The Real Problem of Hypocrisy for Extinction Rebellion
As Emma Thompson, Rupert Read, Robin Boardman-Pattison, and many others have discovered, if you’re involved with Extinction Rebellion (XR), then sooner or later you will be accused of hypocrisy. Certainly, critics have not been slow to highlight the apparent irony of taking polluting forms of transport to environmental protests that back up traffic with road blocks. As they say, the optics are not good.
There is a standard response to accusations of hypocrisy that is apt enough here. The private choices of XR protesters do not make any difference to whether or not what they’re saying is true. And it is true. The scientific evidence suggests a strong chance of catastrophic global heating if we do not cut carbon emissions and ecosystem destruction radically and fast. We are currently on track for global mean temperature increases of more than 3ºC above 1850 levels in the next 100 years — a rate of change unseen on Earth in millions of years — even as we destroy the ecosystems and biodiversity upon which we depend for our food, our water, our materials, our medicines, and much else. This will mean droughts, floods, famines, wars, and migration crises on a scale we can barely imagine. The planet’s sixth mass extinction is under way, and it is not inconceivable that we may be among its casualties.
But although the standard response may be apt, it is rhetorically ineffective. One problem is that actions speak louder than words: we treat actions as a reliable guide to sincere belief, and sincere belief as a response to the evidence. If someone publicly professes environmentalism, but makes environmentally unfriendly private choices, we will doubt the sincerity of the environmentalism, and on that basis we will suspect that the evidence for it is less than compelling.
In this respect, thinking someone’s a hypocrite with respect to some issue may be even worse than merely not knowing anything about it. Someone who doesn’t know the evidence might perhaps be persuaded to review it. But someone who thinks I’m a hypocrite may suppose that I’ve reviewed the evidence and am acting on it — so she can skip the review herself and take my actions as her guide.
A bigger problem is that many people experience others’ environmental activism as a moral condemnation of their own lives, and we all experience moral condemnation as an assertion of the condemner’s superiority. It’s natural to defend yourself against such assertions by focusing on the condemner rather than the condemnation, seeking to debunk her claim to superiority — and there’s no better way to do this than to expose her as a hypocrite. Once she has been exposed, she has lost her claim to moral superiority, and then you have no special reason to pay any attention to the substance of the condemnation. You can go on untroubled, living as you were.
However, XR can do better than the standard response. The most important point is this. There is no hypocrisy. Driving to XR protests, or using vinyl banners, or eating a Pret sandwich at an XR road block — these are not hypocritical actions. Hypocrisy is a matter of preaching one thing but practising another. But what XR preaches is a radical change of the system within which we must make our choices, not of the choices we make within the system as it stands. The rebels therefore practise strategic, non-violent, disruptive civil disobedience designed to bring about system change, not changes of private choice. And it is a core Extinction Rebellion principle that individuals are not to be blamed or shamed for their choices within the system as it stands.
Moreover, these are the right things to preach and to practise. Attempts to combat climate change and ecological collapse within contemporary political and economic systems have not worked. We have known about anthropogenic global warming for more than forty years and about the scale of ecosystem destruction for almost twenty. Consumers have been urged to make environmentally friendly purchases, voters have been promised green governments, and environmentalists have been marching and campaigning and raising awareness for almost as long. But even now, annual greenhouse gas emissions and ecosystem destruction are increasing. At this point, disrupting the political and economic systems themselves, rather than working within them, appears to be the last chance we have to live up to our responsibilities to powerless contemporaries and future generations.
So there is no hypocrisy. And yet the charge of hypocrisy resurfaces over and over again. This is not only because people are strongly motivated to avoid facing the frightening truth of XR’s claims, though they surely are. It is also because part of the genius of contemporary liberal capitalism, one of its key stabilising mechanisms and indeed one of its key attractions, is that it fosters a culture of individualised rather than collectivised responsibility. If you develop your talents, work hard, and make healthy choices, this culture suggests, you can expect to flourish. By implication, if you’re poor, then perhaps you need to work harder; if you’re obese, perhaps you need to choose healthier foods; if you’re unhappy, perhaps you need to take up mindfulness or yoga or CrossFit. And of course the market can help you meet all of these needs if you choose your purchases wisely.
There is a lot that’s good about a culture of hard work and responsibility for oneself. But it can make it difficult to see how systemic features play their part, in both the good and the bad outcomes. The truth is that exercise and organic food won’t keep you healthy if the air you breathe is thick with exhaust fumes, and even the hottest of hot yoga won’t keep you happy if you fear for the future of your children. And you won’t be able to afford the time to exercise or the organic food or the hot yoga anyway if you work a seventy-hour week that doesn’t even pay enough to feed your family.
Yet if the socioeconomic system effectively forces many people to live far from their jobs without adequate public transport or safe cycling routes, they will drive their cars to work. If the system makes it much cheaper to fly 200 miles than to take the train, people will fly. If the system subsidises fossil fuel exploration and doesn’t price in the cost of carbon emissions, leaving nascent renewable energy technologies to fight for themselves in the market against oil and gas that are cheap as a result, then fossil fuel companies will thrive, their leaders and lobbyists will be powerful, sustainable technology will not develop or be scaled up fast enough, and your children will face a future in which the world burns. And none of your individual choices will make a blind bit of difference.
Yet because of that ethic of individual responsibility, you might well feel that unless you never fly, never drive, never eat meat, never use plastic, buy only organic food, and have solar panels on your roof, then you too are to blame for the disastrous state we’re in. And you will be hesitant to join any movement that calls for action on climate change and ecosystem collapse, for fear of being a hypocrite. Not only do we bridle at others’ assertions of moral superiority; we are reluctant to claim it for ourselves. And so contemporary liberal capitalism, for all its virtues, paralyses even those who are desperately frightened by the world they see coming and want nothing more than for XR to succeed. Thus the charge of hypocrisy — mistaken though it is — may be at its most damaging not when opponents level it at Extinction Rebellion protesters, but when sympathisers level it against themselves.
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