“The Christians are over there washing feet,” I’m told by the woman distributing leaflets at the Extinction Rebellion camp at Marble Arch. She’s illustrating the diversity of groups protesting to make the government to give climate catastrophe the attention it deserves, attention like that needed when country goes to war.
I’m pushing my bike. I’m cycling home from a tasty, interesting lunch at the Ivy in St John’s Wood discussing among other things laryngeal transplantation. I regularly cycle round this roundabout to reach the relative peace of the cycle track in Hyde Park. Usually the roundabout is busy, noisy, polluted, and dangerous. Today the traffic is stopped. It’s peaceful with music playing, and a group about to start drumming. There are exhibitions, art, tents, conversations, and children playing.
Is it, I wonder, an example of the life we could all have after stopping this crazy consumerism represented by the nearby Oxford Street?
“I full support what you are doing.” I say to the woman with the leaflets.
“Have you been arrested?”
“No, I’m not an arrestable.” There, I think, is a new word; perhaps it will be the word of the year. Are you a Remainer or a Leaver, an arrestable or a non-arrestable? Arrestable Remainers are the top of my hierarchy.
“Perhaps I should become an arrestable.”
“Please do. You sign up there. You get an induction and training.”
“Maybe I will. I suppose that I might be arrested but not charged.”
“Most arrestables want to be charged. They want their day in court to make the case for government action. Many of them are grandparents fearful for their grandchildren.”
“I’m a grandfather.” I have a vision of Alexander and Betty saying to me from a heated, increasingly uninhabitable planet “What did you do, Grandad, to stop climate change?”
I can tell them that I joined the Ecology Party in about 1980 and collected wastepaper on the streets of Wandsworth; as editor of the BMJ I commissioned a series on the environment; I launched a journal, Medicine and Global Survival, in 1993 that dealt with the interconnected problems of poverty, inequality, overpopulation, overconsumption, and militarism https://www.bmj.com/content/307/6906/693; in 1994 I wrote an editorial on doctors and climatic change where I wrote “Action is needed because of the high probability of serious harm to health” https://www.bmj.com/content/309/6966/1384.full (note the word “probability,” although it was more than a probability even then); and in 1997 I wrote a stirring piece entitled “Climate change: decision time in Kyoto” with the subtitle “Doctors must lead from the front in the fight against global warning” https://www.bmj.com/content/315/7119/1326.full
“Mankind faces a crucial test in Kyoto next month, and we look set to fail. The test will come at the third meeting of governments trying to commit to reducing their emissions of greenhouse gases to counter global warming. Virtually all scientists agree that global warming is happening, and most think that the consequences will be dire. Some small island states will disappear, food shortages in Africa will be worsened, and vector borne diseases will spread. To counter the problem those in the rich world must reduce their energy consumption, and doctors can lead from the front—just as we did when we came to understand the evidence of the harmful effects of smoking.
But this time it’s harder. The rich, particularly the Americans, have hugely higher energy consumption than the poor, and the energy consumption of some of the poor will have to increase for them to move out of absolute poverty. If the rich cannot reduce their energy consumption appreciably then nothing will happen to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. It is hard for political leaders to agree to make the reductions because many vested interests oppose reductions, because we find it hard to make short term sacrifices for long term benefit, and because many people do not grasp the scale of the problem (some in Britain are attracted by “southern England becoming like Provence”). But doctors can understand. And we can change the world by speaking up and acting—together and individually—internationally, nationally, and locally and by changing our own lifestyles. Because that is what it means. We must use our cars less or not at all, insulate our houses, forego air conditioning, and make a hundred minor changes in our lives. None of this will be easy because we are addicted to energy, individually and as communities and nations. But if we can’t find a way to change then our descendants will pay an awful price.”
“But,” say Alexander and Betty, “we are paying an awful price. What you tell us is just words. What did you do? What actions did you take?”
I’ve consciously eaten less meat and been assiduous in recycling, and now I’ve stopped flying (after a life time of flying too much)—and I haven’t driven since before Christmas. But then I never drove much anyway: I always cycle or go by train unless it’s impossible.
“But that’s trivial stuff, Grandad.”
So the next step might be to become an arrestable. I notice that the media record arrests to measure the scale of the protests as they use deaths to scale disaster. I don’t really have anything to lose by being arrested. I don’t have an employer to fire me. I could afford to pay a fine. I’m unlikely to do anything that would get me sent to prison. And far from being ashamed I would be proud.
But still something stops me, but my next step is to join an Extinction Rebellion cycle from Waterloo Bridge at 6pm tonight.