Climate activism: what does our conscience lead us to do?

By Ellie on May 26, 2016

From 2014 to 2016, Quakers in Britain is sharing the stories of five people who refused to kill during World War I through the White feather diaries project. Sunniva Taylor, Sustainability & Peace Programme Manager, explores the links between the action they took and our activism today, asking what our peace testimony calls on us to do in the context of climate change.

“Respect the laws of the state but first let your loyalty be to God’s purposes.”

From Advice 35 in Quaker faith & practice

At the end of February 2016, 13 activists from the grassroots pressure group Plane Stupid were found guilty of occupying a Heathrow runway in protest against airport expansion. They were given suspended sentences and community service orders after arguing that they were preventing greater harm; that what they did was necessary and proportionate due to the airport’s contribution to life-threatening climatic changes.

Amongst them was Sam Sender of Ealing Meeting who, during his appearance in court, said he was following his conscience in taking the action he did. He received the support of Meeting for Sufferings, the national representative body for Quakers in Britain, which recorded his name in its court and prison register.

As the Plane Stupid activists argued so eloquently after their sentencing:

“This action wasn’t ours, it is part of a historical process, it emerged through us and it doesn’t end with us either… there are no heroes, there are just those who happen to be living in a time when these actions are necessary, and those privileged enough to be in a position to act.”

One hundred years ago, during World War I, the peace testimony, and its call on Friends to refuse to kill, drove Quakers to conscientiously object to military service and campaign for the right to conscientious objection in law.

I have been pondering the links between climate activism today and their actions a century ago. What does the peace testimony call us to do now in the context of climate change?

The impact of climate change threatens the lives of millions of people. Thousands have already died. Pollution from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, including by airplanes, has a devastating impact on health and wellbeing. Yet the world continues to use fossil fuels in greater amounts than ever before; airports expand, and the fossil fuel industry searches for new sources of coal, oil and gas.

Climate change is in some ways different to war. We are all ‘conscripted’ to the fossil fuel economy that drives climate change, and are complicit simply by living our lives. This begs the question of how radically we have all tried as individuals to transform our lives in response.

Those privileged enough to have, or be part of, institutions with financial assets (including Quaker meetings) can at least choose not to profit from this economy, and challenge the morality of it, by withdrawing their money. Friends are increasingly active in the fossil fuel divestment movement, speaking out against proposals that restrict the right to use this tactic.

It’s not easy, however, to extract ourselves entirely from the fossil fuel system, and I would argue that we should not only do that. Friends are also called to examine and challenge the underlying causes of climate change and to build an alternative fossil-fuel free economy.

Sam and the other 12 activists present us with another illustration of this call to conscience: nonviolent direct action. His actions echo those of Quakers of the past – including conscientious objectors – who put their conscience ahead of the laws of the state, and risked liberty, and even life, as a consequence. Friends have a history of advocating nonviolent action which may break the law, and even have staff paid to train people in these skills, in the form of Quaker Peace & Social Witness’s Turning the Tide programme. We need to continue to defend the right to follow this course of action, which is increasingly restricted.

I speak to a lot of Quakers. Many are doing much to draw attention to, and challenge, the causes of climate change. Others find the enormity of the crisis overwhelming and struggle to know what is best to do. This is a rational anxiety; there are many psychological barriers to engaging with a threat as all-encompassing as this. The question of what is ‘best’ or most effective is also important; it was an analysis of power and an understanding of climate science and the media that led the Plane Stupid activists to target the expansion of airports.

But, having said that, I am struck by the words of one of the Quaker conscientious objectors featured in the White feather diaries project: “Strangely enough the question of winning or losing the war didn’t enter into it as far as I was concerned.” Perhaps we need to be led by our consciences, and do whatever it is we are called to do.

Find out more

For more information about QPSW’s work on sustainability, including fossil fuel divestment, go to www.quaker.org.uk/our-work/sustainability.

Turning the Tide is a QPSW programme that provides training in skills for nonviolent social change, and can help you or your group to be more effective in making change. See www.turning-the-tide.org for more information.

To find out more about Plane Stupid, and how you can get involved, see www.planestupid.com.

You can follow the White feather diaries at www.whitefeatherdiaries.org.uk.

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