It is easy to pick holes in it. We can question tactics, timing, scope or messaging. But climate activism works. Over the past year, non-violent activism has increased awareness of climate change, so that many politicians now refer to it as the emergency that it is. Yet within a toxic economic system that requires us to borrow and grow forever, and a toxic media system that misleads us about what to blame and whom to hate, it isn’t surprising that rising awareness has not delivered change in our environmental impact. Nor has it triggered inquiry into why we got into this mess and how we might prepare as the climate gets worse for human habitation.
It is why we go again. This month, the non-violent civil disobedience campaign to demand government action on the climate and ecological emergency is calling on #EverybodyNow to take to the streets.
Some commentators in the UK, where the movement began, are asking whether now is the right time for disruptive tactics. But Extinction Rebellion has become a global movement that is rising again this month. It started in London, and Brits are playing a key role in waking up humanity, so can’t step down because of the current performance of our government. Our climate isn’t waiting for Brexit – or any political squabble. Whether wanting to leave or remain in the EU, all Britons want to eat well. After the rise of climate activism in 2019, British MPs admitted the country faces a food security crisis. Extreme weather has been damaging both domestic and foreign food production and increasing the risks that simultaneous crop failures in key exporting countries could make prices shoot up to unprecedented levels.
Extreme rainfall is another sign of the destabilising climate, with 150 flood alerts issued for the UK for the weekend before the #InternationalRebellion. More scientists are admitting publicly that they have been too cautious, partly because they were seeking to be relevant to mainstream policy makers. Climatologist Dr Wolfgang Knorr explains that such scientists should be the first to admit failure, recognise how scientists norms of communication have been counter-productive – and consider direct action to promote social and political change.
Since 1992 many thoughtful and well-meaning people have sought to find a balance between the environmental situation and the current economic system. The term for that agenda is “sustainable development” and is something I gave over 20 years of my working life to. The increasing damage to our food and property from extreme weather reminds us that nature doesn’t do deals with humanity. So while the British government huffs and puffs with pantomime patriotism, reasonable people are dropping the pretence that things can be fixed within this economic system, and taking to the streets is part of that awakening.
But climate activism works only so far. If the activism is limited to non-violent direct action, it doesn’t sink into the heart of the system, nor build the coalitions required for real transformation. In my speech at the launch of the rebellion in April 2019, I said that we should spread the rebellion into other aspects of life – including in our working lives. This month XR has backed TruthTeller to help that process. It is a platform for people working inside the system to safely and anonymously leak documents on aspects of our climate crisis to professional journalists. People working in commodities trading, insurance, re-insurance, amongst other sectors, will have access to information about how risky things are becoming, and it is time that this information is out in the open. Only then will be able to have the quality of dialogue about how to respond to a difficult future.
Whether people agree with XR or not, the future they warn us about is coming fast. This is not some distant apocalypse, but a living hell for many people whose lives are being trashed by extreme weather, and a daily anxiety for people who foresee imminent damage to our food systems and the likely ramifications. What is key is how fast we can come together to work out how to prepare for increasing disruption to food, water, finance and the international order. Writing in the Extinction Rebellion handbook, I explained that to #TellTheTruth on our climate emergency must now be warning people of these difficulties.
People will respond to disruption, and their fears of it, in many ways. There is a key role for religious leaders, teachers, therapists and many other professionals to help us engage each other with compassion, curiosity and respect, rather than let populists manipulate our anxieties. It is important that climate activists involved in XR, Fridays For Future, and other movements, call for both kind and fair adaptation to the disruptions from climate change. While rage is understandable and motivating, staying connected to the love of life that is the ground from which that rage springs will be essential if emerging leaders on climate change are not to compound the suffering to come.
That is where XR provides some hope. Like any movement that challenges the establishment, it will have attracted undercover agents from the police, secret services, and mercenaries for companies threatened by its goals. Despite #ExtinctionRebellion being the Western world’s most significant non-violent civil disobedience movement in a generation, toxic media will splash any image of isolated violence across our screens. Rather, they would do well to quote the “declaration of solemn intent” that XR activists recite at meetings and actions:
“Let’s take a moment to remember why we are here. Let’s remember our love for this beautiful planet. Let’s remember our love for all humanity in all corners of the world. As we act today, may we find the courage to bring a sense of love and peace and appreciation to everyone we encounter and every word we speak. We are here for all of us.”
Seven of the ten values of XR relate to how people in the movement engage everyone (including themselves) in ways that are kind and fair. It is something we have also focused on in the activities of the Deep Adaptation Forum. Now a network of over 10,000 people, with dozens of local groups around the world, people are joining because they want to explore how to prepare both individually and collectively, both emotionally and practically, for a likely collapse in our way of life due to climate chaos. Some participants are also involved in activism to promote government action on carbon emissions and drawdown. But they don’t pretend such activism means we do not need to transform our societies to be more kind, curious and fair as things begin to fall apart. Those who engage in the Deep Adaptation agenda exist within the shadows of a painful future more than the climate activist groups – but there will be a necessary coming together over the next months. The messaging and actions of climate activists, including XR, will need to include the kinds of values we want to uphold as climate chaos spreads.
The imperative of fair adaptation to our climate tragedy must now be heard. It is where the rich will pay more and change more. It is where people who lose their jobs or savings will be helped to adjust. Where people who struggle emotionally with sensing the difficulties ahead will be held. We must discover and nourish an emergency solidarity. And reject anyone who asks us to abandon our values or shrink our worldview due to fear.
There is so much to do that it can feel daunting. Perhaps impossible. One thing is certain. None of it can wait. Because the climate isn’t waiting. Nature doesn’t do deals with humanity.
To maintain and grow its work, the free Deep Adaptation Forum will soon launch a crowd-fund to pay living expenses of its core team during 2020. To receive an update on the crowdfund, plus a quarterly newsletter on the latest developments on Deep Adaptation worldwide, subscribe here.