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Is Extinction Rebellion a waste of time?

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Apr 29, 2019
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Is Extinction Rebellion a waste of time?

This week, I watched the BBC documentary, Climate Change: The Facts, in which David Attenborough finally tells us how bad the situation is, like a genial family vet saying little Buster probably won’t make it.

It was hard to watch. I could only do it in 15-minute increments, then I had to look out of the window and slow breathe.

What are the facts? The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has more than doubled since the industrial revolution began. This has led to the planet becoming one degree centigrade warmer on average. We’re on course for a 1.5 degree rise in the next five years, according to the Met Office. And if we don’t limit our emissions, we’re set for three degrees warming by around 2050, according to estimates, although so far warming has happened faster than estimates predicted.

One degree warming has had fatal consequences around the world. Heat waves and droughts in Europe, Australia and India. Terrifying wild fires in Australia and California. Storms and floods in India, Mozambique, Mid-West USA. Ottawa, the flooded capital of Canada, just declared a climate emergency.

The arctic ice-cap is on average half the size it was eight years ago. Average sea levels have risen by four to eight inches in the last century, and are on course to rise a lot more, as the speed of ice melting increases. In Louisiana, they’re losing an area the size of a football field every day to rising sea levels. The oceans have become more acidic, and a third of all coral has died in the last decade. Half of the Great Barrier Reef died in the last three years.

Species are struggling to cope, both with the rise in temperature, the change in environmental conditions, and the continued impact of human consumption patterns. One in six species face extinction because of climate change, according to one study.

And humans are in trouble too, from the flooding of coastal cities, from the decline of arable land and the reduction of drinkable water. Hundreds of millions will be affected as things are…how do we cope with that number of refugees? How do we cope when things get warmer?

The best technology we have for carbon capture is forests. But we’ve already cut down half the world’s forests, and we lose about 27 soccer fields of forest every minute, replacing them with fields for cattle (which release a lot of methane) and palm trees for oil.

Unexpected feedback loops are now speeding up the rate of change. Scientists are particularly worried by the release of huge amounts of methane from melting permafrost. Methane is twenty times more potent than CO2 as a greenhouse gas.

It was a shock to hear Sir David Attenborough lay out the facts on BBC One. Is this for real? You’re saying there could be ‘societal collapse’? Why has it fallen to a wildlife TV presenter to tell us this?

It made me feel afraid, that we don’t have a hope, that we’re heading for catastrophe. Gaia theorist James Lovelock said we may have 20 years before climate change kicks in, there’s nothing we can do about it, so just enjoy the time we have left. That was 10 years ago.

But how can I carry on regardless? How can I live a life of meaning and purpose with that tidal wave approaching and roaring in my ears? What can I possibly do in response?

The programme ended with Greta Thunberg, the 16-year old Swedish girl, who declared a one-person school strike. Her example has since spread around the world.

She’s a strange, brave, awkward little human who is great at not sugar-coating her speeches to adults. I’ve found her example so heartening in the last few weeks. She’s an example of how one person, not an expert, can make a difference, through her focus, commitment and courage.

She was in London last week, visiting the Extinction Rebellion (XR) protests and speaking at parliament. She met with all the party leaders, except Theresa May.

She provoked surprisingly hostile reactions from some people. Right-wing politicians and columnists have not covered themselves in glory. They have said she has Aspergers (true, so what?), she’s the privileged daughter of a Eurovision singer (so don’t worry about climate change!), she’s the centre of a religious cult. A religious cult? All she is saying is pay attention to the science and respond accordingly. How is that fanatical?

The extraordinary XR protests of the last two weeks – closing off four major streets in London for 10 days – have also provoked strong reactions. There’s been a lot of sympathy, but some Londoners have also felt they were causing an unnecessary convenience. ‘You’ve made your point’, said Michael Gove. Now go home.

A friend of mine, no fan of left-wing social justice movements, said he feared XR was a totalitarian extremist cult, a form of eco-fascism (hence all the skull motifs).  

Is camping in tents for a few days an extremist response to the threats outlined above? If anything, it doesn’t seem nearly enough to me. You could accuse it of just being a form of therapy for the middle-classes. You’re not actually saving the world, you’re just doing something, so you can look yourself in the mirror, and grieve with others, like a cancer support group. But why must you have your cancer support group in the centre of Oxford Circus?

 And yet it isn’t just an exercise in personal therapy – although it is that, and that’s useful too. The cancer is not necessarily terminal yet. But we are sleepwalking, in deep denial, and we need to wake up. This is an alarm bell, a scream. The XR and the school strike protests have dramatically pushed climate change up the headlines and – maybe – up the political agenda. They are beginning to make climate change real to us, in our bodies and feelings, and that (I think) is why people are telling them to shut up.

I have been so impressed with the efforts made by people I know – one of my oldest friends glued himself to a lorry to help hold Waterloo Bridge on the first night. I saw another friend bicycling down Oxford Street, both arms outstretched in defiance. He handed out hot-cross buns on Easter Sunday to the protestors and cops, and went on LBC to defend the movement. Rupert Read, a fellow philosopher, went on the BBC Daily Politics to defend the movement and debunk the UK’s claims to be a leader in emissions reductions. Secondary school teacher Tim Cooke, led a protest outside the Department of Education two months ago, helped organize the Marble Arch blockade, and spent 10 nights there sleeping in a tent.

These are ordinary people who have stepped up in extraordinary times, sacrificing their time, comfort, income and even freedom to try and respond to the crisis.  If not them, if not you, then who?

Of course it's imperfect, of course the protesters are annoying and even ridiculous. We may feel ‘these are not my people’, but we don’t have the luxury of waiting. Environmental protests might not come naturally to us, let alone civil disobedience, but these are highly exceptional times, and we must all get out of our comfort zones and do something. 

But what are the movement’s specific demands? Is it achieving them, or is this just therapy?

First, XR demands that governments tell the truth on climate change. Be honest. Don’t leave it to a TV presenter to tell us our societies are under threat. Here, the response has been swift. Many cities around the world have already declared a climate emergency, and national governments are following suit - Scotland declared one today, as did Wales. The British Labour party looks set to declare one as well. However, this may be the easiest of XR's demands to accede to. Politicians could declare an emergency to win votes, and not actually do anything (after all, we've been declaring environmental emergencies for the last 50 years).

Secondly, XR demands a reduction of the UK’s carbon emissions to zero in five years. Impossible, say experts. No it’s not. Look how quickly governments reacted to the banking crisis, with bailouts worth trillions of dollars. If we could only care for our planet a fraction of the amount we care for our banks! Look how rapidly and utterly economies transformed themselves for World War Two. We can change very quickly, when we feel we need to. The question is not what is possible but what we feel is necessary.

Thirdly, XR demands a citizens assembly, to side-step the political impasse of parliament. I am wary of this, as it seems anti-parliamentary democracy (as does non-violent direct action for that matter). But an advisory assembly, advised by experts, unhobbled by special interests, could help push the country forwards in its adaptation.

There’s still all kinds of problems with the school strikes and XR. What about China, said Boris Johnson. What about America. All we can do as citizens in our countries is stand up, and hope it inspires other countries to do the same. It’s not perfect, it’s probably not enough, but it’s better than nothing.

And these protest movements can also help us prepare, in this country, for the next few decades of rapid change, adaptation and emergency management. We need to get ready, get out of denial and the freeze response, and into action. As a new Banksy graffiti at Marble Arch says, the time for despair is over, the time for tactics is now.

It’s a terrifying time to be alive, but it’s also exciting. And it’s not so different from other moments in the stormy history of homo sapiens, when this foolish ape has faced existential threats. Out of the most awful crises have come the most astounding leaps forward for our species - the Renaissance followed the Black Death. I have faith that this is one of those awakening moments.

We have ten years to change. What can we each do, individually and collectively, to help the work of the Great Turning? What can we change in our lives? How can we use the talents we have? How can we show up, stand up, and bring the best of us to this emergency?

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