As I was getting ready to leave after the film, heading for a little deserved pint, I was approached by a member of a local environmentalist group. He asked me whether the red-lines critical mass would be ‘confrontational’ like, in his view, the regular rides had been back in the day. This approach was wrong on so many levels that I’m afraid I slightly lost my rag. Number one, critical mass is a date, a time, a place and an aspiration that springs from collective contemplation: it is a proposal, no one organises it or is in charge of it. Sure I rode in it and will proudly admit to being party to formulating the original proposal. But don’t ask me if a ride is going to be confrontational and, by implication, to organise it to not be so. Such thinking misses so misses the mark.
We had just watched and applauded ‘This Changes Everything’ which argues that only direct action by ordinary people who view themselves as part of nature could save the Earth from climate change, as actively pursued by capitalist corporations supported by lackey governments. Direct action challenges norms rather than reinforces them: activists take responsibility and physically intervene to stop an injustice; they are not looking for the state to validate them or their actions. This is critical to understanding where environmentalism has arrived at. In Paris in 2015, unlike in Copenhagen in 2009, activists aren’t lobbying governments to make meaningful agreements. Indeed, we’re not expecting anything from them. Rather, we are doing what we know is right, constructing our actions to illustrate injustice, raise awareness, and act against it. We are remaking society from the bottom up. In one particular story in the film, Indian activist opposing a coal-fired power station were forced to take up sticks to fight back against police who were brutally beating and tear-gassing them. Two of the protesters paid the price with their lives, shot dead. But protesters were not responsible for the confrontation, they were resisting violence, the complicit coercive force of the state. As I write, the radio tells me that India plans to open one new coal mine every week until 2020 to produce the energy it needs for continued economic growth and development for an expanding population. And, of course, to continue the process of transferring natural resources from the poor to corporations.
If we environmentalists believe our own scientific and social analyses, climate change is a mortal threat to our species as well as innumerable others. The meme in Paris for COP21 is that we are nature defending itself. This is also the theme of ‘This Changes Everything’, book and film: The enlightenment thinking that man (sic) had dominion over nature is redundant; we are part of nature. And we are defending ourselves against the threat of extinction. Faced with this wanton attack, how can we avoid confrontation? Should we just lie down and die, allow other species, landscapes and ecosystems to be devastated?
The reasoning that blames environmentalists for confrontation with corporate and state interests that decimate the Earth is the same as that which says of the rape victim: ‘she was asking for it, out in the street at the wrong time, wearing the wrong clothes’. On the streets of little old Aberystwyth, though we may not always recognise it, decimating corporate interests are represented by the drivers who scream at critical mass cyclists: ‘Get a fucking car!’ and throw bottles as they scream past in their cars. The lackey state is there too via the Police who stop a group of people on bikes and demand to know who is in charge and whether the ride has permission, while cars drive past and drivers mock the detained cyclists, making lewd gestures. A person on a bicycle versus an enraged person – and most often it is just one person - in charge of a 1.3 tonne, 80 brake horse power lump of steel capable of speeds well in excess of 100 miles an hour… Well, it’s obvious who is going to be the one to promote confrontation. Making themselves vulnerable like that? Cyclists are just begging for it!
One day a year, our little town bends over backwards and spends a fortune to close the streets to cars and host a bicycle race for all comers of all ages. It’s really popular. The rest of the year any adult choosing to ride a bike to work or any child cycling to school takes their chances in a place with next to no cycle lane provision among a convoy of drivers, all in a constant hurry, with very little awareness of bicycles. Allowing an inch or two gap on a narrow street as you floor the gas and roar past a cyclist may be a perfectly safe driving decision. For the cyclist, though, it’s absolutely terrifying and ensures that, for all but that one day of the year, spotting a cyclist on our streets in the twenty first century is like spotting an uncommon, if not rare, animal.
So, run that by me again about being confrontational…