Morgan Trowland climbed to the top of the Queen Elizabeth II bridge last year. He and fellow activist Marcus Decker occupied the bridge for 36 hours
While climbing the bridge, I felt all adrenaline. After the scary step of getting onto the cable, it was quite a calm and steady shimmy up. Getting off the cable was again, scary. I had one wobble during the climb when I had to hug the cable tightly.
That was scary, dizzying, but I was tied on, so I knew I was in no danger. At the top of the bridge, delivering a message from the heart through a selfie video felt cathartic. Once I was at the top, I thought about tactical issues like survival and then about the best time to come down.
For a while in the night I was concerned about hypothermia. But eventually the wind dropped that first night and I slept. I woke up to see a magical and expansive sunrise. Most of the time I thought about how to communicate the warning message to most people. At the time we had a lot of media attention.
Marcus and I spent a lot of time repeating Just Stop Oil’s (JSO) message to about five media outlets. It was really important for us to get two critical points across clearly. The first was that oil and gas production is killing people now, and the second was that the government must stop licensing new oil wells.
I spent a little time messaging friends and family while I was up there. I had a phone call with my sister and father in New Zealand, which felt surreal. Apart from the time I was worried about hypothermia, I was mostly feeling elated that we’d been able to pull off our plan.
It was good to feel this way as, for a few years, I’d felt very grim about how much we are losing through ecological breakdown. I knew those in the Global South have been given little means to protect themselves from the effects of climate change. The suffering we are subjecting people to is horrific. Those in power continue to drag their feet regarding the crisis.
They drill more oil and prioritise economic growth above people’s safety. Coming up to Tuesday lunchtime on the bridge, the tension built because we were aware of the serious disruption we were causing to people on the motorway.
After deciding to come down and surrender to the police, I felt cool and relaxed because I knew I’d done my duty. For me this action was the conclusion of four years of non-violent direct action, first with Extinction Rebellion and then with JSO. I’d taken part in about 32 different actions, 27 of which led to my arrest.
Some of these actions were very stressful and took a lot of planning, but I walked free from them. These actions were driven by emotions of desperation and grief for all the beauty we are losing in the world, and also anger that humans are doing this to our own home.
I don’t think non-violent direct action is the best way to save the planet. I think it has to be part of one of the three dimensions of activity, which could lead to what environmental activist Joanna Macy described as the “Great Turning”.
Macy considered that there needed to be a third great revolution that shifts the system to one able to properly sustain life. To do this she describes three dimensions of action. The first is non-violent direct action, the second is creating alternative systems to live in balance with nature and the third is transforming our mindset.
Non-violent direct action is essential because it attempts to slow harm and gives life a chance to survive. But non-violent direct action is useless on its own because extractive capitalism is relentless and inevitably overpowering. What we need to do is bring together all three dimensions.
There’s also an argument that climate and ecological collapse threatens infinite loss. So any act that has a credible chance of reducing that loss, even a tiny bit, becomes potentially a huge benefit. I certainly don’t know what the effect of obstructing people driving on the motorway and shouting a warning has on ordinary people.
Maybe the majority are saying, “Fuck you, I’m busy. Get out of my way.” However, there’s a good chance that a significant fraction of people are getting the message and realising fossil fuels are killing us.
And of course a small minority are deeply inspired and influenced to take action for themselves. The climate movement should embrace the whole spiral of what it takes to make a change, which includes non-violent direct action.
With the new Public Order Act, there are potential prison sentences for some really tame actions like marching slowly down a road. I wonder if ordinary people on juries will send people to prison for that. I doubt it. We’ve already seen a good number of acquittals of Insulate Britain protesters.
But the authoritarian slide began with laws being brought through parliament that are so ambiguous that many people are still uncertain of the consequences of protesting. The police have too much discretion regarding where they apply these laws, creating fear. People urgently need to call the government’s bluff.
A large number of acquittals in the courts will create huge publicity and discussion around the reasons why people are taking non-violent direct action. Now we must be louder. Remember the noise about the dangers of Covid? This was an honest response to a huge danger to millions of lives.
The government and the media beamed information to us constantly. Now we are facing a climate and ecological collapse that is more deadly. We must mobilise to protect the planet as we did to protect our vulnerable neighbours during the pandemic. That’s what needs to happen.
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