Conservation value of paddy wagon currency: civil disobedience by scientists

12 05 2012

A couple of years ago, James Hansen visited Adelaide and I was fortunate enough to attend dinner with him and his lovely wife Anniek. A truly inspiring scientist in all respects. His academic track record is unbeatable, and he puts his money where his mouth is in terms of climate change activism.

In a similar vein, but something I’m not used to publishing on Conservation Bytes, my colleague Alejandro Frid requested I publish his essay here. I’m a firm advocate for standing up for evidence-based policy, and Alejandro (inspired by James Hansen), shows us how it’s done.

I am addressing this letter to colleagues with research careers because I am compelled to share what I learned recently by crossing a new threshold. For years I have been talking and writing about the climate change crisis. As intellectually rewarding and therapeutic as it has been, these letters to government, meetings with Members of [the Canadian] Parliament, and articles for conservation-minded audiences have accomplished nothing of substance.

Others feel similarly. Prominent academics, fed up with governments that ignore science and heed the priorities of corporations, have turned to civil disobedience. James Hansen, a senior climate scientist with NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, led by example last year when he got himself arrested in front of the USA’s Whitehouse to protest the proposed Keystone Pipeline that would carry oil from the Alberta Tar Sands to the USA. That was his third arrest in three years; the previous two involved civil disobedience against the mining of coal, a huge contributor to greenhouse gases.

In the wake of Hansen’s arrests, on 05 May 2012, Mark Jaccard—a prominent economist, IPCC member, and professor at the Energy and Materials Research Group of Simon Fraser University—got himself arrested in White Rock, British Columbia, for blocking a coal train carrying US coal for export to China via British Columbia ports. There were 12 others with Jaccard, among them a man in his 80s, several men in their 60s and 70s, and a few youngsters like myself and my good friend Lynne Quarmby. Lynne happens to be chair of the Department of Molecular Biology at Simon Fraser University.

Shortly before the arrest, as we sat on the tracks, I told Jaccard that I had been teetering on the decision to come, but his announcement to participate sealed my decision. Jaccard replied that, given what he knew about the climate crisis and the consequences of inaction, it was impossible for him to not be here. He was echoing sentiments shared by all 13 of us on the tracks. Later, as we were released from jail, Jaccard wondered out loud whether the arrest would affect his ability to travel for work. Then he said something to the effect that, “You can forever come up with excuses, or you can get real and just do it.”

Civil disobedience has a long-standing tradition of enabling change. It goes back to at least the 18th Century, when British citizens organized themselves to protest, continually for about 50 years, until British Slavery was abolished. In the early campaign stages abolition would have seemed as ludicrously impossible as abolishing fossil fuels today. Yet they did it. A precedent, perhaps, that if enough of us were to “get real”, fossil fuels could be abolished before runaway climate change becomes inevitable.

Our act of civil disobedience last Saturday went smoothly. The White Rock detachment of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was a stellar example of decency and professionalism. They were honest communicators who fulfilled their obligations to public safety while allowing us to exercise our democratic rights.

Moments before the arrest, several of us spoke to the surrounding media and observers about intergenerational justice and the millions of people already suffering from climate change today. There were no hasty moves during the hand-cuffing and ride in the paddy wagon. There was no property or personal damage. There were only carefully crafted ideas and deeply held convictions. Fellow protester, Kevin Washbrook, said it best: ‘Saturday was a good day to be a Canadian citizen’.

Yet as buzzed as I am by the success, I am also overwhelmed by how much remains undone. All of you with science careers know what is wrong, what is at stake, and what needs to change. Civil disobedience is a personal choice which carries many potentially serious implications. It is not to be taken lightly. It is to be considered seriously by anyone who understands the current state of the world and the consequences of inaction.

Thanks for reading.

Alejandro Frid

Links to the motive behind the protest

Media Links



8 responses

29 08 2019
No, you won’t sacrifice scientific objectivity if you advocate |

[…] Of course, there is nothing stopping the high-integrity scientist-advocate from participating in more traditional forms of activism that involve actions like street protests or sit-ins. I know many of my own colleagues who have done exactly this, and some of them have even been arrested. […]


22 01 2016
Getting your conservation science to the right people |

[…] rare occasions, it might be a good idea to get yourself arrested. Yes, I’m taking about the ultimate form of advocacy: political demonstration. If you know […]


26 11 2014
25 11 2014
Why engaging in civil disobedience was my obligation as a scientist, parent and citizen |

[…] Another engaging post from Alejandro Frid, Canadian ecologist and modern moral compass. I also recommend that you check out his new book ‘Storms and Stillness: An ecologist’s search for optimism through letters to his young daughter‘. See Alejandro’s previous posts on here, here, here, here, here and here. […]


21 11 2014
Get serious about divestment |

[…] Tony Barnosky, Gretchen Daily, Emma Johnston, Stuart Pimm, and Hugh Possingham. There are even others willing to go to extraordinary lengths to make an evidence-based protest against society’s more inane actions. I’ve said it […]


15 09 2014
Evidence-based conservation advocacy can work |

[…] to have previously argued that more advocacy by scientists is essential if we want to have any chance of limiting the anti-environmental sentiment now […]


11 03 2014
Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers and Thinkers |

[…] In a sense then, ALERT is also an advocacy group. Some scientists shy away from advocacy because they believe it might compromise their objectivity. Well, that’s a weak and blinkered excuse, as far as I’m concerned, especially in this day of conservation crisis after conservation crisis. When the evidence and consensus are strong, it’s time to take a political stand. […]


18 04 2013
Touchy-feely ecologists |

[…] (see also Alejandro’s previous posts on Who’s responsible for climate change? Not ecologists, right? and Conservation value of paddy wagon currency: civil disobedience by scientists) […]


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