Funeral for the Future

Today some of us took part in Extinction Rebellion’s Funeral for the Future in Southwell. The aim of such actions is to raise awareness of the climate emergency and ask our politicians to act at the speed and scale such an emergency demands.

Views differ amongst our Green Drinkers, but there is a general understanding that the significant changes required by the climate emergency are not going to be delivered without campaigners using a range of tactics to inform and influence the public, corporations and politicians.

Social change requires whole system responses, and these do not come easily – as those with the power to change the system are also those served best by the status quo. But there is a useful analogy that helps us understand why the methods used by Extinction Rebellion are valid in the pursuit of significant and increasingly urgent change.

Society can change – the analogy of the slave trade

In the case of the slave trade, which was not really questioned for two and a half centuries, an early protest figure (a Quaker named Benjamin Lay) travelled between Quaker meeting houses in North America and would (temporarily) kidnap the children of slave owners to show them what the parents of slaves felt.  For this and other shock tactics he was seen as an eccentric; he would wear nothing, nor eat anything made from the loss of animal life or provided by any degree by slave labour. Only one Quaker meeting house changed its position because of his efforts, but he also awakened individual minds.  

The process then follows the Small World theory – or ‘six degrees of separation’ as many of us would understand it – one of the minds he influenced was John Woolman who in turn was friends with Anthony Benezet (both Quakers) who corresponded with a man in the UK called Granville Sharp.  Sharp was well connected, including to the court of George III, and conducted the first sustained campaign against slavery (along with Benezet and John Wesley). This included introducing three African men, freed slaves, to London society; a process which helped develop a critical mass of awareness amongst those who could effect (and would be most affected by) the end of the slave trade.  

Unfortunately it took a horrendous incident (the drowning of 133 slaves at sea for insurance purposes) to make the movement reach it’s ‘tipping point’ – where the moral cost of the slave trade became a stronger driver than the economic cost.  The incident was used by campaigners to influence William Pitt, the Prime Minister, who in turn influenced a colleague who introduced an Abolitionist Bill virtually every year for 15 years until it was passed (77 years after Lay started his campaigning against the trade).

This has many lessons for us:

  • The need for multiple methods, including shock tactics (unfortunately), letter-writing, and the recognition that we all have the ability to raise others’ awareness whether it is about the treatment of animals, climate change or an organisation’s social impact.
  • The time that it can take to change a society’s mindset
  • The need to listen to the ‘eccentrics’, develop our own awareness and take individual responsibility 
  • Use personal and work networks to generate both understanding and action.

Of course, Extinction Rebellion are not kidnapping anyone, and are focussed on non-violent direct action which raises awareness of the climate science and the disruption and costs the changing climate will bring if carbon emissions are not curbed urgently.

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