In 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 “very sad”, 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. “I work very hard and very productively in this beautiful, beautiful natural environment, without the compromises one has to make elsewhere. But I can’t go to the pub.”
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.
“The oceans are dying, and if they die, we die. Ocean Rebellion has been set up to help stop it,” says Sandford. The group is challenging bodies such as the International Maritime Organization, which, he says, is in “complete denial” over the climate crisis.
“I call them stealth organisations because very few people know about the IMO, and yet it has immense power over our futures, our children’s futures and the futures of people all over the world. And so we try to bring them into the limelight.”
Sandford’s isolation on Gometra means he doesn’t take part in what he calls “creative actions”; instead he helps coordinate them from his communications cabin on the hill. “Orchestration might be an exaggeration – I am an instrument in the orchestra,” he says. “And basically everyone needs to be an instrument in this orchestra, everyone has got to start playing the tune.
“We’re 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. That’s basically what climate and nature breakdown are.”
Stanford’s adult children have taken up the baton of climate activism. One works at an environmental thinktank – “solutions rather than protest” – 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.
In a television programme, Stacey Dooley Sleeps Over, to be shown at 10pm on W channel on 17 May, Sandford says the protest was “worth risking your life for … if you’re really unlucky and you die, it was probably worth it in the fight.” Talking to the Observer, he explains: “I don’t want any unnecessary risks. But if there’s a situation where, to drive change, you have to take unavoidable risks, then yes, I think it’s valid to do so.”
Although he worries about his children’s safety, he points out that they were schooled in risk assessment while growing up on the island. “Gometra is a dangerous place. They were brought up with me drilling safety into them. They’ve brought that into their activism.”
Sandford first became aware of environmental issues during his own childhood when he saw farmers paid to uproot hedges to make agriculture more efficient. “I remember being completely miserable about it.” Later, he was radicalised over the issue of salmon farming, which he says is “disastrous” 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 – required by a court order – 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.
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? “It’s a fair question,” he says. “I’m really conscious of both how lucky I am and how much further I have to go.” But, he adds, everyone can do their bit: drive less, fly less, eat less meat and fish, turn the heating down.
“I don’t judge people. It’s not about judgment, it’s about figuring out how we get out of this terrible mess that we’re all in. People need to first understand what’s happening, understand how serious the breakdown of the climate and the breakdown of nature is. It’s real and it’s 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 don’t understand why people aren’t screaming.”
In the TV programme, sisters Blue and Savannah talk about their decision not to have children because of the climate crisis. “Dad is totally devastated,” a tearful Savannah tells Dooley.
Sandford confirms this. “I feel extremely sad about it,” he says. “I want grandchildren. My advocacy to [my daughters] is to have children; people have had children in very serious circumstances throughout history. So, yes, I’m sad.” But, he adds, “It’s not just my children, there are loads of young women who’ve decided not to have children [because of the climate crisis], and we shouldn’t be putting them in that position.”