Image: John Watson

Just Stop Oil’s Morgan Trowland: ‘This is more important than our individual lives’

Last year, Trowland and his fellow activist Marcus Decker scaled the Dartford Crossing to protest climate complacency. Now, from prison, he says it was worth it
December 6, 2023

Morgan Trowland never expected to be imprisoned for this long. He’d meticulously prepared for the events of 17th October 2022 alongside fellow activist Marcus Decker, tracing out each step at the local park. When the day of the protest came, the pair scaled the Queen Elizabeth II bridge without incident, unfurling their orange “JUST STOP OIL” banner, rigging hammocks and causing gridlock when the police closed the Dartford Crossing below. Everything went to plan… everything except the jail sentence. 

Trowland and Decker, sentenced to over two-and-a-half years each, have now spent roughly 400 days behind bars. “The UK legal system can be very erratic,” Trowland tells me, his voice distorted through the prison telephone. “It tries to be very cool and even handed when policing protest, then suddenly it loses its shit.” Trowland’s solicitor described the jail terms as “the longest ever handed down in a case of non-violent protest in this country in modern times.” Even the UN criticised the sentences for being overly severe. Rishi Sunak responded, calling the sentencing “entirely right” for “selfish protesters intent on causing misery”.

Prison has taught Trowland a lot. He’s learned how “people are cut off and made useless… with no avenue to give anything back to society.” As he turned off the lights one evening in London’s Pentonville, his cellmate—an alcoholic, former bank robber in his late fifties—muttered, “Don’t worry if there’s some claret in the morning… I’ll have bled out by then.” He stayed up all night counselling his cellmate, potentially saving the man’s life. Trowland has since been moved to a category C prison, Highpoint, in Suffolk, where he can pursue gardening and philosophy courses. 

Between horticulture, disappointing vegan meals and occasional exercise, Trowland, 40, has read 70 books this year—and it shows. Over the course of our interview, he references John Milton, Charles Eisenstein, David Graeber, Victor Hugo and Percy Shelley. Take a look at Trowland’s X account, and you’ll see a catalogue of handwritten notes and poems: “began talking to Coleridge…” starts day 337. You’ll also see a lengthy correspondence with a ghost from a distant, anarchist, utopian future. Trowland tells me the ghost is baffled by the concept of prison, despite ongoing explanations. 

The “emotional weight of rendering the rest of the world uninhabitable” first hit Trowland on a motorway bridge in Wellington, in Somerset. It was 2007 and he was returning from a viewing of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Then came “15 years of stewing psychological discomfort”, during which Trowland worked as an engineer in Canada, India and the UK, eventually becoming involved with Just Stop Oil’s progenitor, Extinction Rebellion, in the late 2010s. 

Trowland has read 70 books this year—and it shows

At first, Trowland had reservations about Just Stop Oil’s disruptive tactics of blocking roads and motorways but became convinced when he saw how many people were—however furiously—being engaged by the issue. After watching a clip of a female protester being aggressively nudged by a Range Rover, he decided he had to take action. “You could see that she just went calm, she knew what was happening and was ready to die. That’s how serious this is.” 

Just Stop Oil is unpopular: a 2023 poll by the University of Bristol showed that 68 per cent of people disapprove of the group. The government isn’t listening to them either. Only a few months ago, Sunak announced a major U-turn, watering down key green commitments. Trowland will soon be eligible for early release and I’m eager to know how he reflects on the success of the protest. Was it worth it? 

“It’s had a big effect on so many people: thousands of people have written to me… You have to demonstrate via actions that this is really serious and more important than our individual lives. I had an opportunity to demonstrate that as best I could, and I couldn’t look back and live with myself knowing I had that opportunity and turned it down.” When the hour mark comes, the line goes dead. A quick, “it’s done, I’m done” is all he can manage, then silence.