How XR is holding Shell to account

“A breaking window is a just response to a breaking world.” Following the verdict of the Shell 7 as ‘not guilty', Sarah Lunnon from Extinction Rebellion explains how this is indicative of a cultural change when it comes to environmental accountability.

XR activism on Shell HQ

Extinction Rebellion activists protest at the Shell Centre, Almapple (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Sarah Lunnon

The Anglo-Dutch firm Shell has about 5 per cent of the world's energy market, and is one of the biggest companies in the world. It is strange then that a British company, with a headquarter in London, is so shy about identifying itself. The London HQ’s building – a monolithic-listed Portland stone edifice on the Southbank – has no branding, no name in lights, nothing to indicate to a passerby that Shell is here.  

Why? Because Shell is losing its social licence to operate and so is choosing to hide its public face. If you are so minded to climb onto the new canopies over the HQ main entrances, as activists did on 15 April 2019, you will see the bolt holes where the name used to be above the main entrances on Belvedere Rd.

The action on 15 April 2019 was part of the Extinction Rebellion uprising, which saw the famously decentralised movement occupy five sites in London for nearly two weeks and resulted in over 1,200 arrests. Seven of those arrests were for graffiti and smashed windows at the Shell Centre, and last week, on 23 April 2021, a jury at Southwark Crown Court found six of them ‘not guilty’ of criminal damage (a seventh pleaded guilty due to family responsibilities). 

The banner unfurled across the entrances asked: “Who are the real criminals?” and called for a new law of ecocide. The jury, after almost two weeks of evidence, seemed to agree that it was Shell that was guilty, not those on trial, who had argued their actions were justified and proportionate given the decades of lying and destructive activity and business practice. 

The six defendants outlined Shell’s role in the ongoing climate breakdown, plastic pollution epidemic and the areas of widespread environmental destruction at a scale that can be considered ecocide (the widespread loss of entire ecosystems). The activists knew their actions would result in them facing a jury; they also knew that there was no law to protect them, there was missing law, and Shell was not being held to account for the damage it continues to be responsible for.

In agreeing with the defendants, the jury has recognised this lack of law, has reinforced the company’s loss of social licence and has signalled to Shell and its shareholders that in the court of law – as in the court of public opinion – Shell is losing its licence to operate.

When a group of 12 people have the truth of the climate and ecological crisis explained to them, when they have the extent of Shell’s knowledge of climate impacts laid bare, knowledge they have had since 1968, when they have the failure of current and past campaigns explained, the list of international agreements and declarations set against the ever-increasing CO2 concentration and increasing temperature, when that happens – the jury understands that in an emergency, you need to smash the glass to raise the alarm.

This is not to say that Shell no longer has protection under the law (this has not yet happened), but the message to the Government seeking to limit protest, to Shell seeking to expand its ecocidal activities, to those responsible for collective damage of our natural world is clear: they are not doing enough and we will not convict those who stand up to protect life on earth.

The verdict is a major victory for climate campaigners everywhere facing increasing criminalisation. Historically, citizens have changed the law by stepping outside of it, and the defendants made numerous references to those who came before them, those who changed the law by breaking it. The Chartist, the Suffragettes, those who rebelled to being enslaved, the civil rights movement, consciousness objectors.

A breaking window is a just response to a breaking world – at least, that's what the jury at Southwark Crown Court decided when they found the Shell 7 ‘not guilty’ of criminal damage to the Shell HQ building in April 2019. The defendants argued they had no other options open to them, as governments and corporations failed to respond with the far-reaching transformation to repair the damage to life on earth. After seven hours the Jury agreed. This is just one jury, but other cases are waiting where the defendants will make similar arguments. In at least two magistrates courts, judges have found environmental activists ‘not guilty’ based on similar defences. It would appear there is a dawning recognition within the judicial system that the ‘black letter of the law’ and the state are not functioning to protect us or life on earth. 

There is missing law and currently there are two proposals to rectify this: the Climate and Ecological Emergency presentation bill tabled by Caroline Lucas in September 2020 and the proposal by the Ecocide Law campaign to make ecocide a crime, enforceable by the international criminal court.

The decision in the case of the Shell 7 indicates that cultural change is about to result in the law being changed. Let’s hope it happens in time for the protection we all need.