“What hath night to do with sleep?” proclaimed John Milton in Paradise Lost. Environmental activists, I think, would agree that sleep has very little to do with it because night is not a time for rest but for action. It provides a cloak of invisibility under which they can enact the most elaborate demonstrations of civil disobedience. Night offers mobility and security from prying eyes that in the light of day would halt the spread of an urgent message.
At a time when environmental exploitation is growing exponentially worldwide — look no further than the possible development of new coal ports in the Great Barrier Reef catchment, Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway pipeline through the Great Bear Rainforest and Shell’s Arctic drilling — the need for civil disobedience has never been greater. But at a time of instant “everything,” how do we raise public awareness and mass action without being stopped at the proverbial gates? The answer, as so perfectly demonstrated by the recent Shard climb, is night.
Liesbeth Debbens (Netherlands), Ali Garrigan (UK), Victoria Henry (Canada), Sabine Huyghe (Belgium), Sandra Lamborn (Sweden) and Wiola Smul (Poland) took centre stage on July 11, 2013. These six change-makers set out to climb the Shard, Europe’s tallest building, in London, England, in opposition of Arctic drilling and its catastrophic environmental consequences. This building, not chosen by coincidence, overshadows Shell’s three London offices.
After months of rigorous training, the courageous climbers made their way to the Shard just after 4am on the 11th. After scaling the London Bridge rail station, they reached the bottom of the Shard and began to climb. The darkness of the pre-dawn hours was their shield. By starting early they avoided any potential commuter disruption, helped ensure safe passage to the Shard itself and enough daylight to complete the climb.
Streaming live on Greenpeace TV, the dangers of Arctic drilling could no longer be ignored. With the hashtag #iceclimb trending worldwide, messages of hope, strength and thanks came pouring in from across the globe. And Greenpeace’s Save the Arctic campaign gathered an additional 40,000 signers to a petition that already featured over 3 million. For Victoria Henry, the goal of the climb was to “shout from the rooftops, to do something so big that no one could look away.” She succeeded.
But the biggest message came at approximately 6pm after 15 hours of exhaustive climbing, when Smul of Poland reached the summit and waved the Save the Arctic flag for all to see, including Shell employees and executives. The flag was not a declaration of ownership but a proclamation for action. A flag placed upon a building during the day that was only reachable by passage through the night. It represents that the Arctic affects all of us equally, and so it is our duty to help protect it.
The Shard is not the only action to have started before dawn. At 5am on September 16, 2013, forty activists chained themselves to a railway line in Germany to bring attention to energy giant Vattenfall’s practice of burning brown coal, or lignite, at one of Europe’s most polluting power plants, Schwarze Pumpe. By starting in the pitch black of night the activists were able to avoid detection because “a demonstration doesn’t need an audience. At first at least,” wrote Gregor Kessler for Greenpeace. The strategy worked because “while police and Vattenfall's security people try to find a way to get the activists off the rail, TV teams, photographers and other journalists speak to Greenpeace activists about the damage brown coal does to the climate,” stated Kessler.
While some use the nighttime hours to prepare their message, others use the cover of dark to prevent activists from being heard. In the early hours of June 26, 2010, Dr. John Booth was awoken by police conducting a raid on anti-G20 protestors. As reported by CBC news, Booth and his wife were mistakenly accused of conspiracy to commit mischief and handcuffed. This potential “abuse of power” was facilitated by the darkness giving way to over-policing of both well-intending protestors and innocent bystanders. Activists often have to stay two steps ahead of authorities even when starting out before sunrise.
The Shard climb bravely took shape under cover of night and ignited a global conversation about environmental degradation. Out of the darkness was born an army willing to fight for the Arctic’s protection. Today, Greenpeace activists have attempted to occupy a Russian oil rig, starting before dawn, leaving us to only wonder what whispers the night will give voice to next.
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