Why the reaction to Extinction Rebellion reveals the scale of climate conflict to come

I’d like to spend a few hours inside the head of one of those commuters who faced some kind of disruption to their schedule due to the Extinction Rebellion protests last week. The sheer venom provoked by many of the reactions — cries that the protestors were alienating the very people they should be persuading — reveals the scale of the challenge, but also some of the core features that make climate revolt so worthwhile and necessary.

The daily commute, and the clocked, mechanical understanding of how time should govern our lives, was invented by the form of industrial capitalism that first took root in the British Isles, before it spread, largely through violence, all over the world.

The core appeal of coal as a power source was that it allowed capital to escape from the ebb and flow of nature. The great shift to burning coal, whether in the 19th century Britain or 21st century China, went hand in hand with the need to discipline a regimented workforce. Today, the erstwhile irate commuter cannot be late, because her time has become transformed into economic value.

With this alienation imposed by industrial capitalism seeded two hundred years ago, we can but wonder if there is still deep consciousness somewhere within our wrung out late-capitalist minds that realises things could be different.

With the essential need for an enormous shift away from carbon-burning today, a total reappraisal of what work is for will also be required. Along with single-use plastics and combustion engines, our current concept of work — primarily geared towards expanding levels of economic growth — will have to go. We must work less to save the planet.

This, I think, is one of the reasons why Extinction Rebellion provoked so much outrage and, in doing so, secured substantial attention for their cause. By shutting down key parts of London, a city so central in the industrial system that is heating our planet to breaking point, the message was simple: it doesn’t have to be like this. Millions, no doubt, will have been lost to the British economy as a result, but how do you put a price tag on such a vital message?

Messaging is the first hurdle the movement faces. The man-made climate crisis is a political issue like no other: a challenge so enormous, so fundamental, that it cannot operate within the frame of pre-existing norms of political debate.

On a basic level, communicating the impact of the crisis, after decades of denialism, is notoriously difficult. The current trend, for a rise of 1.5 degrees by 2030, implies consequences so stark, while also being a mere abstract number, that it floats away from the human, the digestible and the tangible things that are the meat of contemporary politics.

The challenge of mobilising people in the face of this mother of all deadlines seems at once so distant — and the individual consumer, or commuter, so hilariously small in the face of it — that a deep apathy seems almost inevitable. Probably best to keep your head down and hope that somebody else will sort it out.

As I write this, wildfires are raging on Scottish islands and on the Yorkshire moors — in April. But the shock of such spectacles doesn’t offer much of a spur to action either. The pattern for how climate will disrupt our world feels contradictory — a slow, sapping, irreversible trend, that also provides sudden compelling shocks that arrive in a way that can be read as essentially random. If these events are bad enough, we call them natural disasters. Heavily ritualised responses are lauded by the most powerful politicians in our world, who then go on to preach the mantra of business as usual.

There are three basic responses to this communicative challenge.

The first, and by far the most reckless, attempts to place a green gloss over business as usual.  As the path of least resistance, it is by far the most mainstream. It acknowledges the moral issue, talks a good game about responsibility, and feeds the lie that our current system can deliver changes that flatly contradict the way it operates.

Jobs, growth, living standards, the promise of continued cheap abundance, are the kind of fare that we’ve learned to cling on to as voters and citizens. Since the post-war era, people get promised things by politicians — cars, houses, foreign holidays, decent public services — all of the staples of the policies that are geared to improving standards of living via economic growth. The problem here, and it’s a particularly painful one, is that this politics was always underwritten by cheap natural resources, and plentiful carbon reserves to burn. As we see the self-evident failure of that system to improve living standards after 2008, the temptation to ditch serious commitments to decarbonisation becomes all the more tempting. All the while, the market is supposed to deliver, via some arcane series of mechanisms that will prevent the profit motive from pursuing its inexorable search for cheap inputs.

The second approach amounts to a kind of moral quest. The great and the good will be lobbied, at Davos, at the next round of climate talks, at the UN or the EU, to disturb the slumbering consciousness of the powerful. It’s a liberal fantasy, in which the magic tools of clever persuasion will be used to outfox ever more blatant evil. Clever, powerful, people will do this for us. The hollowness of this approach can be seen in the telling response to the Extinction Rebellion protests — those with power from across the political spectrum are among the most incensed. The reason is very simple. The narrative of that quest, with its fantastic idea of moderate, incremental change (in response to a crisis that is already underway) is the basis of what keeps these people in power. They need the legion commuters and the logic of the rat-race so evident in a city like London, because their power depends upon it.

Why the open hostility? The moment that one commuter thinks of herself as something other than a unit on her way to produce a certain quantity of economic value, things begin to open up. She stops simply being that small piece of a blatantly unjust system and potentially becomes all of the other things that we, as a society, have forgotten to value. A citizen, a carer, a member of a community: someone with a meaningful stake in the wider web of life on which London, the first serious burner of coal on an industrial scale, is ultimately built.

This sentiment underpins the third response, which Extinction Rebellion represents in a nascent but vital form: to embrace the power of disruption. This is to realise, with a  reasonable degree of historic certainty, that change only ever begins from below. It is not passed down in an act of benevolence. Change is won by making a crisis tangible and impossible to ignore.

Like a freak weather event, Extinction Rebellion opened up that brief window of freedom that occurs when business as usual, those great destructive networks that shape and deplete life, are shut down. In these moments we can walk about our streets again and consider how best to live a life that is not premised on the oppressive instant gratification of an ‘on-demand’ economy. Disruption is everything: through the actions of the protest, the goal becomes more realisable and evident. We do not have to live like this.

But within that moment of disruption, we can discern something better than just escaping our current reality: a reality in which expectant parents discuss, with a calm inevitability, the great loss that, on current trends, will be their offspring’s inheritance. A reality that has wiped out 60% of animal populations since 1970. Taking place outside of the cycle of this despair that now governs out lives, the moment of disruption reminds us that there is a better way to live. As a result, the solution to the great challenge becomes disarmingly simple: a society that cares more, works less, buys less, competes less — and is richer in every meaningful sense.

Comments (13)

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  1. Bert Logan says:

    I think the Jonathan Pie ‘rant’ painted the true picture of the medias inability to express the horror of Climate Change versus the ‘oh no, I might have to walk’ brigade.

    The idiots in charge just can see past their noses on the most important issue in history.

    1. Bert Logan says:

      “can’t”

      sigh

  2. Alistair Taylor says:

    Great article. There really is a better way to live. Your final sentence sums it up well.

  3. florian albert says:

    Most people in the UK have shown themselves unwilling to make significant changes in their lifestyle in response to the problem of climate change. Extinction Rebellion chose, last week, to follow a programme of direct action to try to change this.
    It did, as Christopher Silver writes, secure substantial attention. However, nearly all of this was negative and by the end of the week this negativity expressed itself in ridicule.
    ER must accept much of the blame for this. On TV in interviews, they came across in the same condescending manner as Hillary Clinton did when speaking of ‘deplorables’. The tactic of having a pink boat in the centre of London was the sort of idea that appeals to students but seems childish to others. Having a celebrity fly 6,000 miles to talk to the protesters was an open invitation to the charge of hypocrisy.
    There are parallels for ER’s behaviour. Its protest is similar to that of the Committee of 100 which opposed nuclear weapons in the early 1960s. It believed the world faced an existential crisis and that civil disobedience was needed. It fizzled out, not least because it lacked serious political support. This despite the active support of Bertrand Russell, a somewhat more significant figure than Emma Thompson.
    For Christopher Silver, ‘disruption is everything’. If he really believes this and acts on it, he will find himself short of company.

    1. ER have had many attacks and smears its true but also a huge uprising of support amongst the general public.

      The Committee of 100 of course morphed into the present day peace movement of which CND and Scottish CND are a huge and significant part.

    2. Support for Extinction Rebellion in the UK has quadrupled in the past nine days as public concern about the scale of the ecological crisis grows….

      “Since the wave of protests began more than a week ago, 30,000 new backers or volunteers have offered their support to the environmental activist group. In the same period it has raised almost £200,000 – mostly in donations of between £10 and £50 – reaching a total of £365,000 since January.”

      Yikes. I guess you could say, “sorry i got that completely wrong” Florian?

      1. florian albert says:

        I am less impressed than BC with the figure of 30,000 people offering support to Extinction Rebellion. After all, the population of the UK is well over 66,000,000.
        It seems to me a case of the activists rallying round.
        The Left repeatedly confuses activist support for mass support. RIC/RISE assumed that their successful mass meetings would translate into votes in 2016. The election proved to be a disaster.

        With regard to the Committee of 100 morphing into CND, the latter was set up in 1957 and the former in 1960. The Committee of 100 helped to marginalize the anti-nuclear campaign for nearly 20 years. It did so by using direct action tactics which lost public sympathy and support.

    3. Lynsey says:

      It hasn’t all been negative at all. 5 live, for instance, in the middle of the protests, spent one whole day a whole day – addressing not only the actions and demands of XR and the public response to them but all the ins and out of climate change, what needs done and what we can do. Even from within the skeptical and negative criticism of XR, more and more voices within the media are accepting we really need to address the situation. This is just the start of the change.

  4. Alistair MacKichan says:

    This is a good response to Extinction Rebellion’s action, and an affirmative read for those of us who are committed to an end to growth economics, and are seeking to implement sustainable lifestyles. The stirrings of conscience are many, even “legion” to mirror the article, but small personal acts are little more than symbolic. The system must change too, and that means that the ladder which gave present leaders success in the present arrangements will be broken down. This is where ER’s insistence on a Citizens’ Assembly is meaningful and appropriate. If our Parliament were to have the courage to devolve Climate Change targets to a Citizens’ Assembly, then a vigorous national debate would steer corporate national change. The surprise would be that new jobs would open up as the economy shifted onto new ground, and the attendant new lifestyle would be healthy and attractive. As one who has worked in agriculture with intermediate technology, I can assure Mr Silver that the population would NOT have to work less, simply differently: the decline of work is a dream of the technological mind, not the environmental. Florian Albert has commented that disruptive action will fizzle out, whilst offering no other solution other than, possibly, anarchy. The attempt to transition our society to a sound new era is brave and responsible, and ER have tried to do it: they also injected as much fun and colour into their protest as they could, which is how life should be, and our Bertie misses the point about the visibility and inoffensiveness of a pretty pink boat. ER have done well, but they will need massive popular support if the courts are to be kind to their martyrs.

  5. Alistair Taylor says:

    We need to start getting creative.
    Find the good things. Like having the time to talk with your neighbours, and helping people out.
    Walk to the store to get Mrs McLeod a glass bottle of milk, because her arthritic hip is bothering her, for example.
    Plant our own vegetable gardens and make soup. Cook and sew, pretty flowers grow. Etc.
    Take time to appreciate nature. Walk, cycle, and develop a public transit system, using electric vehicles.
    Have the time to enjoy life; all aspects of it. Meaningful and enjoyable work is not drudgery.
    Do more with less.
    EF Schumacher (Small is Beautiful, 1973) said that the purpose of the educational system should be to impart wisdom.
    Anyway, the public library is soon to close, so i’ll wrap up this comment soon.
    Thank you Elgin library, thank you for the splendid facility.

    1. Carol Laidlaw says:

      I would agree, except that Small Is Beautiful is horribly dated on account of its sexist attitudes. E.F. Schumacher openly states in it that there should be a division of labour with women restricted to doing their ‘natural’ work of raising children and home-making. Ha! I read the book twice, years apart. The second time, I threw it away in disgust. Some of his ideas still have merit, but they need to be detached from the crap ones. I know a number women besides myself who would laugh their drawers off at the notion that their ‘natural’ work is raising kids, as though that was the only thing they were ever capable of. And that includes the ones who have had kids.

  6. Mark Bevis says:

    It doesn’t matter if climate change is something you believe in or not, this is worth an hour of your time to understand the predicament we are in, with climate change hardly mentioned at all:

    https://youtu.be/kZA9Hnp3aV4
    (Surprised this hasn’t had any more views)

    The four horsemen of the apocalypse are:
    1) over-population
    2) over-population
    3) over-population
    4) over-population
    Although with over-breeding within the Apocalypse community, it’s more like 12 horse-persons of the apocalypse.
    I’m not sure XR is quite getting this over.
    A mere 3% economic growth (sort of seen as a minimum by most politicians, “journalists” and economists) is a doubling every 24 years. That’s double the amount of energy used per year, double the amount of resources extraced and used, double the amount of work hours, or rather, an increasing workload for the working population at less pay. And more resources used in that 24th year than in all the years previous added together.

    Infinite growth on a finite planet is idiotic, probably fatal and certainly fatal for 90% of life on this planet, unless we find another similar one within sub-light speed distance within the next 20 years, then 10 years, then 5 years, and so on.

    So when grumpy establishment clone complains about “disruption” this is nothing compared to the disruption that will occur if we don’t come to a full stop and completely re-evaluate how our society is going to exist going forward. The least worst model I’ve seen is described here:

    https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/peter-gelderloos-an-anarchist-solution-to-global-warming

    Although, the title is now outdated, as there is no solution to global warming.

    I have watched the XR occupations with bemused detachment I’m afraid. It’s great they are happening, but I still feel a disconnect. With looking climate change/environmental destrction/data news every day, somehow it feels as if they are still behind the curve as to the level of the predicament we are in. I suspect that is because they have to explain it in language that the nodding donkeys at oil companies and MSM can understand, without overloading them with data. And the predicament we are in crosses so many information silos, crosses so many scientific methodologies. Joining the dots between say Arctic ice loss and species co-extinctions for example, is there an elequent spokesperson on that?
    In addition, there seems to be no extinction rebellion here in the wasted northlands of England, where 9 years of austerity has done a good job of disrupting the population without XR’s help.

    For 14 million citizens of the British Isles, the “disruption” foisted on Londoners is mild compared to the disruption of low wage insecure work, food banks, sanctions, pointless PIP assessments, the Department of Worry & Persecution, Universal Credit, zero-hour contracts and local councils suffering 70% real-term cuts in a decade.
    Many within that disunited community of 14 million in poverty may well be sympathetic to XR’s message, but their ability to be empowered to “rebel” has been devoured by 40 years of neo-liberalism, the disease that has brought the planet to the state it is now.

    I didn’t watch much of the news coverage from London, but one clip I saw was the MSM interviewing a man in a taxi stuck in a traffic jam. Broadly agreeing with the disruption despite it making him late for his meeting. But did he pay the driver for the fare so far then get out and walk to his destination? Of course not….. and the whole article was about the disruption, not the protesters demands. (probably BBC)

    But regardless, I’ve always thought XR’s call for Citizens’ Assemblies is the most important part of their call.
    The way forward then, is to perhaps just go ahead and set them up, instead of waiting for permission from a government that wants global warming to happen so that their sponsers can exploit resources in the Arctic and Antarctic. Rather than dwell on the problem, dwell on the, well I was going to say solutions, but there are none, so say dwell on the mitigation process going forward. And finding an elequent expression for that process that people will be drawn to.

    But it is essential that the currently dis-empowered are included in those Assemblies, and encouraged and facilitated to join in. Many will fear losing their job or state benefits if they did take out a few hours on an afternoon to join one. These hurdles must be overcome, otherwise it runs the risk of being another elitist talking shop within the Everton Window.

    1. Mark Bevis says:

      Oop, wanted to edit my post.

      “With looking climate change/environmental destrction/data news every day, somehow it feels as if they are still behind the curve as to the level of the predicament we are in.” Or maybe it’s just I’m a smug git who thinks he’s heard it all already, huuummm.

      It seems, scientists are now getting the message to the UN:
      https://bigthink.com/stephen-johnson/scientists-to-un-to-stop-climate-change-modern-capitalism-needs-to-die

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