Saturday 23 September was a day of action for the campaign to Make Polluters Pay. The aim of the campaign is to finance the Loss and Damage Fund, agreed at 2022’s COP27 environmental conference, by taxing companies that have been responsible for fossil fuel pollution. Protests in East Anglia included singing, street distribution of leaflets, and total silence. I spoke with Helen Burnett, a vicar from Reigate, who’d joined Silent Rebellion for their action in Cambridge.
I began by asking her: what exactly did you do in this silent protest?
Helen Burnett: We knelt in prayer for an hour, and then we dispersed.
Aidan Baker: Is Silent Rebellion a specifically religious group?
HB: This is a place for people of all faiths and none. And the silence helps because as soon as you start speaking, then there are things that people may not feel that they can agree with, or feel. So the silence is powerful because protests are often noisy. We do hold our silences in the midst of protest and that can be very powerful.
Parents and children
AB: What reaction did your silence get from those not involved?
HB: The most audible reactions came from children. They would ask and then their parents would either engage or not engage. We probably had half a dozen people take a flyer. So occasionally, there are only three of us: one person would do some outreach and stand there while the other two of us prayed, meditated, whatever you want to call it. These multiple things that people are doing around climate, they’re like little ripples, little drops, and they register somewhere in people’s unconscious or conscious mind. And next time, maybe they join up a dot or two.
AB: The member who took a turn at outreach – did she say much to the passers-by she encountered?
HB: She was offering the flyers. And if they engaged in conversation, then she would have a few words. There were no long conversations.
AB: Can you say anything about what kind of outcome this this activity got?
HB: I don’t get the sense that there was an expected outcome. It was about raising awareness. I needed for my own sense of integrity to do something that day. I’ve worked with Christian Aid nationally on a little video on this project of loss and damage, and I was very conscious that I wouldn’t be able to be with them in London. And I just thought, I need to do something today.
AB: How much does talking to people who don’t agree with you feature in your own activism?
HB: During the Wimbledon tennis tournament, we had an engagement with the people going into Wimbledon, because Wimbledon was being sponsored by Barclays. It’s quite hard because I don’t think any of us like being sneered at or dismissed. It’s not often verbal, more in body language, eyes raised to heaven and so on. We are at least making people feel a little uncomfortable.
In Dorking, and sometimes in Reigate, we’ll have a stand with some information. And something saying, “How worried are you?” People interact with that better. You’re setting out to engage with people. I think if you’re holding a vigil, you’re not necessarily setting out to engage with people directly.
Funding for circular energy
AB: Is there anything that you’d absolutely like me to say in the article?
HB: I was in Cambridge for the Alumni Weekend, having not been there for a long time. I felt quite tearful. The keynote event was at the Chemistry Department. There was a wonderful team of scientists looking at circular energy, and what they’re doing could take off, if it had the money behind it that oil and gas have behind them. They’re scraping around to find the funding to do amazing work. It’s not taking off, because there won’t be any profit in it – it’s not going to make somebody rich. I was very impressed by their determination in what they were doing. In my own little journey of 24 hours in Cambridge, that was what was going on in the background for me.
Those who sang on 23 September included members of Global Justice Now and other groups in the Make Polluters Pay coalition. We sang on a pedestrian precinct in Cherry Hinton. We added a couple of dozen signatures to the campaign petition. Who will have contributed more to the prolongation of life on the planet as we know it?