As non-violence is non-negotiable we must have tough conversations

The commitment to nonviolence in climate activism and deep adaptation is a central principle and we must criticise anyone who suggests otherwise. The risks of tolerating any deviation from this principle are too great & therefore we have no choice but to risk painful reactions, even from colleagues, when confronting it.

Trying to reduce harm and the antecedents of harm during societal disruption and collapse is not going to be pretty. I launched the Deep Adaptation Forum (DAF) as a safe space for people to help each other process difficult emotions and work out what next in life to reduce harm, save more of the natural world and seek meaning and joy in the process. It has been wonderful to see the voluntary commitment from people around the world to grow the activities. I left the daily operations in September 2020 and on February 8th this year I tendered my resignation from DAF’s non-executive board, called the Holding Group. That is the final step of me stepping away, in line with my knowledge of the research that shows we humans are susceptible to the counterproductive self-infantilising process of arguing about ‘leader’ character and views rather than taking responsibility ourselves. I am delighted that two experienced women from the Global South have agreed to be nominated in my place and look forward to seeing them communicating about Deep Adaptation.

In 2018, before backing the launch of Extinction Rebellion I checked with the founders that they were committed to non-violence, which they confirmed with firm philosophical conviction and in their communications. Then when we launched the Deep Adaptation Forum in 2019 we made nonviolence and avoidance of hate speech central principles and the moderators of the platforms kept a beady eye on that. Scientists Rebellion which launches next month is also committed to non-violence. I will be joining many scholars in a 4-day solidarity fast to support their effort at a wake-up call through non-violent direct action.

Why is non-violence so important? For many reasons. First, because we have lots of history to see how ideologically views can provide cover for terrible violence. Second, because we are entering a period of global disruption, and people are rightly feeling more vulnerable and will therefore be susceptible to narratives of hate, blame, self-preservation and retribution. The Deep Adaptation Forum exists to invite people to find and support a more kind and wise response to those feelings of vulnerability. Third, non-violence is logical, as the people who share our views do not have access to the means of exerting force on others. So if there is a real fight, we lose. Fourth, non-violence is inclusive. In my time with the anti-globalisation movement, I saw how the anarchist black bloc tried to incite violence against peaceful protestors in order to radicalise them, and yet it simply prevented many people who were elderly, younger, weaker or from marginalised groups from protesting in future. Fifth, non-violence is important for an initiative’s survival. If a group doesn’t police itself to prevent calls or plans for violence, it will likely get shut down. That is why there were state-backed infiltrators in the anarchist black bloc, to try and instigate violence to then legitimise state repression of the wider activist movement, as I saw on the streets in Genoa in 2001. Sixth, because in the face of the awful destruction of life on Earth, and our increased vulnerability, the question of what it is we most want to live for tends to arrive at universal love. That means we no longer have the delusions of othering and hatred which reduce people to objects for violence.

The strategic importance of non-violence has grown as governments are increasingly trying to criminalise and suppress radical critiques and protest movements. In the UK, one report by a former head of counter terrorism, argued that the non-violent Extinction Rebellion should be treated by the state like they treat terrorist groups. That report identified myself as one of the main intellectuals inspiring the movement. On the one hand, such a report is ridiculous, as anyone who looks at either Extinction Rebellion or me will know how nonviolent we are. On the other hand, this means that I have no choice but to be extra vigilant about anyone directly or indirectly associated with me who might imply that violence is acceptable, and not only talk about it privately, but condemn it publicly and recommend action be taken. Anything less would risk sabotaging the efforts of the hundreds of amazing activists and volunteers working in the fields of climate activism and collapse readiness.  

So why do I say trying to reduce harm and the antecedents of harm during societal disruption and collapse is not going to be pretty? Because at times we will have to challenge people about their views, and risk uncomfortable conversations and bad reactions. When you anticipate not growing old, due to climate chaos, then it feels doubly sad to engage in inter-personal squabbles. And yet staying silent to have an easier life is not an option in a world where people promote hate and violence, sometimes compulsively due to their psychological wounds.

In the 2 years of the Deep Adaptation Forum existing, I have rarely seen anyone speak of anything close to acceptance of violence as a method of change, and they were warned and removed from the platforms. However, the wonderful volunteers can’t check the communications of people within the Deep Adaptation field for their communications outside of its curated platforms. So what do we do when we see people we have met or worked with in the field of climate activism promoting or tolerating violence elsewhere?

I think we call it out.

That is not enough, but it is a first step.

On twitter, someone I know through the Deep Adaptation field invited people to debate whether non-violence is unhelpful, by promoting an event that explored the issue. The organisers said: “new generations in the environmentalist movement have been convinced that a rigid adherence to non-violence is the only way forward. That’s why we are gonna talk with Peter to challenge these ideas and offer an alternative perspective on the discussion between non-violence and diversity of tactics.” Such a statement is clearly ridiculous, because when there are any violent tactics, the state uses that fact to shut down the diversity of non-violent tactics as well. And you know what? Smart radicals know that.

Is silence around violence an option? If not, then is silence around the incitement of violence an option? No. But what is the best way to respond?

I believe that anyone expressing a view that is violent or indirectly supporting violence should be engaged so that there is a chance for learning and healing. So for the person who tweeted (not just once) this event and these views on violence, I hope that there will be conversations, learning and healing. Therefore, I will send the relevant information to the key people so they can consider the matter.

However, as well as such dialogue, I also believe that we must prioritise the integrity of the nonviolent spaces and movements we contribute to, and therefore people who promote violence should not have any position of responsibility in any initiative in the field of climate or collapse readiness. Attempts to frame that as ‘tone policing’ people for not being sufficiently polite or calm, would be disingenuous. You might shout at someone with abusive words, but when you suggest someone should be hurt, that is altogether worse and you should be isolated from influence on others, until you think again about where that hate is coming from and what it is serving.

I don’t believe in public shaming, but I also see an important role for all of us to challenge specific instances when we see them, including via blogs and social media. I will do so in general, as I have always done. In addition, given all the reasons I have explained above, if I see violence being tacitly or explicitly accepted by people involved in any networks that I am involved in, then I will challenge it more fully, as I am doing today with this blog and by alerting the relevant moderators or organisers. I can continue to do that without any official role, just like any of you can.

I realise that such public challenges may remove the opportunity for my own reconciliation with the people involved or their friends. I am sad thinking about that – how have I arrived at such a place where I feel I should act in ways that means some people will become angry or upset with me? On one level, this doesn’t feel like the more beautiful end of the world (of consumerism) that my heart knows is possible. Yet, on another level, it’s a realisation that living my principles during the coming disruptions is going to bring both ups and downs, and I will make mistakes. In reflecting on this matter, I decided that a strong stand on the general principle of non-violence is an important complement to showing up in open-hearted dialogue with people I disagree with.

In closing, I want to note here that the antecedents of violence lie within the way we label people, and reduce them into categories, rather than see them for their full humanity. It is why the Deep Adaptation Forum has prioritised certain modes of facilitation. Therefore, we can all be vigilant, myself included, in learning about the ways we might be participating in, or tolerating, ways of communicating that reduce the dignity of another person or group of people. One of these instances happened for me recently. I had thought that during a Q&A when Dr Rupert Read talked about lifeboats as a metaphor for local resilient communities, that he was talking about helping people everywhere create self-sufficient means of escaping industrial societies. In the interview with him we discussed how working on such self-sufficiency can be in solidarity with people doing the same thing the world over. It can also mean we become less reliant on other countries’ resources – often exploitatively obtained. That is how I have heard him talk about the topic before, and it seems in-line with the efforts towards relocalisation the world over. I also know how a fellow member of the DAF Holding Group explains how her local community think of themselves as creating ‘lifeboat’ communities of self sufficiency that will be ready for the flood of incomers from the cities. Her ‘prepping’ is a prepping to be able to take care of more people, not keep them out. Some may think her naïve, but I love her courage, caring, vision and action.

However, it was recently pointed out to me that some environmentalists talk about lifeboats in a way that suggests, by extending the metaphor, that we have to let people drown, or that they may have to become gunboats to do that. I was not up-to-speed with how the ‘lifeboat’ metaphor can be used to justify defensive xenophobic attitudes, which would be the antecedent to justifying future violence. Excusing violence due to climate change is something I have been concerned about, especially since I learned that our militaries are considering future wars in the face of collapsing global systems. As a result, I have agreed to participate in a workshop on the matter with members of the Diversity and Decolonising circle of DAF, and in the meantime have deleted that section of the interview. After I have done the workshop, I will also be reaching out to Rupert for a conversation about the topic. I will share the results in a future blog. However, in this case, Rupert was not talking about violence, and he has been explicit about the need to seek to reduce harm and avoid fascistic responses as societies come under strain. It is likely we will find colleagues of ours who disagree, call us naïve, and we will have to have more uncomfortable conversations. But we must be ready for that. And I must be ready for people to call me out if ever I slip up. As non-violence is non-negotiable, we must have tough conversations.

If interested in how this topic relates to matters of social justice in Deep Adaptation, I recommend interviews with DAF Holding Group members Professor Vanessa Andreotti and Skeena Rathor, where we talk about the importance of healing from centuries of violence. I will be learning more about healing inherited and ancestral trauma from psychologist Nadine Andrews in my next Deep Adaptation Q&A series.