Disrupting Business As Usual

By Erin Armstrong

During the morning rush hour of October 7, 2019, 10 members of the climate activist group Extinction Rebellion Edmonton locked arms and blockaded Walterdale Bridge, shutting down traffic for 80 minutes. I was one of those 10 people.
I am an artist, a law school graduate and now, apparently, a notorious activist. But I am mostly a mother, terrified of what the future will look like for my 8- and 9-year-old children. People who know me suspected I was there—over the past year I have become much bolder in speaking about the climate crisis and very active in organizing climate action around the city.
The noise, threats and encouragement that surrounded our group after the bridge action was a lot to take in, especially for me, an introvert. Now that much of the buzz has died down, I’m able to reflect on my motivations, my emotions surrounding this action and how I feel in the aftermath.
For 30 years, environmental groups have been signing petitions, marching, holding rallies, engaging in letter-writing campaigns and so on. Thirty years! Are we any closer to saving our biosphere? Are we closer to halting the loss of biodiversity that has been accelerated? Are we closer to breaking the ties between our governments and the industries that are destroying our ecosystems? No, we aren’t. In fact, things are getting worse.

For 30 years we’ve been signing petitions, marching, rallying. But are we any closer to saving our biosphere?

The world needs to change, and we don’t have time to do this incrementally. The system is broken. Changing our personal habits makes a big impact of course, but we need to focus on the systemic problems. We need both personal and systemic change to move towards mitigating the damage and avoiding complete ecological breakdown.
After 30 years of near failure as a environmental movement, we need to change our tactics. The purpose of the Walterdale action was to disrupt. True non-violent direct action often throws a wrench into daily lives. It forces people to stop and think. It necessitates a break from “business as usual.” The rich and the powerful are making too much money on our present trajectory toward ecological collapse, and the rest of us are mostly sleepwalking to the edge of a cliff.
The Walterdale Bridge action generated controversy across the province, but we’d anticipated this in our two months of planning. This action was certainly not about winning over the masses. It was about reaching out to those people who are sitting on the fence, who know they should be doing something, but feel immobilized for whatever reason. What you didn’t see in the media following the event were the hundreds of people who reached out to us, wondering how they could get involved in environmental activism, asking what they could do. A woman approached us in a parking lot as we came off the bridge, asking how she could help address the climate crisis. We’ve had people write to us saying they had more conversations with their family members about climate change in the few days after the Walterdale action than they’d had in a decade.
So yes, we made many people angry that day, but we also helped shift more conversations in this province from “Is climate change real?” to “What is an appropriate way to protest climate change?” That’s a tremendous feat. All from 80 minutes of action.
I am very sorry to those who were personally inconvenienced by this action. After 30 years of ineffective, polite protesting, we saw no other way of getting your attention. The best science makes it clear we’re in big trouble. We blocked the bridge out of love, not defiance. We blocked it for our families and for yours—because, ultimately, we love you. So, please, let love motivate you too and mobilize you with a sense of urgency.

Erin Armstrong lives in Edmonton.

 

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