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Quiet acts of witness can draw attention to the climate crisis

13 June 2024

Judith Russenberger explains why she kneels outside Shell’s offices for an hour each week

Christian Climate Action

Judith Russenberger outside Shell HQ in London

Judith Russenberger outside Shell HQ in London

With persistence a drop of water hollows out the stone

— attributed to Choerilus of Samos, fifth-century poet

BELVEDERE ROAD, on the South Bank, is one of the windier spots in London. Its orientation between office buildings and the Thames channels the wind, no matter which way it is ostensibly blowing. I can confirm this, having knelt on the pavement there for an hour each Wednesday of the past year.

Apart from observing the weather, why do this? To draw attention to the environmentally destructive business practices of Shell, whose headquarters stand opposite Jubilee Gardens. Before the site was redeveloped, the Shell building stood out as an iconic landmark. Now, it rather coyly blends into the background, with barely a name board or a logo in sight.

Shell is one of the world’s big fossil-fuel companies, which resolutely refuses to curb its oil and gas production in favour of a transition to renewable energy. It continues to expand its business in this way because current markets and government subsidies make it highly profitable — highly profitable, that is, for the shareholders. For the environment, for the climate, indeed, even for oil-users, it is a very costly business model.

Extracting fossil fuels rather than producing renewable energy is driving the climate crisis, putting people’s homes and livelihoods at risk, and making parts of the world uninhabitable. Fuel extraction and production pollute the environment with leaks into soil and water, and the air. In use — and its uses are varied and numerous — oil and gas release climate-destroying carbon emissions.

Rather than facilitating a transition to greener — and cheaper — alternatives, Shell fosters a dependency on fossil fuels; indeed, it promotes such dependency through advertising and product development.

CLIMATE activism takes many forms, as it tries to raise the alarm about the climate crisis, as it demands action from those in power, whether in government or on company boards, as it highlights the deceit and corruption of the fossil-fuel industry, and as it tries to raise public awareness and public opposition to the continued explosion of greenhouses gases.

From marches and petitions, festivals and pilgrimages, legal challenges and demonstrations, the occupation of offices and oil depots, blocking roads and the disrupting sporting events, singing at AGMs, and the breaking of windows, the climate crisis has been pushed up the agenda of public awareness. But it seems that it is a crisis that many still ignore, that many sideline as unimportant — not yet a real threat. It becomes a topic of news for a day, but is quickly supplanted by the next sensational story.

So, as a representative of Christian Climate Action (CCA), I kneel each week outside Shell, with a topical placard, as an ongoing reminder to all who pass by that the climate crisis is a real and present danger, and that Shell is one of the chief perpetrators.

In this, I am usually joined by my CCA colleague, Martin. We are a silent, prayerful presence.

Over time, we have developed a friendly relationship with Shell’s security staff, who monitor access to the building, and with the South Bank security guards who patrol the area. A few of Shell’s employees give us a friendly wave or greeting. Most don’t, and I wonder what they are thinking as they read our placards.

The wider public are more vocal. There are regulars who always gives us a thumbs up or shout “Thanks!” Others stop for a chat: What are we doing? Why? Do we need a hot/cold drink? There are others who chose to hurl insults as they pass, most commonly “Get a job!”

On a couple of occasions, I have been questioned by the police, around the time when Just Stop Oil (JSO) was slow marching in London. They confirmed that kneeling on the pavement was not illegal, and nor would it be, even if we were wearing JSO T-shirts. Good to know.

WHY do we do carry on kneeling outside Shell, come sunshine or rain, throughout the freezing cold dark months of winter, and the more hospitable summer months?

Because, like everyone in CCA, we believe in the power of prayer — and, even if it does not radically change Shell, it certainly strengthens the cause of climate activism. Because to do nothing is not an adequate solution. Because it is a constant reminder — a nudge in right direction — to the staff at Shell and their business thinking.

And it is a constant reminder to the wider public. The more people are aware of and engaged with the challenge of the climate crisis, the more readily the Government and companies such as Shell will make the changes that are needed. The one disappointment is that, while one-off actions — be they slow marching, hanging a banner off a gantry, or throwing paint over a picture — are deemed newsworthy, regular, repeated actions that cause no disruption are not.

But, wait, maybe the regular, repeated action is effective. Maybe it is quietly disruptive, creating change. Maybe, like the slow drip, drip of water, the action does chip away at resistance and apathy, and does reshape the conscience of each employee, each observer, each person who passes by.

Judith Russenberger is a member of Christian Climate Action. christianclimateaction.org

On Wednesday (19 June), the first anniversary of the start of her vigil outside Shell HQ, people are invited to sit with her for an hour from 8 a.m. Contact christianclimateaction@gmail.com

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