‘Will my activism jeopardize my future?’

Ethical and political dilemmas abound these days. Seems like we’re all in need of a New Internationalist perspective. Enter stage: Agony Uncle

Agony Uncle, Emma Peer
Credit: Emma Peer

Q: I’m 22 years old and last year I was arrested for the first time after participating in direct action as part of a climate change campaign. I’m now facing a court case and, if convicted, a hefty fine and a criminal record. As a white middle-class person within a strong activist support network, with access to good legal support, I know that it could be a lot worse. But I’m struggling to deal with the scorn of my family. Although they support my political stance, they think that I was irresponsible for doing something for which arrest was likely. They’re worried about my future work prospects as I’m currently looking for a full-time job. I think that direct action can be an important tactic, but they’ve spooked me and now I’m considering giving up on it. What do you think I should do?

Anxious of Northampton, England

A: As someone who’s always managed to duck out of a police kettle before they start arresting people, I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t got your courage. But I do admire it. Direct action is a necessary part of the activist’s toolkit. Yes, governments are finally committing to net-zero targets and renewable energy sources are slowly taking centre stage in energy production, but things are moving too slowly and there is no time for complacency in the battle to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

The legal system is now disciplining you and your family with fear: that’s what it’s supposed to do. I feel for what you’re going through. A criminal record stays with you – it can affect your ability to get a job, travel freely, and buy or rent a house. But don’t assume the worst possible outcome. I don’t know your case, but I do know that a jury recently cleared six Extinction Rebellion (XR) protesters of causing criminal damage after a protest at Shell’s headquarters in London where people sprayed paint on the building, glued themselves to windows and doors and broke glass. In reaching this verdict, the jury went against the judge’s directions: perhaps a sign that the public mood in England – a conservative society in many ways – is radicalizing when it comes to the climate emergency.

Your uncertainty might also, however, be an opportunity to consider the strategic value of direct action in a country like the UK. Do its benefits outweigh the downsides? It’s not as if by gluing oneself to the Shell headquarters, for example, those protesters were interrupting the extraction of hydrocarbons. A workers’ strike hits at the production process – it’s not always easy to make sure that climate-related action affects problematic activities directly. XR co-founder Roger Hallam’s infamous strategy of getting as many people arrested as possible in order to force change – a kind of reverse-engineering of a civil disobedience campaign – has always struck me as highly limited.

If you are having second thoughts about direct action, there other ways of raising consciousness that may also be less stressful. For example, advocacy work, propagandizing, working for a campaigning organization, helping to craft law. You can become a paralegal or solicitor and defend people who’ve put their lives on the line with anti-fossil fuel direct action around the world. These might be paths to consider as you move through your twenties.

God, am I really recommending that you professionalize? Aren’t there enough lanyard-wearing wonks out there, drawing a salary while arguing over distant targets? Maybe I am getting more conservative with age – but there are also plenty of non-professional ways to work for justice, including at a local level. Put it this way – because of the tireless efforts of activists like yourself over the decades, climate change is now less of an ‘issue’ that a few lefties care about, and more a prism through which all social, economic and political life is seen. This means there’ll be plenty of ways to make yourself useful to the struggle in the future that’ll allow your parents to sleep easily at night. If that’s your priority.

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