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The Price of Speaking Up

I have just paid a financial penalty to an English court. The court costs and the fine came to a combined £284 (US$394) and were imposed because I, “without lawful authority or excuse, wilfully obstructed the free passage along a highway, contrary to section 137(1) of the Highways Act.” I was sitting in meditation in the middle of a road with a placard that stated: “I’m frightened that starving people will turn to violence because of the climate crisis.” I am frightened. I thought I saw tears in the judge’s eyes as I spoke about my fears for my young nieces’ futures. The fine of £284 was the minimum they could have imposed, and I was able to recover the cost of this, as well as the fines for my three previous arrests, within a few hours of launching an online fundraiser.

The price I pay for speaking up is minimal. I have invested time, money, and energy into organizing, traveling to actions, and got accommodation. I have used up my holiday time from work and I have expended emotional energy, as when I spoke in court and I cried all through my statement. I have spent four uncomfortable nights in police cells. And, really, this feels like nothing. I have freely chosen to make these investments, regardless of what the results are, and that makes me happy.

I’m not a parent, but I wonder if there might be a parallel. Of course being a parent is a tough job—probably the toughest there is—but most parents don’t complain about the money they’ve wasted on their children’s food or education, the nights they’ve spent awake with a sick daughter, the journeys back and forth from school. When you decide to have children, you are signing up to all of these things: inconvenience, financial cost, a restricted lifestyle, heartbreak. 

When I woke up to the climate emergency a few years ago, I also signed up to do what I could. I fell in love with the Earth all over again, and this love motivated me to do something. The things I do are modest—I haven’t given up my job to become a full-time activist like many people I know, and I still hold on to many of my eco-costly privileges, such as sometimes driving our car to walk our dogs or buying pizza wrapped in plastic—and that’s okay. It makes me feel good to do them and so I do them.

I don’t always feel so sanguine about the choices I am making. When I overdo it, I long for the days when I didn’t carry this extra burden; when I was still cossetted by my denial. Who really wants to connect with the horror of climate science? Who wants to feel the pain of those who are already suffering because of climactic changes? Or to consider the loss of animal and plant life, or the degradation of our oceans? What is the point of me, one in so many billions, feeling bad about my small environmental crimes? Why bother?

When I feel like this, I know that I’ve been over-stretching myself—driving myself through fear or anger rather than love. When I sit quietly in practice, the Buddha reminds me of what’s important. Activism is a practice too, he says, just like meditation. You do what you can because you love the Earth, just like when you chant my name because you love me. It’s not your job to worry about the results, or to take on more than your allotted burden. I’ll show you what you could do next, and you can choose to do it or not. You’re free.

When I come back to this, I can see how much I’ve gained from speaking up over the past few years. I have so many new friends who constantly amaze me with their generosity, compassion, and courage. I’ve learnt a great deal about myself. I’ve had a lot of fun on actions (this needs to be less of a secret!), dancing to samba bands, doing XR Buddhist meditation actions, standing together with colleagues, and seeing that I am not alone. I have seen that our actions have made a difference. The public conversation about the climate crisis has shifted hugely over the past few years, and I am hopeful that we will continue to make a difference, even if it is a small one. Like the small girl standing on a beach crowded with dying starfish, throwing them back into the sea one by one, she was making a difference to this one, and this one, and this one.

There is a cost to speaking up. I have traveled through the hearty disapproval of my family, loss of faith in our governments, despair, sharp grief, and a feeling of alienation from many of my friends and colleagues. There will be more uncomfortable nights in police cells and more fines to pay. And, I’m so glad that I’m in a position to be taking these actions. As a self-employed, middle-class, white woman, all this is much easier for me than it is for many others. I’ve received so much over the past few years. At the moment, in terms of the costs of speaking up, I’m very definitely in credit.

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Extinction Rebellion Buddhists

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