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The courage of XR convictions

Tom Bennett

Architect Tom Bennett explains why the urgency of arresting climate crisis leaves him no alternative but to get involved – seriously

Drawing by Luke Adam Hawker of protest architecture using U-Build, crownfunded and assembled  by participants for the International Rebellion, October 2019.
Drawing by Luke Adam Hawker of protest architecture using U-Build, crownfunded and assembled by participants for the International Rebellion, October 2019. Credit: Luke Adam Hawker @LukeAdamHawker

Last month I became a convicted criminal. I attended City of London Magistrates court on 13 November, charged with breaching section 14 of the 1986 Public Order Act during April’s Extinction Rebellion (XR) demonstrations. Over the past year, XR have staged a series of disruptive protests around the world to agitate for three demands.  

At the trial, I presented a common-law defence, known variously as ‘necessity’ or ‘duress of circumstances’, which followed the basic argument below.

The climate crisis is not a distant problem but is already causing mass loss of life. There are many ways in which climate change is killing people: extreme heat waves, droughts, floods, crop failures, supercharged storms, the migration of tropical disease and wildfires – such as those we are seeing in Australia and California. The fact is, there is an overwhelming body of scientific evidence which shows that climate change is causing deaths and will continue to do so at an accelerating rate.

We all know about the 1.5°C and 2°C thresholds, tipping points, the danger of feedback loops and runaway climate change. The UN and leading experts have warned that even if all countries meet their current pledges under the Paris agreement, we are still on track for four degrees or more of warming. To retain any chance at all of meeting the Paris targets, emissions need to peak next year in 2020 and we are nowhere close to achieving this.

I was a second year undergraduate in 2006 when Al Gore’s film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ was released. It was a rude awakening to the urgency and scale of the challenge. I became active on this issue, campaigning, organising events and responding through educational and career decisions. I changed my lifestyle in all the usual ways (becoming vegetarian, cutting down on flights, cycling, using public transport etc). But these personal choices don’t add up to much unless scaled by politics.


Power to the tower: Protest architecture inspired by 'U-Build' - Studio Bark's Nick Newman stands atop. Boxes were crowdfunded and assembled collectively by participants as part of 'International Rebellion 2' in October 2019.
Power to the tower: Protest architecture inspired by 'U-Build' - Studio Bark's Nick Newman stands atop. Boxes were crowdfunded and assembled collectively by participants as part of 'International Rebellion 2' in October 2019. Credit: Natasa Leoni

The state owes a basic duty of care to its citizens and holds obligations under international and human rights law. Politicians are not treating this with the seriousness and urgency required. In February parliament debated climate change for the first time in two years. Only 35 MPs showed up.

The government has made a number of decisions that are totally antithetical to addressing climate breakdown, notably: it has failed to adequately inform the public of the severity of the threat; supported fracking; handed-out £10 billion per year in fossil fuel subsidies; abandoned the 2016 target for zero carbon homes; overseen the decimation of the domestic solar market; and supported the expansion of aviation infrastructure. In June the Climate Change Committee issued a damning report and complained that in some respects we are moving backwards.

Like many, I have made my own quixotic efforts to influence policy. Climate and environment have always been my voting priorities. I’ve attended the marches, I’ve signed the petitions, I’ve written to my MP.

But really what was the result of all this?  We’ve had a decade of backtracking and failure, at the same time that the imperative to act has become so acute. As citizens, how can we get our government to act reasonably?

It may be argued that this is a discussion for a democratic process. But that discussion simply hasn’t been happening. As the civil rights activist James Baldwin put it: ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.’

I hope we can all agree that in the face of this peril it is necessary to do something effective. XR’s strategy is underpinned by research in the social sciences and historical precedent. We have seen similar approaches work for the abolition of slavery, for women's right to vote, for civil rights and for gay rights. It’s evident that without a critical mass of people willing to face arrest, XR’s protests would be cleared very quickly and would not have the transformational impact necessary.

In assessing efficacy, we can also look to the outcomes. In February, climate change was clearly not a priority for politicians. Yet, on the 1 May, at the conclusion of two weeks of disruption, during which over 1000 people were arrested, Parliament declared a climate emergency. Recently the government has announced the formation of a citizen’s assembly on climate (see XR demand 3). Public concern has reached an all-time high and we have seen ripple effects in wider society, including in the architectural profession.

As a profession architects have a duty to serve the public interest; I’ve viewed my action as a natural extension of that duty. If we can achieve meaningful societal change and action to curb emissions – that will save lives. The sooner and more rapidly we act, the fewer lives will be lost. 

Tom Bennett is an architect at Studio Bark, climate activist with XR and member of ACAN (Architects Climate Action Network)

Note: Criminal convictions must be reported to the Architects Registration Board. The ARB has confirmed that it will not take action against Bennett and issued guidance clarifying that protesting is not prohibited under the Architects Code. It is starting work in the new year examining whether the ARB Criteria should be supported by further guidance on climate change.


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