Nadria Wallace was in court on 14th April charged with wilful obstruction of the highway. She was found guilty. Here is her defence statement.
I stand before you this morning because I chose to participate in a nonviolent mass civil disobedience action in October 2019. Using only my body, I helped to stop traffic near Lambeth bridge. My intermediate aim was to generate serious and sustained media discussion of climate change. My ultimate aim was to persuade the UK government to recognise the unfolding crisis and take rapid and proportionate action to halt global warming and repair biodiversity.
I was in my early 20s when I began to fully grasp the tragic dimensions of environmental degradation. I remember coming across a so-called ‘obituary’ for the Great Barrier Reef, off the coast of Australia. It was described back then as the largest, most complex living thing on earth, and apparently it was dying because of a number of everyday factors: development, mining, tourism, rising temperatures. I read about an activist, Maria MacDonald, fighting the impacts of dredging on the reef and began to weep in my kitchen. I felt as if a nightmare had descended upon the world from which no one could individually wake. In 2016, the SUN newspaper declared the Reef dead, due to coral bleaching, at the age of 25 million years.
For the next decade or so I started doing what I could to help alongside my studies (I am currently a doctoral student). I joined various environmental groups, I donated money, I participated in litter-picks, I handed out leaflets, I canvassed with political parties, I dressed up as a penguin and did a choreographed dance with other penguins on the Southbank, I wrote to my MP, I wrote poems about the environment, I voted, I recycled, I reduced my carbon footprint, I started off-setting my emissions when I could not avoid flying, I planted trees. Yet global emissions continued to rise. Yet I did not see my government responding to the science in a rational manner.
When I heard about peaceful civil disobedience as a tool which might effect the sort of changes I thought were needed, I felt I had to try it, duty-bound to try it. As a consequence, I have been charged with wilful obstruction of a public highway, without lawful authority or excuse. My case is that I did have lawful excuse, however, as I was exercising my right of conscience as it is defined under Article 9 of The Human Rights Act (1998). I submit to the Court it has an opportunity to act with the force of moral clarity here. It has an opportunity to distinguish between peaceful and respectful law-breaking so that what is beautiful, healthy and beneficial might be conserved––and law-breaking for nefarious purposes, or because of negligence or ignorance.
I further submit to the Court the example of Conscientious Objection, which I submit falls within the remit of Article 9. I did not block traffic in order to gain rights, or have a bigoted law disposed of, I blocked traffic because I decided to exercise my lawful right to abstain from being a participant in a social compact I find at this moment in time to be immoral and destructive.
The lawful right to abstain goes back centuries, and, for me, it is a noble part of our legal tapestry. The United Kingdom recognised the right of individuals not to fight in the 18th century following problems with attempting to force Quakers into military service. The UK was also the first state to legislate for recognition of conscientious objection in 1916. I quote from Informed Choice: Armed Forces Recruitment Practice in the UK (2007): ‘conscientious objection to military service arises when a serving or prospective member of the armed forces finds that their work cannot be done in good conscience. When the claim of conscience is sufficiently powerful for the person to seek to remove themselves from their work, then a conscientious objection can be said to exist.
As a member of this state, the United Kingdom, I have come to believe that my business-as-usual work as a tax-paying citizen, contributor to and user of the country’s infrastructure, its economy, cannot be carried on in good conscience.
One of the differences between a military conscientious objector and myself is that the former can keep away from the battlefield, where the perceived harm is being done. However, when it comes to global temperatures being pushed up by human activity, planetwide biodiversity loss, the battlefield, so to speak, is everywhere. I cannot simply remove myself from dynamics I see as deeply harmful. Living in London, I breathe illegal levels of air pollution; I sit on buses which exacerbate it. I wake up to a distinct lack of birdsong, registering the fact that many bird species in the UK have seen precipitous decline over the last few decades. I walk a countryside ominously stripped of much of its native wildlife. I struggle to relax and concentrate during heatwaves. The world’s seven hottest years on record have all occurred since 2014, with the 10 warmest taking place in the last 15 years. There have now been 44 consecutive years where global temperatures have been above the 20th-century average. I cannot escape this, none of us can.
When I joined Extinction Rebellion’s mass action, I sought symbolically as well as literally to remove myself from the flow, specifically, the traffic-flow––which is taking us, where? Just last month the chief executive of the Environmental Agency, Sir James Bevan, said that the climate crisis is hitting ‘worst case scenario’ levels. At the annual conference of the Association of British Insurers, Sir Bevan painted a picture of what this means: ‘Much higher sea levels will take out most of the world’s cities, displace millions, and make much of the rest of our land surface uninhabitable or unusable. Much more extreme weather will kill more people through drought, flooding, wildfires and heatwaves than most wars have. The net effects will collapse ecosystems, slash crop yields, take out the infrastructure that our civilisation depends on, and destroy the basis of the modern economy and modern society. If [this] sounds like science fiction let me tell you something you need to know. This is that over the last few years the reasonable worst case for several of the flood incidents the EA has responded to has actually happened.’
A couple months after my arrest, the Secretary-General of the UN, Antonio Guterres warned world leaders that, ‘We stand at a critical juncture in our collective efforts to limit dangerous global heating’. Unless we stay below 1.5 degrees centigrade of warming, we face ‘catastrophic disaster’. He declared: ‘we are knowingly destroying the very support systems keeping us alive’.
One might maintain that steps are being taken, and that there is no need to sit in the street and inconvenience one’s neighbours. I say plainly we are not doing what is required in order to avert––and I use the Secretary-General’s phrase again––‘catastrophic disaster’.
To take just one example. The UK Government has adopted a net-zero target for 2050. Yet, as the Committee on Climate Change’s 2019 report to Parliament pointed out, there is currently no coherent national policy package to deliver it. No coherent national policy package to deal with what is being called an existential threat by those at the highest levels. Lord Deben and Baroness Brown stated in their forward to the Committee’s report: ‘The Clean Growth Strategy, the UK’s plan for emissions reduction, provides a solid foundation for the action needed to meet [the 2050] net-zero target but policy ambition and implementation now fall well short of what is required. … Government continues to be off track for the fourth and fifth carbon budgets––on their own appraisal––and the policy gap has widened further this year as an increase in the projection of future emissions has outweighed the impact of new policies.’
I believe we are heading for calamity if things remain more or less the same, like Guterres and many others. In fact, we are already in the midst of calamity if you look at the ecological side of things. Close to 70% of the Earth’s wildlife in the last 40 years has been wiped out. Some scientists are calling what is happening ‘biological annihilation’.
Given all of this, I say I am not guilty of acting without lawful excuse. I also say, very genuinely, my actions were born of love––for life, for people, for the astonishing, profound wonders of nature, and for my home, the British Isles.