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Photography Andrea Domeniconi/Extinction Rebellion

Why this XR climate scientist went on hunger and thirst strike

Emma Smart gave up all food and drink to protest the government’s lack of action on the climate crisis

Last month, marine biologist and Extinction Rebellion activist Emma Smart glued her hand to a window at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). She was part of a group of scientists – which included experts in conservation science, air quality, political science, ecology, and psychology – who were protesting against the government’s refusal to end all new fossil fuel infrastructure.

Smart and eight other scientists were subsequently arrested, taken to Charing Cross Police Station, and charged with criminal damage. While the other eight scientists were released on bail on Thursday, police decided to hold Smart in remand until her court appearance. She was inhumanly kept in a windowless cell, lit constantly with fluorescent light. They took away her watch so she was unable to check the time. She was also unable to speak to her lawyer, who attempted to get in touch with Smart 20 times during her first 24 hours in police custody.

In protest of these harsh conditions, Smart went on hunger and thirst strike. “When you are detained, you have few options left to protest. But they cannot take away control over your body and mind, so this was what I had left to use,” she tells Dazed. By Friday night, Smart’s blood glucose levels had dropped to dangerously low levels and she was taken to hospital in an ambulance. She accepted rehydration treatment before returning to police custody, where she continued to refuse food. She was finally released after appearing at Westminster magistrates court on Saturday April 16.

Speaking to Dazed, Smart discusses her harrowing time in police custody, the need to take action, and shares her reasons to be hopeful for the future. 

How are you doing at the moment?

Emma Smart: I alternate between moments of hope and despair. Activism is an intense emotional rollercoaster. The hope I feel is when I look at the scientists who are now refusing to be bystanders with the knowledge they have and are stepping up; risking their relationships, jobs, careers and freedom to act in this critical situation. The hope is in young people, stepping up against the gargantuan force of bedfellow oil companies and government ministers. The despair comes that more people are not doing the same – we are confronting the worst crisis ever to face humanity yet all around me I see intelligent, informed people who are choosing apathy over action. That is what really scares me, not the threat of arrest or prison.

I am not afraid of what is becoming an authoritarian state. I am afraid that when my young nieces reach their late teens I will be physically fighting in the streets to protect them from violence and starvation. I am terrified of the annihilation of nature, the product of millions of years of evolution, as our single selfish species drags the rest of the natural world into extinction with it. That is where my real fear lies – not standing up to an oppressive, ecocidal system of corrupt government, finance and industry. 

What was your experience of being arrested like?

Emma Smart: The point of arrest for me is a feeling of intense calm. It’s a fierce sereneness where I feel completely focused: an unwavering sense of purposeful clarity that at that moment I am doing exactly what I should be. It’s difficult to explain – arrest is the point that control is taken away from you, but also the moment at which I feel the overwhelmingly justified freedom and power of nonviolent direct action.

I have enormous privilege when it comes to arrest. As a white woman in the UK, I recognise that in this country arrest is a huge risk to those in marginalised groups. Globally, peaceful protesters are being unlawfully detained, tortured, imprisoned and killed. On average, four people a week are murdered by their own governments for defending their land and environment. Why aren’t more of us with that privilege using it? If we are in that position of privilege then I feel we have a duty to act.

“Arrest is the point that control is taken away from you, but also the moment at which I feel the overwhelmingly justified freedom and power of nonviolent direct action” – Emma Smart

Why did you decide to go on hunger strike?

Emma Smart: I feel a strong responsibility to my young nieces that they should not grow up in a world where they are not free to hold leaders to account for their actions, and a duty to highlight the current erosion of that right. Ultimately, the absurdity and harsh response to a scientist peacefully telling the truth about climate inaction, and the sheer injustice of criminalising an ordinary person when our government, corporations and industry are driving us towards planetary collapse was the driving force behind my extreme decision.

These are the reasons I decided to go on a ‘dry strike’, which is a refusal of all food and fluids. This was an escalation on a hunger strike as the body can only survive around three days without water. At that point, I also sat down on the floor of the custody suite and refused to walk back to my cell – four officers were called and they carried me back to the cell. 

After two days of my dry strike, the doctor on duty at the police station deemed my situation a ‘medical emergency’ as my blood glucose levels had dropped dangerously low to 3.2 and my skin had gone cold, indicating severe dehydration. I was transferred to St Thomas’ hospital by ambulance. I felt light-headed, fatigued, disorientated and was experiencing excruciating headaches. 

How do you plan to continue protesting against inaction on climate change?

Emma Smart: How to continue protesting changes all the time; the climate movement is constantly evolving, adapting to response by the state, new laws, public opinion and the media. 

There is an urgent need to mobilise more people but the window of opportunity to enact the significant change required to mitigate the worst impacts of climate breakdown is closing rapidly.

Why continue protesting is clearer. We’re in a desperate situation. Sir David King, former government chief scientific advisor has said “what we do in the next two to three years will determine the fate of humanity.”

All I know is that I cannot and will not stop. With knowledge and privilege comes a duty and responsibility, we all have that. The choice is whether we act on it or not. I choose to act.