Rebel for life: SFU student Zain Haq makes a case that only peaceful civil disobedience can stave off climate breakdown

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      At the start of this month, a small group of SFU students won a remarkable environmental victory on campus. After threatening a hunger strike to demand that the university divest from fossil fuels, the administration capitulated. All investments in oil, gas, and coal companies will be sold by 2025.

      It came after a meeting between the students and an SFU vice president.

      “I believe we have the record now for the shortest hunger strike in history,” third-year economics student and Extinction Rebellion Vancouver coordinator Zain Haq told the Straight over Zoom.

      It came after eight years of campaigning by SFU350 and various faculty and staff members. And it demonstrated to Haq the power of peaceful civil disobedience in bringing about societal change. 

      He's since been in discussions with activists at McMaster University, who are considering a similar tactic.

      “I think Extinction Rebellion is centred around the idea that the past 30 years of sort of consciousness raising and campaigning haven’t worked,” Haq said. “So now, we need to communicate with the public in a manner that engages them emotionally.”

      This is why he and other members of the group block traffic. He fully acknowledged that when they do that, people get upset.

      “And when people get upset, that’s when you really get their attention, even if you’re despised by the population,” Haq noted. “That doesn’t really matter, because as you know, the suffragettes used to stop horse races all the time. That was a massive sort of inconvenience.”

      Back in the days when women were struggling for the right to vote, people would ask what this issue had to do with interfering with horse races.

      “But they did that because that is what got them the attention—and that engaged the public,” Haq explained.

      He described the climate crisis as a “very moral debate” that people should be discussing. And it shouldn’t only involve government and corporate officials, which is why Extinction Rebellion Vancouver held 14 consecutive days of protests in the streets of Metro Vancouver in October.

      Extinction Rebellion Vancouver had one demand: halt all fossil-fuel subsidies.

      In his mind, the stakes are incredibly high.

      “We need to be more humble in the sense that we’re going to lose all our savings,” Haq said. “People are going to lose the future for their children and so they need to recognize that and confront that emotionally. And once you confront that emotionally—and the fact that you’re faced with a genocidal government—the only rational response to that is to listen to your emotions.

      “If you recognize that you’re faced with a genocidal government, getting arrested is like a small step,” Haq continued. “But I think that’s the main challenge, to communicate that to the public: that their kids are going to starve and that they need to act without the expectation of a result.”

      He added that some people are only prepared to be arrested if they’ll achieve a certain outcome. But he said that history has taught him that movements are only successful in driving societal change when activists stop worrying about the results of their protests.

      “They sort of enter into service to society, which involves sacrifice,” Haq stated. “It involves getting arrested, doing hunger strikes, going to prison, even. And I think we can learn a lot from the Indigenous community that’s been doing that for a while.”

      Zain Haq (seated in a yellow vest) was among a group of Extinction Rebellion Vancouver protesters who blocked traffic to Vancouver International Airport on October 25.
      Extinction Rebellion Vancouver

      Enduring a heat wave in Pakistan

      Haq, 20, grew up in Karachi, a large port city in Pakistan. He very clearly remembers a deadly heat wave in June 2015, which killed about 2,000 people.

      Temperatures rose to 49° C in the cities of Turbat, Larkana, and Sibi, and 45° C in Karachi.

      That’s roughly the equivalent of what residents of Lytton, B.C., experienced in the last week of June 2021 before 90 percent of the town was destroyed in a wildfire.

      “Hundreds of people died in my city,” Haq explained. “And no one was talking about climate change.”

      According to Haq, most people in Pakistan are working paycheque to paycheque, so people don't have the time to think about the climate emergency.

      “The only people who do realize it are farmers who are committing suicide at a record scale.”

      Haq also mentioned that he recently heard astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson say that if it weren’t for the monsoon season, the entire Indian subcontinent would be a desert.

      In fact, Haq sees a possibility of that occurring in the next 20 to 30 years as a result of the climate breakdown.

      “You know what that means?” he asked. “People are going to starve.”

      Three years ago, Haq moved to Toronto where an uncle and cousins are living.

      But he didn’t like it there so he came to Vancouver and enrolled as an international student at SFU.

      The biggest cultural shock for him was the difference in the standard of living in Canada compared to his home country.

      He became engaged in climate activism after attending an Extinction Rebellion Vancouver protest on the Burrard Bridge on October 7, 2019.

      Haq said that the Vancouver group is working closely with one of the British cofounders of the movement, Roger Hallam, on an upcoming campaign against old-growth logging.

      “That would involve blocking the Trans-Canada Highway,” Haq said.

      He then told a story about how Hallam, one of his key mentors and a scholar of civil disobedience, became a rebel.

      In the video below, Hallam explains that the Methodist church sent him to India when he was 18. He went to work with a civil-rights group.

      But a week before he arrived, some textile workers went on strike. They were shot by police, who then went to the workers’ homes and raped their wives.

      It left a lasting impresson on Hallam. 

      British climate activist Roger Hallam offered advice to young people in this video, which was posted on YouTube earlier this year.

      Media must tell the truth

      According to Haq, one of the organizers told Hallam that he wanted him to go back to the U.K. and bring down his government.

      “That’s when he learned people in the Global South don’t want good words from people in the Global North about social justice and all of that,” Haq said. “They want action. And that action practically looks like holding the governments accountable for extreme crimes.

      "And in this case, it’s like a genocidal project that could lead to the extinction of the human race.”

      Haq believes the media can play a critical role in staving off disaster if they would just start telling the truth about the magnitude of the climate crisis. He’s had enough of feel-good climate stories that don’t convey that things have gone seriously haywire.

      “I think people in the media right now have probably the most important job that journalists have had in history, which is to hold the government accountable,” Haq said. “Really, I think we can learn a lot from people like George Orwell and the idea that it’s about telling the truth and it’s about being objective, not impartial.

      “That’s a major mistake, as you know, that many journalists make is that they think that being impartial is the same as being objective, whereas being objective is about searching for the truth and telling the truth,” he continued. “I think journalists nowadays have a responsibility to call the government out for their crimes against humanity.”

      These may sound like harsh words to some. However, by the end of this century, the Earth is on a trajectory for a 2.7° C to 3° C increase in average temperature since the Industrial Revolution. And that doesn’t take into account feedback loops that could lead to large amounts of greenhouse gases being released from the Arctic permafrost, oceans, and wildfire-ravaged forests.

      British Columbians already experienced what a 1.1° C average global temperature rise felt like this past summer with a brutal wildfire season and a deadly heat wave that killed nearly 600 people.

      “Two years ago, I would have thought that an event where 600 people died due to a heat wave would be enough to push the population into some form of rebellion,” Haq said.

      He has since realized that it’s still too much of a taboo in the West for many to go out and get arrested for an important cause. He contrasted that with Pakistan, where people don't feel they have as much to lose when they venture into the streets on behalf of what they believe in.

      "One of the things that actually came about through Roger's research was the idea that action creates mobilization," Haq said.

      Traditionally, activist groups have spent months organizing an event. But that's not how Extinction Rebellion Vancouver operates.

      "The methodology that we use is we first do an action," Haq stated. "That brings in people. And then you do another action and that brings in more people."

      The Straight asked Haq how it feels for him to see so many people in Canada who appear to be sleepwalking toward an apocalypse.

      “I think that is sort of the greatest tragedy of the climate emergency,” he replied.

      Part of the problem, according to him, is that it doesn’t happen in “real time”.

      That’s because of the carbon lag where it may take 20 or 30 years for emissions to transform into an increase in temperatures. And that's helping to free the perpetrators of the climate crisis from being held accountable.

      “It’s the first time a genocidal project has been carried out by a government where you can’t see it take place as it’s happening,” Haq declared.