Today we have a guest column from Albert Little, a religious Pagan and traditional Witch. He blogs at haptalaon.dreamwidth.org. In his spare time, he maps pop-culture nonsense onto the Tree of Life and dreams of being a mustelid.
Albert’s column is about his experiences as part of the group of climate activists known as Extinction Rebellion. Extinction Rebellion is a non-violent direct action group protesting government inaction on climate change and ecological collapse. In the U.K., their three demands are that government must tell the truth about climate collapse; that carbon emissions must be brought to net zero by 2025; and that the government must set up a citizen’s assembly – a representative cross-section of society – to lead on climate policy.
The Wild Hunt always welcomes guest columns that feature new perspectives on the Pagan experience. Send us a pitch through the “Contact Us” link above.
I have died and been reborn twice now.
One has a lot of time to think on a die-in. It’s the height of an English summer, so naturally we lie there in the rain. Time both stops and drags – I’m told we were there for forty minutes. The tarmac is wet and cold against my skin; the chill spreads from my cheeks and fingers into my legs. This is how death comes.
Today we’re dressed as bees; sweet bumbly-furred pollinators whose numbers are now so alarmingly low we risk food shortages in our lifetime. On the wind, I hear the massed anger of a hive. Am I imagining it? I’ve never noticed how the lovely honey-golden buzzing of the bees sounds so much like the black swarming of flies upon the dead.
In Cardiff, I am a “canary in the coal mine”: while the parade marches silently, and the samba band beat a heartbeat, we are to collapse to the ground one by one. Ahead of me, I watch my group dropping one after another, like a photo of a famine. And then I’m down, watching the ankles of hundreds as they walk over our graves. Then we get up, and the singers and drums beat a carnival atmosphere the rest of the way. As if to say, we can turn this thing around: we have shown you climate horror, and now we will show you hope, we will show you what could be – our colours and banners, our families, our song. We dance. After, someone asks me if standing back up from the road felt cathartic. “No,” I say. I still felt hollowed out.
My god, I’m down there thinking, at this very moment there are birds laying down to die under this sun, and people too.
The first time I saw Extinction Rebellion’s symbol, I had a panic attack in the street. That evocative symbol – the globe, the hourglass, and the X for “extinction” – still frightens me: it says that we must fix climate in our lifetimes, that it may already be too late. I imagine it stencilled onto broken buildings in a desolate city. At the London Uprising, a man carries a sign which reads: “The reality of climate change is frightening, but it must be faced if we are to solve it.”
Extinction Rebellion’s strategy was designed by a team of scientists, researchers, activists, marketers, and psychologists. They asked: How is it that we have known climate collapse is coming for almost fifty years, and yet, humanity has done next to nothing about it? Since 1990, when the most urgent and doom-mongering scientific reports began being written, carbon emissions have actually increased by 60%.
How do we convey both the terrifying urgency of the climate collapse – and yet not become numb or hopeless to its horrors?
On the third night of the London Uprising, I attend my first “Rebel Induction.” It’s almost midnight, and the grass is cold. Within moments, I am telling the group about how distressed and afraid I feel, and for the first time, I hear others say it too. We’ve created a space where our grief can be voiced and recognised: we must face the truth, and acknowledge our sadness and our terror, if we are to meet this challenge. We must allow ourselves to be present with our sorrow, fear, rage, and then from them we must find the courage to act.
An older man says that he’s never done anything like this before – never broken the law or been in trouble with the law, until this morning, “when the police told us to leave the area or we would be arrested. And I said no. And sat down.”
A shiver goes down my spine at the immensity of what we are here to do.
I do outreach now; at protests, I stand to one side with a sign marked “Ask Me.” But most passers-by know the facts – they want to speak, and be heard. I listen. More than once, they have come up to me to cry.
We’re “swarming” in the financial district today. It’s legal to cross a road, but illegal to block it; in the U.K., we are permitted eight minutes maximum of crossing time. When the pedestrian light goes green, 20 rebels and two banners step into the crossroads, then stop. We sing, to keep the atmosphere peaceful. One of us watches the clock, shouting “four minutes!”, “three minutes!”, until we’ve been out there for seven minutes. We then rest on the pavement for three minutes, and repeat.
Standing in the street, facing rows of halted drivers, I can feel the lines of the skyscrapers and the falling rain up and down; I can feel the grid of the city in the crossed roads, and the mounting lines of traffic on either side of our mobile barricade. We let the traffic flow; we make it stop. We stopper up the energy, then release. As above, so below: the golden threads of capital pulse seamlessly from city to city, and then we make them stop. We control them now, like the clenching and unclenching of a fist. It takes only 15 minutes of swarming every 60 minutes to begin causing economic damage, and we’re one of five teams rotating around the City of London, never stopping anywhere long enough that the police are able to gather. 100 floors of office workers on four sides and four corners have left their desks and come to the window to watch us.
One driver plunges his van straight at our barricade, stopping a foot away from us. But on the pavement, a slick-suited passerby brings us a round of 10 coffees – thoughtfully, all have vegan milk. Another hands our coordinator £150 so we can buy lunch. The energy is working: even frustration gives our message time to work.
I’ve never been part of a direct action group before. Extinction Rebellion is inspired by the tactics of the American civil rights movement and the Freedom Riders: conventional protest, with marches or letters or polite requests, is good as useless. We have to rebel. Our handbook quotes Fredrick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
In November 2018, we blocked five bridges in London. In April 2019, we did it again, this time for a week and a half. Some rebels glued themselves to trains, preventing the service from running. This summer, our Bristol group courageously blocked a motorway. These tactics are genuinely disruptive, and carry an implicit threat: we can stay here as long as we need to, and we’re not afraid. We’ll keep doing this until the powerful act.
The energies in the city are defined by their movement: elegance, directness, focus, speed. Today, I am not swept along by rush hour – I step into the road, and when I will it, I make it stop. When one begins blocking the traffic, it feels transgressive, and it feels powerful. How right that we should do it at the crossroads. I can feel the strength and the commitment of the rebels who have stepped into the road beside me; and I can feel my own strength, as I begin to sing, and the song is taken up by everyone. I can feel the power in the land stirring beneath our hands and feet.
My friend plans to write about the Uprising as a kind of immersive performance art, but I see an act of ritual magic. Our goal is not entertainment, but change. By our intent, and the performance of certain symbolic gestures, our will is done. We draw our sigil on the city’s skin. We reveal the invisible world.
Man has always used masking for magic, from Odin’s skin-wearing bezerkers who changed their shape, to the school nativity play. By dressing as a bee, I become one. By becoming one, I learn to feel and think as one. It’s strange to me indeed that at both my die-ins, I have worn yellow – the colour of the sun, of canaries and of honey-bees. In my tradition, solar energy represents (in part) things beneficial to man. Its inverse and overload is stellar energy – not stars, but the fathomless black between them; not a sun, but a black hole; not friendly anthropomorphic whales and wolves, but the immense indifference of the natural world to our survival – a Lovecraftian sense of horror at the sea or space, a biologist’s understanding of a spider or a sparrow as a kind of alien mind.
When the sun and the star meet, we find the acts of men’s hands spiraling out of anyone’s control or capacity to stop, as if they had gained their own inhuman intelligence: war that does not end, the perversion of science and technology, genocide, and the land’s devastation. It’s a vision devised, I suppose, with climate collapse in mind – that man needs the sun, but when he creates too much of it, it turns inside-out and consumes him.
When I’m with Extinction Rebellion, it feels like we summon that sticky black stellar energy: we raise it from the hidden places and make it visible by day. We carry it with us, like tar from a day at the beach.
What we’re doing here feels ancient. Lying on the tarmac in the rain is an act of mortification: when I’m on the ground, I imagine a monk who meditates on past discomfort, who eats little and endures the cold as a path towards enlightenment. I lie in silence for forty minutes, shivering, feeling the swarm under my skin.
There are the acts of sacrifice; I catch a cold. Across the city, others sit peacefully, waiting to be voluntarily arrested. By gluing or chaining themselves in place – or simply refusing to move – they hold our road blockades long enough to start hitting the economy, forcing the government to take our demands seriously. Peaceful protests drain police time; they cannot be swiftly broken up like a riot, and it looks bad to try. One cannot manhandle a calmly seated grandmother into a van. We’re all watching. So due process is followed, and when that’s done it takes four people to lift her. And over 1000 people like her choose to surrender their liberty in April as prisoners of conscience, to demand the government tell the truth about the climate emergency, and act now before it is too late. The Hanged Man: we give something up to gain something profound and essential.
I take two days off the protest, in bed with a Lemsip; but in the Global South, four environmental defenders per week are killed.
The next day I’m volunteering with arrestee support, attending court with arrested rebels so they’ve got a friendly face, someone to bring them cups of tea and telephone lawyers and loved ones. I make a circle of potted plants on the sidewalk.
Today’s hearing is potentially very serious – our rebels made headlines gluing themselves to Underground trains. They’re all members of Christian Climate Action. A heating planet brings wars over water, refugees, drought, starvation and poverty. Horror always falls hardest on the vulnerable: church collection plates for a water pump in Africa aren’t going to cut it. I see in them a spiritual strength and commitment; it seems unsurprising that the rebels who chose to take on the most serious legal consequences would be supported by a profound faith, and the example of a dying god who was sacrificed for others and reborn in glory.
We must make a post-carbon world seem not only possible, but beautiful, and really rather good fun.
They call it “visioning”. I think of how I’ve been taught to cleanse: first one empties a space, but then fills it again. We block the city’s central thoroughfare and five bridges for a week: we fill them with trees, a skate ramp, performances, a family tent, artwork, all provided free and gifted to one another. Our kitchen hands out free vegan meals to activists, local homeless people, tourists, workers on their lunch break, at four locations for ten days. (A study shows that in areas we held, the pollution dropped significantly.)
Every day I’m on the protest, I leave my bags with strangers, or end up minding someone else’s children, or am spontaneously bought lunch. I make war-forged friendships with people I’ve known for only moments. I can’t stop checking our twitter, to see what’s been going on with other Extinction Rebellion chapters around the world, in Dallas, Brazil, Ghana.
I came to save the planet, but stayed because it makes me believe a better world is possible. Watching our community make decisions together is a model for a new, participatory politics. At most protests, I feel like a spectator; but here, I feel like part of a movement, where my decisions and actions can start making a difference right away. It is an immense privilege and responsibility. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever felt.
At our local group, the facilitator asks the circle for their names, their pronouns, and something they’ve noticed in nature this week. I feel that stellar oil-slick energy recede, and a firefly of golden light takes root in the room: everyone breathes a little easier. We remember why we are here.
One woman had green beans from her allotment today, another saw her first ever stonefinch. I name my favourite trees – hornbeam for hedgecrossing, hawthorn for magic, apple for rebirth. A man recalls sleeping out under the stars. Nature is not only terror, but awe. It takes courage to consider climate breakdown, to face our sorrow and fear – but I think it also takes a kind of courage to hope – and to act.