In 2015, on the first day of the Paris Climate Summit, members of Christian Climate Action daubed the Department of Energy and Climate Change with whitewash, painting on it the new title ‘Department for Extreme Climate Change’. We were charged with criminal damage, convicted and fined. Thank you to our supporters for your support throughout this, on the day of trial and for help with the fines. One year later in 2016 we whitewashed the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (since DECC is dissolved) and delivered 20kg of melting ice to their lobby while a vigil took place (holding a banner saying ‘Happy Birthday Paris, Our condolences to the Arctic’). We were not arrested, however the ice was not returned to us. What follows is a reflection on the motivation for these acts from one member of Christian Climate Action.
There is a joke that goes: ‘What can think the unthinkable?’ The answer is: ‘An itheberg!’.
I like this joke as it deftly reminds us that the sinking of the Titanic was unthinkable. The predicament we find ourselves in has been likened to the sinking of the Titanic as we can’t seem to believe our great technical masterpiece of a civilization is vulnerable to the restraints of reality and thus we are unable to come to terms with the prognosis for our great global project.
When I worked in a hospital as a Radiotherapy Physicist, sometimes I would hear of the difficult role of doctors when speaking to cancer patients of their condition. Therapy can often effectively contribute to a positive outcome in cancer treatment but sometimes it cannot.
Sometimes a doctor will be tempted to mislead a patient as to the effectiveness of a treatment or the likely prognosis of their condition. Doctors need to contend with their own need to feel powerful but also patients or their families want their doctors to lie to them due to being unable or unwilling to accept their loss and powerlessness. Denial is common when hearing bad news. Grieving is associated with shock/denial, anger, bargaining, guilt/depression and acceptance (also sometimes called hope). We can often see these stages played out in our loved ones dealing with loss, even if we cannot see it in ourselves.
Nobody envies a doctor’s role in these difficult conversations. However,doctors are compensated, trained, resourced and esteemed due to this role we require of them. A doctor who tells you what you want to hear is negligent. A doctor who misleads you for personal gain or to advance the agenda of their sponsors would likely be struck off and possibly arrested.
This all comes to mind when it comes to painting whitewash on government departments with responsibilities for climate change.
We are in a desperate situation. The extent to which we have destabilized the climate will have catastrophic consequences. This is a result of our approach to life, not just how we choose to fuel our lives, but how we see the world and choose to interact with it. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance are all stages we need to contend with while grieving this. This is inevitable and unavoidable and should be treated compassionately. However some are willing to exploit others in their grieving or encourage grievers to remain in the stage they are in. Denial serves the status quo, anger the activism industry, bargaining the ethical consumption industry and depression the self care industry. Acceptance seems to be good business for nobody but may allow us to be of some use.
Since it is not climate change we are grieving but imminent, catastrophic, multivariate systemic collapse, we are grieving more than one thing at once and we grieve different stages concurrently (e.g. we might be in denial over the failure of the market, anger over the failure of democracy, as we bargain using low energy light-bulbs to offset our guilt over what we have done to our children but boasting about our acceptance of the reality of climate change). These stages of grief interfere with each other and it is all very complicated. None of us have made it to the other side but it is essential that we find some way of speaking honestly of our situation if we are ever going to make progress. We do not seem to be willing to speak honestly about what is going on. Even those of us who have a prophetic obligation find it difficult to discuss these things.
It should not surprise us then that we do not have a government who is willing to speak honestly about our condition or our likely prognosis. What is true of our government is also true of our church leadership (how many marriage courses warn couples that there may be no food for their impending children). It is also true of the many movements who would assure us we have decades to convince and soften the hearts of our ignorant, careless leaders with our marches, petitions and internet memes while promising we can relive the gay days of the British Empire. It is not clear how far any of us would get in any area of life if we were not willing to lie about this, affirming the ignorance and prejudice of our supporters. We are a people who are desperate to be lied to. We cannot accept how far we have gone astray from the way of life. We cannot accept that we are powerless to turn our systems, our institutions or even our own lives around.
Nevertheless, we often tell ourselves that we can turn around centuries of habitual violence and decades of climatic abuse in a time frame of years. Some would even tell us that the future technological utopia, made of materials and with labour from people kept out of sight out of mind, will somehow mark a break from our pattern so far. We are happy to be told that we can maintain lifestyles entirely dependent upon global injustice, decimation and blood-letting and do so with clean hands, even clean green hands. We speak of justice when we mean ‘just us’ and expect heaven on earth to result. We can barely speak of climate change – but climate change is just the strange fruit of a tree we will not even look at. To be radical is to look to the roots. We often call ourselves radical Christians but we are far from it.
We are a society in trouble. It is unfair to blame any one person or section of society for this. It is also counterproductive. Nevertheless we live in some sort of democracy. We have a government which represents us. Like the doctors described above, we appoint Government ministers and civil servants to act with integrity, making difficult decisions and giving us bad news.
Instead we have deception hidden behind respectable facades. In 2015 this government took us to the Paris Climate Summit claiming global leadership while actively promoting climate wrecking policies. This year the Department for Energy and Climate Change no longer exists. Now responsibilities for climate change belong to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. This alone should intimate the priority climate change has for this government.
At a symbolic level, our nation’s disregard for the climate crisis was well served by the offices of DECC with their respectable, sturdy facade hiding corruption and deception. Now the Portland stone of DECC has been replaced by BEIS’s glass frontage. This new facade is as transparent as the change of name but the deception continues within. Somehow we are told that this government is taking climate change seriously.
In this light the words of Ezekiel chapter 13 and Matthew 23 seem very appropriate. The painting of whitewash a symbolic correction to the these duplicitous facades.
Some green Christians took issue with our criminal damage. It was certainly criminal as we were arrested and then almost arrested the second time.
I take issue with the notion we damaged DECC or BEIS. A building, certainly a government building, serves at least two purposes. One is practical – it shelters its staff from the weather and allows them sockets to plug their photocopiers and computers into. The second is one of propaganda, projecting a narrative of legitimate power and respectability. We did no damage to the buildings of DECC or BEIS in the first sense as I reminded the magistrate at our trial – removing our work was entirely optional as it did not hinder the work of the department at all. In the second sense, damaging their ability to appear respectable and legitimate was entirely our intention and our prophetic obligation.
Challenging the narratives of the powerful is the task of every Christian. As is advancing the narrative of the vulnerable God we serve. This empire we have built for ourselves as an act of worship will fall. It will be for the best that it falls but it will not fall gracefully. Like all of us, coming to terms with death will not come easily for it. We who have come to rely on the idols of our age will suffer most when they fail us – an
allotment does not hasten the end of the supermarkets but will soften the blow when they disappear. We are called to flee from this evil age. We are reminded also that we are under grace and not judgement.
As dis-empowering as grace is, it also will sustain us as we look honestly into our position.
Not all are called to be an apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor or teacher. Clearly following the arrestable Christ does not mean arrest for everybody, just as following the executed Christ has only meant execution for some.
So, while we invite you to join us in our various acts of holy obedience/civil disobedience, we urge you to remember that we are one Church, have one God and have one mission: to offer hospitality to the Kingdom of Heaven, so as to witness to the transformation of this earth into the new earth – into the likeness of Christ – by the power of God, whose power appears weak rather than the horrific power of men.
– The End –