Is Extinction Rebellion the answer to our prayers?
Throngs of young (and not so young) people refusing to pretend that the human race is not in the most serious crisis it has ever faced. Traffic blocked, buildings shut down, people gluing themselves to airplanes. A radical demand that is so simple, direct, and if you stop to think about it horrible that we have to ask for it: “Governments, tell the truth to the people.”
There is no question that mass civil disobedience has had many successes in the past. From the American civil rights movement to political transitions in countries as disparate as India, Poland, Argentina, and South Africa., tyrants have fallen, colonial powers have been chased out, previously denied rights have been extended, and democracy has been expanded. And all this with considerably less violence, innocent death, and legacies of communal bitterness than typically accompany civil wars or bloody revolutions.
As someone who has been writing, teaching, speaking, and despairing about the global environmental crisis for almost thirty years, it is thrilling to see that we are–finally, finally!—beginning to give it the attention it deserves. And that Extinction Rebellion—and similar movements like Sunrise and 350.org—are no longer relegated to second (or third)rate status in the litany of political groups. As well, to greater or lesser degrees these contemporary environmental movements recognize that as universal as the environmental crisis is, it affects different communities differently. Poor and oppressed people are suffering sooner, and more, than the rich and powerful. And will continue to do so unless the entire global ecosystem collapses—an unlikely, but not impossible, outcome.
And yet even as I thrill to Extinction Rebellion’s exploits some nagging concerns bother me.
First: the magnitude of the changes needed to avoid utter climate catastrophe are so enormous that appeals to the past effectiveness of civil disobedience may not be germane. Countries can switch rulers, expel foreign colonialists, institute voting—but none of those require shifts in eating (i.e., getting off meat), transportation, manufacturing, and daily energy use.
Second, political victories over entrenched forces typically require a concomitant loss of legitimacy of the current system. People have to believe the power of the current regime is not just, competent, or concerned with the interests of the rest of the population. As modern capitalism, in all its varieties, continues to more or less deliver consumer goods, media distractions galore, and ever more powerful weapons, it is hard for broad masses of the population to commit to a thorough shift in social and economic priorities.
Third, an adequate response to the environmental crisis is moral, spiritual, personal, political and also technical. Dismantling segregation in the Deep South of the U.S. or removing the Communist Party from power did not require technical innovation on a grand scale. Facing the climate emergency does. For one examples: While we can be justifiably thrilled by ever cheaper renewable energy, think of all the heating systems that will have to be retrofit to utilize solar or wind. Climate activism must activate a broad range of technical experts, most of whom are currently employed by corporations causing the crisis.
As well, the very scope of needed changes suggest the need for the broadest possible coalition of forces. That’s why it is heartening when a clearly ruling class figure gives support to radical environmental forces—e.g., the British hedge fund magnate who donated a half million pounds to Extinction. Yet how many such people will there be? And how many will support—or even tolerate—an environmental movement that pursues (for example) a reduction in consumption. When Apple tells you how green they are, will they ever suggest that you wait much longer before you buy a new phone?
Finally, as bold, exciting, and headline grabbing as mass civil disobedience is, how would it compare for long term effects with just going house to house and talking to people? Suppose thousands of activists descended on a neighborhood and patiently, personally, clearly explained what was going on? Would people refuse to talk to them? Would the direct and personal contact be more effective than finding themselves in a traffic jam caused by protestors when they were trying to get to work or take granny to hospital?
Really, I don’t know. We can only be sure which political strategies were effective afterwards. Long discussions of what we should do now, typically shaped by our views of the past, are rarely (if ever) of much use.
In the meantime, thank all the good spirits that something, anything, is happening. It’s already too late for all the species we’ve eliminated, for the millions of climate refugees and flood and drought victims, but it might not—it just might not—be too late for all the living beings who are left.
Roger S. Gottlieb is Professor of Philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (USA). Author or editor of 21 books of political philosophy, ethics, environmentalism, religious studies and fiction, his most recent is Morality and the Environmental Crisis (Cambridge University Pres).