Caught between two worlds

My life seems very strange at the moment. I find myself frequently swinging from intense awareness of the near-time implications of the climate and ecological breakdown to being absorbed in the normal routines of daily life, living as if we still have forever and life will carry on as it is until we all die peacefully of old age. It is surreal to be participating in small acts of civil disobedience at work by surreptitiously sticking XR ‘climate emergency’ stickers around the place, whilst at the same time spending hours at a time engrossed in work that, I suspect, will be completely irrelevant within the next decade. It is strange to be moved to tears by speeches from outside Parliament following UK MPs declaration of a ‘climate emergency’ as I cook a baked potato for dinner and plan what I will wear to the conference I am travelling to tomorrow. It is surreal to be discussing my daughter’s career aspirations with her at the same time as knowing in my heart that huge changes are ahead and it is unlikely she will have the career, or future, that she dreams of.

Since travelling to London to join the rebellion at Waterloo Bridge my internal landscape has shifted. Or rather it has begun to shift less dramatically from oblivion and distraction into despair and panic because, as I expand my social circles to include people who are aware of the catastrophe we are facing, my knowledge and expectations of what will happen to society because of climate change and biodiversity loss becomes more integrated into my ‘normal’ life. Even though climate catastrophe is still the first thing I think of when I wake in the morning, and even though I am still often plunged into intense emotional flashbacks when my attachment wound is triggered by the fear of what is to come and how alone I will be with it, the ecological crisis feels more real and less like something that I have made up or exaggerated in my own mind. I feel less isolated with the knowledge and awareness I have now that I am meeting other people who are also awake to the magnitude of what is happening.

And it helps that there is growing awareness among the public that things are ‘not okay’ and the government needs to act, even though I know many people, including activists, haven’t explored the science as much as I have and haven’t quite fully grasped the urgency or the fact that is almost certainly too late to avert ecological breakdown now so we need to start working on harm reduction and damage limitation. It does help, though, that it is becoming more acceptable to express concerns and fears and it is becoming more normal to be met with discomfort when I mention climate change rather than ridicule or surprise that I would be experiencing anxiety and sadness over something so distant and unrelated to my (although someone at work played a ‘practical joke’ on another colleague and turned his office into a ball pool while he was on annual leave – 100o plastic balls filling the small office amused most people but totally enraged me, so how much real awareness there is of the crisis we are in is unclear).

Of course it is hugely encouraging that the UK Parliament this evening is the first in the world to admit that we are in a climate and ecological emergency. Of course it is inspiring to look back and see what has been achieved over the past few months and to think of what could be achieved in future if we all pull together to help the transition. And of course it is reassuring that so many people are waking up to the reality of our predicament. But it is also easy to get swept along and forget that all we’ve seen so far are words, not actions – at the same time as a climate emergency is being declared new coal mines are being approved, fracking continues, the High Court today rejected an appeal against the legality of the new runway at Heathrow, and the economy remains focused on growth, with well-being still being measured by GDP. And it is easy to forget that even if the UK miraculously does what is needed, we are just one country – even if it reduces its emissions to net zero (it’s actual emissions, not the ones calculated according to Michael Gove’s lies) by 2025 there is still so much more that needs to be done and hundreds of other countries that need to act also, if we are to avert utter catastrophe and devastation. And it concerns me that if declarations of climate emergency don’t lead to immediate and drastic action they will end up doing more harm than good, because they imply we can be in an ’emergency’ and yet carry on with business as usual. Ideas of a ‘green industrial revolution’ and calls for a Green New Deal and the creation of ‘green capitalism’ concern me because they are not enough and they don’t challenge the toxic heart of the system that is killing the planet and causing so much suffering. It is capitalism itself, and our obsession with consumption, that must be toppled, and I’m not sure there is time for that transition to happen before capitalism self-implodes and takes us all down with it.

It is also unclear how much people are really willing to change and sacrifice. What are people prepared to lose and leave behind to give us a chance of surviving as a species? We don’t just have ten years to start making some changes – within ten years the way we live must be completely different if we are to have even a chance of avoiding catastrophe. I’m not sure people understand what is meant by catastrophe either, that when climate scientists talk of environmental catastrophe they mean disaster on a global scale; floods, droughts, wild fires, crop failure, water shortages, wars over resources, mass starvation and possible human extinction – in the near-term, and in the global north as well as the global south, where the tragic impacts of climate change are already being seen and felt.

So we need to prepare and adapt and limit the damage as far as we can, but also things need to change. It scares me almost as much as irreversible climate change and mass starvation that things will carry on as they are indefinitely, that in acting a little but not enough we will just be kicking the can of over-consumption and exploitation of the natural world further down the road. Instead of transitioning to a fairer and kinder world where we nurture ourselves and each other and understand we are the environment, not something separate from it and able to control it, we will just be tinkering around the ages and putting off the inevitable for a few more years, decades at most. This worries me because our current way of life is unsustainable. Not just physically, from a resources point of view, but emotionally, mentally and psychologically also. We are so cut off from the natural world. We are living in a system which puts us in constant competition with everyone else, a system which makes us sick and tired and stressed, a system which leaves us isolated and lonely and unable to meaningfully connect with others or ourselves. The obesity crisis, alarming levels of mental health disorders in the young, the epidemic of loneliness in the aging population, childhood cancers, knife crime, mass shootings, poverty, terrorism, rape and domestic violence, animal abuse – all these things and more point to a human race that has gone so very wrong, a species that is poisoning itself in an attempt to control nature and protect itself. I find being part of this world deeply painful, my heart hurts for all the humans and non-human animals who are suffering so greatly, and sometimes it feels as though human extinction is for the best – our time is up. And, as I’ve written before, I’m not concerned about extinction itself, but I am concerned about what happens between now and us going extinct, how much suffering and loss there will be, what we will do to each other in the process.

An awareness of all this is intense and hard work. There is deep grief to work through, fear I must learn to soothe, and joy I must struggle to still connect to as this horror story humanity is writing continues to unfold day-by-day. Sometimes it is easier to lose myself in activism and blind hope, rather than a more active hope that is based on the reality that comes after despair has set in. Sometimes it is easier to make plans with my daughter than consider the truth that our dreams may not come true. I often find myself jolting back into an awareness that this is really happening and I lose all focus at work and find it hard to motivate myself to do anything. I’d hoped I’d be able to start living differently as a result of this new level of awareness I’ve had the past few months, but it seems in some ways it has merely amplified my existing struggles. It is like complex trauma on a grander scale, where present day life can be so very okay one minute and then suddenly I am plunged into an emotional flashback and the threat of annihilation experienced decades ago feels like it is happening right now. It is a strange place to be, swinging between such different world perspectives, and these are strange and difficult times to be living in for sure.

Reverence

I found myself glued to my Twitter feed and Instagram live streams last week, strangely soothed by the events unfolding at the international rebellion in London and across the globe, and reassured by the fact that no one was lying about what is ahead, pretending there is more hope than there is, pretending that action will stop the catastrophe that is ahead of us. It made me feel less crazy to see just how many people ‘get it’ and how many people care enough about what is unfolding to risk getting arrested, charged, even imprisoned. It was a relief to see the outpourings of love and respect for the people rebelling, a relief that so many understood why it had come to this, why action of this kind was needed, why the disruption was regrettable but unavoidable. In my algorithmed social media bubble it was almost as though the whole world had woken up.

I made the decision on Wednesday of last week to travel to London at the weekend to join the South West rebels who were holding Waterloo Bridge. An imminent house move, a twelve year old, and PTSD meant only a day trip was possible this time, and I was unsure whether it would be worth the time and expense, whether my presence was important enough, whether I would feel it had made any difference my being there – just one person. Somehow I just knew I needed to go though, to join with others and have my voice heard, and to take comfort in connecting with others who feel as I do about the climate and ecological crisis we are in. And I am so glad I listened to the whispers of my heart and did in fact go, despite my mind trying to tell me I wouldn’t make any difference. I feel as though my presence was noticed and important and I am so grateful to have been able to play a part, however small, in the transformation in public consciousness that has resulted from the peaceful protests by XR activists over the past 10 days.

I left early on Saturday morning, my bag full of orange Legal Observer bibs that needed to be taken back to Waterloo Bridge from XR rebels who had now returned to Exeter. It felt nice to have a job, a purpose. I wasn’t sure what the day ahead would be like, I had very little expectations at all, and that felt nice. Freeing. The train to London was lovely and quiet at 7.56am and I journalled the whole way, enjoying the peace and space to get my thoughts in order. I emerged from the tube at Waterloo into beautiful sunshine and, as I made my way to the bridge, I felt excited to hear drums and voices and singing, and to see the huge ‘rebel for life’ banner which spanned the width of the bridge. I did an induction with a group of others and was struck by the diversity of the people there as I got chatting to a pastor and his wife, a university student, a theatre artist, and an eclectic mix of others from various places across the UK. I then wandered around the bridge, trying to find some of the rebels from my home city, and eventually found one at the well-being tent who put me on sunscreen duty – basically walking around the site and offering sunscreen to all the clusters of people involved in the occupation of the bridge. This was a beautiful job as it was an eerily hot day for April and many people had not thought to bring sun protection so they were very grateful to be offered sun cream. Everyone was so friendly and warm, really approachable and open. It felt so different from walking around busy streets in the city where I live. There was a real party atmosphere and I walked the length of the bridge several times, admiring the trees and plants installed by rebels, the banners and placards, the paintings on the bridge. There were speeches and performances by poets and musicians. It was like a festival, but with a purpose. I’m not really a festival-person, I find them triggering and difficult, but this was different because relaxing and enjoying myself wasn’t the purpose, being there was the important part, and any joy or fun was just an added bonus.

At about 3pm the police moved in. Hundreds of them forming a circle around the lorry which was blocking the bridge. At first it was disconcerting but I soon got used to their presence. No arrests were made for a really long time and it was unclear why they were there really – protecting our ‘right to peaceful protest’ perhaps? Rebels locked on under the lorry and the police began dismantling the camp – carrying away plants and trees and hay bales, taking down the tents and gazebos. Having heard the story of how the bridge was taken at my local XR group’s meeting the night before it was incredibly moving to be there as the police began taking back the bridge. Things started to get quite hectic – the Revolutionary Socialist Party (I think that was who it was) had a very loud speaker and there were a lot of impassioned and angry speeches and performances taking place whilst the police were starting to arrest the locked on rebels. The atmosphere was getting stressful for the rebels and someone asked if everyone could sit down and try and calm things down a little.

A woman led a meditation asking us to hold compassion for species who are going extinct, people we love, and people who are suffering, and I cried a lot during this. It all felt so raw and real, what is happening, what humanity is doing to our beautiful planet. And then myself and another rebel led some gentle singing to calm those who were locked on under the lorry because they were feeling very tense as they awaited arrest.

People gonna rise like water, change this system round, in the voice of my great-grandaughter, climate justice now.in the voice of my great-grandaughter, climate justice now.

We sang these words over and over again, gently, peacefully, with others joining in and adding harmonies at times too. It was beautiful, soothing, and incredibly powerful to be there, deescalating in the face of such tension as the police slowly released the locked on rebels and carried them away to the waiting police vans. I was filled with such reverence and awe for the arrestees willing to sacrifice their freedom for the future of humankind, for those who were there holding the space, providing well-being support, making food, co-ordinating the speeches, and everything else that was needed to make the arrests possible and ensure that knowledge of the XR demands was spread far and wide. And I was filled with such bittersweet love for the earth we live on and all who depend upon it.

As I walked to get my train it all felt so surreal, the occupied space that was so vibrant and full of love and heart energy suddenly seemed so small and irrelevant, even though when I was there it was so all-consuming. Evening sunshine, tourists filling the streets, stressed out car drivers and bicycles zigzagging through the crowds… all seemed so incongruous after what I had just been part of. It was hard to believe that there were still so many people who knew nothing of the rebellion, of what it was for and why, of the people working so hard to try and give them some sort of a future. There are still so many people who are not yet aware of the climate crisis or what it will mean for them. It has felt like that all week really – normal life seems so surreal and strange. It is like living in two parallel worlds – the truth, and the daily pretense that we can carry on as we are forever.

What has amazed me the most since Saturday is how peaceful and comfortable in my own skin I felt that day. It’s not a feeling I often have anyway, but especially not among crowds of people where I have nowhere safe to retreat to. Normally even on a busy train journey I need to take diazepam because I get triggered, but I didn’t take any at all that day (until I was home and my brain was buzzing from over-stimulation so I took it in order to sleep). I think this is testimony to XR’s focus on non-violence and deescalation, and the regenerative culture and emphasis on resilience and individual well-being that permeates all they do. Looking back, I can really see how present these things were at the site and how different this is from so many other mass mobilisations of people I’ve been involved in in the past. Their vision works. It keeps people calm, it soothes, it comforts, and it helps turn our fear and sense of isolation into love and connection and hope for something better, not a fairytale ending it’s true, but still hope that we will have a more peaceful transition into whatever is coming than the chaos and struggles we are currently headed for.

Is veganism being co-opted by capitalism?

I became vegan in 2013 for three reasons – the animals, the planet, and my health. Over the past 6 years being vegan has become easier and easier and it has been comforting to watch the rise in people opting for a plant-based diet because they are concerned about the welfare of animals or have realised the massive contribution the meat and dairy industry is making to climate breakdown and biodiversity loss. It has also been nice to not be seen as ‘odd’ and ‘difficult’ when I am out with friends and work colleagues, because nearly every restaurant has a vegan option now and it is rare to find someone who doesn’t know what vegan means. However, something about the proliferation of mainstream vegan foods leaves me deeply troubled and it is something I have been thinking through over the past few months. It is easy to get excited when another huge business launches a vegan range, or a vegan alternative to a popular meat dish becomes available in the supermarket, but once that initial excitement has died down I am always left with the fact that for many veganism is an attempt to break free from the consumer culture which harms our planet so greatly, and that turning veganism into big business goes against these aspirations.

Most who decide to become vegan are not just making the decision to change their diet, they are also choosing to embrace a different way of life, one that respects animals and the planet and does not see humans as any more important than any other species. So being vegan is an ethical stance which opposes the human use of all animals for food, clothing or entertainment, and this involves not just eating differently but also making different choices around clothing, make up, beauty and cleaning products, which charities money is given to, which medications are taken and so on. Of course it is impossible to live under our capitalist system which has the exploitation of the natural world at its heart and not contribute to the ill-treatment of animals in any way; our food is transported by lorries which have animal fat in their tyres, the parent companies of ethical make up brands usually fund and take part in animal experiments, the vaccinations and medications we give our pet animals are tested on other animals, the supermarkets we buy our vegan products from are making money from animal abuse, and so on. However, as far as possible, living a vegan life involves making choices which do not involve the human use and abuse of animals.

Whilst I am hugely glad to see the number of people following plant-based diets increasing, and veganism becoming more mainstream, I am also concerned that big business is co-opting the vegan movement to further increase profit. Seeing McDonald’s launch a ‘vegan burger’ made me feel quite ill – the way the farms used by McDonalds treat animals, the amount of waste the corporation produces and the size of their carbon footprint, makes McDonalds the complete antithesis of everything veganism stands for. Buying a ‘vegan burger’ from McDonalds still means helping McDonalds to make a profit and thus enables them to continue exploiting the planet we depend upon for survival, directly harming animals in the process. I am similarly troubled by the amount of vegan convenience foods available now. Of course in essence the increasing availability of vegan foods is good because it encourages more people living busy lives to give up meat and dairy, something that is essential if we are to halt ecological breakdown and survive as a species, but they still enable the global capitalist system to become even more entrenched. Processed foods which require huge amounts of carbon to be produced are not really vegan, and foods that contain palm oil and thus involve the mass destruction of rainforests are not really vegan either. Much as it excites me that Oreos and Party Rings are ‘accidentally vegan’, eating these foods does not fit with my vegan vision of the how the planet should be. And whereas it was once hard to get hold of vegan foods so that much of the diet of vegan individuals involved minimally processed, home-prepared foods, veganism is now big business and vegan alternatives to many popular meals are now widely available and it is possible to be vegan and have an incredibly high carbon footprint with regards the food you eat.

And whilst veganism involves understanding our place within the planet’s ecosystems, one of the fundamental elements of patriarchal capitalism is the separation of humans from nature, and the desire to have control over the natural world. It is this which enables humans to treat animals with sadistic cruelty, often as a way to strengthen masculinity, and to drain the planet of resources so that whole ecosystems are being destroyed in the name of ‘progress’. Veganism is in direct contrast with this, and so it saddens me greatly that veganism is now being used as a way for massive corporations to increase their profits further. Although being vegan is far easier now, I often find myself nostalgic for the days when veganism was a way of eschewing capitalism also. And it makes me want to take veganism further in my own life. For me being vegan also means doing as little as possible which harms the natural world, because animal lives are lost directly and indirectly by the destruction of the environment in which they live. This means anything which has a huge impact on climate change and ecological breakdown – flying, the fast-fashion industry, single-use plastic, deforestation for palm oil plantations – are not really vegan either. For me part of being vegan is choosing not to fly, avoiding products with palm oil in even though they may be labelled vegan, buying second hand as far as possible, not buying drinks in plastic bottles, not buying overly processed foods or foods flown in from thousands of miles away. Our capitalist system is driving catastrophic climate and ecological breakdown, and therefore anything which strengthens the capitalist agenda and promotes profit over the well-being of people and planet are in direct opposition to veganism. It is this that makes me uncomfortable with the capitalist co-opting of veganism.

Ultimately, as I wrote about in my previous post, it is very difficult to live the kind of lifestyle that many of us would ideally live; we are all bound by this toxic system and I would rather individual people were seeing the wide array of vegan foods and moving away from the consumption of meat and dairy and other animal products because they are awake to the suffering inflicted on non-human animals. However, for me it is also important to be aware of what vegan really means, beyond dietary choices, and consider whether the foods I choose to consume are contributing to the destruction of wildlife and habitats in a less direct but equally as harmful way. It is my opinion that true veganism involves minimal exploitation of the natural world of which we are a part, and involves treading as gently as possible on the earth – clearly this is in direct opposition to capitalism and I do really struggle with the way big companies have jumped on the bandwagon of vegan ‘meat alternatives’ as I feel this undermines and subverts the vegan message.