By Forrest Berman-Hatch
I grew up believing that government protects us. Which is how I found myself sitting in a patrol wagon in the middle of the night, at the end of the climate protest on the Burrard Bridge.
It’s not that I grew up more stupid than other kids. Someone was keeping the lights on and no one was getting electrocuted. The Canadian Forces were armed and ready(ish). Federal regulators were making sure the stuff we bought didn’t poison us or explode in our faces.
When I got older, I discovered there’s a name for this: the social contract. But I also came to the same terrifying realization as most people my age—that our government is now catastrophically failing to keep us safe. We are in the midst of a climate crisis, my generation is facing hell and high water, and the government is actively making things worse.
The night before Extinction Rebellion (XR) occupied the Burrard Bridge in October, I joked that we should chant “they have breached the social contract” as we blocked traffic. Social contract theory is rarely rabble rousing, but it truly is why I believe our “Rebellion” is justified.
Basic physics shows we need to rapidly shut down fossil-fuel infrastructure, and yet we’re still arguing about tiny carbon taxes and massive pipelines.
Our federal government just bought a tarsands pipeline with the intention of expanding it seven-fold. Our provincial government just rolled out the red carpet for the biggest fossil gas project in the country’s history. The government over the mountains is plotting to open a new oilsands mine, the biggest in the world, ever. My own university horrifies me: UBC claims to be a climate leader, and yet insists on investing in the expansion of the fossil fuel industry. Such actions are far worse than complacency—they are actively financing the flames.
So, that’s what I plan on telling the judge when I go to court today (November 19). Given that an essential role of the state is to ensure safety and stability, and given the science regarding climate catastrophe, our government has clearly rendered the bonds of the social contract void. It has failed in its duty to keep us safe, now it’s up to us to demand change.
But I’ve seen enough TV to know the judge is going to make me swear to tell “the whole truth”.
And the truth is, I did not intend to get arrested that night. The reason I refused to leave the Burrard bridge was far more personal.
Earlier in the day, as I walked the bridge, I took in all the smiling, hopeful people. A ball rolled by my feet and I looked up to see two young kids playing soccer. I was a soccer-obsessed eight-year-old not too long ago. I asked to join in and was soon laughing and running as if I still was.
Hope, in a time where an average of 60 percent of vertebrate wildlife populations have been lost, since 1970, is an increasingly rare commodity. Hope is hard to find when people are already dying and the World Health Organization predicts an additional 250,000 people will lose their lives every year between 2030 and 2050 due to climate change. But that day, chanting with all those people who care, I was filled with it. People kept showing up—parents, seniors and students gathered for hours. Workers came by to support us on their lunchbreaks and cyclists stopped to take it in.
As midnight approached, the police threatened to arrest us. One of the officers had come up to me earlier in the evening to mention he had seen me kicking the ball with the kids. The atmosphere was friendly at that point. I thanked him for keeping us safe and he thanked us for keeping the action peaceful.
Later, when the VPD moved in, an Indigenous elder refused to leave the bridge. Most of us had already decided to go home, job done after a long successful day of protest. But as soon as she declared her stand, several people sat down on the road behind her. The same police officer hurried up to me and said “Don’t do it. Don’t let those kids see you on TV.”
I went back to the sidewalk, but I couldn’t get those words off my mind. Finally, it came to me why: because I wanted them to see me standing up for our future.
I stepped onto the bridge and sat down, proud to take my seat. My mind was clear.
The great writer Peter Mathiessen wrote that, “Anyone who believes they know how to change the world is both wrong and dangerous.” I try not to have delusions of grandeur, I know this is a complicated issue and I do not have a silver bullet. We are not all-knowing, but we know whatever this system is, it isn’t working. As an ardent environmentalist himself, I believe Matthiessen would understand the distinction.
This is an act of desperation. I do not have all of the answers, but I know that something must be done, so together, let us figure it out. The time is up for business as usual. We are sleepwalking into climate catastrophe.
Extinction Rebellion is not rooted in any conviction that we will succeed—a core tenet is that we are extremely late in addressing these issues.
Even so, we will try. This is only the beginning—the Burrard Bridge was Vancouver’s introduction to the Extinction Rebellion. On November 29, there will be a funeral procession through downtown, a funeral for all the people and species that have perished while governments and institutions stalled. We need you. Caring is not enough anymore—in the face of such grave threat, is peaceful civil disobedience really so radical?
Every day last week, XR mounted protests over UBC’s failure to divest from fossil fuels. Recent news headlines report a wave of climate action. The University of California system divested, then Concordia in Montreal. Last week, the largest public bank in the word, the European Investment Bank, announced it would divest its fossil fuel holdings by 2021. The world is not even close to seeing action proportionate to the problem, but this is the start.
On December 5, the UBC board of governors will meet to decide next year’s investment plan. In the climate crisis, anything less than total divestment is a failure. Physics does not care about our “sustainable investment” funds, it only cares how much fossil carbon we pump into the thin layer of atmosphere that protects us from annihilation. It is already too late to be climate leaders, but if governments and institutions do not act now, they will find themselves the fossils of the Anthropocene.
Within the dark cloud of damning statistics and doomsday calls, it can be easy to lose hope. But for me, hope is not about certainty that success is possible. The Czech statesman and advocate of peaceful civil disobedience, Václav Havel, once said that, “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out."
That is how I face our struggle with this existential threat. It is already too late for many, but we can still mitigate untold suffering. So now you know why I was in the patrol wagon. Not out of some twisted desire to disrupt anyone’s workday, but out of a fierce love of life and raw desperation.
The seas may be rising but so are the people. Perhaps humanity will not go quietly into the night.
With Love and Rage,