Jem Bendell presents to Extinction Rebellion on honesty about disruptions ahead

[Study Deep Adaptation with Jem Bendell for one time only in 2021, with an online course from the University of Cumbria].

On May 8th, Professor Jem Bendell joined a panel with Vandana Shiva, Brian Eno, and Charles Eisenstein, to promote the rise of Extinction Rebellion in the USA.

Rough transcript of the talk

“Just over two years ago the international rebellion in London brought the attention of the British media and public to climate change for a period of two weeks in a way I have never seen before in 30 years of working on the environment. I witnessed people in my field of corporate sustainability suddenly saying yes, it has become an existential crisis and we need the government to lead systemic change. 

Two years on, we can see that hasn’t happened. Carbon emissions are once again growing fast, while the destruction of natural habitats continues. That’s not surprising as the established elites in all countries that I know about have not tried to change the economic system which pushes us to continue that destruction.

That shows us something else now needs telling, publicly. It’s something I talked about when I spoke to open the rebellion in Oxford Circus. 

We gather and rebel not with a vision of a fairy-tale future where we have fixed the climate, but because it is right to do what we can. To slow the change. To reduce the harm. To save what we can. To invite us back to sanity and love. The truth is we are scared and we are brave enough to say so. The truth is we are grieving and we are proud enough to say so. The truth is we are traumatised and we are open enough to say so. We are angry and we are calm enough to say so and invite others to join us.” (Opening speech of the international rebellion of Extinction Rebellion in Oxford Circus on April 15th 2019).

After the speech a reporter from Channel 4 news came up to me. She asked if I would be interviewed by them? I declined. I didn’t want people sitting alone in front of their TV to hear in a 10 second clip that some professor says they will probably be hungry, sick, cold or unsafe within a decade from now, due to the breakdown of basic services due to the knock on effects of a destabilised climate. Part of my reticence was I don’t like to cause emotional disturbance. It can be hard to live with this perspective and also really hard to introduce people to it. But now, two years on, I see things differently. I think it is time for me and others to speak out more widely about the inevitability of disruption to societies and the need to prepare in myriad ways. 

So, why the change? There are two key reasons. 

First, recent surveys show that people are coming to this realisation themselves. I see their dismay and confusion in various ways in person and on social media. I know the succour people can find through community around this topic, where we support each other towards finding positive responses. That is going to reduce the likelihood we will be manipulated as we experience shock and confusion. 

A second reason is that various elites are already planning for the disruption, with values and aims that we need to hear about and probably to challenge. For instance, the armies of the world. In the UK the Ministry of Defense has a strategy unit which is working on the implications of climate change. In a report it discussed how the disruption to global supply chains from climate impacts means that it might need to take military action to secure access to resources that maintain its ability to fight. To go to war to be able to go to war. Imagine if the many of the world’s militaries are thinking like that? Things could be made much much worse by our reactions to the disruptions from climate change. 

Key therefore is for more people to engage in this issue. 

Sociological research has proven that academics and scientists are influenced by our institutions and professional cultures in ways that mean we are more likely than average to be deferent to power and reformist. That might be why we haven’t heard as much unvarnished truth from scientists as we could have, nor heard very radical ideas on the implications. Fortunately that is changing somewhat with over 500 scholars from 30 countries signing a international scholars warning to humanity about the likelihood of societal collapse.

However, our views are hardly covered. That is why there is still a role for XR. Nonviolent civil disobedience is a conversation starter not an end point. It can be an electric shock to the heart of democratic processes rather than a replacement for them. The body politic needs defibrillation. 

That means we have to tell it like it is, and not avoid the distressing emotions. Two years on from the launch of the international rebellion I still feel shock at the latest science and reports. I can’t look at it constantly. Sometimes it particularly disturbs me – especially when some scientists try to soften the news. One such moment was when in early April the Mauna Loa observatory measured rapidly increasing atmospheric carbon concentrations; the highest ever in human history, even after the Covid-related emissions reductions from humans. That means we are seeing evidence that we could have disrupted the Earth’s ability to regulate the co2 in the atmosphere. One way of processing that for me was to write a poem (read the poem An Ode to Mauna Loa). 

If you find some of the news and analysis unbearable then you are not alone. We can help each other become better at allowing our difficult emotions, to notice them, honour them as valid and helpful, but then breathe, move, notice also that right now we are safe and that we still have time to change our lives in response. It’s in communities of people who don’t pretend it’s less bad than it is that we can avoid getting stuck in either our aversion to emotional pain or our immersion in it. 

As I wrote in the XR handbook, I don’t think it’s helpful to say act now before it’s too late. Because it’s too late for so much already, while it’s never too late to do the right thing. It’s never too late to be awake to the social conditioning that has held us back from connection and care for each other and nature. The future is going to be more unstable in many ways for many people. Only thin convictions demand bright horizons to keep going. Deep convictions can last no matter how long we might be riding through a valley with disruption and death.

Articulating a deep conviction in respecting all life is key to the future of the environmental movement. If people think non violence is just a tactic, then as situations worsen, some people might consider other tactics. Instead, non violence can be upheld precisely because humanity is suffering not despite it. 

It also means more activists could campaign more on climate adaptation. Fair, transformative and deep adaptation to climate chaos. Helping people both now and in the difficult times ahead of us. So I hope Extinction Rebellion will bring that more clearly into its campaigning. I wish you well in your efforts in the USA.” 

Relevant reading

Launching a Scholars Warning initiative

Deep Adaptation – the book – June 2nd 2021

Should we discuss our anticipation of collapse?

Mother Earth Says #MeToo – XR Launch, London, 15 April 2019 – Professor Jem Bendell

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

If guys with guns are talking about collapse, why can’t we?