The tragedy of the climate commons and one way I tried to fight it

A little more in this post about the climate protesting I mentioned last time that recently landed me in the dock, since a couple of folks said they were interested to hear about it. Then back next time to my ongoing blog cycle about A Small Farm Future. Mostly, I want to focus this post on some wider aspects of the protesting that in fact link to the book, but a brief account of the events from a personal perspective will help set the scene, and may be of interest.

Last year, I went to the opening rally of Extinction Rebellion’s August ‘rebellion’ in Trafalgar Square, then joined the march that processed towards Covent Garden. Some wily activists had somehow managed to erect a gigantic, two-storey pink table on the junction at Long Acre, with people locked onto its legs and others perched atop to prevent the police from easily removing it. The site quickly turned into quite a protest party, while the police – almost as quickly – encircled the whole junction, including some of its surrounding shops and cafés. They let people exit the cordon but not enter it, at least so it seemed to me (more about this detail later).

I stayed inside the cordon during the afternoon, dropping into a couple of the cafés for food and drink. At around 7pm the police announced they were making the protest illegal under Section 14 of the Public Order Act, meaning that we needed to disperse. I decided not to do that, and instead sat in front of a protestor who was locked on to a table leg, reasoning that it would take the police longer to remove the lock-ons and dismantle the table if they first had to remove the likes of me.

A police officer engaged with me, warning me of various consequences should I be arrested such as estrangement from my family, a travel ban to the USA, and trouble with my employers. These weren’t terribly disquieting threats, since several members of my family are far more active climate protestors than me, I don’t really need to go to the USA, and while my boss can be an absolute arse sometimes, he is, since I’m self-employed, highly unlikely to fire me.

Anyway, long story short, I was arrested around 8pm and carried off by four officers, losing the odd item of clothing and sustaining a few cuts and bruises in the process, as well as having my feet used as an involuntary battering ram against a bystander, all of which I think stemmed more from police incompetence than ill-will.

Half an hour handcuffed in a van, then booked in at Walworth police station. Mugshots, fingerprints, DNA sample, and seven hours in a cell. Fitful sleep mixed with staring at the Samaritans and drug/alcohol advice messages on the ceiling, thinking about all the misery that must have been contained within those walls. Then release in the small hours of the morning, a chat with the lovely XR support people waiting outside the police station, and stumbling home.

As I’ve written here before, when XR started I was sceptical about it for various reasons that I now consider mistaken, one of which was probably my own implicit fears of confronting authority, mixed with a preciousness about the need for my actions to be entirely within my control in some perfectly theorized and intellectualized moment of political history-making.

Not how it works.

I wrote in A Small Farm Future about the need for communities to carve out spaces of autonomy from the power of centralized states so they can develop viable and renewable forms of local livelihood-making. Well, what we achieved at Long Acre was very far from that, but if someone like me for whom the consequences of arrest are so low can’t even minimally follow through on his own ideas and help to hold the micro-space of a single road junction for a few hours while raising the profile of the climate emergency in the process, then I feel my politics imploding with implausibility. Or else bloating with that political preciousness I mentioned – waiting, always waiting, for the correct political moment that I’ve theorized before deigning to act.

The efficacy of my little escapade in Covent Garden is debatable of course, as is everything that I or anyone else can do to mitigate the challenges of our times – writing books or blogs, growing food, shopping thoughtfully, composting waste, working with relevant organisations, political activism. I think my arrest was reasonably worthwhile in the circumstances, and meaningful at least to me – not least because it was shortly before the key international COP26 meeting in Glasgow, and it seemed to me then (and still now) that if there was a right time to raise a public rumpus about the need for urgent and radical climate action, it was at that particular moment.

Eight months on, as I related in my last post, I was convicted for the Section 14 breach. I represented myself in court, on the grounds that the only way I’d be found not guilty would be if my lawyer identified some obscure legal technicality to exploit, which wasn’t really the point – and I’d still end up paying my lawyer more than the actual fine.

The prosecution called as a witness the police superintendent who’d imposed the Section 14. I thought his case for doing so was weak. Criminal damage (some XR stickers on an ATM). His discussions with some taxi drivers who said they’d like to run us protestors over (taxi drivers, eh?). Graffiti on the pavement (it’s London). A nightclub that was closed on the day of the protest but might have lost business the next day if the protest had continued (it didn’t). Café owners short of business.

On that last point, when I got the chance to cross-examine him I put it to him that if the police choose to seal off an area and stop people entering it, then it’s likely that any cafés inside said area will lose business as a result of that decision. He replied along the lines that the police hadn’t sealed off the area, and were letting genuine customers through their cordon if they could prove they’d booked ahead. Like you do when you’re a tourist in the middle of London and fancy a slice of pizza.

Nah, that area was sealed off.

When it was my turn in the dock, I tried two lines of defence. First, the right to protest. Something I hadn’t realized until recently is that although a public highway is for the use of the public, the law is vague on exactly what that use should be. Protesting on it isn’t necessarily a less legitimate use than driving along it (as one of the refrains at XR protests goes: “Whose streets? Our streets!”). In my opinion, it’s reasonable for the police to have the power to disperse protests to mitigate serious public danger or disruption. But stickers on an ATM, or cafés losing custom when they’re ringed by police officers, don’t strike me as serious public danger or disruption, given the circumstances.

This raises a point of wider political importance. For all the angry voices calling for greater police powers to shut down climate protest, in truth the police haven’t always used – or perhaps have been instructed not to use – the existing powers available to them, I suspect because jails full of scientists, elderly priests, retired community workers and suchlike aren’t a good look, and aren’t that great for public finances either. But once the authorities do have summary powers to limit collective protest, then political liberty is on the line. The lock ‘em up brigade might pause to ponder how much the powers that be care about their own cherished ideals. Those calling for increased state power against the public might end up regretting what they wished for.

Anyway, in court I made a brief case setting my right to protest as enshrined in the Human Rights Act against the superintendent’s overzealous Section 14. Then I moved on to my second, and I think more important, defence of necessity.

If you smash a door down in the normal course of things, you’re liable to be charged with criminal damage. But if a building is on fire and you smash the door down to rescue someone trapped inside, our legal and political systems and our common sense align pretty well in accepting that this is not a crime.

When it comes to climate change the building is definitely on fire, but our legal and political systems are barely capable of locating the door, let alone smashing it (last year saw the highest GHG emissions ever). Often, they prefer to criminalize ordinary folks who try to show them where the door is. What we have here is a collective action problem, in which people find themselves unable to create the cooperative structures they need to assure their own joint self-interest (in other words, we have a tragedy of the commons – a concept that, though badly misnamed, goes quite some way to explaining the climate crisis, even as many thinkers queue up to dismiss it).

One of the problems is that it’s not easy to tie cause (climate change) directly to effect (e.g. human suffering) and to effective actions to alleviate it (e.g. climate protesting). But recent scholarship is increasingly able to relate individual human deaths and suffering from extreme weather events pretty much directly to climate change. And the IPCC’s recent report – signed off by most of the world’s governments – acknowledges for the first time that civic engagement, including protest and civil disobedience, is the foundation for collective action of the kind that’s needed for transformative approaches to climate change. So we’re getting increasingly close to establishing a parallel of this sort:

burning building – smash door – save people

climate change – protest – save people

That, at any rate, was my second line of defence – necessity to protect against a greater harm. I didn’t expect my argument to carry the day. OK, if I’m honest, I suppose I did harbour a kind of Hollywood fantasy with me in the Henry Fonda role, holding the court spellbound with my moral passion and faultless logic. The not guilty verdict would then go down in history as the moment when the tragedy of the climate commons was definitively overturned, and the case of Regina v Smaje would be on everyone’s lips for years to come, which would be especially amusing because nobody would know how to pronounce it (rhymes with rage, since you asked).

OK, so … er … it didn’t turn out quite like that. Magistrates don’t establish case law, so they were pretty much inevitably going to find me guilty. But what they could have done is said yes, we hear your view that the grounds for the Section 14 were weak and that climate protest is important, we hear your argument that our society lacks the institutional structures capable of tackling climate change, and it needs to raise its game to save lives. Regrettably, however, our hands are tied and we’re obliged to find you guilty and award costs against you.

Instead, the senior magistrate cut me off in full flow, said that we’re all concerned about climate change, but that doesn’t explain why I knowingly disobeyed a police officer back in August.

On the contrary, I think it explains it precisely.

If indeed we’re all concerned about climate change, then it seems to me that we’re not concerned about it enough, or not concerned in the right way. The point I was making wasn’t a general one about climate change of the tut tut, isn’t it terrible variety. It was a specific one about how our political institutions, including our courts, are unable to deal with it, which is why the problem compounds and why ordinary folks like me therefore need to challenge these institutions directly. When the magistrate cut me off I think it illustrated the collective action problem I was describing. But I’d still have preferred some indication that he understood the point, or cared.

And so onto cross-examination by the prosecutor, mostly a bunch of questions about the impact of the protest on the local community that I couldn’t honestly answer, so I didn’t. I did answer one question in a way I now regret, assenting to the fact that I’d been at the protest all day and had therefore had a chance to protest, as if after a long day of protesting we can tuck climate change up in bed, kiss it goodnight, and wake up to a cooler morning.

Yes, I did have a chance to protest. But I didn’t have a chance to protest enough, just as we don’t all care about climate change enough. One of the few ways ordinary people have of getting people in power to pay more attention to climate change – not enough attention, but more attention – is to engage in civil disobedience of a kind that might get you arrested. I guess I succeeded in that, at least.

Anyway, as I related in my last post, it was guilty as charged, costs to the prosecution, and then out into the rarefied air of the City of London, where the real climate criminals were heading out to lunch.

Some personal take homes. I have few regrets about this episode. In fact, I feel I can hold my head a little higher. I’m glad we were able to claim some political space in central London and turn the public highway over to non-violent public protest for a few hours – not a huge achievement in the face of what’s needed, but more than nothing. I’m glad I pleaded not guilty, because I don’t think I am guilty in any sense that matters. I slightly regret any disruption we caused to local businesses, though I think the police over-stressed this, and under-stressed their own role in it. Compared to the climate-caused disruptions to come the bad effects of our action were negligible, but I plan to donate a proportion of a day’s income to a relevant local community cause. And I’m glad I went to court, looked the representatives of the state in the eye, and presented a defence I believe in.

All the same, I’ve felt a little down since the trial – maybe something about seeing the indifference of our political institutions to the present emergency up close, and personally embodied. I still believe in the rule of law, even though I think the public needs to test it on a regular basis. But I’m not as respectful of the process as I was before my trial – stand up, sit down, yes sir, no sir, and shut up you’re guilty. I now better understand the arc that other activists have followed: play it by the book the first time around and feel the indifference, express your own indifference the next time, then probably do some jail time. But I’m not sure I want to hurl my body or my bank balance at the immoveable edifice of the state again in that way – unless a larger mass of other people are doing it too. Wherein lies another collective action problem – I’ll put myself on the line and defy the state for our collective benefit only if you will too. Truth is, I don’t think it would take an awful lot more people before things started to shift, though maybe not enough for meaningful global change. But until we somehow break out of this impasse we’re stuck tragically trashing the climate commons without lifting a finger to stop it.

Finally, I’m still hearing people dismissing actions like mine on the grounds that, first of all, it’s easy for a white, middle-class person like me to wrangle with the legal system in this way, and secondly that XR-style climate protesting doesn’t constitute a real anti-systemic movement able to challenge the existing political economy.

On the first point, I suppose it is quite easy for people like me to do such things, which is one reason why I think it behooves us to do them. However, to say that it’s easier for the privileged to take political action somewhat undermines the belief, still prevalent on the left, that true political agency is more or less the exclusive property of the oppressed. Perhaps you could argue that climate issues are too removed from the rigours of daily working-class life, but that doesn’t really wash because the true political agency argument rests on the notion that only the working-class is able to take a complete and unvarnished view of things.

I’d argue instead that nobody and no specific class is able to take a complete and unvarnished view of things, that no anti-systemic movements cross some threshold of the ‘real’ through the character of their membership or the character of their analysis, least of all when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions which nobody has yet really succeeded in building any mass collective politics around. I’d argue, too, that there’s no particular virtue in boycotting existing climate protest movements from the conviction that you personally have access to some higher-level political consciousness, though there may be good reasons for boycotting them in practice. I’m not suggesting that issues of voice and inclusivity are irrelevant. Just that there can never be a singular, all-inclusive voice, nor a perfect, unflawed action.

All of which points to the analysis in Part IV of my book about the need for a populist politics of political alliances, grounded in the production of renewable local livelihoods. Hopefully I’ll get to it eventually in this blog cycle. Provided I keep out of trouble.

35 thoughts on “The tragedy of the climate commons and one way I tried to fight it

  1. Fascinating. Thanks for that.

    It bothers me that a magistrate would cut you off in mid-argument. We here are well aware of your ability to run on… to cover your bases quite thoroughly. But unless you had crossed into the second or third hour of presentation, I’m very happy with results of the late 18th century dispute between colonists and His Majesty King George.

    Second or third hour is an exaggeration of course. And here on this side of the pond the government is also somewhat weary of listening… but at least here I’ve been given the benefit of warning how long a diatribe might be tolerated. A few years ago our little rural community was square in the sights of our city neighbor. To protest their plans several of us began to attend their meetings. Learning that comments from the general public were limited in length, we adopted a strategy of getting several folks onto the program and each taking their turn to continue the presentation. I understand that you can’t do this as one individual in a court proceeding against your individual action. But it makes me wonder whether there might be some mechanism to either have a class action case – or allow a defendant to post a sort of manifesto or other longer argument from which the court can, on it’s own time, review and reflect on the merits of the argument.

    For me then I come to an agreement with your conclusion that more citizens need to be involved.

    Lastly, the quibbler in me wants to turn this piece of your argument on its head:
    …that no anti-systemic movements cross some threshold of the ‘real’ through the character of their membership or the character of their analysis, least of all when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions which nobody has yet really succeeded in building any mass collective politics around.

    I think some actually have ‘really succeeded in building a mass collective politics around’… but they are the current holders of power.

  2. Thanks for this.

    You raise some really excellent points, and confirm some of my prior biases.

    When you wrote about the validity of protest whether form ‘entitled’ or ‘un-entitled’, I couldn’t help thinking how small the number of ‘entitled’ heads of state protesting would be required to make real change.

    I don’t expect it to happen, but it’s a thought.

    As for being cut off mid-speech, yes, I feel your pain, brother.
    But there is no reason to believe the magistrate when they say that ‘…we are all concerned about climate change…”

    A proper magistrate will allow the subject to speak, but only long enough to demonstrate proper magistrate protocol, then it is back to business.
    I’m generalizing of course, having not been in your courtroom.
    But the cut-off was a really important part of the procedure, demonstrating that you are irrelevant.

    There is no reason for you to believe the magistrate when they say this either.

    I’m going to mostly agree with Clem on that last bit about: ‘really succeeded in building a mass collective politics around’
    That is really true & important and all that, I think.

    What’s interesting is that while the conversation takes place among the masses, the terms of the conversation always seems to favor the powerful, who are above us fighting amongst themselves.
    So we seem to be free to support one powerful faction or another, but the idea of wrenching our personal value system out of the mainstream and back to something liveable for ourselves and the other species seems to be a much deeper level of difficulty.

    I continue to be impressed by how well Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’ described & predicted our predicament.


  3. “The lock ‘em up brigade might pause to ponder how much the powers that be care about their own cherished ideals.”

    No. Way. When Black Lives Matter blocked highway I 35W after the killing of George Floyd some lawmakers (i’ll let you guess which ones) proposed making it legal to run over protesters. When some small subset of truck drivers blocked streets and highways to protest an expired mask mandate the same lawmakers hailed them as heroes.

    Taking out of both sides of their mouth is second nature and they seem to have no working memory to speak of.

    “But I’d still have preferred some indication that he understood the point, or cared.” He doesn’t. He can’t. Knowing and acting would be inconvenient and bad for business as usual. Or dealing with climate is just unimaginable.

    “All the same, I’ve felt a little down since the trial – maybe something about seeing the indifference of our political institutions to the present emergency up close, and personally embodied. I still believe in the rule of law, even though I think the public needs to test it on a regular basis.”

    You are a hopeless romantic. The existing system is beyond indifferent. There are two systems. One for the rich and powerful and one for the rest of us. The goal is to protect the powerful.

    ” the true political agency argument rests on the notion that only the working-class is able to take a complete and unvarnished view of things.”

    Is this the same working class that lives on Cheetos and Diet Mountain Dew ? The same ones that only know of a certain ex-president as a character on a reality TV show ? My head would explode if I tried to grasp their complete and unvarnished view of things:
    High gas prices are Joe Biden’s fault.
    Donald Trump is the only one telling the truth.
    Keep your government hands off my Medicare.
    Teachers need guns to shoot it out with crazy guys with AR 15s who are intent on mass murder and suicide at a school.
    Access to birth control isn’t a good way to prevent abortions. Having the government decide what a person can do with their own body is.
    You are living in a rented trailer and doing your grocery shopping at Dollar General is because Mexicans are taking our jobs.
    It all makes sense, right ? There’s more. Really. Alternative facts are powerful.

    The real world is very scary right now and it is not getting better. Even cognitive dissonance has its limits. After decades of cheap energy and mindless consumerism they just can’t get their heads around the idea that they have been living a lie. You simply can not have infinite growth on a finite planet. What then ?

  4. I gave up that kind of protest around a decade ago when I realised the likelihood of my being deported if caught was going up, and as I get older I think this was the right decision for me. On the one hand, the UK is not exactly a wonderful place to live at the moment; on the other, I don’t want to start over, in my 40s, in a country where living without a car is so much harder than it is here.

    So I’m very grateful when people who face less dire but still very real consequences do decide to step up.

  5. I remember the miners strike , when the government got pissed off with the strikers they set their thugs on them , these were hard men the government still beat them into submission .
    They suspended drivers hours and weight limits the gov basically conscripted some grain trucks with six foot sides on the bodies they loaded them full , they weighed over one hundred tons gross , so heavy they could not tip the load off , the did not weigh them they escorted them !
    So no .gov has not taken the gloves off yet when they do expect D notices telecom towers switched off and clubs .

  6. Hello Chris,

    Thanks for sharing your story. I have not yet been arrested, but I did pick up one of my sons from a police station after a similar activity last year.

    Of course we who have plenty privileges should use them for political action, to push for a world that we want to see. Noblesse oblige, as they used to say.
    It is reverse-snobbism to say that only the most oppressed are allowed to speak.

    We need to use all our imagination to maximize our impact!


  7. Thanks for telling your tale Chris, I found it enlightening and moving. Your evocation of ‘a preciousness about the need for my actions to be entirely within my control in some perfectly theorized and intellectualized moment of political history-making’ really resonates with me, and explains much about the collective action problem you describe.

    I find the whole notion of a magistrate’s court essentially objectionable, in the way it places one person in the position of adjudicator. In my admittedly limited experience it prompts the persistent reproduction of a kind of paternalistic morality. Any dispute petty enough to go to petty sessions should really be resolved in some more participative and restorative fashion.

    ‘I still believe in the rule of law, even though I think the public needs to test it on a regular basis.’

    You’re risking demands for another blog post here – clearly we want to know what you mean by it and why you believe in it! Whatever the answer, the second part of your statement is surely key. It would be wonderful if juries saw part of their role as conducting that test, but we live in a less reflexive and responsive world, so I’ll just thank you and and your fellow activists for doing that good work instead.

    • “juries saw part of their role as conducting that test”

      I think it is possible that sometimes juries do return verdicts based on justice rather than a strict reading of the laws.

      But my experience of jury duty has been very revealing. What I’ve seen is that neither side is much interested in justice – they are interested in winning, and if that means seating unsuitable jurors, then they will try it.

      I have never sat on a jury because at the end of the proceeding when the judge asks if any of the prospective jurors has any questions, I ask what to do if I have a question that I feel was not adequately addressed by the trial.*

      It is usually the prosecution that dismisses me, but clearly neither side really wants a juror who is capable of thinking for themselves.

      *Answer: write the question on a paper, give it to the judge, the judge will give it to the appropriate lawyer, and that lawyer will then decide whether to address the question.

  8. Having not read anyone’s account of what it’s like to be an XR protestor at the sharp end in the UK, I too found your account revealing and well told. Among the many thoughts you provoke, I’m left assuming the rude judge probably had his eye on the clock and a lunch break, and is no doubt well practiced in curtailing both intelligent and unintelligible arguments as he sees fit. But enough of the judge! I’ve often heard a friend express how she likes the fact that, unlike in Hungary, there’s a healthy civil activism sphere in the UK, and though I see her point, when it comes to your experience detailed here, I would expect the turnover (or dropout) rate for activists as committed as your good self would be high, especially following a costly court appearance. Does XR have any figures on this, I wonder? In other words is the common upshot (to date) another home goal for the powers that be?

  9. When climate civil disobedience kicked off a few years back, it seemed like magistrates were at least giving protestors a more sympathetic ear, even if they felt obliged to convict. Maybe it just alleviated the boredom of their usual caseload, but they have often graciously heard defendants out and there have been several examples of magistrates saying they applaud the protestors’ actions and appreciate the public debate it’s generated etc. But not so much any more and not so much in my case – maybe indeed lunch beckoned, or they’re getting bored with all the climate cases, or … something else

    Juries in crown court trials are quite often returning not guilty verdicts, a case of the public running ahead of the government perhaps. But that’s for more serious offences, so the stakes are higher.

    There are a lot of interesting dimensions to the way the government is playing this (soft pedalling the use of criminal law in practice, but barking a lot in the media and using financial threats against activists behind the scenes to try to limit protest) that touch on Simon’s questions . Also in relation to Diogenes’ point about the miner’s strike of the early 1980s, some interesting aspects – class aspects, you might say – about the nature of policing and protest. Perhaps I’ll write about this again down the line, because it speaks to wider issues about state-public relations in the context of systemic crisis. Events on the ground are quite fast-moving at the moment.

    On the matter of ‘the rule of law’, maybe an unfortunate phrase … I agree that when social life is ordered by strong and effective legal frameworks, these invariably work to the benefit of the powerful. Sadly, though, when you have weak and ineffective legal frameworks, this also invariably works to the benefit of the powerful, only more so. However, I agree with Andrew that mediation/resolution is a better framework than the pomp & circumstance of ‘judgment’.

    Appreciation to Greg for an analysis of working class political consciousness I wouldn’t dare make myself. Something I do want to explore more, and have already touched on in previous posts (including the present one), is the way that certain strands of radical thought remain invested in the notion that there’s some subset of people in possession of an authentic power of political redemption. Now that the industrial working class in the rich countries no longer looks a worthy candidate, attention has shifted to other candidates such as ‘indigenous people’. The problem is not the subset of people themselves, but doctrines which invest them with an impossible political mantle.

    This connects to an important point that Eric makes: “the idea of wrenching our personal value system out of the mainstream and back to something liveable for ourselves and the other species seems to be a much deeper level of difficulty.” Indigeneity as local liveability – not something that can be implemented by giving theoretical political privilege to particular subsets of people but something that people – everybody – has to learn how to do in practice, in the local liveability of their own everyday lives. A deeper level of difficulty indeed. It’s so much easier to invoke magical resolutions: Brexit, indigeneity, make America great again, revolutionary class consciousness, anti-immigration etc.

    But in relation to Greg’s ‘No. Way’ point, while I concede that right-wing authoritarian populism involving alliances between economic elites and the majority ethnic working class are often quite successful for a while, they still fit within the magical resolution category and are therefore unstable in the long run.

    Anyway I have run on long enough … to cover my bases thoroughly*. Thanks Clem. And to everyone else for commenting.

    * Note: when I started blogging, received wisdom was that 1,000 words was the hard limit for an acceptable contribution to the genre. I blithely ignored it and wrote as much as I wanted … to cover my bases. I recently read an article saying that the emphasis in the blogosphere is now on more thorough base covering, with the average post now comprising upwards of 2,000 words. Where small farm future leads, others follow…

  10. I forgot to mention in the context of Clem’s closing arguments (sorry, I’m still deep in this) that I agree the current holders of power have largely succeeded in building a politics around climate change, but I’d argue not an anti-systemic collective politics – rather a pro-systemic elite politics of prevarication. Still, it’s probably true that they’re building more of a deliberate politics about it behind the scenes than you’d think from the outside looking in.

    Glad that some of you found my incarceration story of interest. I was going to write more detail about it – including, appropriately I thought for a food and farming blog, a comparison of the food available in police cells and hospitals on the basis of my recent unfortunate sojourns in each of those dismal places. But I didn’t want to overdo the personal narrative. Maybe I should release a director’s cut, or a kind of sub-Gramscian Prison Notebook: ‘A night in jail and a day in court: my hard times as a political prisoner’.

    As to my surname, the pronunciation I offered is an anglicized version of a very non-English name, so Brian feel free to retain your preferred option. I suspect the original was probably more like Smi-ya, but that would have been 180 years ago and I forget. In present circumstances, the rhyme with ‘rage’ feels right.

  11. I absolutely love the phrase “politics imploding in implausibility” which also seems to apply aptly to the policies coming out of the UK Gov at present.
    On another point regarding the effectiveness of action in what appears to be the immovable object of government inaction or action so slow that it makes little difference, on a personal basis I am finding more and more that for me to sustain the fire I have to narrow my energies down to activism that at some deep level moves me to commit for the medium to long term. Either because of identity and love (hence SAVE rivers), a group of like-minded individuals (DRs for XR) or because it is life sustaining in some deeper way (our little community farm, Green Teach. We’re on Facebook Chris! Look us up!). Given the level of terror around climate change, anything else drains the ability to keep marching.
    Re: indigenous peoples as ‘worthy’. What I am finding since starting work with SAVE rivers is that progressive groups like us as a thought, but are not interested in the nitty gritty of what we are doing, they are far more interested in grand gestures like Plant Based Treaty that doesn’t actually help indigenous activists.

  12. OK, only a minor side note, but it raised my hackles. Why the heck is “travel ban to the U.S.” a logical consequence of a street protest in London? I sense the Imperial power structure that holds even the closest allies on a tight leash.

  13. Thanks for further comments. No real surprise that Policy Exchange have their mitts over the new police bill. Still, sometimes it kinda works the other way around too!

    Thanks for your thought-provoking comments, Hoon – definitely hope to follow up some more on your projects! And I agree on people settling on the long-term activism that works for them. Thanks also for your informative comments on indigeneity. It’s a complex area, which I hope to address further in the future – not to talk down indigenous activism, but definitely to raise some questions about its wider representation.

    And to Steve C’s sidenote, it gets worse when you look into it – in sorting the good visitors from the bad, the powers that be in the US distinguish between those crimes that involve ‘moral turpitude’ and those that don’t. I’m not sure where failing to comply with a Section 14 fits, but I can tell you that ‘bastardy’ is no longer deemed a crime of moral turpitude. Big of them, I guess. Meanwhile, the moral turpitude of my family’s climate activism has already thrown up a few minor impediments to everyday life over here in the UK. Tight leashes all round.

    • Tight leashes indeed.

      I know a voluntary worker who no longer has a ‘clean’ DBS record, because of having been arrested at a climate protest.

  14. The system has failed when those in positions of power are so privileged and self-serving that they largely ignore what they perceive as “other people’s problems”. The resulting protests seem like a convoluted type of “marshmallow test” (separating the protesters from the non-protestors, for various reasons). Those who want to maintain their privileges could be heavily discounting the future of others.

    Thus, “the need for a populist politics” as Chris puts it.

  15. That is so true.

    Changing it without a catastrophic trigger is going to be hard. Against all common sense, the powers that be have decided that money is speech, and corporations are people, which as much as makes bribery legal. People in positions of power and privilege have the most money and have the loudest voice with law (and policy) makers. They do not want to be inconvenienced in the least.

    Good propaganda is very effective. The PPPP control most of what people read, see and hear. A vocal minority of the population seems to have the beta variant of the Stockholm Syndrome around protecting the benefits to the PPPP. They have misidentified the cause of their problems and usually vote against their own interests. I hate to mention the Dunning-Kruger Effect, but they will be very hard to persuade that their self reinforcing belief system does not line up with reality even when the evidence is overwhelming.

    Maybe they will be like the human ( a frog will jump out) in a warming pot of water on the stove. They put up with the increasing temperature until they are cooked.

    • Unfortunately the rest of us are stuck in the water with them.

      So then — how do we live together? When do we “live and let live” and when, and how, do we draw a boundary around behaviours that, while convenient to some, cause vast amounts of harm?

      • Yes Kathryn, this is exactly the question.

        “Drawing a boundary around behaviors” as you say is relatively simple. Anyone with a working conscience and a basic understanding of social relations can recognize the rough outlines of destructive behavior. An environmental awareness will expand that ability to to relations with other species.
        Translating that awareness to the actions of social policy and the way we live together is a whole other problem though.

        As I see it, the trouble comes from the fact that we peons have no individual leverage to prevent societal destructiveness, and most of us don’t have the means to rally the numbers of our peers to gain any significant leverage.
        This is the root of Chris’ post, as I see it. Another lesson to be taken from the XR experience (so far) is that even public rallies that appear really massive have not made any change that I have noticed.
        So the rallies need to be even larger?

        This suggests to me that it is appropriate to decide how we wish to spend our time.
        Personally, I have no talent for rallying the public. Even my friends barely listen to me.
        But I do have a talent for building pedal-powered threshing machines, for instance.
        Or not talent exactly, but willingness to go out in July heat and do a hand harvest of wheat.

        My friends don’t tend to listen to me, but sometimes they get curious when they see me do things.
        I believe that any kind of action in the right direction helps.
        Also that any action we do individually will be very small, and probably not help enough, but what else is there to do?
        Everyone to their talents…


        • Do you have a website for your pedal powered threshing machines ? I have a couple old combines but there are times when there is only only a small pile of beans or arugula seed that needs to be threshed.

          Have you worked on dehulling oats or barley ?

          As far as drawing boundries, I’ll have to think about that.

          • Sorry Greg, the short answer to both questions is no. Almost all of my field harvest experience is with winter wheat, so I know nothing about post-harvest oats or barley.

            As for the threshing machine, I’m best described as a tinkerer, certainly not a business. But Chris has my permission to forward my email address to you if you want details of what I’ve done.

          • The Real Seeds website suggests putting beans/peas in a large bucket and stomping on them (in clean shoes of course), I think. I’ve also heard of putting a rubber door mat in the bottom of the bucket to help with this. I haven’t tried it yet — we get pea and bean weevils, so I want to inspect each pod manually, which is a giant pain but leads to less loss.

            Naked barley and naked oats do exist and may be worth a try if dehulling is a problem.

        • I’d also be interested in your pedal-powered threshing machine. After my custom cargo bike gets built, I want to ask the bike frame shop if they’ll do me a pedal-powered… engine station, I guess, that could be hooked up to various tools: threshing machine, washing machine, saqiyah, woodchipper… maybe a woodchipper is a bit of a stretch.

          • Besides writing a novel Chris needs to put up an SFF resources page.

            The aspirating seed cleaner works great. I’m thinking about a DIY version of the Winnow Wizard.

          • >Greg,
            Do you know or have you met Mark Luterra?

            The Winnow Wizard looks something like a table top seed cleaner which is easy enough to purchase, but a new one sells at more than $3,500 (USD). A buddy of mine in IL “inherited” one of these commercial types in near new condition (previous owner retired and didn’t even wish to sell it).

            But back to Mark Luterra. Interesting background.

            And as for a resources page – I like the idea as well. Heaven knows Chris has so little going on in his world – it should be an easy thing to add here. .
            Obviously I didn’t mean that Chris… but I do wonder if, due to all the material on your plate, it might be time to consider having a bit of help managing this site. If you are even slightly interested in the fiction project, then a separate page might be set up for it. As well, a page for other resources as Greg suggests. Other ‘outside the box’ notes and links could be sequestered. Ahhh – this could start to cost more than the donation link is yielding. Hmmm, well the old capitalist in me will chew on that for a bit. Perhaps sales of the fiction could cover?

          • Clem, it seems to me that a lot of the material at forums such as Permies is already out there, searchable and ready.And of course publications such as Low Tech Magazine are near to my heart.
            I’m sure there are other resources too. What would be gained by an additional resource list? And would that be worth the cost in terms of the time and effort to curate it? What should the curation criteria be?
            I’m sure if any one of us were to put together such a list, Chris would be happy enough to link to it, but we’re also a very diverse bunch of people working in very different contexts and that could make things unwieldy very fast.

            I always mean to document more of what I’m doing, even though none of it is exactly cutting edge. The reality is that I lack either time or inclination. A small farm future does need record-keepers or documenters of some sort, and librarians to organise the information, and I am neither (though I might be convinced, in due course, to publish a slim volume on composting with waste coffee grounds, of which I get a large supply).

            I do get some pretty good ideas from walking around looking at other allotments, and from watching allotment YouTube (on 2x speed). I don’t think a resource list can replace that kind of on-the-ground research into what works locally.

            Tangent alert: a farming relative of mine has an amateur pilot license, initially intended for use with a crop duster though he moved away from that pretty quickly. Instead what he used to do is fly around and really look at the land surrounding the farm. When neighbouring parcels of land came up for sale, he knew right away which ones had been treated well, which had been left bare, which had problems with drainage or dry patches. I hesitate to call that on the ground research, given its aerial nature, but it was certainly prudent in property terms; when he finished farming he owned all the best land in the area. On a small farm scale there is a lot of similar local knowledge that could be picked up walking or cycling.

          • I don’t know Mark but have used one of the Winnow Wizards. It works really well. I think the ‘discovery’ in building it was that smooth laminar flow does the best job of winnowing seeds and separating the trash.

            It looks like the latest version has a better shaker / stirrer in the seed hopper.

            It has not come to the top of my to-do list but I think I can build one out of old forced air furnace tin and a blower. Pedal power might be able to drive the fan at low flow rates but I’m not sure about when the aerodynamic diameter difference is small like little pebbles in beans.

          • I got an old Clipper seed cleaner at a farm auction for $150. I continue to use the electric motor, but my stubborn non-electric friend hooked his up to pedal power, and that works just fine. It doesn’t take more power than your body can supply, but getting the gearing right is fairly important.

  16. @ Greg
    Pedal power might be able to drive the fan at low flow rates but I’m not sure about when the aerodynamic diameter difference is small like little pebbles in beans.

    For rounder beans (soy especially, but mung, dry peas, and some others) where they will easily roll you can fashion a cleaner from cardboard. This is not a solution for cleaning many bushels (unless you are VERY patient) but one can easily clean quite a few pounds of seed in less than an hour. We find that soil peds about the same size as the seed are the most common contaminant we face with this sort of problem (not removed with air). Smooth and rounded pebbles like one would find in a fast moving stream will be difficult to remove if they roll as easily as the beans. Splits (split seeds) will also be separated out when rolling – which is nice if you’re in the process of seed saving – but if you are cleaning for feed you may want to keep the splits (for chickens, keep everything that doesn’t roll off (splits, peds, pods and stems)… they’ll take what they want and leave the rest.

    If you like I can send Chris a photo of one of ours – but they’re simply the lid to a box that copy paper came in. We load about two cups of grain on one end of the box lid and then slowly tip it so that the roundest seed rolls to the opposite side. A little side to side motion at right angles to the tipped direction will start the less round seed down the slope. We cut a line across the “clean” end to act as a trap door to drop clean seed into another box lid.

    • See, this is why Chris (or one of his minions) should be compiling resources for a SFF. He is going to spend all his time forwarding email addresses and pictures rather than storyboarding his next novel. And many thanks for doing that.

      I think everyone saving seeds would like to see that.

    • Thanks Clem!
      I’m going to do that with my cowpeas.
      Though dirt chunks are much less of a problem when hand harvesting.

      • Eric – are you shelling your cowpeas by hand? If so you likely have very little debris, but would have the occasional shriveled seed which won’t roll well and this method will take out.

        If you have a small thresher (peddle powered or not) then you’ll likely have broken pod pieces and a few splits. These are also readily removed with rolling. For what it’s worth, the carboard won’t last forever, but these are so easy for us to make we don’t bother making an effort to care for them. If you use one for any length of time you’ll develop a sense of when it is time to replace it.

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