Shaftesbury’s Extinction Rebellion (XR) Group presented their overview of climate change in Shaftesbury on Thursday. Alfred attended the session, which mixed science and statistics with calls for support and protest.
They had to keep opening the Guildhall doors last night. The Town Hall’s downstairs space quickly became stuffy, as rows of seating filled with residents, ready about to sit through two-and-a-half hours of XR presentations. But were any undecided locals converted to the group’s cause?
Speaker, Guardian writer Sara Hudston, accepted that many attendees were there because they already cared. “There is always a tendency to be talking to the converted. If we do these talks, we can perhaps get more people who have leanings that way, to get themselves mobilised, join in and take part in actions. That will have a ripple effect,” said Sara, who is involved with Bridport’s XR.
Anna Rose-Prynn started the evening with a potted progression of climate change. She became interested in XR after she attended an inaugural session at Shaftesbury’s Quaker Meeting House in 2018. “I was in the first one, and that’s what got me started doing these talks. I was really, really glad to come back to give the talk tonight,” said Anna.
Anna’s timeline took us through the industrial revolution, greenhouse gases and more recent IPCC warnings of global warming reaching 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. She stressed this figure was an average rise. Temperature extremes would decimate crops, eradicate species and displace people. The village of Fairbourne will be abandoned to sea level rise, following their council’s decision not to bolster sea defences. Anna said these North Wales residents could become the UK’s first climate change refugees.
Anna says the media doesn’t reflect the true XR and climate change situation. “Part of our drive to tell the truth about the climate emergency is the language used,” said Anna. “They use words like ‘balmy’ and ‘basking in record temperatures’ to describe stuff that’s dangerous. They’re not lying. They’re clouding it with sunny, optimistic language,” she said. A recent European heatwave killed 70,000 people. Such a loss of life would dominate headlines if caused by an accident or terrorism, Anna claimed.
As she wrapped up her climate change chronology, Anna touched on the current crisis caused by the Amazon burning. He future predictions were even more sobering. Some scientists believe thawing tundra could release methane, speeding global warming. Anna added a chilling warning that nuclear nations may use their weapons to secure water access from neighbours.
“We actually put out parental guidance for under 12s. It’s very heavy. It could be frightening for children who haven’t really considered that,” said Anna. Some of her messages did remind me of the sleepless nights I had endured after being shown the nuclear war film, ‘The War Game’, in school in the 1980s.
Nine-year-old Algy from Sedgehill watched the presentation sitting next to his mum, who regularly checked whether he was ok and occasionally squeezed his hand. “The Amazon burning is devastating,” said Algy. The presentation had impacted on him. “If it carries on, and we don’t act soon, it will change my life and affect everybody my age, my generation.”
“Although it is our mission to tell the truth about the climate and ecological emergency, we do temper that with what we’re going to do about it,” advised Anna. The second half is empowering people to take hold of what they’re going to do.”
During the next session, people were encouraged to join organised protests. Sara stressed that XR advocates non-violent demonstration. This global movement recognises that mass events in capital cities were more likely to be reported and reach decision-makers.
Anna was arrested and held in custody for nine hours during the Waterloo Bridge protests. She shared her experience with the group. Her court appearance is scheduled for September.
Audience member Taprisha Seifert first became involved in environmental action eleven years ago, following US politician Al Gore’s call for climate action. “The response now has to be much more rebellious,” she said.
Taprisha disagreed with the speakers highlighting the fun elements of mass campaigning, though. “I am a mixed race person. I have experience with racial parades. There is a ferocious seriousness about them. I’m afraid we might be lessening the effect of XR’s very good, peaceful demonstrations if it looks like too much fun.”
But Karen Ecclestone from Donhead St Mary disagreed. “I was on Waterloo Bridge for the two weeks. There is an element of fun that has to come into it. That brings in solidarity because of the emotional response. We were crying at times. My husband also had his first yoga class on a piece of cardboard,” she laughed.
Karen believes that XR needs profile both in London and in smaller towns like Shaftesbury. “It’s important to do both. Local actions produce public awareness and understanding of the problems, we need to work at the higher levels of activity in the cities because that is where the power and the money is. A lot of it is to do with economics,” she said.
Taprisha agreed. “If this happens county by county, this is where MPs are elected and go to Government, where laws are made. Every county has its part to play. I agree that the massing of people makes more impact than a march of twenty in every town. You have to congregate and say ‘we are many’.”
“We have a new council, Dorset Council. Shaftesbury is part of that council area,” said Sara. “XR groups across Dorset are working with representatives on the Council to push them into concrete action after they declared their climate emergency.”
Shaftesbury Town Council doesn’t have the unitary authority’s clout but Sarah urges townspeople to question their town councillors. “What’s the action that they’re going to take? It’s not just words. It’s easy to declare a climate emergency. How will that translate into the lives of the people who live here?” she asked.
Although there was talk of MPs and councillors, Sara said XR isn’t tied to party politics. “I absolutely firmly believe XR is beyond politics. It doesn’t matter if you’re from the left or right-wing. It’s irrelevant. People from all across the political spectrum would agree that we have seen a weakening of working democracy in our country,” she said.
XR wants representative panels to decide climate change policy, rather than parliamentarians. This approach, Sara explained, was used to reach consensus when Ireland prepared for its referendum on legalising abortion. But is a public panel preferable? Viewers of BBC1’s ‘Question Time’ often hear irrational arguments from uninformed people.
“It’s important that citizen assemblies reflect the variety and demographics of the population if you’re making decisions that affect the lives of everybody. Everybody, in some way or another, has to have a say. It’s not for me to describe anybody as having unacceptable opinions. All shades of opinion must be taken into account.”
Attendee Pat Conlan was concerned by this. “My question about citizen assemblies is who is choosing the people?” Mr Conlan told Alfred “I want to save the planet. I came to find out about XR.” He interrupted the speakers with questions twice. He asked Anna to identify her climate change statistics sources. He was invited to see her afterwards.
When Sara highlighted what she felt are failings within the capitalist system, Pat asked whether XR backed communist ideology. Sara said it did not. “I think Extinction Rebellion is part of a world movement,” Pat said after the meeting. “I think the end game is a political system, which may have central control.”
There appeared to be an understanding of how XR supporters could be heard politically in Britain. I asked Sarah how XR could confront climate problems caused by overseas politicians whom we don’t elect. “I have moments of utter despair, for precisely the reasons that you’ve just outlined,” said Sara.
“What can we do, when we are struggling to make our own government take effective action? There are countries around the world doing incredibly harmful things to the environment and hastening the climate crisis. It does come down to an individual moral decision. Am I going to blank all this out? Or am I going to face up to it? Am I going to tell the truth to others and insist that the media and the government are more honest about where we are and do what we can?” she said.
Many of the audience members were Shaftesbury residents who follow environmental issues. Many are well-versed in the facts, science and theories. Some attendees found it useful to remind themselves of their extent of understanding. “It has been very helpful to get an update on what I knew before,” said Taprisha.
Sitting in a room filled with likeminded people can also be empowering. But it is impossible to gauge whether the event changed minds, in part because it was not a public debate.
As the evening closed, Sara encouraged participation in two weeks of, as yet unspecified, XR activity in London from October. Headline-grabbing action may reach residents who are not motivated to give up their Thursday evenings to attend a talk. Will people, undecided over the climate emergency, form an opinion from the mass action? And which opinion will they form? That could well depend on what XR is planning to do next in London and here in Shaftesbury.