Words of Love

Philip McKibbin
Jul 11 · 20 min read

I presented this talk to the group Everything Matters at Saint Mary’s, Addington, in Christchurch, on Thursday 4th July. I wish to thank Rebecca Finch for the invitation, and for the important community work she is doing.

We live in a strange world, where no one dares to look beyond our current political system even though it’s clear that the answers we seek will not be found within the politics of today.— Greta Thunberg

Thank you for coming along this evening. Even though it is very cold outside, I am going to resist saying ‘in spite of the weather’. I am learning not to grumble: our climate, in all of its diverse manifestations, is something we need to cherish — now more than ever.

Rebecca invited me to speak to you about the Politics of Love, which I explore in my book, Love Notes: for a Politics of Love. Specifically, she requested that I talk about how this vision of politics relates to the climate crisis. I think this is entirely appropriate, because climate change is the biggest crisis we face. I argue that love can motivate our entire politics, so it is only right that she should ask me, ‘What does the Politics of Love have to say about the climate crisis?’

You are probably wondering what the Politics of Love is. It is a new vision of politics, which places love at the centre, and which mobilises loving values, such as manaakitanga, understanding, and trust. I understand love as an orientation, or ‘attitude’: it is a way of relating: to ourselves, to each other, to non-human animals, and to the natural environment. The idea that politics should be more loving is not new: it has precedents in feminist, decolonial, and LGBTQI movement, as well as in the everyday acts of kindness we show one another. I follow black feminist thinker bell hooks, who has written extensively on love. She writes, ‘there can be no love when there is domination’. So, I understand love as anti-sexist, anti-racist, and opposed to all forms of oppression. As well as affirming the importance of all people, this love extends beyond us to non-human animals and the natural environment, and it is for this reason that I believe the Politics of Love will help us to address climate change.

This evening, I want to talk to you about words.

As a writer, I live intimately with words. I think that the words we use are extremely important. They are important because of what they can do: they can express how we feel; they can support us in thinking; and they can motivate our action. Words are the loci of ideas.

It is worth repeating: climate change is the biggest crisis we face. Most scientists agree that unless we take urgent action to reduce, or halt, our greenhouse gas emissions, we are going to see suffering and death on an unprecedented scale. The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for example, advises that we must reduce our CO2 emissions by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 in order to avert climate catastrophe — droughts, floods, poverty, etc. — for hundreds of millions of people. And some scientists are now arguing that environmental collapse is inevitable — that it is impossible for us to mitigate the causes of climate change in time to prevent catastrophe. Indeed, some of us are already experiencing climate change as catastrophe: food shortages attributed to climate change have led to widespread hunger in places as diverse as Mali and Guatemala.

Significantly, the climate crisis is finally being widely discussed as a crisis.

Some of the loudest voices have come from within Extinction Rebellion. In their ‘Declaration of Rebellion’, they say:

This is our darkest hour.

Humanity finds itself embroiled in an event unprecedented in its history, one which, unless immediately addressed, will catapult us further into the destruction of all we hold dear: this nation, its peoples, our ecosystems and the future of generations to come.

The science is clear: we are in the sixth mass extinction event and we will face catastrophe if we do not act swiftly and robustly.

And it won’t have escaped any of you, I’m sure, that here in Canterbury, a climate emergency has been declared. Other cities are following your council’s lead. This, too, is the use of words.

Unfortunately, simply declaring something to be a problem isn’t enough.

In her speech, ‘Almost Everything is Black and White’, which she gave alongside Extinction Rebellion at Parliament Square in London at the end of last year, Greta Thunberg said:

I have Asperger’s syndrome, and to me, almost everything is black and white.

I think in many ways that we autistic are the normal ones and the rest of the people are pretty strange. They keep saying that climate change is an existential threat and the most important issue of all. And yet they just carry on like before. If the emissions have to stop, then we must stop the emissions. To me that is black and white. There are no grey areas when it comes to survival. Either we go on as a civilization or we don’t.

We have to change.

Greta, as I’m sure many of you know, is a 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, who started the School Strike for the Climate. What is less well-known is that she is also vegan (that is, she does not consume animal products), and that she avoids air travel. She is someone who I admire — for her courage, for her integrity, and for her use of words. And as she correctly points out, although many adults are now saying that climate change is an emergency, few of us are actually doing anything about it. To speak, to write, are forms of action — but if our words are not joined with other forms of action, they will not do the work we need them to do.

It is tempting, I think — and I believe it will become even more tempting as this crisis worsens — to dismiss discussion in favour of action. This is something we must not use our words to do. Around the world, and here in Aotearoa as well, a lack of dialogue is exacerbating division. It is what led to the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. and Brexit in the U.K.: those who otherwise wouldn’t have voted for Trump or for Britain to leave the E.U. did so because they were not being listened to, and because they refused to listen to others who raised serious concerns. We must affirm the importance of dialogue. We should use words to promote discussion, rather than shut it down.

Of course, this discussion must be loving. It could be suggested that there is ‘too much’ talking: with the proliferation of hate speech, fake news, and name-calling, you could be forgiven for thinking that we need less. But that is not dialogue. The Politics of Love helps us determine what is and is not loving: values such as honesty, listening, and mutuality characterise loving dialogue. These values should guide our exchange. Similarly, their absence is indicative of a lack of love.

If we choose our words carefully, we will make a more compelling case for taking action on global warming; we will create a climate of listening, which will in turn generate cooperation; and, we will motivate other people to join in the struggle. But we must choose our words carefully.

One problem that I see in discussions around climate change is that they focus almost exclusively on us, as human beings. The climate crisis is described as an existential threat (which it is), and this is elevated as the reason why we should care about it. But human beings are not the only ones impacted by climate change. Non-human animals are also affected. They share our planet, and they are as important, morally-speaking, as we are. While it is true that the plight of non-human others is sometimes highlighted — as with starving polar bears, walruses throwing themselves off cliffs, or, most recently, dying puffins — we are not yet talking about ‘saving the planet’ for them as well. (Incidentally, I don’t think this was always the case. There was a time, not too long ago, when we only thought about climate change in relation to other animals and their habitats… It goes without saying that this did not prompt us to make significant changes to our behaviour.)

Why is this? It is not simply because we are people and they are not; it is because we view them as less important than we are, and because our relationship to them is one of domination. Specifically, it is speciesist. Speciesism is the belief that some species — or, in this case, one species: our own — are more important than others. Currently, our politics centres only human beings (and it privileges a particular sort of human being: ‘white’, male, heterosexual, cis-gendered, able-bodied…). This need not be the case.

Speciesism is structurally similar to sexism and racism: it imposes a hierarchy whereby some of us are viewed as more important than others. As well as centring all people — women and men, Māori and Pākehā — our politics should centre non-human animals as well. When it comes to climate change, this is a matter of justice: non-human animals have as much right to a healthy planet as we do, and — lest we forget — they didn’t cause this emergency. Until we acknowledge the impact of climate change on them as well as on us, we are not admitting the full extent of the crisis.

It is important to remember that our discussion of non-human animals will remain speciesist until we are talking about all of them — and that elevating certain non-human species above other non-human species, as we do when we weep for walruses, but fail to think about any of the hundreds of species that go extinct every year, is also speciesist, and so problematic.

I imagine that most of you are aware of Extinction Rebellion and the important work they are doing in raising consciousness worldwide around the climate crisis. Not only are they drawing attention to this problem, they are also helping us to see that it is probably much worse than we have allowed ourselves to believe. Unfortunately, however, Extinction Rebellion is not centring non-human animals in the same way it is us. The effects of climate change on us as human beings are its primary focus. Consider this description of the movement, from their website:

Extinction Rebellion is an international movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience to achieve radical change in order to minimise the risk of human extinction and ecological collapse.

Or consider this, from one of Extinction Rebellion’s motivating texts, ‘Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy’ by Professor Jem Bendell of the University of Cumbria. After summarising the impact our actions have already had, and the future impact they are likely to have on non-human nature, he writes:

[I]t feel[s] like we are about to play Russian Roulette with the entire human race, with already two bullets loaded. Nothing is certain. But it is sobering that humanity has arrived at a situation of our own making where we now debate the strength of analyses of our near-term extinction.

These ways of talking about the climate crisis privilege human beings — and they do so in ways that obscure the suffering of non-human animals. Why say ‘human extinction and ecological collapse’ rather than, say, ‘mass extinction (including our own) and ecological collapse’? And why compare our actions to a game of Russian Roulette rather than, for example, murder-suicide, which would be a stronger analogy? These alternative ways of framing the crisis would not detract from its gravity. If anything, they would help to highlight its urgency. The reason is speciesism.

Extinction Rebellion has — rightly, in my opinion — received criticism for failing to advocate veganism. This is ironic, and deeply disappointing, because animal agriculture is one of the biggest causes of global warming. Estimates vary, but here is a relatively conservative one: in 2006, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations released a report in which they estimated that animal agriculture accounts for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions — a figure which they have since revised downward, but which still accounts for more than transport. (Here in Aotearoa it is a lot higher — according to Ministry for the Environment, it is 48.1%.) Greenhouse gas emissions are far from the extent of animal agriculture’s impact: it also accounts for land degradation, water pollution, and — significantly — biodiversity loss. Joseph Poore at The Queen’s College, Oxford, in discussing his analysis of the damage farming does to the planet, has said,

A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use. It is far bigger than cutting down on your flights or buying an electric car.

And as Professor Gary Francione of Rutgers University points out, going vegan is something we can do right now. With guidance and support, almost anyone (if not anyone) could adopt a vegan lifestyle. It doesn’t require technological developments that may not arrive, and it doesn’t depend on legislation that may not be written.

In his article, ‘Green Party, Extinction Rebellion and Others: Stop Ignoring the Vegan Solution’, Francione writes:

One would think that, in light of all of this, serious environmentalists would be campaigning for everyone to adopt a vegan diet. One would be mistaken. The environmental movement has not promoted veganism. It has, instead, focused attention on factory farms and has promoted a whole new industry of “sustainable,” “local,” and “free-range” products.

We see this here in Aotearoa, too. Last month was the first time that a New Zealand MP — Green Party MP Gareth Hughes — declared himself to be vegan. (Personally, I think it’s scandalous that the entire Green Party, a political party whose platform supposedly centres the natural environment, is not vegan.) There is a refusal on the part of environmentalists to endorse veganism. It is worth asking each other why this is. What is going on here?

In thinking about Extinction Rebellion, I have come to the conclusion that there are two main reasons for this refusal: the prioritising of collective action over individual action, and the focus on risk reduction rather than on halting emissions. The focus on risk reduction flows from the belief that it is already too late for us to avert climate catastrophe: if halting our emissions won’t prevent catastrophe, reductionism might seem like a better strategy — especially if halting our emissions seems unrealistic. As Jem Bendell writes in his chapter ‘Doom and Bloom: Adapting to Collapse’, in This Is Not A Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook:

We must act now to reduce harm and save what we can. In doing so we can rediscover what truly matters. That may seem less of a rallying cry than ‘This is our last chance to prevent disaster.’ But I believe it is more truthful and will be more lasting. It will also invite less disillusionment over time and help each of us to prepare.

He even uses the language of love:

After all, when harvests collapse, we won’t be eating our placards. We will be relying on the love we have for each other and the ways we have prepared.

But why does Extinction Rebellion prioritise collective action over individual action? Consider this passage, from J. S. Rafaeli and Neil Woods’ chapter ‘Fighting the Wrong War’:

We see [this] dynamic in climate discussions — the out-sourcing to the individual to solve systemic problems, the familiar cliches that this will all be solved by individuals recycling, buying reusable coffee cups and possibly downloading an app.

- notice the absence of veganism from this list -

Personal ethical choice is undeniably important for […] the environment. But as thinkers and campaigners, we cannot let these discussions be weaponized to derail the push for systemic change. Those who created these problems will try and make them yours to solve — don’t let them.

Well, I didn’t create these problems, but I am here to tell you that they are ours to solve.

Of course, we desperately need collective action, but to dismiss individual action is to relinquish one of the most powerful strategies we have for mitigating the climate crisis.

Compare this to the language Greta Thunberg uses, when she says,

perhaps the most dangerous misconception about the climate crisis is that we have to ‘lower’ our emissions. Because that is far from enough. Our emissions have to stop if we are to stay below 1.5–2°C of warming. […] And by ‘stop’ I mean net zero — and then quickly on to negative figures.

And when she says:

Every single person counts.

Just like every single emission counts.

Every single kilo.

Everything counts.

Or, as we might say, ‘everything matters’.

A focus on risk reduction, rather than on halting emissions, and on collective action rather than individual action, are the reasons why Extinction Rebellion is silent on veganism.

There is more to it than this, though. Underwriting these reasons is speciesism: the same hierarchical logic that holds that our extinction is more significant than the other extinctions that are taking place every week informs the excuses we make so that we can live lives of greater comfort, without thinking about their consequences for others.

You might say, ‘Well, the reason that Extinction Rebellion focuses on human extinction is because that is what will make people care — that is what will make people act.’ I’m not actually sure I agree with that, though, and I will explain why shortly. More importantly, not to acknowledge non-human animals is unjust. To ignore them — to continue to ignore them — is wrong.

The Politics of Love uses words to centre non-human animals. As I have already mentioned, this vision of politics affirms the significance of people, and it extends beyond us to non-human animals and the natural environment. It emphasises the importance not only of feeling, but of thinking, and of acting. The Politics of Love recognises that, in much the same way that each of us is socially constituted, it is always as individuals that we act, even when we act collectively. In this way, the Politics of Love affirms both our individual and collective agency. Yes, we need to change our political structures — how we as citizens participate, what our leadership looks like, the ways in which we hold each other accountable — but we also need to take responsibility as individuals. Are any of you fans of Star Trek? There’s an episode of The Next Generation, in which Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of the starship Enterprise realise that warp drive — the means by which their spaceships travel — are damaging the fabric of space. It takes a while for them to understand the science behind the problem, but when they do, they convey it to their government, the United Federation of Planets, which immediately takes action, imposing restrictions on space travel. Unfortunately, we do not yet live in such a universe. Western governments — which are, we must remember, democracies: they reflect the wills of their people, to greater or lesser extents — have proven themselves unwilling to adequately address this problem. We will not restructure our governments overnight, and so we need individual change as well. This means going vegan. This means reducing our consumption. This means minimising our use of plastic… We must remember that everything matters.

One of the ‘demands’ that Extinction Rebellion makes of governments — their third demand — is that they ‘create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice’. These citizens’ assemblies would be similar to juries, in that they would be comprised of randomly-selected members from across society, who would then advise their governments. This is not a bad idea; in fact, I think it is quite a good one. I worry, however, that unless the individuals comprising them recognised the importance of action to such an extent that they were making changes in their own lives, the recommendations they made would not be sufficiently radical; and that, even if they did make strong recommendations, if they did not conform to the will of the people, because the people themselves had not accepted the need for radical change, they would not achieve the support necessary for their implementation. It is not uncommon these days to hear people resisting calls for individual action and instead insisting that corporations and governments should change. But we empower corporations and governments — and to suggest that we don’t is to deny the extent of our own agency. It is, ultimately, a way of refusing to take responsibility. This is not to say that there aren’t powerful factors mediating individual and collective action. Marketing, for instance, influences supply and demand to a much greater extent than individual choice. Still, a more participatory democracy will not bring about radical change if those participating in it are not committed to radical change in their own lives. If you are calling for collective change, but you are not willing to make real changes to your own lifestyle — and you can make changes, and those changes will make a difference — you are effectively saying that the problem is not yours, but someone else’s to solve. This problem is all of ours, and we must all work to address it.

As well as affirming the importance of action, the Politics of Love embraces an intersectional analysis: it holds that all forms of oppression are interconnected, and that we will not succeed in dismantling one of them unless we dismantle them all.

You may not be familiar with the term ‘intersectionality’. Lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term in hr 1989 article, ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’. In that piece, she interrogated the idea that oppression exists only on a single axis — for example, sexism — and explained that different forms of oppression — sexism and racism, for example, which black women face — can impact individuals simultaneously. Crenshaw uses an analogy to explain this point:

Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens at an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them. Similarly, if a black woman is harmed because she is in the intersection, her injury could result from sex discrimination or race discrimination.

On Crenshaw’s analysis, then, ‘intersectionality’ refers to the ways in which oppressions are experienced by individuals. When I say that the Politics of Love embraces an intersectional analysis, I mean something slightly different: specifically, that the different forms of oppression are structurally similar. My use of the term ‘intersectionality’ has been learned from vegans of colour, but it owes as much, if not more, to bell hooks’ assertion that we must struggle against all forms of oppression simultaneously. In her book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, she writes:

Individuals who fight for the eradication of sexism without supporting struggles to end racism or classism undermine their own efforts. Individuals who fight for the eradication of racism or classism while supporting sexist oppression are helping to maintain the cultural basis of all forms of group oppression. While they may initiate successful reforms, their efforts will not lead to revolutionary change. Their ambivalent relationship to oppression in general is a contradiction that must be resolved, or they will daily undermine their own radical work.

Although hooks does not talk about non-human animals, I think her theory can be applied to them as well. Speciesism, like sexism and racism, imposes a hierarchy, whereby some of us are viewed as more important than others. In this way, it is structurally similar to the other oppressions we encounter. The Politics of Love requires that we recognise this, and it is this intersectional analysis that enables us to see that human and non-human liberation are mutually dependent.

Intersectionality, which arose with black feminist movement, has been explored in relation to love. In her recent book, Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality, Jennifer C. Nash discusses black feminist conceptions of love, saying,

I emphasize how black feminists have advocated expansive conceptions of relationality, encouraging us to view ourselves as deeply embedded in the world, and thus as deeply connected to others, effectively exploding the hold romantic and familial have had on conceptions of intimacy, vulnerability, and relatedness. Black feminist conceptions of love as a unifying political principle encourage us to ask about our deep responsibilities to each other, and our enduring connections to each other, by virtue of our collective inhabitation of the social world.

This understanding of black feminist love politics informs her argument that ‘love rather than territoriality and defensiveness’ should motivate black feminist treatments of intersectionality — among which might be ‘letting go’, so that it can inform thinking not only for black women, but for others as well. It is intersectionality that enables us to see that, just as the feminist project will not be successful if we do not dismantle racism, human liberation is animal liberation.

(I suspect that I will eventually relinquish the term ‘intersectionality’ in favour of a more succinct description of the ways in which oppressions are structurally similar and intimately related; but for now, it is a necessary support for my thinking, and my use of it is intended to honour the profound influence of black feminism on my work in developing this vision of politics.)

Traditionally, and for good reasons, discussions of speciesism have focused on sentience — the capacity to feel pleasure and pain. Now, debates around animal sentience have largely been settled: non-human animals are sentient, and the vast majority of those that we use for food, clothing, testing, etc., are sentient in ways that are analogous to our human sentience.

I don’t think our understanding of speciesism should stop at sentience, though. An insight that the Politics of Love brings is that non-sentient constituents of nature are also worthy of love. These include plants and fungi, which are species, and which share some of our interests; they also include ecosystems, which comprise sentient and non-sentient elements, but which are, themselves, non-sentient; and they include the planet itself. Which is to say, I believe that we can extend our love to those aspects of our world that are, or that seem to be, less like us. Just as I don’t think our understanding of speciesism should stop at sentience, I don’t think our understanding of domination should stop at speciesism. I think that our subordination of the natural world can be understood in terms of domination — even where it impacts those elements that are non-sentient, like rivers, like rainforests, like the biosphere… The word ‘domination’ best describes our current relationship not only to non-human animals, but to the planet as well. We must reorient ourselves.

I believe that if we talk about climate change more broadly, looking beyond ‘humanity’, we will find more compelling reasons for addressing it. As well as having more reasons — us, all of us including other animals, and the planet and its systems as well — our reasons will not reduce to self-interest alone, but will include others, too. In looking beyond ourselves, we will affirm other-regarding values, such as compassion, tiakitanga, and responsibility, thereby affirming our capacity for love, giving meaning to our actions, and demonstrating that we are worthy of the world we are working to save. Moreover, by framing this as a moral issue, as one that we assume responsibility for because it is the right thing to do for others as well as ourselves, we will convince more people to pay attention to the climate crisis, and to do what they can for the cause. Naturally, our words will acquire the force of moral persuasion…

Before I conclude, I would like to quote from a letter written by Albert Einstein to Robert S. Marcus. This passage actually comes from a draft of his letter — from a note he made while he was writing it. It was brought to my attention by my dear friend Julie Timmins, who I met through the Politics of Love, who has supported me in numerous ways as I have developed it, and who recently helped me to elaborate it in writing. (Together, Julie and I wrote the chapter ‘With Emotion’, in my book.) I think it expresses what I have been attempting to say:

A human being is part of a whole, called by us the “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

I would like to end this part of the discussion by using my words to ask you a question, which could be the question which opens the next part. It is a question that I hope will challenge you, and prompt reflection beyond this evening… The question is, What are you doing to realise love, for yourself, for other people, for non-human animals, and for the natural environment?

That is the question, and that is the challenge.

Philip McKibbin

Written by

I am a writer from Aotearoa New Zealand. www.apoliticsoflove.com

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