This morning, Wellington is being ‘disrupted’ in a series of protests by global environmental group Extinction Rebellion. Melanie Vautier explains what has brought her to this point.
If you are reading this when it’s published on Monday morning, I am currently locked to an Extinction Rebellion-branded car that is blocking a road in the centre of Wellington.
A few years ago I would never have imagined myself in this situation in a million years. But since then, like many others here today, I have learned more about the environmental injustices going on under my nose, and grown increasingly freaked out about the foolhardy road to ruin we are on.
And that road has ultimately led a whole lot of us here, because if we all just carry on minding our own business, there is no way we will bring about the societal changes we need to happen. It is up to all of us.
I recently heard an 11-year-old speak at a climate rally. She was brave and fierce and eloquent. She began with “the Earth was fine until humans came along”, and that just broke my heart. This is the impression she – a kid – has of her own species. And of course, I understand why; the idea that “humans are the worst” has become common rhetoric.
But if kids grow up wrapped in the idea that humans are nothing but a disease on an otherwise functioning world, then we create a self-fulfilling prophecy. We are facing some incomprehensible challenges: there will be crop failures. Sea level rise alone will upheave four times as many migrants as there are now. Beyond that, there will be many places too hot to live. There are difficult times ahead, and many people will feel the temptation to succumb to the cajolery of the far right – as indeed we are seeing already.
To overcome the upcoming challenges, to avoid descending into division and chaos, we need to have a respect for humanity. We need to appreciate our own species. We need to remember the people that inspire us, that bring joy and nuance and character to our lives; who create art or music or poetry that speaks to our souls and gives us goosebumps. The people who extend hospitality to strangers and care for each other. The people who have given their lives (metaphorically and literally) to making this a better world.
Right now, around the globe, people are dedicating themselves to protect the Amazon, Mauna Kea, Ihumātao – and only a week ago seven million people hit the streets to advocate for climate action. People in both Aotearoa and overseas, from too-often forgotten histories and ongoing struggles, have countless times put themselves at risk for their communities, their whenua, or even for complete strangers – and in so many cases, risking so much more than what I risk today.
I realise I am privileged to live in a country where I don’t have to fear a bullet in retaliation to protesting. I realise, as a middle-class, white woman in Aotearoa, the worst I will get is a blemish on my “record”. That is an enormous and globally unusual privilege; and today I am trying to use that position to join those advocating for a better way of living for all of us – a way that is more just; that makes sense; that doesn’t send us on a road to climate breakdown; that doesn’t continue oppression and discrimination and thinly disguised ongoing colonisation.
The school strikers are leading the way; and the turnout they achieved is a huge testament to their incredible organisation and leadership. But we need to keep going – and the rest of us need to step up and contribute in whatever way fits us. If we march and simply go home those in power – the oil lobbyists, multinational corporations, government – they can handle that. What they can’t handle is sustained pressure; power that keeps building. People who organise and learn and grow, and work together to build a way of living that makes sense.
The climate crisis is at last entering mainstream consciousness. But the responsibility should not be on individuals. By ourselves, you or I can’t do all that much. We have been sold a narrative that if we all make individual changes we can fix this – if we go vegan, stop using plastic, fly less. And while these of course do help, we need a more dramatic change to alter the path we are on.
The society we live in has no room for this change. It takes decisions over what happens to entire ecosystems to far-removed offices filled with people who don’t have to drive the bulldozers. Ethical and emotional responsibility is taken so far away from the local situation that it is nowhere – everyone is just following orders; and those making the orders don’t have to carry them out with their own hands and feel the consequences.
That’s why I am causing disruption, standing here shoulder to shoulder with people who also want
this change. And we will keep causing disruption until we have a society genuinely on its way to living in balance with the biosphere. As more and more people reach levels of desperation with the climate crisis; this movement will grow. That is as locked in as the warming temperatures.
Today, for the first time in my life, I am being a “troublemaker”. We may be represented in the media as angry protesters, as fringe society disrupting everyone’s peace, as meddlers or hippies or crazy greenies. But what brings me here, and I suspect everyone I stand alongside, is because I just bloody love this planet and everything on it.
Ki te kotahi te kākaho ka whati, ki te kāpuia, e kore e whati. When reeds stand alone they are vulnerable, but together they are unbreakable.
Coming all the way back to kids’ impressions of the world, I recently saw a toddler, excitedly bouncing up and down, say “I think our planet is the best planet in the whole wide world and we need to protect it.”
And that about sums it up.