UK News: Why elderly climate protesters are the ultimate activists: ‘I didn’t find blocking the M25 scary’

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In the current Tory leadership contest, the environment is hardly featuring – and there is a reason why. A recent poll of Conservative Party members – who choose our next prime minister – showed that only 4 per cent thought climate change was important. Reacting to this, the Conservative MP and chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for the environment, Chris Skidmore, put it down to one thing – age – saying: “They would say that, because when you cast the question as net zero by 2050, probably 90 per cent of them will be dead.”

But while Tory members, who are on average quite elderly, are uninterested in the future of the planet, it is certainly not true for all older people. Recent climate protests have seen pensioners enduring physical discomfort, arrests and court. Some are even willing to risk prison.

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So why are these over-sixties taking to the streets for a future that they will never see?

For Judy Bruce, 83, a former biology teacher from Reading, it’s imperative that her generation leads the fight against climate change because they have least to lose. “I supported Greenpeace in the 70s, but felt the government pretty much fixed the ozone layer issue,” she says. “I vaguely expected the same would happen with carbon emissions.

“But after Extinction Rebellion erupted in 2019, I used lockdown to educate myself on what is really happening and was horrified.

“The facts are incontrovertible: humans, especially Westerners, are living a lifestyle which has led to greenhouse gas emissions and the destruction of living systems. We are heading for disaster, literally wiping out four billion years of evolution by 100 years of carelessness.”

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Ms Bruce joined Insulate Britain, which demands better insulation for houses in the UK, and Just Stop Oil, which demands no more new oil and gas projects. Her first foray into real activism came in September 2021 with the obstruction of the M25, where she helped to placate angry drivers. This was then followed by more road-blocking in and around London, and six arrests. She is now awaiting a High Court hearing in November, charged with creating a public nuisance for obstructing Upper Thames Street in London in October 2021.

‘I’m a good person to be arrested’

She says: “I didn’t find blocking the M25 scary because we did it as a team. But the prospect of this court case is scary as I shall be representing myself. Obviously, at my age, I would much rather be in my garden. But this type of action is necessary to get media and public attention so the government will act. I have my health and no dependants, so I’m a good person to be arrested.”

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Ms Bruce says that many activists are older, perhaps because they can remember nature as it was. “The countryside in Berkshire when I was growing up was far more beautiful than today, with such diversity of plants and insects, birds and bats,” she adds. “So many younger people now live in towns and cities. People have forgotten how we depend on nature for our own health and survival.”

It was this sense of “being able to be arrested” that was the catalyst for Jonathan Lee, 69, of Prestatyn, Denbighshire, to take up activism too. In April 2019, his daughter was present at the large-scale Shut Down London protest and phoned him to say he was “arrestable and needed” – so he went along.

Although he did not end up in custody, Jonathan subsequently joined Extinction Rebellion, becoming heavily involved with the administrative and organisational side of things. He says: “We are a labyrinth movement and there is a lot to manage. My role isn’t sexy but it’s vitally important.”

Mr Lee, who retired from the hospitality trade in 2016, says all older people should care. “My generation has lived in a golden age of no war and privilege,” he says. “But my wife and I have 11 grandchildren and I know I can’t guarantee that same future for them. Their very existence is challenged, and this isn’t just in the UK, but especially the global south.”

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Mr Lee also believes older activists play an important role in shedding the image of the “layabout hippie on benefits”.

And he says those who are retired often have skills that are useful. He says: “I have used my management and life skills. I take things in my stride and can be realistic. Perhaps younger people don’t want to think about climate change or death, but we older lot can cope with that.

“Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing working so hard when I’m retired. But I wouldn’t be able to look my grandchildren in the eye if I did nothing.”

‘It is the Government that is criminal’

Kate Griffith, 66, from Much Wenlock, Shropshire, has also been inspired to get involved with activism by her two grandchildren – and future generations. She has been attending political marches for decades, but only became involved in climate activism in 2019. So far, she has been arrested three times, once for blocking a road outside the Bank of England in October 2019, and twice with Just Stop Oil in April this year.

At the latest incident, she was held in a cell for 16 hours, which she found “upsetting” not because of being incarcerated, but because of fears the activism won’t ultimately change the course of government policy.

Ms Griffith says: “I have two young grandchildren and I can’t imagine what the world will be like when they are my age. I am from a family of judges. It’s not my nature to break law. But I – like many – are desperate.”

A current Samaritan’s volunteer, she says that the Government has reneged on its commitments to stop issuing new licences for oil drilling and still uses taxpayers’ money to subsidise fossil fuels.

Griffith adds that “all people – whatever their age” should care about the issue, and that being older can be a valuable weapon in the fight against climate change.

“I think my life-skills have helped,” she adds. “I’m very good at making placards and costumes.

“Mainly though, as I’m older, I don’t have job or mortgage or need a good credit rating so I am OK getting a criminal record. I don’t want to do this, but I think my next step is to sign up for prison.“It is the Government that is criminal here. They are not protecting us – and they know it.”

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