The latest Movies that Matter looks at Wildlife presenter Chris Packham’s Channel 4 documentary as he weighs up whether it is morally conscionable to break the law to protest against the government’s environmental policies.

How will posterity judge climate activists? Will it view their armchair activism as futile? Their article writing as pointless? Their eagerness to remain within the legal system as cowardice, as misplaced confidence in a polity that doesn’t care? Their disruptions of the commutes of workers as ineffective when business tycoons fly across the globe signing new fossil fuel licenses?

Packham’s new documentary has positioned him within that very posterity. Sentences of sadness whirl around in an ambient echo as we see black oil drip down the broken expression on his face.

“What we are about to see is the painful soul-search of an anguished climate-depressive”

Packham begins in a disappointed state of self-reflection with the recognition of his failure as a climate activist.

Clearly, his activities within the realm of the socially acceptable, or the legal (Greta Thunberg points out mid-way that the law does not deserve the respect we think it does for “it does not protect ecology”) have had no effect.

Politicians and big business are so closely aligned that little-to-no action has been taken to seriously recognise the imminent danger we face, let alone do something about it.

At COP26, Packham watched in despair as David Attenborough’s speech was forgotten about when oil lobbyists entered the conference, allowed in by the countries which depend on them so heavily. He went home, by self-admission clinically depressed.

Enough with the law then. Enter Just Stop Oil (JSO). Any serious discussion of climate activism — not just the types that break the law — must refer to JSO, perhaps the most important development in climate activism in the past decade. Packham engages with them in a curious manner — is this what he should have been doing all along? Is it them that posterity will judge to be on the right side of history?

Not everyone however is a fan. Packham suggests violence against groups like JSO is conditioned by the right-wing media, and there may be some truth in this. Mostly though, it seems there is something simpler to the sections of the public’s dislike of JSO-type groups.

During a friendly discussion on JSO recently, when I backed them as effective in bringing awareness to a well-known but oft-ignored issue, a colleague of mine said that he gets what they’re doing, but why do they have to disrupt the lives of ‘normal people?’

Well, says Andreas Malm, and author of 2021 release How To Blow Up A Pipeline, my colleague may have a point.

Malm, a committed Marxist, points out that it’s not working people who have been enacting fossil fuel licenses and it’s not working people who have the power to stop oil. Climate activists must get the working class on their side, and act against the ruling class. Companies like BP will not be deterred by the blocking of roads. It is sabotage — for example, in the form of destroying pipelines which are essential for fossil fuel excavation — which is the next step. Malm writes in his book that the time for Gandhian, non-violent, civil disobedience style climate activism is over — it is time for sabotage.

This exposure to Andreas Malm, according to Naomi Klein, “one of the most original thinkers,” in the climate movement, is the most fascinating part of the documentary.

Packham, seemingly moved by this all, speaks to co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, Roger Hallam, who ends up daring him to get arrested. It is public figures who lead the way in times of crisis, Hallam says, and Packham is seriously contemplating a radical shift.

If we suspend our reckoning with this glaring bourgeois privilege of Packham’s to create a fully funded show to discuss his guilt and responsibility, the show functions as a piece of necessary and challenging documentary, one that may mirror many of the questions we have surrounding our actions as individuals. Packham ends with his informed opinion that those who are on the wrong side of the law are on the right side of ethics. Ethics or the law — is it time we pick sides too?