During April and May of 2019, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released its full report, titled “Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services”. This report was subsequently summarized by the United Nations: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’. “Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history,” it reads, “and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely…”
The report is more than mere bad news, of course, for it presents potential strategies and solutions to many of the issues it highlights. It also makes for essential reading, for this type of information is critical to the future of life on this planet. It is, however, damning, heart-rending, and extremely troubling.
“The overwhelming evidence of the IPBES Global Assessment, from a wide range of different fields of knowledge, presents an ominous picture. The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever. We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”IPBES Chair, Sir Robert Watson.
Upon reading this summary, Ollie Langridge, a regular Wellington businessman and suburban dad, got up from his desk, walked away from his daily routine, visited the nearest hardware store to collect materials to craft a protest sign, and staked out his position outside a building known locally and colloquially as “The Beehive”, the Executive Wing of the New Zealand Parliament Buildings, on the corner of Molesworth Street and Lambton Quay, Wellington. Thus begun his 100-day vigil, an attempt to sway the government of this small, South Pacific, supposedly eco-friendly nation to take seriously the impending calamity that our species seems hell-bent on creating.
You’ve been asked several times about how your protest began. Looking back now, do you wish you had done anything differently on that first day?
No not really, it had to be spontaneous, like it was, otherwise I’d likely not have done it. I had no idea who the leader of the opposition was when I stepped out onto the lawn, nor who I was actually asking to declare a Climate Emergency. Was I asking Parliament? Government? Cabinet? I saw (and still see) the situation as above party politics, so it really didn’t matter. On that first day I arrived with a wetsuit, sleeping bag and plastic sheet, with a sandwich and $20 in my pocket. I had no idea what I would do, where I would sleep, but the main thing was to actually get out there and DO it.
Several politicians came to meet you while you were on the lawn. Tell us a little about those experiences. How genuinely concerned did you feel they were about the issue?
I felt that the Green Party politicians were the ones that genuinely cared the most, for obvious reasons. Chlöe Swarbrick in particular, and Gareth Hughes next. James Shaw came out several times too, and invited us up to his office for a korero. Geoff Simmons from TOP has been very supportive. One Labour politician came out (Deborah Russell from New Lynn) on Day 8 but no one else from Labour came out at all, until suddenly Ginny Anderson and Paul Eagle arrived on Day 100 when it was time to give a speech – which Ginny did. Todd Muller from National came up the day after a DomPost article came out on around day 66 saying ‘no one from National had been out yet’ under obligation. My thoughts on that here in my follow-up letter to his office:
I appreciate your time on Wednesday. Brave of you to come out to the lawn to meet me. After all I may have been some tinfoil-hat wearing lunatic. After 70 days standing here in the middle of winter I apologise if I wasn’t at my sartorial best.
From our conversation, I understand you think any declaration of a climate change emergency without accompanying policies is simply virtue signalling, an empty gesture.
I see it the other way around. If your house is on fire, you don’t sit there talking about insurance policies, what parts to rebuild and so on. You put it out by whatever means possible, as fast as you can.
You believe that a transition to a fossil-free economy is a 30-50 year process. I don’t think we have the luxury of time, and believe the scientific evidence for this is irrefutable. Right now we’re sleepwalking our way to disaster.
I see this as an issue that’s above politics. To me, it’s an existential crisis. It doesn’t matter what colour flag you wave, what colour your skin, what age, gender, religion, social or financial standing, this is something that affects us all – we can unite behind the science.
I stand here every day because in the future, when my children ask me what I did to prevent climate collapse, I’ll be able to look them in the eye and say that I tried my very best. As a father, as a businessman, as a human being.
Thank you for your time, once again, I appreciate our conversation, and welcome any further discussion in this urgent matter.
Ultimately you have to be careful with what is genuine and personal and what suits politicians’ political ends. It’s often hard to differentiate between the two. Of all the politicians out there, I feel Chlöe Swarbrick is the most genuine I’ve ever met. She is truly an awesome force.
There was such a positive response to your protest. Which moments still stand out for you as being especially heartwarming?
There were so many! People would spontaneously come up and give me a hug, or say thank you and burst into tears, or just shake my hand; in the end I personally met over a thousand people from all over NZ and from over 60 countries, all recorded on my Instagram account at the time (thathumbleman).
Getting liked and retweeted by Greta Thunberg (around Day 16) was pretty awesome, I felt as though it really validated this action, and after that social media exploded – I found myself with thousands of followers. Suddenly I was this beacon of Active Hope for so many people. Every time another NZ City or Regional Council declared a Climate Emergency, it was a major lift; for a while it seemed like an unstoppable wave, or a domino effect.
Oh, and being invited to speak in front of 40,000 people on the September climate march organised by SS4C was pretty special!
The social media response was also quite phenomenal. Did you find that to be especially supportive, or did you find that what really mattered was people standing by you in person?
Both were really important. Having support from around the world was phenomenal. But having people there, standing with me, day after day was equally great. Many friendships were forged with like minds. I get all the kudos but there were others, (like the legendary Kate Jensen who was my ‘first follower’), that stood with me for at least 80 of those 100 days.
Any big names in climate activism who reached out to you, engaged with you, or that you still communicate with?
Yes! Greta Thunberg, George Monbiot, Rupert Read, Lucy Lawless, Robyn Malcolm, Russel Norman, all of whom acknowledged this action in different ways.
And yet it wasn’t solely a positive experience. Of your 100 days of vigil, which do you think of as your darkest day?
There were many bad moments, haters, Nazis, denialists, all in my face, but the good massively outweighed the bad. On Day 51 I almost lost the plot, and my sanity. I was on my own, in a cold wet southerly, feeling like I was delusional to be there in the first place and nothing I could do really mattered. My fingers and my phone had frozen. Being out there all day, every day plays tricks on the mind and you have to dig very deep to find stability, breaking things down into micro-moments and building up from there.
Day 77 was another horrendous moment – when we realised that Winston Peters was not going to join his coalition partners in this matter, even though 8/10 New Zealanders want declaration of a climate Emergency, even though all the major cities in NZ had declared a CCE, Youth Parliament were recommending it and all of NZ’s Climate Scientists were urging it. No majority means no CCE declaration. Crazy how a 74 year old, who’s never going to see the effects of climate collapse, who has around 3% of the vote, can dictate the outcome of something like this. But there you go. Suddenly we switched from possibility to tokenism, and that was hard as to how to find a way forward from there.
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Flashback to day 77. This was the moment Chlöe dropped the bombshell on us that NZ First had dug in and it was not going to happen. Please note Winston Peters is 74 and will likely be dead before the effects of climate collapse hit us. I don’t think a minor political party with 3% of the vote can block what 80% of NZ’ers want. Do you?
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You were reported on by RNZ, TVNZ, Stuff, and other media outlets, and there was at least one instance of misreporting. How did you find the media coverage overall?
Actually apart from a couple of glitches where facts were just plain wrong, (notably: “I walked out of my job to be here” / “I’m giving up and going home”), I found the media coverage very supportive and fair. It would have been easy to paint a picture of me as some deluded old fool who was obviously desperate, but this wasn’t the case at all. The public awareness of the issue over the course of the 100 days significantly shifted. Suddenly it was all over the media, which is where it should be, every day, like in a wartime situation.
Do you feel the experience has changed you as a person?
Fundamentally no. I operate out of gratitude, and when you’re coming out of that space, fear and anger cannot co-exist, it’s liberating. I think human beings are amazing and when we come together we are capable of greatness. But for many reasons this issue is divisive, as it doesn’t suit people’s worldviews or the science is inconvenient to their lifestyles, so a lot of people will stay in denial as it suits them to do so.
You now protest as part of #FridaysforFuture, but what other plans do you have moving forward?
Right now I’m trying to get a book published which I’ve written about the experience, which as you know turned into NZ’s longest parliamentary protest in history. Hopefully that will be picked up by a publisher so people can read about this and the word can spread. It’s a mix of personal thoughts, climate science and heartfelt reaction, recorded day by day, culminating in the Sept 27 climate march which drew a crowd of 40,000 to the lawn. It’s really about Active Hope – or as Greta Thunberg would say: No one is too small to make a difference! FridaysforFuture continues every Friday outside Parliament 12noon-2pm. Come along!
Beyond that, we’ll see. I’m still committed to non-violence and non-disruption. Amusingly, I have won a Kiwibank ‘Local Hero’ award which makes me laugh in a nervous way. I will not accept any awards, ever, for doing what is an ethical imperative in an existential humanitarian crisis. I was a finalist in Wellingtonian of the year… it happened last night. I didn’t win, which is a relief not to have to get up in front of 500 people at Te Papa and turn down the award. That would have gone down like a cup of cold sick, but I would have done it. Now I have to work out how to reject those awards while being humble and not pissing people off. I’ll do my best.
Any final words of advice for fellow concerned citizens?
Dare to stand up and speak out. The greatest prison people live in is the fear of what other people think. F*ck that.
We’re running out of time to mitigate this issue and the moment to act is NOW. What we do in the next 10 years will literally decide how the next 10,000 play out. When your children grow up and ask what you did to try and stop climate collapse, when we could, will you be able to look them in the eye and say you did your utmost?