The recent protests by Extinction Rebellion are anything but unsuccessful — they managed to hold Oxford Circus and Marble Arch for a number of days. Their protests, even though they involved civil disobedience, were anything but violent. Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised at just how fun of an endeavour this protest seemed to be — a relatively (but adorably) disorganized group of drummers, rhythmic, heart-warming chanting and smiles all round was the norm. Granted, there was a bit too much of the ‘look at us, we’re so alternative and free-spirited’, lost-in-the-moment-but-totally-not kind of dancing — but everything has its downsides. More important was their actual success in terms of their presence in the news cycle, as well as the surprising amount of support amongst blocked commuters for the cause of raising awareness of climate change. However, for whatever reason there are critically dangerous elements about movements like Extinction Rebellion which are not addressed — their problematic assumptions and their strategy of civil disobedience.
No movement is above criticism — not even ones which aim to raise awareness of something as destructive as climate change. Indeed, movements seeking to redress society-wide ills such as ER might well be the ones who should be criticized the most. Engaging in a sustained and fair critique of such a movement can be nothing but constructive, as this criticism will force the creation of a self-correcting discourse within any movement as it seeks to defend itself. Thus, environmentalist movements which deal with matters which concern every single one of us certainly ought to be challenged: in order to perfect both themselves and the influence they exert on society at large. However, there appears to be little critique outside the typical deniers (denial is hardly constructive).
That is even though the ills which beset the strategies of Extinction Rebellion are in plain sight. These are their assertion that the world will be beset by total extinction in approximately 30 years, and their use of civil disobedience as a way of tackling this urgent issue. To state that their claim that the world will be extinct in 30 years is problematic is not to say it can’t happen — numerous academic papers, one of which has gone viral, have posited exactly that. The problem with this claim is that, like every scientific endeavour, the exact timeline of this extinction and the nature of it has to be subject to rigorous discussion before it can become anything close to a chronologically-accurate truth. There is already an extreme difficulty of establishing scientific truths in anything which involves such a dizzying amount of variables like climate. This means we’ll never have any real degree of certainty as to either the timeline or the nature of potentially catastrophic extinction. Furthermore, the 80’s withering postmodern criticism of science as inherently subjective is not without its truths (ironic, I know) — the supposed ‘end of history’ has not come to be: Brexit and Trump prove that the supposed ongoing perfection of human society which technology and prosperity were supposed to bring has been revealed as the fiction it always was. Indeed, we’re only slightly smarter — and ultimately we’re only human. Therefore, it shouldn’t be haram to say that maybe, without attempting to polemicize, we’re engaging in the time-trusted human archetype of the ‘coming apocalypse’.
Indeed, no archetype has so consistently helped humanity to engage in a bewildering amount of brutal and silly endeavours. Present in almost every single religion and underlining most radical movements (including fascism), the undying prevalence of this archetype cannot be ignored. For instance, repeated climate disasters in France led to a mass hysteria which influenced Louis VII decision to undertake the doomed Second Crusade. Alternatively, the almohads of the mountains of Morocco used the ‘end of the world’ narrative to slaughter non-almohad Muslim, Christian and Jew alike in their conquest of Morocco and southern Iberia. This is not to say that an extinction is not going to happen — which would be absurd, as there is one going on right now, it just doesn’t involve humans (yet…?). Global extinction of many species is a certainty — but planet-wide extinction of humans and animals alike resulting in global chaos and societal collapse is anything but certain, it’s a possibility which is (thankfully) at the far end of the spectrum of possibilities. Therefore, when Gail Bradbrook, Extinction Rebellion co-founder, claimed that “the precedent is that civilisations collapse, and everything’s stacked up for this one to go, and it’s a mess when it happens,” it’s quite patently questionable. ‘Everything’ is not ‘stacked up’ for this one to go — and even if it were, you can never escape the fact that no amount of supposed truths about the incoming apocalypse aren’t inherently subjective — see literally every other kind of ‘the apocalypse is definitely happening now’ movement in history.
This leads us on to our next point; that holding such an admittedly extreme perception of the future as the grounding for a strategy of civil disobedience is problematic and short-sighted. The implication behind Extinction Rebellion is extremely worrying because of just this — its explicit focus on, on the one hand, a radical world-view and, on the other, the rather soft-handed ‘rebellion’ through civil disobedience. Indeed, the soft-handed approach is a threat — whether intended or not; the consistent repetition of the ER posters exclaiming its ‘non-violence’ implies the violence to come if their demands aren’t met. As Bradbrook tells the FT correspondent about the coming extinction– ‘you might be good at banking, but you’re probably no good with a gun.” It practically ensures that this narrative, seeing civil disobedience and breaking the law as necessary tools to fight the incoming apocalypse, will become the perfect tool for violent radicalisation. That is because apocalyptic violence will happen anyways. Regrettably, the gap between breaking the law for civil disobedience and breaking the law for violence is a deceptively small one (the last thing which stands in the way of violence is the law.)
Furthermore, if ER radicalises or ends up radicalising a host of other movements to engage in violence — will there be much left to save after 30 years? Environmentalism relies on a strong regulatory and legal framework to survive, as well as a thriving civil society and participatory democracy (as ER has in its manifesto) to mediate and communicate demands from the citizenry. In engaging in such an extreme discourse and potentially extreme strategy, isn’t it undermining the very basis and logic of the movement at large? This is without even raising the absolute fact that in rendering obedience to the law a matter of subjective opinion you’re opening Pandora’s box; be cautious about paving the way for acceptable breaking of the law, because it might be your foes who end up wielding the privilege.
As outlined in the introduction — this is not a denial of ER’s basis or legitimacy as a movement, but a series of challenging questions for it. If they incite even a single discussion in someone’s head, its goal is fulfilled. Ultimately, movements like Extinction Rebellion help to increase awareness of climate change and as such can certainly be deemed successful, positive and constructive. However, the challenge posed in this text is only a challenge if we accept the role of ER as a successful player in the political landscape and seek to further its success through constructive dialogue. As a final point, let’s not forget that not even Machiavelli believed the ends always justified the means — and that nothing should be above criticism.