Do you ever question the rules? Most of us are willing to accept that we are born into a system of rules and regulations that are created for the cohesion of society – but behind our system of governance lies a history of constant questioning. Political philosophers have struggled with the idea of governance for thousands of years. ‘Man is born free,’ stated Rousseau ‘yet everywhere he is in chains’.
Then there are those who believe that we need the rule of law to stop us from being at each other’s throats. Hobbes famously said that life in the state of nature (a world without governance) would be ‘savage, brutish and short’. Although this might sound a bit heavy handed, most of us seem to be in some kind of agreement that we should come together to live – and that the communities we form should be held together by, at least a basic, set of laws. But the problem of who decides the laws, who wields that power, and who has the power to implement them, is as old as our societies.
It is somewhat predictable, although still strange, then, that those of us who are willing to question the law – to push it and break it – become known as extremists. I’ve been referred to as extreme, or as holding extreme views, twice recently. Once was when I gave a scientifically backed account of how awful climate change could possibly be. ‘The views you are putting forward sound extreme’ I was told; not in a hostile way, but in the way a person often responds when they hear something shocking they hadn’t heard before. ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘They might sound extreme, but not unrealistic. This is a scientific opinion’.
The other occasion was quite different. It was about Greenpeace activists, a group I am proud to be a tiny part of, being extreme people. I responded with the most measured response I could give. I don’t believe I am an extreme person. I’m a white, middle-class (welcome to the environmental movement) intelligent person who cares about our planet. Yes, I’m a vegetarian. No, I’m not a vegan (yet). I am not a hippy, and I don’t like being called one. And most of the people who I take action with are the same. People in good, interesting jobs; doing something for society, or working in local government or teaching, or doing scientific PhDs. Not extreme people, just people who care.
So why are we called extremists? Is it simply because we are prepared to break the law, or is it because we are prepared to break the law in the face of what are, sometimes, invisible or distant threats? Maybe it’s easier to understand people taking action to save their local environments – like the people of Kilcommon, Ireland, featured in the documentary The Pipe, who have been resisting Shell’s plans to come on to their land and into their fishing grounds to drill for gas and set up a pipeline over their countryside. They’ve been battling Shell for years now, risking arrest, going to jail and then returning to keep up the fight. Their government hasn’t helped them stand up for their rights, so they’ve seen fit to break the rule of law to protect the land they have lived on for generations. Breaking the law might seem like an extreme thing to do but maybe, in this case, it sounds like the only rational thing you could do.
What about Grandparents for a Safer Earth? In this video four people over the age of 60, with the future lives of their grandchildren sited as their main concern, occupied their local Barclay’s bank in Bristol to show opposition to the banking giant’s role in funding fossil fuels. After a four hour, peaceful protest they were removed by police – but not arrested. They could have been arrested though, for trespass or obstruction. Are these people really extreme? They may be going to lengths many of us wouldn’t dream of, and taking risks – but does that make them extreme?
Finally, what about the No Dash For Gas activists? 21 people who scaled West Burton power station last year and spent 7 days living in the chimney flumes, shutting down the plant’s operation and stopping 19,117 tonnes of C02 from being pumped into the atmosphere. They’re currently facing prison and are being sued by EDF for £5 million – are they extremists? The actions they took might seem like the most extreme of the ones I’ve described here, but are they really that much different from Grandparents for a Safer Earth? Both groups trespassed and obstructed normal business for the same cause. And what about similarities between them and the people of Kilcommon? The people of Kilcommon might be protecting their own land, something tangible and solid in front of their eyes, but the No Dash for Gas activists are trying to protect something we all depend on. Something that is theirs, as well as yours, and mine. A shared commons we all rely on that is being destroyed by those who make the laws and those who wield the power. Is trying to protect that really extreme?
Maybe the fact is that we live in extreme times. After all, the scientific opinion I was recently voicing about climate change sounded extreme – even catastrophic. Extreme times may call for extreme measures. But, if that’s the case, the actions I’ve described should be becoming commonplace, and we should be seen as the normal ones. What’s extreme about fighting for your rights, or fighting for your future? That sounds perfectly normal to me.
The truth is, we would live in a vastly different society if more of us were willing to take actions like the people of Kilcommon, or Grandparents for a Safer Earth, or No Dash for Gas. But until taking action becomes commonplace, I suppose I’ll have to accept sometimes being called extreme. And being lumped in with those people who understand that crossing lines can be the right, and only thing, to do when you have to protect something important.