What is worth more: freedom or life?

The risk of prison couldn’t deter Phoebe – not when climate breakdown is bringing something infinitely worse

My name is Phoebe Plummer, I’m 21 and a social anthropology student from London. I was recently released from HMP Bronzefield after spending 28 days on remand there.

It still feels surreal to say that: “I’ve been to prison”. I’m not a criminal. I am a scared kid, trying to fight for my future. Earlier this year, the government were found guilty of not meeting their legally binding net zero agreements. Yet it was me and my friends who were sent to prison for demanding that the government take the first no-brainer step towards averting climate catastrophe: end all new fossil fuel licences.

I don’t think the government should listen to a 21-year-old’s opinion on how to avert climate catastrophe, I think they should listen to the experts. The UN say we can have no new fossil fuels. The IEA say we can have no new fossil fuels. The WHO say we can have no new fossil fuels. The IPCC says we can have no new fossil fuels. How many more experts need to say it before I can go back to a normal student life?

My experience in prison was at times hard, but bearable. I had shelter, hot food, clean clothes and warmth. Many have already lost these things to climate catastrophe, and many more will continue to do so whilst the government refuses to act. I was in Bronzefield with other people who took action on the M25: the bravest, most loving and caring people I know. Without them to keep my spirits up and remind me that our sacrifice was worth it, I think I would have struggled to cope.

Some moments were particularly hard. I struggled being away from my loved ones, and one time when I was on the phone to my partner, they broke down crying that they didn’t want me to spend what should be the best years of our lives together in and out of prison. We both understand why it is so necessary to take this step. I am only able to vote because of women who made the same sacrifices I have. I am only able to go to university because of women who stood up against the systems of power they knew were unjust. Hopefully one day I will marry the woman I love, and only because of my ancestors who secured me that right through civil resistance.

As I sat in my prison cell, I mourned the fact I already feel that the right to have children has been robbed from me. I cannot bring a child into a world where they have no future. But I am sacrificing my 20s, in the hope that I can at least secure myself a future into old age. Time is running out to make the changes we need to avoid full climate breakdown. So my generation doesn’t have the luxury of sitting on the sidelines as many have before us. On our current path, the only future I see for myself is one of mass famine, constant climate disasters, and societal collapse.

Another hard moment came when we heard on the radio that the opening of a new coal mine had been approved. We had been clinging on to positive news: Lloyds and HSBC saying they will no longer finance new fossil fuel projects and oil giant TotalEnergies pulling out of their North Sea oil investments. Hearing that we are returning to the dark ages with our energy policies and opening a new coal mine made it harder to hold onto hope. That day was spent wondering why it often feels like one step forward, two steps backwards. Wondering why the ultimate sacrifice, of my freedom and civil liberty, wasn’t enough.

After throwing soup at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in the National Gallery I cried out: “what is worth more: art or life?”. I now ask you what is worth more: freedom or life? Because despite being out of prison, I do not feel free. And that’s not just because I am on an ankle tag, with strict bail conditions, as if I am a violent offender rather than a non-violent political prisoner. It’s because I don’t feel free from the fear I live with every day. The fear that I will live the worst realities of the climate crisis. The fear that I won’t have access to food or clean water. The fear of watching the destruction of everything I know and love. I don’t feel free from the sense of betrayal that this is the future governments are signing me and my generation up for. The sense of betrayal that they let our nation suffer the cost-of-living crisis by insulating billionaires’ pockets rather than British homes. The sense of betrayal that we claim to be global leaders in climate policy yet continue to fund the death of millions in the global south.

Nor am I free from the anger I feel that our government refuses to listen to scientists’ warnings. The anger that so many seem content to sleep-walk through the worst crisis humanity has ever faced. The anger that it has been left to me, to sound the alarm bells, until the government can refuse to listen no more.

On the hardest days in prison, I was comforted by these words from a friend: “There is huge power in knowing that no matter what punishments they try and throw at us, we will not be stopped”. After all, we are fighting for our lives. How could we stop? I do not want me or any of my friends to go to prison again. I still can’t believe we have reached such a desperate state. But if prison sentences are the worst the government can do, then it is them that should be scared. We will not be intimidated by harsh prison sentences when there is so much more at stake.