Resistance in the Anthropocene

Should we turn to civil disobedience to avert looming ecological disaster?

Extinction Rebellion on the streets of London. Credit: Shutterstock.

People in the UK just experienced a weird, time-shifted summer — in the final two weeks of February.

In west London the temperature peaked at 21.2C. That’s the hottest February day ever recorded in the UK, and the first time a temperature above 20C has been seen in winter.

The February summer wasn’t limited to Britain. Amsterdam also recorded its hottest ever February day, with a peak temperature of 18.4C.

The sudden shift in temperatures was so extreme that climate scientists struggled to analyse it. Dutch scientist Geert Jan van Oldenborgh said that according to current models the probability of a 21C February day in London was close to zero:

‘This is an incredible jump in record temperatures. If you asked me a few months ago, I would have said it is ridiculous…It’s at least a one-in 200-year event, but it could be more because my statistical tools break down.’

Extinction Rebellion was founded in London in 2018. It is an international movement for direct, non-violent action to avert ecological collapse.

The movement was launched by a letter signed by a host of leading academics. It’s worth quoting from at length:

‘Humans cannot continue to violate the fundamental laws of nature or of science with impunity. If we continue on our current path, the future for our species is bleak…When a government wilfully abrogates its responsibility to protect its citizens from harm… it has failed in its most essential duty of stewardship. The ‘social contract’ has been broken, and it is therefore not only our right, but our moral duty to bypass the government’s inaction and flagrant dereliction of duty, and to rebel to defend life itself.’

Among the movement’s demands are ‘legally binding policy measures to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025’ and the establishment of a new national Citizens’ Assembly to oversee climate action.

Extinction Rebellion activists. Credit: Shutterstock

The movement held a Rebellion Day in London in November; more than 6,000 people turned out to block the five main bridges over the River Thames, causing disruption for several hours. There were over 70 arrests; many members of Extinction Rebellion say they are prepared to go to prison as a result of their action. Similar days of resistance are planned.

The movement is leading a new wave of direct action on the environment. Schools 4 Climate Action has seen tens of thousands of pupils in Germany, Sweden, Australia and the UK absent themselves from classrooms and march for action on climate change. Meanwhile, nascent group BirthStrike represents people who say they won’t have children in the face of what they believe is likely and imminent environmental and social breakdown.

When is rebellion against your own government justified? That question haunted the thinkers at the foundation of modern political philosophy.

In the dark masterpiece that is The Leviathan, published in 1651, Thomas Hobbes infamously told readers that direct action against the state can never be right. John Locke replied with Two Treatises of Government, which argued that citizens have a right to overthrow a government that fails to protect their life and liberty. It’s from Locke that people in the west indirectly take much of their understanding of how citizens stand in relation to the state.

The shadow that haunted Locke and his contemporaries was one familiar to any reader in the 17th-century. That is, tyranny: the frightening possibility of an unjust king who abuses his subjects.

Today, we live under a different shadow. The shadow of looming and self-inflicted ecological catastrophe. We are having to adjust ourselves to the weirding of the global climate. Unseasonable or downright freakish weather — and the otherworldly feeling it creates — is a part of our lives now. And there is no serious disagreement on the causes.

And yet we can’t stop. Burning petrol in our cars. Taking flights. Eating huge quantities of meat. And all the rest of it.

In the second decade of the 21st-century, citizens of the industrialised world are trapped inside a broken logic that makes two contradictory demands of us. We know we can’t go on with the carbon-fuelled lifestyles that are destroying the environment. Meanwhile, we know we have to go on with those lifestyles. Not because we want to wreck the planet. But because we want to be able get to work in the morning. To light our homes at night. To visit our sick aunt on the other side of town. To have a social life. To just exist.

Thomas Hobbes — The Leviathan

‘I can’t go on like this; I must go on like this’. That is an impossible predicament, and increasingly there’s a kind of psychic strain associated with it. People can live a contradiction for so long. But at some point it has to break.

For the rising numbers of people — still a tiny minority overall — committing to direct action on the climate, that breaking point has surely come. They’re motivated by a sense of urgency. And also by a growing fear that our democracies are not able properly to cognize or take action on looming ecological breakdown.

Underlying that fear is another: that for most people the contradiction that is ‘I can’t go on like this; I must go on like this’ will prove tolerable for decades to come. After all, modern living has abstracted people so far from the natural world that for long swathes of day-to-day life, this contradiction can be experienced as a kind of far-distant hum. One that’s possible, with hardly any effort at all, to push to the margins of your awareness.

What action do you take if you authentically believe the people around you are sleepwalking towards a disaster that will encompass them and you? What action is legitimate? Is it okay to block roads? To occupy government buildings? Is it okay to make people poorer? Is it okay to use violence?

Today, we urgently need new theories of legitimate direct action and resistance, centred on looming environmental catastrophe.

Indeed, we need a broader restatement of the relationship between government and its citizens. One that allows us to imagine new forms of government. Forms that are shaped not around the problems of the 17th-century but around those of the 21st: climate change, runaway technologies, porous borders and more.

For the last three decades, triumphant neoliberalism persuaded many that we could transcend the messy business of politics. Instead, all we had to do was let markets work. Politics, or even worse, ideology, would only hold us back. That idea helped shape Silicon Valley tech-utopianism, which saw questions of human collective life and organization as engineering problems to be solved. It’s even visible today in the absurd idea that there is no need for political action on climate change, and instead we should simply let techno-capitalism advance at maximum speed because it will inevitably find a solution soon.

In 2019, neoliberal, globalised capitalism is facing some challenges. Tech-utopianism isn’t in such great health, either. Those developments, along with ever-more visible climate weirding, have exposed the idea that we can transcend politics and shown it for what it really is. That is, an ideology in its own right, and one that fundamentally mistakes the nature of human collective life. In reality, there can be no escape from the political. From questions of how to live together, and how to parse between different accounts of ultimate values.

Ranglen, Shutterstock

The system we inhabit is now stuck. Its internal logic is one of perpetual, carbon-fuelled growth and rising affluence — a logic that demands we keep turning the wheels of techno-capitalism ever faster. Meanwhile, the external reality is one of a finite environment that makes perpetual growth impossible, and looming ecological breakdown that demands that we stop turning those wheels. Pulled in two different directions at once, our system is frozen, motionless, in danger of being ripped apart.

That stasis can’t hold for ever. Extinction Rebellion and other movements like it are the first, faint signals that change is coming. The consequences of their action— blocked roads, lost productivity — are more than just an inconvenient but necessary reminder of the damage we’re doing to the planet. They are a reflection of the deep contradiction that currently has our system locked in a death spiral. In them we can see the first glimmerings of something new — the beginnings of a search for a new vision of our collective life.

That is a journey we can no longer postpone, whatever the inconvenience. Indeed, inconvenience is going to have be part of the point.

The structural changes we need to make are vast. But we can’t hide from the truth any longer. The resistance is justified.

Another World…

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David Mattin is Global Head of Trends & Insights at TrendWatching. He sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.