I joined the Bristol commuter rush by sitting in the road and gluing myself onto a pink bathtub, early on a Wednesday morning.
We successfully blockaded the A-road leading from Cabot Circus onto the M32, using the bath and several dozen people temporarily stopping the nearby junctions with banners.
The traffic delays piled up for several miles. A year prior, I’d had little awareness of climate breakdown or biodiversity loss. My activism was focussed on disability. Yet here I now was, breaking the law to demand action on the ecological emergency.
The Bathtub Sixteen - the name now given to the rebels arrested for gluing or locking ourselves onto or around the bathtub - were undertaking this act as part of Extinction Rebellion’s latest wave of action.
This protest, entitled the ‘Summer Uprising’, disrupted central spaces in Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow, Leeds and London to demand that local councils and the Government ‘Act Now’ on the climate and ecological crises.
In Bristol, the action had started on the Monday by occupying Bristol Bridge with a pink boat named ‘Jeanette Kawas’ after the Houndarian activist murdered for protecting over four hundred species of fauna and flora. This boat had swiftly become the heart of a vibrant community — featuring a kitchen, family zone, reading area and wellbeing tent.
A full schedule had been planned, with engaged and good-natured debate about the crisis, talks, trainings, workshops and, of course, civil disobedience.
Besides our action with the bathtub, the summer actions included a Critical Mass Bike Ride of more than a thousand people, the youth locking themselves onto a pink car outside City Hall and rebels stripping off inside the building during Mayor Marvin Rees presentation of his belated and flawed plans for the city to go carbon neutral.
My entrance into this world of environmental activism had been sudden. It was early November in 2018 and I had met my daughter for a coffee before a talk that I was due to give at the University of Exeter.
Our conversation was abruptly interrupted as she doubled over with grief at the incomprehensible suffering and injustice of the climate and ecological emergency. I instantly went from being unaware to fully invested and a deep ecological grief settled over me.
There was a period in December where a day didn’t go by without my weeping. Emerging from this state of mourning was a long journey and I experienced every stage of grief.
The eco-psychologist Joanna Macy promotes a framework that guides mourners through gratitude, to honouring our pain, to finding new possibilities through practical actions and it is this process of reclaiming agency through acting that allows many to reach a place of acceptance.
Though emotions drive me, it is logic that dictates my actions. I’m a mathematician. The way I see it, you have to start with a series of basic decisions. The science is clear — we’re in a situation where the crisis is accelerating exponentially.
The UN’s IPCC report published last October says that we have to cut carbon emissions by 40 percent in the next 12 years if we want a 50 percent chance of preventing ‘catastrophe’. Yet the same year carbon levels went up by 3.5 parts per million (ppm).
Though we're seeing relatively slow increases in temperatures at present, the change is going to get quicker and the same applies to the loss of species and habitats, the degenerative effect on our soils, the sea levels rising and the release of methane from below melting ice.
The crisis isn't following a linear, predicative path and there will be a compound effect as these situations catalyse one another.
Given that we can’t argue with the science, the next step is the question of how we respond. Petitioning and lobbying on this issue has been taking place for 30 years and our situation has only worsened. The normal modes of engaging in political change aren’t the right tactics. This leaves us with non-violent civil disobedience.
By taking to the streets to cause disruption and being willing to give up our liberties we treat the crisis with the urgency it demands.
The people whose day-to-day lives are disrupted are driven to process the crisis in an embodied and emotional manner that scientific facts struggle to inspire. While their emotions in the moment may be annoyance and anger, they will continue to reflect upon the issues and come to understand their importance.
These tactics work. Since Extinction Rebellion’s International Rebellion protest in London this April, concern about climate breakdown in the UK has never been higher and two-thirds of Britons want faster action on the crisis.
The articles now appearing in mainstream press and the language used by politicians show that the dialogue on ecological breakdown has shifted permanently.
We need more change, we need real action from the Government, and we need it now, but we are prompting people to care.
Despite our best efforts, such forms of protest can provoke distress and our actions during the Summer Uprising did face criticism from some areas. It saddens me when our protests cause difficulties, but it's a question of proportionality.
Our house is on fire —during a summer when temperature records are being broken across the world and wildfires are ravaging the Arctic this is a literal as well as metaphorical statement. When there is a fire, a siren must announce the emergency. Extinction Rebellion is that siren. The noise might not be pleasant, but we don’t need people to love us. We need them listen.
In an odd twist of fate, the day that my daughter opened my eyes, the talk that I was due to give was entitled ‘Social Enterprise: Business That Saves The Planet’. At the end of the presentation, I asked the audience, “so what’s the opposite of social enterprise?” The reply came, “anti-social enterprise”.
So I responded, “if you’re asking me to say that social enterprise has the responsibility of saving the world, what does anti-social enterprise do?” The reply came, “destroys the world”.
The business-as-usual behaviour that society is currently pursuing is this ‘anti-social enterprise’. Disrupting it through peaceful civil disobedience, far from being anti-social, is the only option that we have left.
Rebel for life
The day of the bathtub action was my third arrest for Extinction Rebellion, so I wasn't overly concerned.
I was unglued from the bathtub and transferred into the police van without difficulty, though my legal rights were denied to me as a visually impaired person.
On the book-in desk, the police ask you questions and tell you to sign your responses, which I always refuse to do because I can't read the print-out. As a result, they processed me as 'detained person refuses to sign'.
They also were unable to provide me with a copy of the police code of conduct that I could read. So I refused to leave custody until my legal rights were honoured.
Afterwards, the arresting officer said, “You’ve really tickled me. In twenty-nine years of policing I’ve never known anyone refuse to leave custody.” I shook his hand and said, “well, get used to it, because you’ll be seeing me again”.
James Brown is a five-time Paralympian and activist. He is the founder of Mobiloo, a service that allows organisations to rent a mobile accessible changing facility.