Which is the Bigger Crime: Property Damage or Environmental Destruction?

Environmental activists are on trial in London for vandalizing Shell headquarters

Margaret Heffernan
6 min readApr 12, 2021

On the face of it, the court case of the Shell 7, taking place in London this week, is simple. Two years ago, in April 2019, seven supporters of Extinction Rebellion smashed the front doors of Shell’s headquarters on the South Bank, painted the building with graffiti and hung a banner charging the oil company with ecocide. The event went on for two days before the 7 activists were arrested.

But much more is at stake than a case of criminal damage. The Shell defendants argue that broken windows and graffiti were necessary to avoid the far greater crime of ecocide. But there’s a problem: despite campaigners’ efforts, ecocide may be a horrifying and very real prospect but it is not (yet) a crime. So what, if not activism, will stop corporations like Shell from continuing in businesses that accelerate ecocide?

It should be the law that stops them. The Climate Change Act of 2019 committed the UK government by law to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 100% of 1990 levels (net zero) by 2050. The 100% target was based on advice from the Committee on Climate Change’s 2019 report, ‘Net Zero — The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming’. But how is it to be enforced? The Act imposed on the government a legal duty to act — but what happens when it doesn’t? If government decisions — permitting the third runway at Heathrow or the first deep coalmine in 30 years — fly in the face of its own law, who defends the law itself?

These three questions hang over the Shell/XR court case this week. They’re big, serious issues brought by individuals better known for colourful activism. But over the last two years, I’ve been struck by how many supporters Extinction Rebellion has acquired and kept, individuals more readily characterized by earnest intent and informed understanding than firebrand antics. From parish councils to local government and even within government and corporations, they remain steadfast in their determination not to let any of us — not individuals, the media, businesses or government — ignore the environmental crisis that grows daily. Most are frightened for future generations and angry at the injustice that means their children will reap the whirlwind for decisions made (or shirked) before they were born. They’re distraught, grief-stricken and afraid. They’re not crazy.

Nor are they alone. The Ministry of Defence describes climate change like this: “there is a clear and present danger that afflicts all of us, every region of the world, every part of society” and says it is committed to change. Top scientists around the world (including the government’s former scientific advisor, Sir David King) have been pleading with government to move faster. Even consulting firm McKinsey has been arguing that the recovery post-Covid must be a green recovery, that going back is not an option. All of these groups — the military, the scientific establishment, the consulting firms — are those on whom the government has depended most throughout the pandemic. Will their voices be heard now?

“I long for a grown up conversation about where we are; I don’t want to be in a trench,” Gail Bradbrook said to me. One of the founders of XR, she is highly focused on the role that business plays in climate change and the role it must play in its reversal. “It is no longer an outlier comment to say that the system is a mess when Prince Charles says it is, when the World Economic Forum says capitalism is finished and the Economist magazine says capitalism is broken. But this is now about how fast we can move and about the systemic resistance to change in corporations.”

“The courts have never had to deal with government or major corporations refusing to act,” Sarah Lunnon explained to me. An early member of XR, she’s been following the Shell case closely. “These companies all know that what they are doing today is damaging, that it has potential to harm all organized civil society and runs the risk of runaway climate change. But it is still legal! Which means that people calling attention to that fact can only do so illegally.”

In his Reith Lectures, former supreme court judge Jonathan Sumption argued, “I don’t believe there is necessarily a moral obligation to obey the law.” Indeed, breaking the law has, historically, been the way to change the law. In the 19th century, it’s how the franchise was extended, in the 20th century it’s how women got the vote and, in the 1990s, how the British Poll Tax was abolished. Some judges privately or even publicly support Extinction Rebellion in its aims and non-violence. But the problem now is time. It always has been.

In the eighties, climate crisis seemed so far away that no government interest would spend political capital addressing it. Now the climate is changing fast, how can democratic governments been made to move faster? A vote every five years is wildly out of sync with the pace at which every aspect of government, business and citizens’ lives must change — and for that government action is urgently needed. Far more than rhetoric, vague promises and toothless laws are required — but if the law is too slow, how do citizens drive adaptation faster?

From the many executives I teach and mentor, I know that corporations and governments are full individuals desperate for change, hungry for an opportunity to do the right thing: for themselves, for their organization’s reputation and their own, and most of all for their children and all future generations. They are as intent as any activist to get to work immediately adapting how we live and work to the crisis at hand. As one said to me, “when the going gets really rough, the climate falls apart, with floods and famine mass migration destabilizing the planet — what am I going to say to my kids? It’s like the old question: ‘what did you do in the war Daddy?’”

Few trust that corporations will honour the pledges they’ve made. They’ve seen how diligently tobacco companies sowed doubt, while hiding the facts about their manipulation of nicotine. The same playbook was deployed by energy companies denying the environmental harm of burning fossil fuels. Now, corporations make promises that they know the law can’t enforce and use shareholders as alibis, insisting that they can’t move as fast as they’d like because investors won’t support them. They regularly say (in private) that they wish government would take the lead, because then all companies would be held to the same standards. On that level playing field, shareholders would simply have to accept the costs of environmental adaptation as a fact of life. But government won’t risk political and corporate support to do so.

What we are watching is a global form of bystander behaviour, where everyone hopes somebody will do something, just as long as it isn’t them. The leadership vacuum has become blindingly obvious. Someone has to cut the Gordian knot and everyone looks to the left or right, hoping it will be someone else.

At COP26, there’s an opportunity here, for someone with the courage to seize the initiative. An opportunity to prove that, when need be, corporations, the law and democracy can legitimately respond fast. To demonstrate that there is such a thing as leadership in action. But until they do, activists will continue to show up for their day in court because, well, someone has to do something.



Margaret Heffernan

CEO of 6 businesses, her book WILFUL BLINDNESS was called a classic; her TED talks have been seen by over 12 million people. UNCHARTED is her new book.