21st November 2019
Dear Prospective Parliamentary Candidates, and Electors, in Bath, and North East Somerset (and 648 other constituencies in the UK),
This weekend, I went about my usual business in town – Bath, in South West England – covered in a month’s worth of my plastic waste. You likely agree with me that that is strange behaviour; indeed, I got some rather strange looks, as you might imagine (though also a few smiles, along with a single, angry outburst). I include a portrait taken on the day below.
It had occurred to me to collect the plastic a month or two earlier; I think I had seen something online of one or two people walking around their city or town in Senegal doing something similar.
The plastic around my neck was plastic of all kinds that would have flowed out of my single-person, low-income household, in the month to 7th November 2019. Almost all of it came from my grocery and household shopping at the Waitrose (‘Partners Against Waste’) store in the town centre.
What it represents is my share of what can be called the Human System’s metabolism that month (and every month) : what the Human System extracts from the Earth System, and returns to it as wastes of one kind or another; in other words, my part in our collective land use change and habitat destruction, direct exploitation, climate change causing emissions, other pollution (including plastic pollution), and invasive species introductions.
After a second outing on Saturday, knowing what I looked like, and hot with the stress and effort of hauling it around town, I returned home, took it from around my neck, and brought my strange behaviour to an end.
Carrying on as usual, as politicians and public servants, and as citizens, in the situation we are in, is stranger behaviour by far.
The Human System, as it is currently structured, causes premature death (reduced life expectancy) and morbidity for most people; it continues to pose the risk of nuclear annihilation; and it is now causing accelerating climate and ecological breakdown, and threatening to tip the Earth System rapidly into a state uninhabitable by more than, say, 1 billion people, if any.
Global population is currently more than 7 billion people.
6 billion lives, at least, along with the countless generations to come, are in extreme danger.
If you know anyone aged between 0 and 25, there is a good chance, if we continue as we have been, they will not make it out of middle age; some may not make it into middle age.
A total, wartime-style mobilisation of government, industry, and households is required to avert total disaster.
Think of it as November 1938. Nature is coming for you, your family, everyone you know – the whole human family, more or less.
When you buy a new diary or calendar this month, you are looking at the remaining time available to muster the political will, engage domestically and internationally, and formulate the necessary national and international public policy.
If this window is missed, and the 26th Conference of the Parties, to be held in Glasgow in November 2020 largely goes the way of its predecessors, it is likely that some time in the next decade, a chain reaction will begin that is beyond our or anybody’s control, no matter what happens in subsequent years.
Strange then though it may seem, and bar some very important exceptions, politicians and people carrying on as usual, is what is happening.
In the UK, those political parties (elected representatives, party officials and members) that have said they recognise the emergency situation we are in, and which committed to meet in regular, cross party talks from the time of Parliament’s declaration of a climate and ecological emergency in the Spring have nevertheless continued with politics-as-usual, and are now contesting a General Election aggressively under the First Past the Post system. (I warned against this in a letter to my MP, copied to my local party, this summer.) Though acknowledging the contribution of the youth strikers and Extinction Rebellion in their recognising the emergency, these opposition parties did not do what I thought was required at the time, and have not since : a national electoral alliance or pact, focused on the emergency situation, has not been established.
Locally, it is largely the same story. The new council took the reins from an outgoing administration that had been persuaded to declare an emergency situation in March. It is six months since the local elections – elections in which I stood before a hustings where little or nothing had been said by the other candidates about the emergency situation – and asked people to raise their hands if they knew their local authority had declared a climate emergency. Only a handful did so. Whilst the odd politician attends the climate strikes, expresses their sympathy, and confirms to those assembled that they are carrying out the work mandated in the March motion, there has not been a step change in the behaviour of the authorities. Things look and feel no different to too many people. The local authority under the new administration has not, for example, used its powers to inform every household in its jurisdiction of the nature and implications of the emergency. Nor did the last MP. The city of Bath is visited by many millions of people each year, including large numbers of international arrivals. I think it is fair to say that the council has not made any obvious effort to inform its guests either.
The majority of people are continuing to go about their business, at work, in the community, and at home, generating their share of the damage, and the danger, with some, of course, doing far more damage than others. Government and industrial concerns press ahead on the same course, with workforces, unionised or not, largely following the orders coming down from C-suites. The media, if it has ever been about bona fide public interest broadcasting and journalism, is a total disgrace. People in my own circle of family and friends continue to think nothing of owning or running multiple homes, regularly flying around the world, or of driving premium brand SUVs and sports cars. I have heard more than one person this year saying they had noticed the extent of the bleaching of the corals on their last dive in the Red Sea/the Maldives, and that it was terrible, only to book another trip. Above all, most people are continuing not to strike or attend demonstrations, or write to, telephone, or meet their MP, let alone join a political party or take direct action.
The important exceptions are those that have so far taken on the responsibility of getting us all to safety. Extraordinarily, this includes some of our children – those deciding to take part in the school strikes following Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future movement. People seem not to notice what an extraordinary development this is, nor how wrong it is that children should be put in a position where they feel it necessary. It also includes the rebels of the Extinction Rebellion whose contributions in Bath have to date included the only permanent, outdoor communications in Bath about the emergency situation (The Old Cattle Market, Walcot Street).
Unsurprisingly, given the behaviour of the politicians, and the majority of people, I, like others, have been overburdened and left rather exposed. I have been verbally abused on a number of occasions, whilst protesting or striking, and not infrequently have had to be ready to defend youth strikers – children – from verbal abuse and even physical assault from members of the public. In a month’s time, I am due to stand trial in a London court for my part in the International Rebellion in the Spring. I was arrested for non violent civil disobedience on Waterloo Bridge, spent a very unpleasant 12 hours in a cell, and may now be given a criminal record. Thousands taking part in the Extinction Rebellion, in the UK, including clerics, doctors, former senior police officers, teachers, scientists, parents, and grandparents, are in the same position, and many have suffered worse, not least at the hands of the Metropolitan Police. Around the world, of course, active citizens are paying with their lives.
I do not wish to appeal here primarily to your self interest, though you might like to note that extreme weather, here in the UK, took from us a former High Sheriff – typically not short of money or connections – in the last fortnight.
I am taking action because of my morality, and because of who I think I am.
My morality is very likely what you would consider your own morality to be : namely, I believe that most of the time, it is wrong to lie, steal, kill or take life.
I believe I am entitled to health, happiness, and a good life. I believe everyone is.
I do not believe I am entitled to anyone else’s share of health and happiness, or their life, over and above my own. That would be to steal, and to kill.
Now consider the moral quality of the Human System as it is.
As I have said, first, it systematically immiserates (beneath their entitlement) those of average, low, and ultra low net worth, causing morbidity, and premature death, in order to enrich those of high and ultra high net worth (beyond their entitlement). Current levels of material inequality in the UK, and around the world, are obscene : there are cocktails on sale for £50,000 in London, along with the Victorian-era diseases that come with poverty. In Bath, as elsewhere, there are people dying – or, perhaps more accurately, being killed – on our streets, in front of our eyes, as well as behind closed doors.
Second, the System is systematically destroying the natural world – precious in itself- and in so doing, is now threatening the lives of those yet to be born, along with most of those alive.
In both respects, the morality of the System, if it can be called that, clearly offends against our own.
We are not entitled to control and consume more than our entitlement, collectively, and individually. What ought to be hanging around my neck – the safe amount of waste I am entitled to generate each month – is nothing.
My knowledge of visual art is not terribly advanced, but for years, I have been aware of a painting by Francisco Goya, Saturno devorando a su hijo (Saturn devouring his son) that I feel just about sums it up. I also include a copy of the work below.
Einstein once said something along the lines that the world is dangerous, not because it contains evil people, but because it contains people who allow wrongdoing to go on.
When I write of who I think I am, I mean I see myself as someone who does not allow wrongdoing to go on.
I recognise that I cannot avoid doing harm in this system. I recognise too that the Human System is not a natural order, and can be changed, consciously and deliberately by its members. I recognise that at the present rate, we are not going to make it. I recognise my responsibility and duty to engage in collective action – at work, at home, and in the community – to sort things out.
I recognise these things because I am not lying to myself and others; lying offends against my morality. I do not lie to myself that it’s all made up; or that governments and the media have it covered; that it is beyond my understanding; that there is nothing that can be done; that I do not have a duty to intervene.
Those of us who share this morality, and see ourselves as people who do not allow wrongdoing, need to act now, to use a current phrase. My sense of what is required is a combination of different kinds of action at work, home, and in the community, including the following elements:
– weekly local city or town centre Saturday lunchtime demonstrations/marches;
– climate strikes;
– a group of citizens in each of our 650 constituencies who will shadow the MP, support them where they are doing what is required, shepherd them back on track if they wander off, and remove them from office if they continue to fail (starting with weekly demonstrations outside MP’s offices; phone calls; meetings; letters);
– an effort to organise public meetings, education, and leafleting in every ward and neighbourhood, in every constituency;
– a rolling programme of nationally coordinated, escalating direct action across constituencies;
– increased membership and activism in unions and political parties.
Not everyone needs to be involved in each activity, but enough of us needs to be involved in each to make it work. Do what you can according to your circumstances.
Time is short. If civil servants – and diplomats – are to be given adequate time to prepare for November 2020, the political will has to be mustered, I guess, a number of months ahead. This effort must start early in the New Year and be sustained through to the COP.
The next large set piece is the climate strike scheduled for 29thNovember, which I shall, of course take part in. In its wake comes the General Election.
I conclude with a message to our would-be politicians.
The next parliament will be standing between the men, women, and children of this country (and the wider human family) and their safety. If you do not take what is written here seriously, you are a danger to yourself and everyone in your constituency. You will not be allowed to get in the way. Do not stand if you do not, or do not wish to, understand.
Jonathan Oates FSI