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Interview: Ruth Jarman, climate activist

21 May 2021

‘I’d like to see the Church rise up against this Government, and rebel against a system that is destroying what God has made’

I read chemistry at Oxford; so I’ve known about global warming for nearly 40 years. I used to make computer chips in California. I now do admin for Green Christian and for Operation Noah, which I helped set up in 2004.

Over decades, I’ve seen the gap widen between what is needed to prevent climate breakdown and governmental action. We could have moved incrementally to a sustainable way of living, but now we need rapid, disruptive change, which will require sacrifices from many of us.

Flying abroad on holiday is something people just won’t be able to do, and I expect that’s a huge sacrifice for some. Most things can be done differently: we can heat our homes or drive differently. If you like eating meat, you’ll have to reduce the amount you eat, but there are lots of good alternatives being developed.

We need leadership and honesty, and this is the year for it to happen. Boris Johnson could be the most heroic leader ever if he actually acts on what he says. He could pull all the money he’s pouring into fossil fuels and put it into renewables and insulation, and tell people honestly they can’t fly any more.

The Government’s response to the pandemic shows that it can throw all its ideologies out of the window, and respond to science. It now has no excuse not to respond urgently and seriously to this emergency. Other countries might do something similar if he takes the lead.

I’m not sure if we have gone beyond the tipping-point, but the pandemic has shown us that when people understand what’s at stake, they can stop “business as usual” and do things differently. Look at the way the vaccines have been developed in record time.

It makes me angry when people are taken in by lies, often their own — and by the hypocrisy of our Government, oil companies, and banks, when they speak truly about the climate crisis, and then do worse-than-nothing about it. I think Christian Climate Action’s most truth-telling act was when we whitewashed the Department of Energy and Climate Change on the first day of the Paris climate conference in 2015. It had to be done.

It’s not our job to decide the chances of success. Our job is to do the right thing at every moment with every iota of power we have. We all have an individual responsibility to do something with our lives, to be grateful for what we have, and to use the power and life we have to be part of solutions. Do what you think is right and leave the outcome to God.

I was walking down the street one day, when “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” suddenly connected my two, rather weak, passions of Christianity and environmentalism. Did I really believe that God created all that is? Do other Christians believe it? If we do, how can we live in this way that’s destroying what God has made? And, most shocking: how does God feel about all this?

Since then, it’s become a bit of an obsession with me to find ways not to wreck the planet, and to help other Christians understand our responsibility.

Green Christian and Operation Noah both support the aims of Extinction Rebellion, but they don’t advocate civil disobedience. At Christian Climate Action [CCA], we believe following Jesus in this time of climate breakdown requires us to take part in acts of non-violent civil disobedience. The system that is threatening God’s creatures and billions of lives must be resisted, always peacefully and motivated by love, but often in ways that might risk breaking the law.

It’s about choosing allegiance, to God or to the law of the land, and taking action that is commensurate with, and more truthful to, the enormity of the threat.

I can only remember a policeman being rude to me once.
Probably because I’m a middle-aged white woman, they’ve always been very nice to me. Still, when you have a conviction for causing criminal damage, your house insurance is likely to rise substantially, and court cases involve a lot of stress and time. Younger people are worried that a conviction will affect their job prospects. But, in other countries, climate activists are sacrificing their safety and even their lives now, as more than
one is killed every week; so our sacrifices are nothing.

I guess at CCA we’ve grasped the seriousness of the threat,
tried everything else, want to follow Jesus with all of our lives, and believe taking up our cross at a time of climate breakdown might require us to sacrifice our finances, comfort, and liberty.

Why don’t more Christians take part? Ah, if only the Church would wake up and respond to the cry of the earth and the call of God! But we’re fallen, aren’t we? Sleepily embedded in the comfort of our 21st-century, privileged Western lives. We don’t just need political, economic, technological, and consumer transformation, but also spiritual transformation. This is the Church’s arena, and we need to get to work.

I’d like to see the Church rise up, clearly state its allegiance to God, take up its prophetic duty, and rebel against a system that is destroying what God has made.

Our motivation should be love, shouldn’t it? Not fear for our survival. Look at the beauty of God’s creation, made out of love. We should be giving our lives to till and keep the garden as a simple response to the love of God for us.

But we first need to be woken up, and, sadly, fear has a role here. Remember the first lockdown: people complied because they were scared. If you smoke, your doctor should tell you that you will die early if you don’t stop. We have the same duty to people to tell the truth about the climate and nature emergency, and the truth is terrifying. What we do with that fear is where our faith comes in.

Some people see me as some eco-saint, because I don’t fly or eat meat, and I walk everywhere.
The thing is, I know my carbon footprint, and I’m still living beyond my planetary means. Living in ordinary houses in the UK, we’re all complicit. The first prayer in any action we do at CCA is one of repentance.

As a child, I had unlimited pets,
some bought and some found in the garden or nearby streams. Much of my childhood was spent outside, rescuing frogs from castle dungeons, cooking bacon on fires, pretending I had a horse, finding dark slithery baby newts in our pond.

At a particularly distressing time in my life,
my fear and sadness was suddenly overwhelmed by a sense of being profoundly loved. I get inklings of the divine when experiencing beauty and love, in music or nature or the loyalty of friends. Playing duets with one of my children is the highlight of my day.

I appreciate birdsong even more since the pandemic.
I make an effort to take out my headphones and just listen to the performance every now and then. But my favourite sound is the purr of my cat.

Romans 8.38-39 gives me hope.
Whatever happens, nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God.

I pray most for friends and family.
For the earthing of heaven. The answer to that prayer is usually “So what are you going to do about it?” — which is why the best place to pray is in a blockade of a London street or in a police cell.

Please can I be locked in a church with Bach?
And, if possible, my viola, some manuscript music, and Bach’s favourite pen.

Ruth Jarman was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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