Fr Martin Newell cp is a Catholic priest in the Passionist Order. Here he explains why he is taking part in Insulate Britain protests.
Insulate Britain have been blocking the M25 for a week now. We plan to continue until the government agrees to make immediate steps to implement a national scale emergency home insulation programme, starting with social housing. This is the cheapest and largest single way to reduce Britain’s carbon emissions. It would make a massive dent in fuel poverty and create thousands of worthwhile jobs. It is likely that few people reading this disagree with what we are calling for. What is controversial is the methods we are using.
The context is essential. Large numbers of people in this country continue to experience fuel poverty and the climate is clearly heating. The recent fires and floods in Europe, North America and elsewhere only bring to our attention the increasing suffering and destruction from similar extreme weather disasters that have been happening for years in the poorer countries of the global south. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called the most recent IPCC Report a “code red for humanity”. Pope Francis said this year that “this is the moment to act. We are on the edge” and that we can create a just and equitable global society. US Secretary of State John Kerry has called COP26 in Glasgow this autumn, the “last best chance for humanity”.
But the outcome of COP26 is mostly determined beforehand, for example in international diplomatic negotiations. So it is essential that pressure is applied now. And justice and environmental movements desperately need the energy that can come from a big win, as we go into the Glasgow Conference. Which is why we are acting now.
So far, so good, and probably not controversial so far. But what about the methods. Aren’t there risks in our methods? Isn’t it dangerous? Doesn’t just obstructing ordinary people as they go about their daily business just put them off? Isn’t it counterproductive?
I do not think that any of us have gone into this lightly. For myself, it has taken much prayer and preparation, reflection and thought. It is scary taking part in this kind of action. There is the fear of physical injury when members of the public are understandably angry, or, less often, when the police are angry and impatient to do their job. There is also the fear of being at the sharp end of public opinion, of alienating family members, loosing friends and jobs or in my case of the reaction of the Church and the Religious Order to which I belong. There is also of course, the anxiety caused by the fear of being wrong in our discernment and actions. It’s one thing to pay the price for something when you can look back in the conviction you were right. It’s another when contemplating the possibility of losing those things for something that was wrong or counter-productive.
Doing this is also difficult because in a very real sense I do not want to be doing it. I do not want to disrupt ordinary people going about their ordinary business. Especially those who are struggling to provide for their families. I can fully understand and accept the anger and frustration of those who see us as merely getting in the way of their struggle to live normal lives. However, the fundamental truth is that the economy, the human family, needs to be disrupted. We cannot go on the way we are. We are killing ourselves, each other and God’s creation. Radical conversion always brings with it radical disruption of the way-things-are. And the way things are is already disrupting the lives of millions of people around the world every day. I know this reality closely as a result of living and working with refugees and asylum seekers for more than fifteen years.
Of course, there is risk in everything in life. It is impossible to live without it. When risk assessment professionals do their job, they have to weigh up the level of risk with the positive good of the action taken and do what they can to mitigate those risks. On the one hand, I believe Insulate Britain has done everything possible to mitigate the risks of the actions we are taking. For example, we have only blocked stationary traffic, only where there is a hard shoulder, and the hard shoulder itself has never been blocked so that emergency vehicles can get through.
On the other hand, I believe the risk of not acting far outweighs the risk of acting. There are as many sins of omission as of commission, but they are usually not as obvious. I have to admit that there is some risk to ourselves and others in blocking a motorway. However, the risk of the loss of millions if not billions of lives due to the climate emergency, far outweighs that risk by many, many orders of magnitude.
Successful movements use every morally legitimate tactic. But no movement has never been able to create significant change without at least some members being willing to take significant risks, especially with their own safety. We are no different. We are committed to acting morally, respectfully, with nonviolence and honesty. I believe it is necessary to do what we are doing because we have used every other method without bringing about the changes that are needed. Petitions have been signed, letters written, marches organised, awareness raised. Virtually every other form of civil disobedience and direct action has been tried. These have made some difference, but we are still far short of the radical conversion Pope Francis has called for.
In recent months I have asked myself many times if there is some better, safer, more effective alternative and tried to imagine what it might be. I have failed to come up with anything so far. What has struck me in recent years, despite our successes, is the overwhelming power of the system. There is a massive momentum of inertia of a system bent on maximising growth and profit at every turn, no matter who or what gets in the way. It can feel a lot like throwing yourself at a wall, only to get a bloody nose. The power of things-as-they-are is evident in the strength, co-ordination, numbers and strategic thought that goes into the police and political reaction to our actions. But at the same time we know we have to try. And that success is possible. After all, we rely on the many successful movements of the past for many of the freedoms, privileges and rights we enjoy: trade union rights, social security, universal suffrage, votes for women and civil rights among others.
Interestingly, many of the criticisms of Insulate Britain have a familiar ring to them. I heard many of them when talking about the plans for Extinction Rebellion before it started back in 2018. For example, about disrupting ordinary people, and that it would be counter-productive. In my experience, most people – including me – have a negative initial reaction to almost any new idea or tactic of civil disobedience or non-violent action. However afterwards – especially if it is successful – things look very different. It seems as if it was always a great idea and its success acquires an aura of inevitability it did not have at the time. Civil disobedience seems to be one of those things that is only popular when it is in the past. Like Gandhi, Martin Luther King and the Suffragettes. To take part in such things requires the courage to be unpopular, even among those who see themselves as the converted.
It does seem to me that what we are doing has the best chance of success of anything I can think of right now. It is far from guaranteed, but it is what we have available to us at this moment in time. It has the virtue of a well thought through coherent strategy and large enough numbers with many talented and committed people involved in developing it, including many I know and respect. Preparation and planning have been going on for many months. This is not some spontaneous uprising.
So are we going to succeed? I don’t know. But I am sure this gives us the best chance right now. Ultimately, we are called to be faithful not successful: we are called to act in hope and trust in God. At the same time we have to use our God given wisdom, intelligence and spiritual discernment for the common good of all. We are called to plant seeds, and God will do the rest. The labourers are few, but I hope, trust and pray that we are playing our part in the harvest.