I first got involved with Extinction Rebellion when I was researching a novel set in 2030. As I read the science, waves of emotion crashed over me: anger, dismay, grief. I had a lot of questions: why hadn’t I heard any of this before? Why wasn’t the crisis on the front pages? Why, too, wasn’t the sixth mass extinction represented in films, novels, poems and on TV? Why isn’t it on East Enders and The Archers? Where are The Hunger Games of climate change?
We in Extinction Rebellion have focused a good deal on denial: the mental barriers we as individuals set up around facts we cannot accommodate. And the powerlessness and grief that follows when you break through. In this way denial feels almost rational: a kind of blankness: the silence of the lambs.
What we have not focused on so much up until now is that silence in the media, in society and even in the arts which is not just a collective version of those individual fears and traumas, it is also about vested interests keeping us dumb, confused and compliant – while those who make fortunes out of the status quo can make just a little bit more. That silence is a kind of cynicism: a disconnect; a betrayal. This is not the silence of the lambs. It is the silence of the factory farmers and abattoir keepers.
When I was first a writer in my twenties, I read Francis Fukuyama, The End of History, and believed he was right. There seemed at that time to be no big subjects to write about, and I felt slightly badly placed to be born into cosy times. Most of the plays, films and novels I read were about white middle-class heterosexual couples betraying each other.
Be careful what you wish for. Even at that time climate was an issue. ExxonMobil had already conducted research that showed that their industry contributed to the greenhouse effect and was likely to be a problem for the human race. I only recently heard about this is because the findings were kept secret: another aspect of the great silence.
Extinction Rebellion, The Sunrise Movement, Greta Thunberg and Fridays for Future have made such a noise about the climate science that more people are now aware of the issue. But this shift of the Overton Window means that our opponents are also on the move. Now silence is no longer tenable, they are reaching for lies.
And not just one simple refutable lie but a whole obstructive and mischievous tangle designed to snag us, and waste our time, as well as to mislead and confuse potential allies while the vested interests get on with piling up profits.
They think this tactic worked well in the tobacco industry. But, in that case, those who died as a result of that nefarious approach were people who chose to smoke cigarettes: the climate and ecological crisis means we all are vulnerable, even the selfish tricksters who are our opponents. Even their children and grandchildren.
I believe that history is against them. In the future they will be referred to in the same way as those who opposed the abolition of slavery, the enfranchisement of the working classes, the suffragettes. But those historic fights took place on a stable planet.
We will win through, but there’s a ticking clock: the Amazon is burning; the Arctic ice is melting; soil fertility is depleting; the coral is bleaching. Whole species of fish, insects and mammals are dying or becoming extinct.
In films we would know deep down that the good guys will win through, though only just in time. In life, sadly, there’s no such certainty. That is why I believe we have to throw everything at this problem. Even our own security. And that is why at the end of the Writers Rebel event on Wednesday I intend to leave a mark on Tufton Street that will make them understand what we think of their actions, but also leave me open to a charge of criminal damage.
I am a grandmother who never thought she would see the inside of a police cell. I am, like many other people in Extinction Rebellion, taking this step because I believe the government has let us down so badly that the social contract is broken. I believe that the think tanks and organisations in Tufton Street are actively working to keep the status quo. And that, to my mind, is not only a crime against humanity, against me, my friends, my children and my grandchildren, but also a crime against everything I love. It is a crime against democracy, civilisation, kindness, as well as ash trees, whales, rose bay willow herb, mountains, rivers, beaches, blue tits and woodpeckers. It is even a crime against life itself: against lemon drizzle cake, hot buttered toast, mushroom risotto, burgundy wine, fantastic sex, great vintage clothes, poetry, Maya Angelou, Tolstoy, my first kiss, Bladerunner, Fleabag, Faulty Towers, dancing with people you love, roasted marshmallows under a starry sky and laughing till you wet yourself.
Jessica Townsend is a drama writer who has been an activist with Extinction Rebellion since the beginning. A founding member of Writers Rebel, she also has a feature film in casting and is trying to complete her first novel.
For more information about the Writers Rebel Tell No Lies About Climate Change event, which took place at 6.30pm on Wednesday 2nd September 2020 n Westminster, see the Facebook event page.