The man orchestrating climate protest â¦ from a shed in the Hebrides
I n the past year, Roc Sandford has left the tiny Scottish island which is his off-grid home only once, to get a Covid vaccination. The rest of the time he has been alone with the birds, sheep and open skies.
His days are busy but evenings can be lonely; cooking for one is âvery sadâ, he says. At the moment, he is enjoying some wine sent by a friend, eking out the six bottles by sipping from a thimble-sized glass. Despite his commitment to a close-to-zero carbon footprint, he misses socialising with friends and family. âI work very hard and very productively in this beautiful, beautiful natural environment, without the compromises one has to make elsewhere. But I canât go to the pub.â
Sandford, 62, is speaking to the Observer from a small shed perched on a hill a few minutes walk from his house on Gometra, in the Inner Hebrides. Here he can pick up 4G from a mast on the neighbouring island of Coll, 20 miles away. The signal is his connection to the world, his four children and a network of environmental activists.
Just now, most of his time is spent on Ocean Rebellion, a sister group to the climate action organisation Extinction Rebellion. It uses disruptive, non-violent actions aimed at tackling biodiversity loss, overfishing, the impact of the climate emergency on the ocean, and deep-sea mining.
âThe oceans are dying, and if they die, we die. Ocean Rebellion has been set up to help stop it,â says Sandford. The group is challenging bodies such as the International Maritime Organization, which, he says, is in âcomplete denialâ over the climate crisis.
âI call them stealth organisations because very few people know about the IMO, and yet it has immense power over our futures, our childrenâs futures and the futures of people all over the world. And so we try to bring them into the limelight.â
Sandfordâs isolation on Gometra means he doesnât take part in what he calls âcreative actionsâ; instead he helps coordinate them from his communications cabin on the hill. âOrchestration might be an exaggeration â I am an instrument in the orchestra,â he says. âAnd basically everyone needs to be an instrument in this orchestra, everyone has got to start playing the tune.
âWeâre playing Russian roulette, with a gun pointed at our children, with five bullets instead of just one in the chamber, and we go on pulling the trigger until it goes off. Thatâs basically what climate and nature breakdown are.â
Stanfordâs adult children have taken up the baton of climate activism. One works at an environmental thinktank â âsolutions rather than protestâ â and the other three have all taken part in campaigns. His youngest, Blue, and her brother, Lazer, occupied a network of tunnels dug close to Euston station in London earlier this year to highlight the environmental destruction that activists say the high-speed rail link HS2 will cause.Itâs not about judgment, itâs about figuring out how we get out of this terrible mess that weâre all in Roc Sandford
In a television programme, Stacey Dooley Sleeps Over, to be shown at 10pm on W channel on 17 May, Sandford says the protest was âworth risking your life for â¦ if youâre really unlucky and you die, it was probably worth it in the fight.â Talking to the Observer, he explains: âI donât want any unnecessary risks. But if thereâs a situation where, to drive change, you have to take unavoidable risks, then yes, I think itâs valid to do so.â
Although he worries about his childrenâs safety, he points out that they were schooled in risk assessment while growing up on the island. âGometra is a dangerous place. They were brought up with me drilling safety into them. Theyâve brought that into their activism.â
Sandford first became aware of environmental issues during his own childhood when he saw farmers paid to uproot hedges to make agriculture more efficient. âI remember being completely miserable about it.â Later, he was radicalised over the issue of salmon farming, which he says is âdisastrousâ for both farmed and wild fish.
He sold some property left to him by his grandfather and bought Gometra almost 30 years ago. While his children were attending school â required by a court order â in London, he split his time between the two places, making the 17-hour journey by train, bus, ferry and foot. Gometra is now his full-time home, although he hopes to see his family in London and to visit friends in France this summer.Roc Sandford and his daughters Blue, left, and Savannah, right, with TV presenter Stacey Dooley, during the filming of Stacey Dooley Sleeps Over. Photograph: Robert Michael Wilson/UKTV
The island is stunningly beautiful but extremely basic: no electricity, running water, shops, vehicles or medical help. Sandford grows as much food as he can; additional supplies come in by ferry. He washes his clothes in a bucket of cold water, and wears layers to protect against the wind that sweeps across the island. His herbal tea froze in its mug last week, he cheerfully reports.
Is it easier to be environmentally conscious and reduce your carbon footprint if you own an island? âItâs a fair question,â he says. âIâm really conscious of both how lucky I am and how much further I have to go.â But, he adds, everyone can do their bit: drive less, fly less, eat less meat and fish, turn the heating down.
âI donât judge people. Itâs not about judgment, itâs about figuring out how we get out of this terrible mess that weâre all in. People need to first understand whatâs happening, understand how serious the breakdown of the climate and the breakdown of nature is. Itâs real and itâs coming for their children. It needs attention. So, understand first, and then talk about it, because the silence is lethal. Given what we know, I donât understand why people arenât screaming.â
In the TV programme, sisters Blue and Savannah talk about their decision not to have children because of the climate crisis. âDad is totally devastated,â a tearful Savannah tells Dooley.
Sandford confirms this. âI feel extremely sad about it,â he says. âI want grandchildren. My advocacy to [my daughters] is to have children; people have had children in very serious circumstances throughout history. So, yes, Iâm sad.â But, he adds, âItâs not just my children, there are loads of young women whoâve decided not to have children [because of the climate crisis], and we shouldnât be putting them in that position.âLost species day: celebrities to champion threatened wildlife Read more
Despite his daughtersâ decision and his childrenâs exposure to risk through their activism, he has no regrets about teaching them about the reality of the climate crisis. âWe need to know, everyone needs to know.â
He adds: âAs a parent, thereâs an invisible umbilical cord between you and your children. And thereâs a moment when you sense it going, when you sense their autonomy. Thatâs happened only recently to me. But I want them to follow their own path, whatever path that is.â
On where his own path is heading, he sounds a little uncertain. âI donât know what my future holds. Iâm extremely happy here, but thereâs loads of things I have to give up as well.â
Although the arrival of 4G was âtransformingâ, heâs glad he has to trudge up to his shed to access the outside world. âIâm lucky that it doesnât reach my house â it really works to not [be connected] unless you choose to be. But I think these days are probably numbered. Thereâll probably be a mast that reaches my house at some point. And that will be sad.â