What is Insulate Britain? The call for radical nonviolent civil disobedience

A Letter to my friends

Dearest friends,

We have shared many significant moments in our lives. Because of this, I wanted to share now with you another moment, particularly because the media portrayal here in the UK is very skewed, and the tendency for division or wrong ideas based on misinformation, is always there.

Like all of you, I am deeply concerned about our escalating climate crisis – the existential threat this poses, and the huge impacts it is having mostly in the global south, but now on our doorsteps too. 

I want to say up front that I do not see any ONE plane of action, thinking, consciousness shifting, spiritual practice, innovation, environmental regenerative practice, or activism as THE single mode of engagement. All are needed, and I know all of you are engaged in one way or another in making the world a better place (as clichéd as that sounds). It’s true – and some of us cross memes and genres. 

Right now, I am engaged in radical non-violent civil disobedience (which strangely does not seem at all at odds with either my spiritual convictions or deepest understanding of things). This past week, along with about fifty-plus others I have been arrested and put in a cell three times, only to be released hours later “under investigation”. 

In 2016 I took a training with Al Gore and a number of scientists on climate change. They gave us a free in-depth education on the science behind what is happening. It had a huge impact on me… the fact that I have two little grandchildren maybe also makes the future very real, I am not sure; but I have felt compelled to engage in activism whilst simultaneously continuing with dialogic, consciousness work as well.

For many of us activism can seem passé – something we all did in the 70’s/80s before seeking deeper answers to our global predicament and the worldview that infuses so many sectors and aspects of modern life. Many of you, I know, have given a lot of time, energy, and passion to groups like Greenpeace, CND and other peace movements in the past, as well as current ones like Women Wage Peace in Israel. 

As things keep escalating, the consciousness of our fundamental connectedness and the new (and ancient) thinking and innovation coming from this, is CRITICAL. At the same time the escalation of disequilibrium and breakdown happening at rates even the best climate scientists did not expect, demands immediate responses.

My fear is that the lack of global leadership by our governments, including transparency, foresight and planning, the adoption of new thinking and values, plus civic education and preparation, is going to lead to more chaotic mitigations as climate events pile up. This is not to mention that global south countries hard hit, will be increasingly abandoned as we shore up our own borders and resources.

It’s my conviction still that a shift in consciousness, and all the work going into this in multiple ways, is essential and primary. But I also feel that triage in the form of serious activism, including civil disobedience, is critically needed by some as well. More so than ever. 

Why non-violent radical civil disobedience? 

Because of this, and because a window has opened up here in Britain with our hosting the COP26 summit on climate with world leaders and scientists in November; and with Boris Johnson sporting a newfound role as a Green ‘Churchilian’ figure leading the way, it’s possible that political pressure can be exerted to demand that this COP actually deliver some real timelines and policies with accountability built in. It will also shine a light on current gaps and what is needed.

I joined XR three years ago as a part-time activist, participating in campaigns, writing my MP etc. I am currently participating in a more radical form of civil disobedience with ‘Insulate Britain’. It’s extremely challenging as no one wants to disrupt ordinary innocent working people, but without huge infrastructure disruption (motorways) the government simply isn’t bothered. Recently five activists went on a hunger strike in Parliament Square in London – they were told by the authorities “you can stay up to seventy-two days”. They lasted three weeks I think. As you all know, hundreds of petitions are signed daily, alarming statistics including the IPCC report and calamitous events confront us daily, our children are protesting on the streets, and still things appear strangely ‘normal’. 

It’s not that UK is not doing anything. It’s actually doing relatively well in terms of transitioning to renewable energy sources. But these are offset by new fossil fuel plans both here and in the global south, plus multiple other forms of emission-generating infrastructure. This, buoyed by an economic system that relies on infinite consumerism, puts us on a course, along with the rest of the world, for a 16% rise in overall global emissions by 2030…not good. 

Sitting in the motorway the other day facing hostile drivers, once I calmed down within myself, I just listened. I began to understand how much governments (and media) are failing the bulk of citizens by not educating them. Comments like, “we‘ve been using coal for a hundred years, mate, and it hasn’t killed us yet“, made it clear that many people just don’t know the truth. No blame to them. Understandably they are very angry at the disruption the protests inevitably create. Working lives in Britain can be brutal – the pressure to make ends meet and all the social wounds that arise from this are more than enough. Most do not have the time to read about, let alone think about, existential issues. We are fortunate in this regard.

Insulate Britain attending the Injunction hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice in London

The people involved

The people involved in IB are very varied and very regular – many working-class, but not all. Their passion and courage is inspiring and humbling. They range from seventy-plus years (including some vicars) to students and millennials barely twenty years old, and everything in between. I have been deeply touched by the depth of humanity and quiet seriousness (it’s not a noisy campaign). Everyone is aware of both the personal risk and the reason they are there.

There are also mothers (I was on a team with a woman aged thirty-nine with four sons – she joined the campaign after she found her twelve and fifteen year-old boys in tears watching a recent David Attenborough documentary on the climate crisis.) There are many tradesmen and others from a variety of professions. My impression is that for the younger generation the state of things is very real. Several have abandoned university courses and jobs. On the team I have been with, I met an ecologist who works in wildlife and wilderness conservation. He feels compelled to take direct action as no one in the government “over years, is really listening” (his words). He is risking his career and possible separation from his young family if prison sentences are delivered, which seems likely. There are also some hard-core activists who have been involved in various ecological campaigns for years. 

Most of us are relative newbies to this level of non-violent disruption, with no (or little) record of arrests outside of XR. There is a deep culture of principled (not just tactical) non-violence (which I have learned is very subtle). There are some coming from Europe to participate and learn – to train in non-violent direct action, and the meticulous planning involved in order to take this back to their own countries. Given we are all strangers to each other, there is incredible support, care, discipline and bonding within the teams. I have found that anyone can speak out and contribute their own view, ideas etc. All are heard and considered. So far, I have encountered no ego….no one rushing to get in front of cameras etc, no selfies, no moral righteousness. And anyone can step away at any time. Authenticity creates the foundation for trust.

Most also understand that civil disobedience is not for everyone. They realise there are multiple ways to respond. But they feel personally called to act in this way at this time, (myself included). Ultimately, we are all alone.

Impact

The amazing thing is that this campaign at this time (pre COP26) has held major media attention for three-plus weeks. There are countless debates and a lot of media attention, mostly negative from the right-wing press (btw emergency vehicles such as ambulances are always let through). But not all press is negative – the Daily Mirror featured thirteen pages on the facts and impacts of climate change. The main thing is that this is raising the issue and putting pressure on the government to fulfil its own pledge to insulate housing in Britain (the leakiest in Europe). This would bring about an immediate decrease in 15% of UK’s overall emissions. 

The Campaign

Insulate Britain is focusing on a single objective – asking the government to insulate all social housing by 2025, and all housing stock by 2030. There is huge fuel poverty in Britain, thousands of deaths each year and costs of up to four-plus billion GBP to the NHS. A widespread insulation project would provide a lot of jobs at a hard time, and the building industry is behind this, ready to go. 15% of UK’s carbon emissions come from poor insulation. That’s a big step in overall reduction. Instead of asking for goals that appear immediately unattainable, this is very concrete: a step with significant repercussions. For this reason, the government is in a dilemma – imprisoning activists calling for this, is not a good optic going into COP26, but injunctions, threat of fines and imprisonment are increasing. It’s very unknown what will happen in the next few weeks, or even tomorrow.

The good news is that the Labour party adopted insulating Britain as a core policy last week at its annual conference (even using the press release wording from IB) …this is significant, and obviously pressures the government further to act. 

For myself, on a personal level, this is very intense (and at times surreal), but the bond I feel with the team I am with, forged out of something bigger than any of us individually, helps a lot. 

Anyway, apologies for the length of this. If you have got this far and are interested, here is a link to the introduction to this campaign that compelled me (and a few of our friends) to take action. There’s also a very short but powerful clip from those involved. I recommend this.

I am writing this because all of you are amongst the most significant people in my life, whether we are in touch now or not. We have all been/are involved in existential issues. I deeply appreciate the love and support from those who I am in touch with directly, it means everything. Thank you with all my heart. 

Mary 

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Comments 2

  1. I’m totally in awe of what you and some other friends are doing right now, Mary. It may not be the right thing for me at this time, but I do feel it’s totally necessary. As you say, so much else – like the hunger strikers, for instance – goes unnoticed, and in that vacuum political and corporate leaders push on as if we are not in the midst of an emergency, one which threatens everything we cherish.

  2. Dear Mary, thank you for sharing this inside look into your actions in London! This is a moment not to be missed and I am so grateful you are all there. The callousness of some of the government and industry is off the charts and the humanity and what seems like a new culture being formed by those of you working together is already part of a new future. And it’s true that media has not done a good job at all in conveying what is happening both to the climate and those who work to help. I love XR and what you are writing, describing so well how all levels of our being can relate to and be involved in this.

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