Activist high

Ali Garrigan talks to Kara Moses about climbing the Shard, western Europe’s tallest building, for Greenpeace’s Save the Arctic campaign

November 30, 2013 · 4 min read

How did you become politically active? Was there a key moment of politicisation for you?

I got involved through campaigning at university. Once you do that, your awareness of all the issues – the environment, corporate stuff, justice issues – all start to interlink. I gained a wider sense of politics there. There wasn’t really a key moment. The most exciting moment was arriving at university and seeing that people were doing stuff about the things that I thought mattered, and thinking in a similar way.

The Shard climb was criticised for being so high profile that it detracted from the issue it was aiming to highlight. What would you say in response to these criticisms? How effective is this form of activism?

It’s a really difficult balance to get. If you do something big, people are always going to look at what you did rather than the issue you did it for. It’s a risky run, but 53 per cent of the British public heard about that action – even if half of those are aware that we did it for Greenpeace and the Arctic, hopefully it’s planting seeds in their mind. The next time they hear about the Arctic they might think, ‘Oh yes, climate change, Greenpeace, Shell, what’s going on there?’

The critique’s fair enough, really. In a way it does detract from it, but I think we’d all got to the stage where we were asking how we get the campaign out there. So many other methods had already been used.

Fifty-three per cent is a pretty incredible statistic . . .

Yeah! People went mad for it in Poland as well. It’s the first time anything climate-change related has received mass coverage in Poland, so that was significant for them. Greenpeace said it was their biggest action in 12 years. It’s important to see it as one part of a much more detailed campaign that Greenpeace is doing around this, though.

It was a success in terms of media coverage and social media buzz, but how can this be translated into mobilising people to take action themselves?

It’s a really difficult question. Hearing about something isn’t necessarily going to translate into action, but part of my reason for working with an organisation like Greenpeace is that it gets followed up in clever and effective ways. It’s part of a bigger campaign. They call people who sign the petition. To address climate change we’ve got to ask some pretty serious questions and put some serious challenges forward about how we live and our attitudes towards the environment and consumerism. Some people are never going to engage with that, but I hope that those who were on the periphery may start to topple into the group that is going to do something.

Why was an all-female team chosen for the Shard climb?

Why not? There are a lot of women capable of doing this stuff. We were all slightly frustrated with the macho nature of activism. Looking back historically at activism, like at Twyford and Newbury, all the climbers were guys. But there are so many of us who do this. We thought, ‘We’re totally capable . . . we’ve got the skills.’ We actually sat down and tried to think of guys who had the range of skills needed and we struggled – we used a mixture of sport and technical skills that not many people have.

How much of a problem is macho activism in the movement today and how can it be challenged?

I think it’s still a big problem. Challenging it is the same as in wider society – we’ve got to create cultures where we’re confident to challenge each other in an accepting way. I’m not just saying guys should be more open to being pulled up on stuff – we all need to be more open to being challenged and admit you hadn’t seen your actions were having that impact or that attitude was underlying things. Everyone gets so defensive about being challenged.

Also we need to give each other opportunities – creating that space for women. Actions can easily get flooded out with guys who are more confident because they’ve done this stuff before, whether it’s planning or building or whatever. Somebody suggested to me that it was a problem if you’re having to be given this space in order to take it. I said that I think we’re taking it, but also we’ve several hundred years of patriarchy to kick in the ass!

For a video of how they did it, see

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