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Climate and environment

‘I took my turn on Friday to be arrested’

Dr Rosie Jones considers peaceful protests, the law and the Health and Care Professions Council: what are the lessons for psychologists? Questions from Dr Roger Paxton, Chair of the British Psychological Society's Ethics Committee.

23 June 2020

Peaceful protests are often in the news. Black Lives Matter (BLM) is very prominent now, and in 2019 Extinction Rebellion (XR) made headlines. What are the legal and professional implications for psychologists who feel so passionately about moral and social issues like these that they are prepared to protest and even risk breaking the law?

Dr Rosie Jones is a clinical psychologist committed to opposing climate change. As a member of XR she took part in a major peaceful protest in London in April 2019, and was one of more than a thousand people arrested. Here Rosie talks to Dr Roger Paxton, BPS Ethics Committee Chair, about her commitment, her thoughts about XR, the legal and professional consequences she faced after the protest, and the moral arguments around the climate crisis and XR.

Thank you very much for sharing your experiences and thoughts, Rosie. Would you begin by saying a bit about yourself as a psychologist?
I gained my doctorate in clinical psychology in 2001 from Royal Holloway and I've worked in the adult 'mental health' field all of my career. I worked in community mental health teams in Devon and then in IAPT services in Bath, leaving the NHS in 2014 to work in independent practice. 

How did you develop your commitment to opposing climate change, and how did you become involved with XR?
I first became aware of climate change when I was a teenager and as a result I joined Friends of the Earth. I remember being very disappointed that all they seemed to suggest was writing letters and donating money.

In my late twenties I read James Lovelock's book The Revenge of Gaia. I love Gaia Theory – it's a paradigm shift to a systemic view of the Earth as a self regulating organism. That book made me acutely aware of dangerous feedback loops in the climate system. These mean human caused heating can be amplified by earth system processes, like methane release from melting permafrost, leading to runaway climate change. The science and risks are basically really scary and I must admit from then on the ecological problems of our planet felt more urgent and important to me than the clinical problems which I'd just trained to help people with. 

Trying to find a contribution that was sufficiently systemic to make a difference, I joined the Green Party, and even stood in our local council elections in 2015. Thankfully I didn't win as I would make a terrible politician! I was also inspired by 'Transition Towns' – a  grassroots  movement to make practical shifts to create re-localised sustainable communities. I set up a local group in my suburb of Bath. 

I've always kept an eye on climate developments and by 2017 I became aware of the alarming acceleration of global heating, and the onset of feedback loops like polar melting and methane release. I already knew, from reading Lovelock, of the enormous threat that these pose, and was deeply shocked they were happening so soon. I'd thought that these sort sof changes would not occur for decades. I'd already had children and was (am) facing the reality that catastrophe is likely to occur in my children's lifetimes, and possibly my own. 

I went through a period of extreme grief and anxiety, helped by coming across the work of eco-philosopher Joanna Macy. She has developed a beautiful and deeply psychological set of experiential group practices to give people space to express their pain for the world, and also inspire and support them into action through deep connection with other humans and non-human beings. I did a week-long retreat in these practices in a Buddhist context, and then over the next year trained to facilitate them myself.

Another major influence was reviewing Professor Jem Bendell's viral paper prior to its publication in 2018. It's called 'Deep adaptation: A map for navigating climate tragedy'. To give you a flavour of how shocking his conclusions were about the coming decades, Jem wanted my opinion as a psychologist on whether he should publish it, as others had expressed concern it could make people suicidal. 

By the summer of 2018 I was so alarmed with the state of the climate and ecological world, I was already thinking 'this is now an emergency, it's time for direct action, nothing else has worked', and then I came across some early members of the Extinction Rebellion movement at a festival. At a workshop I learned about the principles and social theory behind non-violent civil disobedience, and, in a nutshell, it was pretty convincing. 

I was scared at first to associate myself with a group that was planning illegal activities, but as more people joined, who all seemed very reasonable and sensible, I became more comfortable and more engaged with the movement, and I helped start Bath XR after supporting the blocking of four bridges in central London in November 2018. 

Do you see connections between your professional role and your work with XR?
Ah, there are many different ways I could speak to that question... 

Firstly, I have found it has been very beneficial to have a good understanding of the severity of the climate and ecological crises as a therapist. A few clients have brought their own grief and anxiety about it to sessions, for example not feeling they should have children. Being aware of the issues has meant I don't fall into the trap of pathologising these responses and assuming clients are catastrophising. We have then been able to disentangle how the issue might be triggering their maladaptive coping modes, and work on more helpful responses to the crisis, including giving space for grief. I think you do need, as a therapist, to have faced your own grief about the climate (that's an unending journey I think) to be able to hold space for others, otherwise it's just too painful, or defences kick in.

Secondly, I think the climate crisis is as much a psychological crisis as it is an economic, political and practical one. There is much work to be done in helping birth and nurture a new, regenerative ideology for our societies. Psychologists have skills to offer here, like facilitation, teaching and public speaking, which are all a big part of XR and things I have been involved in. I also offer experiential group workshops to the public, as I mentioned, based on Joanna Macy's methodology; 'The work that reconnects'. This is really interesting work somewhere between community empowerment work and psychological therapy.   

Psychologists have also influenced my activism: The brief teaching we had in clinical training on community psychology, and the writing of the Midlands Psychology Group, really helped me be aware of how painfully inadequate our roles as clinical psychologists are in addressing the systemic causes of emotional distress. My view is that this inadequacy is almost inevitable, because a system is very unlikely to pay anyone to do anything that fundamentally challenges the system. Critiques of our profession have helped me appreciate the need to act at a social system level, and that to address the climate and ecological emergency I'd have to choose unpaid systemically focused activism, rather than have my good intentions co-opted back into the dominant destructive cultural system. 

Before the protest did you anticipate legal consequences, and consequences for your registration as a practitioner psychologist with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC)?
Yes. There is very thorough training in XR on the legal consequences, including what is likely to happen at arrest, your rights, and psychological preparation like seeing photos of police cells so you know what to expect. I fully anticipated that I could be prosecuted, and I chose actions that could not result in a custodial sentence, which, as a parent, is not something I can risk at the moment.

Regarding my professional registration, I knew that there was a slight risk I could lose it, but I also knew I could count on my family for financial support if necessary, and it felt important to use that privilege.

What happened to you during and after the protest?
I was part of the April 2019 rebellion, in the group that occupied Waterloo Bridge for a whole week leading up to Easter. The rebellion was planned, so I took a week's leave from work and arranged for family to look after my children. The experience was extraordinary: a really beautiful self organising community developed on the bridge over the week. People had brought trees and plants to create an alternative 'garden bridge'. Free food was cooked and provided by rebels in an onsite kitchen. Homeless people started to come at night to share the food offered. There was singing and solidarity, and strangers and friends looking after and supporting each other with the intense emotions that were sometimes released. 

The police said they had not experienced anything like it before: the loving peaceful atmosphere wasn't like a normal protest. They made a few dozen arrests each day in an attempt to clear the occupation and reopen the bridge to traffic. But the number of protestors prepared to sit peacefully and accept arrest meant that they simply couldn't clear the bridge until they finally brought in mass numbers of police at the end of the week. I took my turn on Friday to be arrested. I simply sat on the bridge in the front row and when asked by police officers to move to the approved protest site, I did not. And so I was arrested under the Public Order Act for 'failing to comply with a condition placed on a public assembly'. This is legislation designed to limit protests where they are deemed by police to be causing disruption, in this instance 'to the life of the community'. I was taken to a police station, had my fingerprints, photo and DNA taken, and held alone in a cell for 14 hours.

Most of us, about 1000 in all in the April rebellion, who were only arrested once, were not initially charged but 'released pending investigation'. Subsequently the police decided to prosecute everyone and so I was charged five months later and had my trial in December 2019 in the magistrates court. 

I pleaded not guilty and represented myself at court. I had the opportunity to give a 30-minute defence, in which I emphasised the defence of 'necessity'. This is where an act is justified by the fact that it is intended to prevent significant harm or loss of life. I explained that scientists now predict irreversible tipping points in the climate system will be crossed with between 1 and 3 degrees of global heating. As we have already passed 1 degree this means catastrophic climate disruption is an imminent risk, and that without governmental policy change, mass loss of life is inevitable.

The three magistrates were very respectful, and listened carefully to my arguments. They did not dispute anything I said nor condemn my actions but said that they had to find me guilty, because the dangers I described were not 'imminent in the legal sense'. I received a nine-month conditional discharge and was ordered to pay court costs of about £350.  

I had reported myself to the HCPC at the point I was charged, and after conviction the HCPC drafted allegations against me, on basically that information alone, that I was unfit to practise. An HCPC investigating panel met in April to decide whether further investigation was required. I was allowed to make any written submissions I wished to the panel. I provided an account of my actions and the reasons for them, support letters from colleagues and other practitioner psychologists in XR and a reference from my supervisor. The HCPC named all these submissions as factors in finding no case to answer.

What do you think about the treatment you received at the hands of the law and the HCPC?
I think our legal system reflects our culture's dominant ideological system…it's not really able to handle issues that go beyond simple, linear, short-term cause and effect. On the one hand it is understandable that the defence of necessity is limited, but when governments are being criminally negligent, should it not apply? If judges began to find in favour of those standing up peacefully against clearly extremely harmful policy, rather than supporting entrenched power, that could really have an impact on the system. 

Regarding the HCPC, I completely understand that they have to look at any case where there has been a conviction. However, personally I found it more upsetting to read professional allegations that I was 'unfit to practise', than to be prosecuted by the Crown Prosecution Service, who were part of the system I was rebelling against. It also hung over me for a year which was quite stressful.

Given that (hopefully) more health practitioners may start to engage in civil disobedience, I do wonder if there is a way the HCPC could fast-track the process. The facts of my case were available nine months before their final decision, so couldn't the HCPC have asked for these and made a decision on the case, even before criminal conviction? 

I also wonder if allegations concerning civil disobedience, that do not involve dishonesty or violence, are away from the workplace and are driven by moral convictions, could be treated differently from allegations like clinical negligence, or exploiting or abusing service users? 

Have these experiences changed your views on matters around climate change and XR?
I don't think my views have changed that much. XR managed to break the constructed silence around climate change and bring it more into public awareness and discourse. I'm definitely convinced that civil disobedience and direct action have a much bigger impact than anything else. The BLM movement has really demonstrated this recently.

But XR is obviously nowhere near achieving its demands for net zero carbon by 2025, an end to biodiversity loss, and a citizens' assembly to decide on how to address it. It's disappointing that XR has only attracted tens of thousands of people so far. Change needs a much bigger mass movement. 

I understand social movement theorists say that you can't keep using the same tactics, you have to keep it fresh to gain attention and keep motivation, so I am not sure what will come next from XR. I do think we may need a broader-based disruptive movement uniting all the different groups concerned with the impact of capitalism (especially neoliberalism) and neocolonialism… including the antiracism and decolonisation movements, anti-austerity groups, and labour and green movements. I think we need to really start highlighting in the public discourse that these problems share the same underlying root cause: a dominating and extractive ideology, and that they affect the poor, the marginalised, and the global south first and hardest.

Like many in the movement, objectively I'm not at all hopeful that we will turn things around in time (or as XR cofounder Roger Hallam puts it, 'we're fucked'). But I try to take the attitude of a therapist in 'holding the hope for the client' and trying to use my time in the most regenerative ways I can. It's very life affirming.

Would you suggest any changes in the way the law and the HCPC deal with actions like yours?
I support the campaign to make ecocide a crime. We need overarching laws, like human rights legislation, that give rights to nature and to the wellbeing of future generations.

Regarding the HCPC, I understand there is an 'initial investigation' stage prior to deciding to draft allegations and call an investigatory panel. I wonder if civil disobedience cases would be more appropriately dealt with at this earlier stage?

Do you see a moral element in opposing climate change, and is there a moral basis for the approach taken by XR?
Yes. I think if a system is highly destructive we have a duty to try and transform it. I know a lot of people care and are concerned about the ecological world, but I don't think that is enough. It's a bit like the concept of being 'anti-racist' rather than just 'non-racist'. As with the BLM movement, I think privileged people have a duty to educate themselves about ecological issues (it's still covered pretty poorly in the press), listen to and foreground the victims and their wishes and needs (this includes other species), and get out on the streets about it. Protest, and, if necessary, civil disobedience and direct action, is just about the only way that significant positive social change has ever happened. Psychologists are respected and thereby hold power to influence the public discourse. I think morally we should use our privilege, speak out, and take action. It is certainly much easier to risk prosecution if you are white, middle class, and relatively well-off, as many psychologists are.

What about the moral rights of the people inconvenienced or otherwise adversely affected by protests like the one in April 2019?
I think this is a very important question. Actions have to be carefully thought through, and designed in an attempt to minimise impacts on people already marginalised or struggling with the system, and to cause maximum disruption to those holding power that we wish to pressure. It's very difficult to fully achieve this, but I think road blockades around Westminster are pretty defensible by this criterion. Beyond that I think it's about proportionality. Many things occur in life which cause some inconvenience to a community in exchange for some other benefit. We close roads to install utilities, or hold a running race, or a festival. Here we closed some roads for a week to try and prevent mass loss of life and potential extinction. I think that easily passes a proportionality test!

What messages do your experiences provide for other psychologists?
I urge people to educate themselves about the climate and ecological crisis. The mainstream media don't really give you the full picture or the risks. George Monbiot in The Guardian is a notable exception. The 'What lies beneath' report is a good start, or watch Gail Bradbrook, XR cofounder, or others, giving the XR talk 'Heading for extinction and what to do about it'.

If you want emotional support through your reactions to the information, workshops in 'The Work That Reconnects' are really supportive, and also Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone's book 'Active Hope'.

Don't discount that you could be someone who takes part in civil disobedience. It feels scary at first, but as psychologists we know all about graded exposure… you can put this into practice! For most people it ends up feeling liberating and empowering. Peaceful civil resistance has a long well-regarded history… think of Martin Luther King, the suffragettes, and the trade union movement. If you have imposter syndrome like I did, don't think it is just something for professional or long-term activists, or that you are a hypocrite because, for example, you drive a car. All sorts of people have joined XR. And rebellions don't happen every week, so you can participate during leave or in your spare time. 

The most important outcome from my case in particular is, I think, to be reassured that if you are convicted for engaging in peaceful respectful protest, you are very unlikely to lose your HCPC registration. 

If you want to be part of XR, you can join your local group, or join XR Psychologists. Contact [email protected]

If you would like to read my full submission to the HCPC panel, and/or the panel's findings, please contact [email protected] for a copy.

Here's some recommended reading:

Bendell, J. (2018). Deep adaptation: A map for navigating climate tragedy. IFLAS occasional Paper 2.

Bradbrook, G. (2018). Heading for extinction and what to do about it. Talk on Extinction Rebellion YouTube channel. 

Macy, J. & Johnstone, C. (2012). Active Hope: How to face the mess we are in without going crazy. New World Library

Spratt, D. & Dunlop, I. (2018). What lies beneath: The understatement of existential climate risk. Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration.

Editor's note: Originally published online on 23 June 2020.

Thanks again for your openness Rosie. I've no doubt that your experiences and ideas will be of great interest and value to many psychologists.

Find more on climate change, and XR, in our archive