back in Spring 2019 some friends from Cornwall decided to mark XR’s April uprising by walking the 400 miles from Land’s End to London. They set out on their March for Life with a month in hand, timing their arrival in London for its start. I’d arranged to join those falling in with the march at a West London tube station for its final ten-mile leg. At this point I’d not much idea what that would entail.
We heard the drumming well before we saw them, then caught sight of bright flags swirling above the traffic. Finally several hundred marchers swung into view, flailing drums and yelling. As they approached, big sewn and painted banners showed there were other groups here now – people who’d walked from Cardigan, Stroud and other parts of the West country, hooking up with the Cornwall marchers as they neared the city.
Over the next few hours I got the hang of what these people meant by a march. Among other things it meant occupying whole lanes of the busy dual carriageway into London, and closing down busy roundabouts armed with nothing more than High Viz vests and attitude.
At some point I fell in with a ten-year-old girl and her grandmother. Somewhere else in the crowd the girl’s mother was here too. The next time I saw the two of them was a week later on the BBC as they spoke about watching the mother get arrested on Waterloo Bridge, and how proud they both were of her.
As we came to the last stretch through central London, heading for the muster at Hyde Park Corner, the police presence became much more intense. By the time we reached Kensington High Street their motorcycles were buzzing and weaving round us like wasps at an August picnic. In the midst of all this a formidable and likeable Welsh woman at the head of the column – the kind of person you might want beside you, faced with an angry motorist – swung round as we entered the intersection of Kensington High Street and Church Street and announced in her booming Welsh lilt that it was surely time that ‘we all sat down for a nice little rest’.
So along with two hundred others I did as I was told. (It seemed best.) A minute later we were squashed up shoulder to shoulder, our ragged circle filling up the space between four sets of traffic lights. And within seconds, of course, we were surrounded by backed-up traffic.
Ten minutes later we were still sitting there. The police had begun remonstrating with the march stewards, but to my surprise they weren’t moving in to arrest anyone. Everything that unfurled over the next fortnight seems to be right there, looking back. The heady triumph of ‘taking’ a busy junction, when the truth is surely that we were being given it. And for me, at that point, an uneasy sense of the ridiculousness of it all – sitting in the road as people attempt to get to wherever they’re going. The arrogance of it, even.
Then a man in his 20s began to speak. He asked us to join hands and called for a two minutes’ silence. A pause to remember the non-human species being driven to extinction, right now, by human civilisation. 200 species vanishing every day, he reminded us. One of those best-guess abstractions that gesture towards a too-big-to-touch grief. Towards a dying so all-pervasive that most of us struggle to even get it in focus, let alone act upon it.
For that two minutes, hands held in silence as an ever-growing number of engines revved on all sides, it felt like a deep well of calm fell open within the city’s endless hubbub. Even the police stood in silence now, waiting. I think those two minutes were when I got Extinction Rebellion. Or when Extinction Rebellion got me, maybe. And as we finally climbed to our feet and headed for the Knightsbridge junction where the game would begin all over again, a half-jesting idea popped into my head – one that, silly or not, seems to have stuck there. That what I was watching, sat there in the road, was the birth some new species of religion. So new, in fact, that it was just beginning to work itself out. As if in capital cities around the world, something was trying on one shape after another as it worked out what sort of creature it might be exactly. And as it puzzles its way through each absurd little gesture of resistance, what’s becoming clear is that most of the old rules for how religions are meant to behave are no longer of much use.
‘Here’ it seems to say ‘it really doesn’t matter what name you address your prayers to, nor what you do or don’t believe about them, nor what you choose to call yourself. Here, there’s just one rule to steer our emerging communion (shall we call it that?): that we come together only when and only by physically obstructing the extinction-engine that our culture has become.’
And because no one quite knows how this is meant to work we keep getting it wrong, and will presumably continue to do so. All we have to go on, after all, is that at this point any gathering which does nothing to hinder our culture’s murderous trajectory no longer speaks to our shared need.
I said that this letter was for that handful of American rebels. I hope they had good friends on hand to support them and didn’t lose heart. But I think I was wrong leave out the passer-by.
What does prayer mean to you? Whatever reply comes easiest to your lips, may it set you down between that man’s perplexed rage and the defiant, reedy voices of those young women blocking the road with their uncertain singing. And may it quietly open you to what holds them and all of us within its dark belly: the looming grief which these scrappy encounters keep calling out to passing traffic with no real idea of what to do about it. And may that prayer allow you to remain there in the uneasy space between them without pretending to have an answer, and to see this moment – which is to say, our moment – for the precious opportunity that it surely is.
Note: this is a light edit of a letter I wrote to friends at The Way of the Rose, a loose knit inter-religious rosary fellowship.
Mat Osmond, Mid-Cornwall XR
Mat Osmond’s a writer and visual artist based in Falmouth, with a long-standing sense of connection to Pureland Buddhism’s grounded understanding of prayer. His most recent essay for The Dark Mountain Journal, The Schoolgirl and the Drunkard, picks up some of the threads spoken of here. Much of Mat’s spare time currently goes on helping to further the regenerative groundswell that is XR, within his local community and beyond. He’s convener for Art.Earth’s 2021 creative summit at Dartington, UK, Borrowed Time: on death, dying & change.
Here is the video and transcript of the talk Joe gave at the What Would Buddha Do? people’s assembly on 3rd Feb.
A commentary on 3 questions:
What are appropriate responses to the Climate and Ecological Emergency
What can climate activists learn from Buddhism
Where does Buddhism and XR-style activism converge and diverge
As Buddhists we are asked to face into the truth of the way things are. I think it’s really important to enter this discussion with full awareness of what is at stake; with awareness of the extent and gravity of the Climate and Ecological Emergency that we are facing. Otherwise it can become an interesting absorbing, even fascinating discussion that is divorced from the real world and so lacks urgency and reality.
I’m sure a lot of you perhaps all of you, will be familiar with the facts of the Climate and Ecological Emergency, but I know from my own experience that it’s so easy to forget and to drift into complacency or into numbness.
So I’m going to do a very brief whistle stop tour of the facts of the crisis
We now know that the rate of extinction of species means that we are in the midst of the 6th mass extinction event. Human activities have caused the world’s wildlife populations to plummet by more than two-thirds in the last 50 years. And humans plus domesticated livestock now account for 96% by biomass of all life on Earth.
The amount of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere is approaching a level not seen for at least 800,000 years. On our current trajectory we are heading for a global average temperature increase of at least 3.2%C which could occur as early as 2060 according to a recent UN report. This would intensify mass extinction and large parts of the globe would become uninhabitable. We can expect starvation, intensified extreme weather events mass migration and armed conflict. We have 8 years to reduce CO2 levels by 45% if we are to have any chance to avoid this.
The Earth’s oceans are acidifying, heating up and rising as a result of atmospheric heating and the C02 increase. Acidification is causing mass die-offs of coral reefs which are the breeding ground for many species of fish and feed a large proportion of the population. Half of the Great Barrier Reef has been bleached to death since 2016. We can expect further escalation of extreme storms, storm surges and flooding. This will effect coastal cities and communities across the planet.
And it is important not to forget the fact that poorer communities and countries around the world are the first to experience these impacts although they have done least to contribute to the problem.
James Hansen former director of NASA, who is outspoken on climate crisis, has said that the Earth’s warming has brought us to the “precipice of a great tipping point”. If we go over the edge, it will be a transition to “a different planet”, an environment far outside the range that has been experienced by humanity. There will be no return within the lifetime of any generation that can be imagined, and it will exterminate a large fraction of species on the planet”
Is there hope in all this?
Yes. There is hope. The chief of the UN Environment Programme this:
‘Is it possible to avert disaster: Yes? Absolutely. Will it take political will? Yes. Will we need to have the private sector lean in? Yes. But the science tells us that we can do this.”
And I think the new Biden administration in the USA is looking really impressive and hopeful, with the climate issue being embedded in the structure of Government, new initiatives and jobs, and a lot of consultation and involvement of impacted minorities. There are also many signs from industry; from car manufacturers to even the banking world that world is waking up to the crisis. But action needs to be swift and radical. We will see what COP26 in Glasgow brings: XRBuddhists will be there making it happen of course.
It’s against this background then that I’d like to share a few reflections on the questions in front of us. I hope this will be food for thought.
I’m going to offer some reflections drawn from my own personal experience and perspective of activism which I hope will provide some fertile ground for the discussion we are going to do in our groups.
The climate crisis is, and will be, the cause of widespread suffering, particularly within communities that are often largely ignored. This includes non-dominant cultures in the global south and non-human species across the globe. It’s easy to get overwhelmed or numbed out by the statistics, and to forget about how much suffering is, and will be, experienced.The image of a koala bear wandering listlessly as if bewildered, in a burning forest in Australia last year with its fur smouldering, was so painful to watch. The fact that now only 4% of all life on earth by mass is wild, is a devastating statistic, and the image of hundreds of endangered sea turtles washed up dead coast of Mexico last year because of early floods was just really hard to look at.
So what can I do? Referring back to the first question What are appropriate responses to the Climate and Ecological Emergency?’
You may be aware that the phrase ‘an appropriate response’ is from Zen master Wun Yen in the 9th century. It was a typically pithy Zen response to the question from a student which was “What are the teachings of your entire lifetime?” and Wun Yen simply said, “An appropriate response.”
I think there are 3 points when addressing the appropriateness question (which I take to be a koan): firstly, what is an appropriate response to the level of urgency, secondly what is an appropriate response in view of our personal capacities, and thirdly what is an appropriate response in view of our alignment with our precious faith tradition.
I’m going to look at each in turn.
Starting with the level of urgency. The threat to the planet is imminent. It would surely be foolish to sit in the path of a No 52 bus whilst contemplating the essential emptiness of all phenomena. It is appropriate to do what we can to get out of the way. You may be aware of the Pali word ‘samvega’. Samvaga means ‘spiritual urgency’ – ‘a chastening sense of our own complacency in the face of suffering’. It refers to waking up to the realities of old age sickness of death, of how we have been living so blindly and complacently. Biku Bhodi has said that in the light of the climate and ecological crisis that: “we are invited not to panic, but to fiercely and decisively response”. This does not determine what we do, but does informs the urgency and energy with which we do it.
Second, what is appropriate to our personal capacities – our talents and our passions? There are many and varied ways we can engage in this crisis, and it makes sense to find a way to engage which is in alignment with our abilities, our interests and our life circumstances. We need most of all to engage with what moves us; what evokes our passion and our compassion. As Howard Thurman the civil rights activist has said:
“Ask what makes you come alive, and go and do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
And thirdly, how we act needs to be appropriate to or in alignment with our our faith tradition; because our faith is an invaluable and irreplaceable sustaining and guiding force, especially in this time of crisis. With its depth, its richness and its clarity our faith is an indispensable compass which we can return to time and time again.
And to now speak to the question ‘what can climate activists learn from Buddhism’: I’d like to show you some images from our actions. And I’d invite you to be aware of what is evoked in you when you see these photos:
Image 1 of 7
What I see in these images is embodied equanimity in the face of threat – the threat from police ranks or a disapproving public; and equanimity in our willingness to face into the threat of the climate emergency. And I would submit that the Buddhist deliberate cultivation, and capacity for equanimity as an embodied experience is a key quality that is perhaps unique to Buddhism . Although I would be interested to hear from other faith traditions on this point.
I’d like to add though that engagement in NVDA is also a means by which our practice develops and deepens. Perhaps in particular our capacity to hold strong emotions like fear, agitation or intense excitement are stretched and challenged during engagement. So while we approach action with equanimity our equanimity is also developing. It is after all when are challenged that we make progress on the path: insight and development is rarely the result of an easy life. I have to add that In my experience it is surprising how often joy and love arises as we witness the courage and beauty of our fellow activists.
A few comments now on Where do Buddhism and XR diverge and converge.
Is being a nuisance to the general public, being loud, or openly opposing something, which are all part of the XR approach to activism, in keeping with our faith? How does it sit with us?
Perhaps this partly depends on how we frame and approach what we are doing. The felt experience of seeing ourselves as simply being in opposition to is radically different I think than taking a stand for something we hold dear. Even though they might both result in the same action. An oppositional stance is aimed at the wrongness of the other – the damage done by oil exploration for example – and can lead into by blame and outer-directed anger. Taking a stand against oil exploration on the basis of the damage and pain inflicted upon wildlife or indigenous people comes much more from compassion, and results in the quality of fierce passion.
But there may be actions that XR do that we feel after reflection, are beyond our vows to non-harming or right speech or action. This is for each of us to determine in conversation with our Sanghas. And can we include the possibility that there are times when we are clinging to our faith or hiding on our cushions rather than just taking refuge? So instead of using our faith and practices as a root from which we grow into the world, we stay safe and protected. This goes back to the question of personal appropriateness again which I referred to above: have we found what really matters to us in all this; and what is right for us at this time in our lives?
There is also the question, what is activism actually anyway? Is talking to friends about the climate crisis, or engaging in forums like this part of activism? Is sitting in vigil in our gardens or a public place a form of activism? My own decision to risk arrest was undoubtedly the culmination of an internal movement which started with less direct actions. Perhaps we might think about our contribution, what ever it is, as a small stream or tributary – one of many such streams – that feeds into a powerful river. We should not lose sight of the fact that we are all a part of something much larger than ourselves.
So to conclude
It is often said that there are two wings to the Buddhist path: wisdom and love, which suffuse and balance each other. Drawing upon these resources we can be steady and powerful. From this place of interconnection beyond our small sense of self, from our experience of the lived reality of interconnectedness, we can perhaps if we listen deeply, get an inkling of what our earth needs of us and what our heart needs; and perhaps find that they are after all, the same. This is to invite our Buddha nature. To ask what would the Buddha do is also to ask: how does the Buddha within speak to us from our hearts when we listen, in those rare and precious moments of deep silence, when we contemplate the terrible suffering that is already being afflicted upon our world. And when we contemplate too , the beauty of the potential that is within this human form, and which is reflected in the life forms with which we are privileged to share this world?
So these are some thoughts and reflections which I hope might be of some use as you go through the next hour or so.
My invitation is to listen deeply, to listen patiently without expectation to what emerges in you. There is no right or wrong feeling or thought. Only the invitation to remain as far as possible in contact with yourself as we lean into the realities of this crisis; into this suffering world which yet still so alive, and so astonishingly complex and so achingly beautiful.
There were six groups who came together to address the main theme of ‘What would Buddha do?’ by sharing reflections on the talk given by Joe, and responding to the questions’ What are appropriate Buddhist responses to the emergency?’’ What can Buddhism offer climate activism?’ and ‘Where do Buddhism and XR action converge /diverge? ‘
All groups touched on the theme of compassion pointing out that it is appropriate for Buddhists to put compassion first, and that Buddhists are more likely to focus on compassion than rage. Wisdom also needed to relate compassionately to those suffering, and that Buddhists can help others to turn towards difficult truths with compassion. Buddhism can provide a unifying soothing balm, and compassion and mindfulness are expressions of regenerative culture.
On the theme of unity and interconnection, it was said that collaboration and interfaith action help to change the shared narrative. It is appropriate for Buddhists to respond by supporting others, joining together, emphasising interconnectivity, expressing interbeing and sowing seeds of hope Also we can help our communities, including our own Buddhist communities, to get on board. Using tantric precepts, we can care for our own energy and the energy of others in the climate activism movement.
Regarding taking non violent direct action, people felt that our practice can help us to define our authentic edge with this, and respond with honesty , and also that a sense of urgency should accompany the underlying sense of compassion and love. Being out of our comfort zone is itself part of our practice, as is reflecting on the personal practice that relates to inconveniencing others, and these help us to grow. We can find ways to exercise respectful remonstration when needed. Buddhism is itself a revolutionary approach to life and radical action can take many diverse forms. We can each reflect on how to be most effective: by trying to wake others up, or by focusing on waking ourselves up ?
People felt that the qualities that Buddhists can bring to climate activism, through sitting and walking meditation and our general presence , include:-
stillness; peace; silent witnessing: embodied equanimity; dignity; determination ; the power of bearing witness; non violence and deescalation.
Finally with regard to the Buddhist faith itself, in relation to activism, participants mentioned the importance of taking refuge over and over, reliance on faith and practice, inclusion of devotional aspects into activism , and the inspiration of the timeless quality of the teachings of the Buddha.
It was near the beginning of the September Extinction Rebellion actions in London. A dozen or so of us Buddhist rebels sat in a circle in the centre of Parliament Square. Around us other rebels began to appear: people with flags sticking out of their backpacks, or banners folded up under their arms, or carrying instruments. There were tired faces peering into coffee mugs. There were people chatting in small groups. Around the edge of the square there was a scattering of police in canary yellow jackets. Behind me people were meditating and praying. They were lined up against the fence, facing parliament, sitting in the multi-faith vigil.
We were also meditating. I felt the cool air against my cheeks, the solid earth beneath me, and my heart beating quickly as I anticipated a day of non-violent civil disobedience.
The meditation ended. I opened my eyes and noticed the others here with me. I had been sitting in Zoom meetings with these people throughout the year and I suddenly felt immensely grateful for their company and support.
Did we check in before or after the meditation? I can’t remember, either way at some point each of us said a few words about how we were feeling. Someone asked if we could chant together.
Satya agreed to lead us in chanting a Quanyin mantra. She began by inviting us to picture Quanyin as large as the Statue of Liberty, and to imagine her smiling down at us, or to imagine that we were being held in the palm of her hand. Then Satya began to chant “Namo Quan Shi Yin Bosat.” The rest of us joined in – a circle of Buddhist rebels connecting with the One Who Hears the Cries of the World.
I have been reciting this mantra for many years. As a Pure Land Buddhist my main practice is nembutsu – reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha – but like millions of Buddhists around the world I often find it easier to connect with Quanyin (Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit), one of Amitabha’s bodhisattva attendants and a bodhisattva of compassion.
Now, in England’s third COVID lockdown, feeling exhausted by the past year, and knowing I am not alone in my exhaustion, I find myself thinking about a story of Quanyin that I have heard many times.
Quanyin – The One Who Hears the Cries of the World – hears of someone suffering in the world and responds to that suffering. She helps them, and then she hears another person in trouble. She works tirelessly lifting people out of their difficulties. However there is always another suffering being and the work seems endless. Still she continues. One by one she helps everyone that needs it.
Seeing the endless suffering she is overwhelmed and splits into many pieces. Amitabha notices this shattering and goes and tends to Quanyin. He puts her together again, giving her eleven heads and a thousand arms. She goes back into the world renewed, and continues the work of helping people.
If you look carefully at images and statues of Quanyin you will often find an Amitabha Buddha in her headdress.
I know how it is to become exhausted by responding to needs, both in my personal life and as a climate activist where I feel called to respond to the immense need of the earth and her ecosystems for healing.
When I deeply examine my own inner life I find that the things that most exhaust me are emotional responses and impulses that come from self-protection. When I act from a place of anger it is quickly tiring. When I act from a place of rescuing it is tiring. When I am afraid for myself it is tiring. All of these thoughts and feelings have their own good reasons for showing up, and because they are self-protective they take energy from us and leave negative karmic traces.
When I am empty of all of these things, and act from this place of emptiness, it is not tiring.
What remains when greed, ill-will and ignorance empty out? It is love: love without agenda; love that needs nothing for itself; love that longs for the well-being of all.
This all-accepting love is the particular quality of enlightenment that Amitabha exemplifies.
Are any of us fully-enlightened beings? I tend to agree with Suzuki Roshi who said there are no enlightened people, only enlightened moments. For myself, I know that greed, ill-will and ignorance continue to rise.
It was mid-afternoon. A large group of rebels had sat in the road of Great George Street along one edge of Parliament Square. A line of police were strung across one end of the road, stopping us from disrupting the traffic on Parliament Street. Someone noticed that there was a clear space in front of the police line and suggested that would be a good place to meditate. We took our cushions and benches and settled into our mediation postures in front of the police. We were joined by other rebels until there were two dozen or so of us meditating in two lines across the road.
In many areas of my life I often feel ambivalence. Questions as big as should I take on this piece of work, to as small as would I like tea or coffee lead me to a place of self-doubt and indecision. The decision to sit in the road was one of the easiest I have made.
Blessed by Quanyin, my mind was clear. Blessed by Quanyin, I felt completely grounded. Blessed by Quanyin, I felt a great compassion for the earth.
We sat and meditated in the road for hours.
Every now and again there was a stirring in the police line. One officer left and another replaced them, a message was passed from one end of the line to the other. At around half past four an officer knelt down and started speaking to someone near the edge of the road, five or six people away from me. After that conversation the rebel stood up and left the road. “Here we go” I thought.
Another hour passed in which very little happened and then officers began speaking to rebels one by one, letting them know Section 14 of the Public Order act was in place, and that if they didn’t clear the road they would be arrested.
Satya was sitting next to me. Out of the corner of one eye I saw an officer approach, kneel down and speak to her. After a couple of minutes, Satya was carried away by two officers and moments later I was arrested as well.
Later that evening, after a long journey through traffic in the back of a police van with two other rebels, I was signed into a cell at Lewisham Police Station.
The metal door closed behind me. I looked around the cell. A bed with a thin, plastic covered mattress was fixed to one wall. There was a steel toilet in the corner. “Don’t worry, ” I had been told, “the camera can’t see the toilet.” The camera was behind a dark globe of glass in one corner of the ceiling. The floor and walls were all covered in pale blue plastic. Everything was easy to wipe down.
A fluorescent light offered a flat, too bright, illumination.
I walked up and down the cell. Once, twice, three times. I lay on the bed and looked at the ceiling and remembered the stories I’d heard of Tibetan monks maintaining compassion for their jailers in much, much worse circumstances than this.
I wasn’t feeling much compassion. I felt anger and frustration at the lack of awareness of the climate crisis in government, and at the position I found myself in.
If someone is imprisoned, shackled, or chained, Or if his hands and feet are in stocks, If he evokes the strength of Guanyin, His bonds will open and he will be free.
I put my attention on my breath and with each cycle of breath I said the Quanyin mantra to myself. At some point my thoughts started to wander and after a while I fell asleep.
I woke up and shivered. I had no idea what time it was. The light in the ceiling was still bright. I had been promised a meal and no meal had arrived. I had been told I could ask for a blanket if I was cold and I was cold.
I looked at the silver call button on the wall and couldn’t bring myself to press it and ask for a meal or a blanket. A deep seated fear of disturbing authority figures had caught hold of me. I sat on the bed, enmeshed in fear. Sometimes this is how it is to be human. Despite the mantra of Quanyin my self-protective feelings had taken over.
Sometimes the clouds cover the sun, and all we can do is trust that the sun is still shining in the sky, high above the clouds, and wait for the clouds to clear. The same is true in my practice, sometimes I just have to trust that the strong feelings will clear and then I will see the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas again. And somehow this act of trusting seems to help.
I turned away from the button and continued to recite the mantra silently, following my breath. A police officer knocked on the door and offered me a blanket. Later, I got to speak to my solicitor, and eventually in the early hours of the morning I and a handful of other rebels were let out.
Early Friday evening, as the light was beginning to fade, around a dozen Buddhist rebels sat in a circle in Trafalgar Square. We had just taken part in a mass meditation with many other rebels. There had been around sixty of us altogether, creating a calm centre in the middle of the busy square.
As we sat quietly I remembered the opening circle just a few days ago. So much had happened since then: sitting in the road, walking meditation through the city and the many different emotions rising and falling within me throughout the whole week.
Each person said a few words about how they were feeling and then the request came again, could we share some chanting together. Satya asked us to imagine Quanyin standing high above us again, perhaps up on Nelson’s Column. We chanted her mantra together.
I was reminded that thoughout all of these actions, and alongside all the suffering in the world, we are supported by the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas: there is an unconditional, wise love that flows towards us and through us, and takes root in our hearts.
Without this remembrance, I could not face the climate crisis, and without this remembrance I could not take action.
Namo Quan Shi Yin Bosat
Kaspa Thompson is a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist. He is the coordinator of Buddhist Action Month. He co-leads the Bright Earth Buddhist Temple in Malvern.