The Weekend Essay: Some thoughts on Extinction RebellionPublished by MAC on 2019-08-31
Source: Counter Currents
The Future of the Climate Movement
The vigorous and invigorating peoples' movement called "Extinction Rebellion", which erupted in the UK earlier this year, is already prompting other forms of direct action around the world.
Not least by young people, like 16-year-old Swedish student Greta Thunburg who's emblematic of many thousands of her agemates.
This upswelling of anger and frustation is understandably also sparking criticism and, sometimes, physical assault on the movement's adherents.
The following article is offered to readers as, arguably, one of the more measured attempts to define what climate change rebels now need to analyse, and questions they should answer, before a still-sceptical wider public.
As author "Paul Adair" - a pseudonym - concludes:
" [T]he dilemma that the climate movement is probably going to have to face in the coming years: bringing humanity down to ‘sustainable’ levels of energy and material throughput in just a few decades, and maintaining it there, is most likely incompatible with democracy, freedom and openness.
"It probably won’t take long before the rebellion has to come to terms with this inconvenient truth".
Some Thoughts on Extinction Rebellion – and the Future of the Climate Movement
30 August 2019
The rise of ‘Extinction Rebellion’ signals that climate activism is moving
up a gear. Further radicalisation is probably inevitable.
Extinction Rebellion (or XR) is climate activism’s new face. One of its
new faces at least, together with the youth climate strikers.
The XR movement was created in 2018 in the UK with the stated aim of using
civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance to protest against man-made
climate change, biodiversity loss, and the risk of social and ecological
collapse. It has received the support of numerous academics, and has
organised numerous protests, blockades and occupations in recent months,
in London and other British cities. It has attracted significant media
attention and has probably already made an impact, including in pressuring
various local authorities and even the British parliament to declare a
“climate emergency”. It has started to expand beyond the shores of the UK,
but nevertheless remains a very British phenomenon so far, which has
already earned a place in London’s famous Victoria & Albert Museum…
Extinction Rebellion is founded on the “scientifically established” fact
that we humans are not only destroying the natural environment but are
also, on our current trajectory, headed for extinction in the not too
distant future. It aims to force humanity to take drastic action and
change course while its still can, meaning immediately. To this end, civil
disobedience is seen as justified and necessary.
Mass starvation and slaughters
A few days ago one of Extinction Rebellion’s founders, Roger Hallam, was
invited to the HARDtalk programme on the BBC.
During the conversation Hallam announced that new and massive disturbances
would take place in the streets of London in the next few months. He also
made a series of claims about what “science” allegedly says the future
will be like if drastic action is not taken now. The (climate) science, he
asserted, says that we’re heading for catastrophe if there is no
fundamental change in the structure of the global economy in the next ten
years, and that climate breakdown will destabilise societies and trigger
social collapse, creating mass starvation around the world. This mass
starvation, he said, will start in the next 10 years. Over the next
decades, up to six billion people could die from starvation or be
slaughtered, meaning that there could be only a billion people left on the
planet at the end of the century. All this is really what the science
says, he insisted.
Whatever one may otherwise think of Extinction Rebellion, the claims made
by Roger Hallam are not, as he contends, based on climate science. They
are based on extrapolations and interpretations that do not form part, as
such, of the ‘climate science consensus’. The models used by climate
scientists and the reports and scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change (IPCC) do not make it possible to assert with any degree of
certainty that mass starvation will start in the next decade or that six
billion people will die from starvation or slaughter during this century.
Hence, Roger Hallam’s claims have triggered some pushback in the climate
science community. These exaggerated claims, in fact, make Hallam an easy
target for climate change deniers, who can portray him as either a nutcase
who is just peddling fiction to foster “global warming hysteria”, and/or
as an unscrupulous political activist who (mis)uses climate science to
serve his political aim of overthrowing the current economic, social and
political order. Either way, his claims about what “science” allegedly
says do not necessarily serve the cause of climate action.
At the same time, using alarmism as a political tool is understandable,
maybe even justifiable. Climate activism, it has to be said, has so far
been a resounding failure, in the sense that despite all the awareness it
has generated it hasn’t changed almost anything to the world’s trajectory
of ever-increasing emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG). In order to
finally mobilise people on a wider scale and convince them that drastic
action must be taken urgently, the climate movement probably needs to step
up a gear. Making shocking claims about impending catastrophe can be one
way of doing so. When people start getting scared, it can be hoped, they
will maybe start moving…
This “be afraid, be very afraid” approach has already been tried of
course, in particular by American scientist Guy McPherson, who has for
several years now been warning about “near-term” (i.e. by 2030) human
extinction. This claim has gained him few friends in the scientific
community, and it has also failed to attract mass following – but that’s
probably because he offers no hope of salvation whatsoever: we’ll just all
be dead in about ten years time and that’s it… Extinction Rebellion, on
the other hand, seems to be more successful at attracting people and
having an impact on the public conversation, probably because the
movement’s claims are catastrophist rather than apocalyptic, as it asserts
that we can still change course and avert extinction if we really want to.
In his interview to the BBC, Roger Hallam declared, for instance, that “we
can do whatever we like in our societies if we’re prepared to undertake
the costs” or that the UK could be at net-zero carbon emissions by 2025.
These claims are no more supported by science than those about the
starvation and slaughter of six billion people in the next decades, but at
least they make it possible to spur people into some sort of action.
The relative success of Extinction Rebellion so far probably also owes to
other factors, including:
* the fact that the effects of climate change are becoming ever more
visible and palpable, as well as its consequences (including droughts,
conflicts, migrations, etc.);
* the considerable uncertainties that remain in climate science and the
numerous recent trends and developments that suggest that climate
change might actually be occurring faster than anticipated by the
‘consensus’, which tend to make the worst case scenarios (‘climate
breakdown’, ‘runaway climate change’, ‘hothouse earth’, ‘uninhabitable
earth’, etc.) more and more credible in the public eye;
* the increasing recognition that, despite all the official pledges and
international agreements, humanity is so far not deviating at all from
its path of continuously increasing GHG emissions; and
maybe also the fact that the UK is a country that is going through a
nervous breakdown over its exit from the European Union (EU) and seems
to have become a propitious place for the emergence and spreading of
radical political ideas and movements.
The science of overshoot
Of course, those who really do pay attention to the unfolding
environmental and societal crises know that climate change, despite being
now the main focus of activists and of popular attention, is only a
symptom of a wider ‘predicament’ that may be called ‘human overshoot’,
i.e. the crossing by humanity of multiple ‘planetary boundaries’, which
destabilises the Earth system and puts at risk the planet’s hospitality to
living things. This predicament cannot be understood through climate
science alone, and requires a much broader understanding of a myriad of
complex systems and of their interactions. Based on this broader
understanding, the claims made by Roger Hallam do not seem so implausible
anymore. The outcomes he predicts if we don’t change course are by no
means certain, but they are certainly within the range of possibilities,
regardless of whether humanity’s energy and material throughput continues
to rise as foreseen in most climate models and scenarios or becomes
constrained earlier than expected as a result of fossil fuel depletion.
The probability of their occurrence, in fact, tends to be rising over time
rather than decreasing.
Unfortunately, all this cannot be fully and unequivocally “demonstrated”
scientifically. Human overshoot and the very real risk of social and
environmental ‘collapse’ that it entails can be discussed and documented
at length, but any attempt at modelling the world’s complex systems and
their interactions can only be inherently partial and incomplete, and the
consequences and outcomes of human overshoot cannot be investigated and
tested empirically at any meaningful or reliable scale. To some extent,
there is therefore inevitably an element of “belief” in the minds of
people who think they have grasped the human predicament, and in the
predictions they make, publicly or not, about the future.
Overall, it therefore looks like Extinction Rebellion may be playing a
useful role in trying to focus more and more people’s attention on the
risks of our current trajectory and the need to change course drastically
and immediately. The movement and its leaders should however probably be
careful when claiming that this or that is going to happen by such or such
date because “the science says so” – and that’s also probably true for
Greta Thunberg, who seems to have a similar tendency. Science is never so
unequivocal as to support detailed and time-bound predictions about the
fate of the world. It’s probably always preferable for environmentalists
to avoid falling into what could be called the ‘Paul Ehrlich trap’… (with
all due respect to American biologist Paul Ehrlich, the alarmist
predictions he made in the 1960s and 1970s did more harm than good to the
cause of earth sciences, in particular by disqualifying for several
decades any serious policy conversation about overpopulation).
Extinction Rebellion, and climate activists in general, should also be
mindful that trying to scare people into action also conveys the
significant and inherent risk that scared people may move in the wrong
direction, i.e. towards survivalism rather than resilience, selfishness
and exclusion rather than solidarity, frantic resource-grabbing rather
than conservation, violence rather than cooperation, etc. The prospect of
ecological and societal collapse is apparently already being hijacked by
‘eco-fascist’ murderers, and it looks like parts of the political right in
the West may be in the process of flipping from denialism to the
instrumentalisation of climate change for their political aims.
As liberal democracy keeps degenerating and becoming dysfunctional and
unable to meaningfully address the various aspects of the human
predicament, it is therefore possible that more and more people may get
lured, in Western countries, towards some form of right-wing radical
environmentalism, which would somehow acknowledge human overshoot but vow
to reduce it by scrapping excess people from the surface of the Earth – or
at least preventing them from achieving or maintaining Western levels of
energy and material throughput. Faced with this prospect, the
radicalisation of left-wing climate and environmental activism is probably
inevitable, and Extinction Rebellion is only a step in that direction. The
“rebellion” might, at some point, realise that civil disobedience and
peaceful protests are insufficient to trigger the drastic and rapid change
that it seeks, and turn to more radical means of action. It may even morph
into some form of ‘eco-communist’ movement, willing to constrain people
everywhere into ‘sustainable’ levels of energy and material throughput
through prohibition and coercion.
Eco-communism, it has to be reminded, has somehow already been
“successfully” tried somewhere… in Cuba. As shown by his speech to the
Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, Fidel Castro was quite aware of humanity’s
ecocidal trajectory and of the forces leading to its possible extinction,
and it is therefore probably no coincidence if Cuba has often been
presented as “the most sustainable country in the world” in recent years.
However, the example of Cuba also shows that people can probably only be
constrained into ‘sustainable’ levels of energy and material throughput
through authoritarian means, in a closed and repressed society. As the
island opens up to foreign trade, investment and influence, its high level
of sustainability is actually sure to deteriorate.
This, in fact, is the dilemma that the climate movement is probably going
to have to face in the coming years: bringing humanity down to
‘sustainable’ levels of energy and material throughput in just a few
decades, and maintaining it there, is most likely incompatible with
democracy, freedom and openness. It probably won’t take long before the
rebellion has to come to terms with this inconvenient truth.
Paul Arbair is the pen name of a business and policy consultant with
almost 20 years experience in management and policy consulting, mostly
with the EU institutions.