I’ve been sleeping well lately. For the last two nights, that is. Ever since I was taken to jail for an act of civil disobedience against climate change.
As I write, more than seventy activists have been arrested in Burnaby, British Columbia, which is part of the conurbation centered on Vancouver, Canada’s third largest city. Within days, that number is likely to climb to over one hundred arrests, and maybe many more.
According to the energy company Kinder Morgan, the fight here is about two six-inch holes in the ground that they’re drilling to take core samples in preparation for a second oil pipeline through the area. But the view from the protest camp on Burnaby Mountain is different. From there, the pipeline looks like one more front in a relentless, eyes-closed-ears-plugged drive to deepen North America’s dependence on the fossil-fuel economy of the past, all without a roadmap, without even the beginnings of a roadmap, for how to deal with the most urgent issue of our time: climate change.
It’s not only a pipeline that will be snaking through Burnaby’s backyard. It’s an ideology.
I was a latecomer to the protest camp. It has been standing for several months, populated—as such things usually are—by local First Nations and other deeply committed activists. Mass arrests began when work at the drill site began, on November 20. I made it to the site the next day and watched seven people, including friends of mine, get led away in handcuffs. That night, I didn’t sleep too well.
My nighttime deliberations looked pretty much like this: I’m an amateur student of civil disobedience. I know that large, entrenched systems that serve the powerful rarely change without the pressure that mass arrests and peaceful protest bring to bear. I long ago concluded that the fossil-fuel economy is one of those systems. I’m a writer, but writing another article, proposing another idea, seemed unlikely to make a difference. The problem at this point is not a shortage of words or ideas. The problem is a shortage of people on Burnaby Mountain, at New York state’s Seneca Lake (where another Orion author, Sandra Steingraber, was recently arrested), and in the many other places where local people are fighting a doomsday ideology playing out in their backyards.
I got up the next morning, had a scrambled egg on toast, and headed off to the mountain.
Armchair critics who see news reports of civil disobedience often bristle at the apparent gaiety of some arrestees. They smile and laugh! Some have the temerity to dance! They hunch handcuffed in the police van and sing, “The wheels on the bus go round and round”! How could anyone take them seriously?
I wasn’t much like that, by the way; my public arrest was an unexpectedly private and inward experience. I’m kind of shy. But I, too, felt a tremendous, almost overwhelming, sense of relief and delight after my arrest, and it was clear that most of the fifteen people with whom I was taken into custody—among them students, an urban farmer, a design professor, and a communications specialist—were feeling a similar lightness of being.
The easy explanation here is that it feels good to be true to your conscience, to stand up for what you believe in. I would bet, though, that most of the arrestees are true to their consciences as a matter of habit. My own thought is that the relief comes from stepping outside the enforced narrative, the daily farce of being asked—of being told—to submit to the absurdity of endless hearings already stacked against you, of being invited again and again to cast your voice into the void of foregone conclusions. A parody of democracy is being used as a weapon against democracy itself, and it feels good to finally let yourself in on the joke.
I wasn’t kept in prison long, but even that was long enough. Just a little reminder of how precious freedom is. Then I signed an order to appear in court in January. I headed home through a frosty night and apologized to my wife for missing her birthday dinner (she was understanding). I drank a beer, I ate a burrito. Then I went to bed. I would say I slept the sleep of the dead, but in fact I slept the sleep of the living.
J. B. MacKinnon is the author, most recently, of The Once and Future World: Finding Wilderness in the Nature We’ve Made. His essay “False Idyll” appeared in the May/June 2012 issue of Orion. For more information about the Burnaby Mountain pipeline-resistance effort, visit its Facebook page or see the #BurnabyMountain thread on Twitter.