24 april 2019

Our ruined, lifeless planet

James Butler, London Review of Books, April 24, 2019

Thinking seriously about climate change can bring on two distinct but related feelings. One is a sense of the disorienting triviality of most political conversation, like someone fretting about a chipped nail when their hair is on fire. The other – in the face of ubiquitous single-use plastics, or headlines about vanishing insects, new Arctic tipping points or acidifying oceans – is despair at the scale and speed of change needed.

Assuming you don’t accede to a burn-the-planet hedonic nihilism, the possible responses to the problem of speed and scale fork along two paths – one legislative, one extra-parliamentary. The legislative path assumes that the power of the state can be used to reform and constrain major emitters; it is encumbered by the slow-moving machinery of democracy, and the dilution of achievements by powerful hydrocarbon interests and delinquent nation states. Extra-parliamentary movements – such as the Camps for Climate Action – have been able to act quickly, leveraging press attention and sometimes slowing down or stopping extraction or pollution at a single site, while pointing to a systemic problem that conventional politics can’t overcome. Such movements tend to be unable to translate their brief exercises in autonomy into lasting political gains, or act at the scale needed, and are usually subject to state repression of varying degrees of brutality.

Extinction Rebellion takes the second path, sceptical of formal politics and mass media, convinced that direct action and a new kind of democracy – one of the group’s demands is for popular assemblies – are needed to tackle the problem. Its critics have left no cliche unmolested: Sky’s Adam Boulton (Westminster School, Christ Church) worked himself into a populist fury at ‘middle class’ protesters; David Blunkett, reminiscing in the Daily Mail about his years as home secretary, called for the ‘full force of the law’ to be used against them; Julia Hartley-Brewer meditated on running through their blockades in her car. Perhaps the most tin-eared response came from London’s anodyne mayor: Sadiq Khan insisted that he was very worried about the climate, but it was time to return to ‘business as usual’. An XR mole in his communications team couldn’t have handed them a better soundbite.

More substantial criticisms concern the group’s strategic relationship to the police. XR protesters differ from their recent predecessors in their active courting of arrest, and their ingenuous friendliness to individual officers. The hope is that the arrests – of smiling grandmothers, suburban priests and worried doctors – will generate moral force and public outrage. For veterans of the climate movement whose friends, comrades and lovers have turned out to be undercover officers this leaves a sour taste, underestimating the risks of arrest and misunderstanding the nature of policing. So far, however, it has had at least two interesting consequences: the tabloids have been starved of ‘violent protest’ stories, and the Met’s preferred tactic against protest – arrest a few demonstrators to encourage dispersal – didn’t work, allowing the group to hold Waterloo Bridge and other sites for the best part of a week.

XR’s strategy, though it appears to break a number of recent activist taboos, echoes the earlier strategy of the Committee of 100, the non-violent direct action group that emerged from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament under the tutelage of Bertrand Russell. ‘Our movement depends for its success on an immense public opinion,’ Russell told the Guardian in 1961, ‘and we cannot create that unless we rouse the authorities to more action.’ Ralph Schoenman, his secretary, saw the strategy as forcing the government to choose between ‘either jailing thousands of people or abdicating’. It worked for a time – Russell’s articulate moral authority and the willingness to face arrest stirred up a sedate public – but foundered once the police learned to split up and isolate the movement’s leaders, while dangling the threat of much more serious charges over the heads of their sympathisers.

Strategic lessons aside, the movement against nuclear war offers one of the few models for political activity appropriate to the scale of climate change. Taken to its intellectual conclusions, as in E.P. Thompson’s writings on ‘exterminism’, the anti-nuclear campaign offered an avenue for the development of an ethics counterposed to the world-system that had generated the nihilistic madness of mutually assured destruction. The best anti-nuclear works took aim at the popular postwar belief in a strong, heavily armed state and all that underlay it; the best works on climate change, too – Mike Davis’s ‘Who Will Build The Ark?’, for instance – combine the reality of global warming with attempts to imagine the world without the doctrine of private luxury and personal accumulation that undergirds much of contemporary capitalism.

Recent political responses to climate change – including the ‘Green New Deal’ – have ignored such reflections in order to propose relatively pragmatic measures to stem the worst effects of climate change, while leaving the door open to wider systemic change. Here the limitations of the legislative sphere reassert themselves. Walking across Waterloo Bridge last week, I wondered if that pragmatism was sufficient. Apostrophes to Gaia may be tiresome, but policy alone will not lead to the necessary reimagining of values. One thought to begin with may be with Russell’s message from prison, later in 1961, on the real stakes of nuclear disaster:

"Our ruined, lifeless planet will continue for countless ages to circle aimlessly around the sun, unredeemed by the joys and loves, the occasional wisdom and the power to create beauty which have given value to human life. It is for seeking to prevent this that we are in prison."

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