A few hours after this column is published, I hope to be in a police cell. I don’t yet know what the charge will be, where I will be arrested or when, but I know that if I go home this evening without feeling the hand of the law on my sleeve, I will have failed. This may sound like a strange ambition, but I believe it is a reasonable one.
If I succeed, I will be one of many. In the current wave of Extinction Rebellion protests, more than 1,400 people have so far allowed themselves to be arrested. It’s a controversial tactic, but it has often proved effective. The suffragettes, the Indian salt marchers, the civil rights movement and the Polish and East German democracy movements, to name just a few, all used it as a crucial strategy. Mass arrests are a potent form of democratic protest.
They work because they show that the campaigners are serious. When people are prepared to jeopardise their liberty for their cause, other people appear more likely to listen to what they say, and more likely to recognise its importance. Those who founded Extinction Rebellion researched these histories and sought to apply their lessons to the greatest predicament humanity has ever faced: the gathering collapse of our life support systems.
Nowhere on Earth does government action match the scale of the catastrophes we face. Part of the reason is the remarkably low level of public discussion and information on this crisis. Another is that the political risks of action are higher than the perceived rewards – a balance the protesters want to redress. But perhaps the most important factor is the brute power of the pollutocrats driving this disaster. As the Guardian’s The polluters series shows, the big fossil fuel companies have used political funding, intense lobbying and gross deceptions of the public to overwhelm environmental protections and keep harvesting their massive profits.
Those who confront them have no such power. We cannot buy television channels and newspapers, pour billions into political lobbying or seed dark ads on social media. We have only one strength: our vulnerability. By putting our bodies on the line and risking our liberty, we make this great neglected issue impossible to ignore.
So far, the campaign has been remarkably successful. Alongside the youth climate strikes, Extinction Rebellion has changed the global conversation about climate and environmental breakdown. These movements are directly responsible for the declaration of a climate emergency by the UK parliament and many other political bodies. But this is not enough. It is one thing to recognise an emergency, another to act on it. We must do more. I cannot justifiably say “we” if I don’t mean “I”.
I know this action will expose me to criticism as well as prosecution. Like other prominent activists, I will be lambasted for hypocrisy: this is now the favoured means of trying to take down climate activists. Yes, we are hypocrites. Because we are embedded in the systems we contest, and life is complicated, no one has ever achieved moral purity. The choice we face is not between hypocrisy and purity, but between hypocrisy and cynicism. It is better to strive to do good, and often fail, than not to strive at all.
Other criticisms carry more weight. Extinction Rebellion is too white, and too middle class. Both charges are true, as the organisers recognise: they know that they must do more to break down the cultural barriers the movement unconsciously erects, engage with community leaders, and listen to voices that have not been heard.
But I cannot help who I am. I accept that the costs of arrest for people like me – a white, middle-class man with an established career – are lower than for other people. But this means I have a moral duty to use my privilege.
The victims of climate breakdown have so far been mostly voiceless and invisible to us. But we know that, even with just 1C of global heating, climate chaos is already a bigger cause of forced migration than either poverty or political oppression. Large numbers of people in Somalia, Mozambique, Bangladesh, the Caribbean, Central America and many other parts of the world are already losing their homes and livelihoods. The poor parts of the world are the least responsible for climate disaster but the most likely to suffer its effects. They carry the cost of our consumption. We have imposed this crisis on others, and must do what we can to curtail it.
Since I began writing this article, getting arrested has become easier: the police have imposed a blanket ban on “any assembly linked to the Extinction Rebellion autumn uprising” across London. This looks to me like a breach of article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.” Over the past four decades, the police have acquired an extraordinary array of powers – enabling them, in effect, to shut down any protest. But they deem even these insufficient: at a recent press conference they demanded new “banning orders” for “habitual” protesters. Given that regular protest has proved throughout history to be an essential mechanism for political reform, this looks like a direct attack on democracy.
Far from deterring me, the draconian ban this week and the police demand for even greater powers has strengthened my determination. Now I feel I am standing not only for the habitability of the planet but also for the continued right to protest. This is my duty, and I intend to fulfil it.
• George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist