The Empty Future of Ecology
Criticising the Whitewashing of Climate Justice by Extinction Rebellion
A consistent rallying call of the international climate change movement, such as the climate youth strikes and the multiple Extinction Rebellion groups, has been the ’12 years left to save the planet’. This comes from a report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) wherein ‘The world’s leading climate scientists have warned there are only a dozen years for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.’ Whilst the use of this deadline has been criticised for implying that climate change is a cliff face we will plummet off (at the time of writing) in a decades time rather than a deadline by which certain actions need to be taken, it can argued it works as a effective slogan to communicate the urgency of climate change and the need to take action. But I would argue that there is a problematic element of the deadline. The implication of this deadline and its use by white climate activists in the global north is one that was previously scrutinised by Walter Benjamin in his work Theses on the Philosophy of History in which capitalist constructions of time (for Benjamin, the past) are presented as a ‘homogeneous, empty time’ through which society progresses. I will attempt to argue that this empty time is also applied to the future, to the next 10 years by activist groups, by Extinction Rebellion UK particularly. Because of this, the climate justice movement risks ignoring the concerns and safety of the global south, which is set to suffer the worst effects of climate change and already is. Although there have been several articles written on the racial insensitivity and white privilege of XR UK, particularly the brilliant critique by Leah Cowan in gal-dem, what this article aims to do is apply an in depth theoretical critique of XR’s rhetoric in order to highlight the shortcomings of white climate activist groups in the global north.
Now the immediate response by those involved in these movements would be to protest such a thesis by pointing out that a variety of climate justice groups in the UK and across the world have prioritised the global south, particularly by stating the importance of fighting the legacy of colonialism on the climate justice struggle. And they would be right to say so. Jamie Margolin, the founder of Zero Hour, explicitly states that ‘I am striking for a decolonized future’. The same can be said of many other youth strikers, Greta Thunberg being one of them, who have said that ‘the climate crisis is not just about the environment […] Colonial, racist, and patriarchal systems of oppression have created and fueled it’. Small subgroups of Extinction Rebellion like XR Internationalist Solidarity Network, work to promote grassroots resistance movements in the global south, or as they call it, the ‘Majority World’. Given some of the links of these figures and groups to XR, it could be assumed that the movement is heading in the right direction.
But the words of a few do not counter the failings of a larger group, and we must avoid that lest decolonial politics are recuperated as spectacles or discursive transactions to absolve the insensitivity of the main body on this matter. In a piece for the blog Collectivists, a former member of Extinction Rebellion commented that they saw ‘the need for a profound level of work to decolonise’ within the movement. And in regards to the wider discourse, racist acts such as the exclusion of Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate from a picture with mostly white activists are symptomatic of the foreclosure of Africans. Although Extinction Rebellion is credited with helping to bring worldwide attention to the issue through non-violent disruption, they have also been criticised for the fact ‘that their approach lacks understanding of the root causes and impacts of climate change, and their tactics of engaging with law enforcement fail to acknowledge the long history of police brutality against communities of colour’. Even its claim to popularising the issue is, as Kevin Blowe argues, a ‘year-zero rejection of almost all campaigning that preceded it as the product of failure’ which ‘risked a detached indifference to the experiences of others’. It is worth noting that groups like the aforementioned Solidarity Network were set up in response to these criticisms, but that due to the decentralised and autonomous nature of XR, there has been no substantial engagement or attempt to decolonise from the main faces of the movement, such as Roger Hallam and Gail Bradbook.
Furthermore, the language and rhetoric used by Extinction Rebellion exemplifies the critiques laid out by Benjamin. This article finds the object of its critique in XR’s very name. Whose extinction are we rebelling against? On their site, an entire part of their ‘About’ section is named ‘The Emergency’ which lays out in some detail the climate crisis. It manages to do this without referencing capitalism or colonialism. In Thesis VIII Benjamin explains that the ‘tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule’. And while most Extinction Rebellion activists have been seen to argue for system change, the core which the site represents seems reluctant to lay the blame at anyone’s feet. Indeed, it is one of their principles; ‘We live in a toxic system, but no one individual is to blame.’. This is technically true, because it is a systemic problem we deal with. But human systems are inhabited, unsurprisingly, by human beings. And as Leah Cowen writes, ‘identifying the key players in global ecological degradation is a necessary step for adequately responding to the issue.’ The seeming lack of interrogation of the unequal ways in which climate change affects individuals and populations exposes significant flaws in the language surrounding XR’s entire purpose. And as Cowen elaborates:
‘Britain, through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is preventing other countries in the Global South from accessing green technologies and switching their economies. Seemingly nationalistic calls to “green” the British economy whilst countries in the Global South face increasing levels of ecological degradation and natural disaster evidence the depriotisation by powerful international economies and corporations of the lives and livelihoods and communities of colour.’
It is easy to say one shouldn’t lay blame when it is our country that has the interest of refusing responsibility.
This problematic element is compounded by Extinction Rebellion’s primary principle; ‘WE HAVE A SHARED VISION OF CHANGE’ in which XR lays out the aim of ‘Creating a world that is fit for generations to come’. It is here that Benjamin’s Theses become particularly relevant. Benjamin writes that ‘The concept of the historical progress of mankind cannot be sundered from the concept of its progression through a homogeneous, empty time’. What Benjamin means by this is ‘the kind of time measured by clocks and calendars. In homogeneous empty time, every moment of time is equivalent and empty’ which ‘arises from the constant replacement and renewal of commodities’. Andrew Robinson explains that ‘It is empty because, on the whole, it lacks special moments which give it meaning (in contrast to cyclical, ritual and biological time). It simply passes, and people fill it with contingent contents’. In this conception of time, the next 10 years will seem almost necessary in their continued flow. We all inhabit the same passing of time, and the implication is we will experience it the same also. The phrasing of a “shared vision” for a better world, brings to mind the old adage that temporally, we are all in the same boat.
But the lived experience of those in the global south tells a different story. Bangladesh, for example, is ranked as the country most vulnerable to climate change, to the extent where given what it already faces, such as floods and storm surges, ‘these challenges are expected to be exacerbated by the effects of climate change, which is set to impact Bangladesh to a greater degree than any other country by 2025’, which will eventually result in a situation where ‘climate change-induced sea level rise could inundate 17 percent of Bangladesh’s land area by 2050, reducing cultivable land and displacing 35 million people’. In Latin America, there is evidence that climate change has contributed to pandemics of dengue fever in countries such as Bolivia, Honduras and Peru, which confirm the warnings by the WHO and IPCC that ‘climate change is altering the global distribution of species — such as mosquitoes — that serve as vectors for infectious diseases.
From one UN meeting alone in October 2019, representatives for developing countries stressed the variety of problems they faced:
‘Botswana’s delegate noted that the adverse effects of climate change are severely hampering many developing nations’ efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. His country itself is currently suffering from climate change‑related drought, which will lead to a consequent drop in agricultural production and rise in food insecurity. […]
Tajikistan has seen a significant decrease in the area of its glaciers, which are of vital importance to all Central Asia. […]
Greece’s delegate lamented that climate change is not only affecting present and future generations, but is detrimentally affecting the past, history and heritage of nations. Extreme weather events and adverse climate conditions can significantly damage cultural and natural heritage sites as well as disrupt centuries‑old ways of life.’
Africa has also been highlighted as a continent that will suffer negative consequences of climate change, particularly the sub-saharan region which makes up the majority of the continent. The projected ramifications for the continent include the predictions that ‘regions in Africa within 15 degrees of the equator are projected to experience an increase in hot nights as well as longer and more frequent heat waves’. Certain regions’ proximity to the equator means that ‘additional warming adds greater risks for Africa in the form of greater droughts, more heat waves and more potential crop failures’. The Western Sahel region, especially, ‘is regularly hit by droughts and floods, with enormous consequences to people’s food security’. Adding the instability of the region has meant that ‘as a result of armed conflict, violence and military operations, some 4.9 million people have been displaced this year’ (2018).
As we can see, climate change is not some far off catastrophe that will only be reached once the doomsday clock turns to midnight, but is happening right now for the underdeveloped countries in the Global South. It is important that climate activists understand this, for as Benjamin said, ‘The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are ‘still’ possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical’. To put this into context, we can refer to Robinson who explained that the ‘theme of impending disaster is important both to reactionaries […] and to many progressives’ and that for both groups ‘It is common for such disasters to be portrayed as a violent eruption of an ‘outside’, which breaks into the otherwise peaceful development of (white, Northern) humanity’. But Benjamin counters that these things have arisen dialectically, the present conditions have created them and as such he ‘reverses perspective, seeing such events as the Hell of the present. Benjamin seems to be seeing the ‘present’ in process here, so future disasters […] are extensions of the present, not threats to it’.
What exactly does this mean? Well Benjamin argues that ‘There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’, and following this logic it stands that this same barbarism ‘taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another’. Our perception of the future, of the next 10 years is only homogeneous and empty because our perception of the past is. So as it was, so it will be. For the Extinction that XR revolts against, is not THE Extinction per say, but will be the last in a series of them. A series of extinctions that precede the climate crisis. There seems to be as Benjamin words it, an ‘amazement’ that our system will be the death of us. That despite the ideals of our societies, the relations of production are not being used the way they should be. XR acknowledges ‘We live in a toxic system’ yet their methods centre on nonviolent disruptions of everyday life and traffic, along with pleas to governments to do the right thing, to think rationally about the crisis. ‘We appeal to the humanity of the government and authorities’, they say. ‘we appeal to their humanity to remember that we are facing an unprecedented global emergency. Many are losing their lives already and we are called upon as human beings to act now’. There is this belief, at least amongst the Core Group and the public discourse, that there simply isn’t an understanding of the severity of the situation, and that if Governments could be convinced, they would change paths right away.
But nothing is going wrong. Nobody in power is irrational, or ignorant. The system is working as exactly as it should be. Can we really tell ourselves, that if only we all realised we are in the same boat, we would act? It is naive and insensitive to think that our system only now became capable of extinction, when it rendered extinct the Aboriginal Tasmanians. When Belgium slaughtered 10 million black people in the Congo in order to extract and exploit its natural resources, a crime which the country struggles to admit to, even to this day. Shall we appeal to the humanity of governments and systems of the settler states that attempted to wipe out the Native Americans? We do not have the right to be amazed or shocked at a system that was catalysed by the appropriation of land and a magnitude of violence that reduced the population from ‘over 10 million Native Americans living there’ to an ‘estimated population […] under 300,000’ by 1900 in the USA alone. It is these events which have in fact placed us in the position we are now. Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin argue in their book The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene that the colonisation of the Americas in particular is the ‘the marker — in 1610 — that really defines the Anthropocene’. This logic and its methods were brought home in the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews were exterminated by the Nazi Regime. Back then, a similar attitude to now was employed. Aimé Césaire noted the incredulity of the Holocaust happening in Europe, for the Nazis ‘applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the “coolies” of India, and the “n*ggers” of Africa’.
These genocides have been perpetrated for the reason of appropriating land for production, extraction and exportation of resources, and to set up settler states. Large swaths of land were altered and developed in accordance with these plans, one example being the transformation of ‘the Malay peninsula into a plantation economy to meet the needs of industrial Britain and America’ along with large amounts of deforestation. I ask again: whose extinction are we rebelling against? For we did not rebel against the extinction of indigenous peoples or cultures. Nor did we rebel when those ideologies came to be applied even at our doorstep. What XR rebels against is not the Anthropocene Extinction, but the last extinction in the history of capitalism and colonialism. And within that, there will be a series of extinctions faced by the countries of the Global South. After that, within the Global North, the impacts of climate change will be felt by those most vulnerable in those societies; from ethnic minorities and migrants, eventually to the working class, before finally the rich and powerful will face the same fate. Take for example, the case of a young girl in London, Ella Kissi-Debrah, who died from asthma linked to the illegal levels of air pollution in the city. What good is talk of reaching deadlines in 10 years when children are dying now? ‘The catastrophe is not around the corner if the system collapses. The catastrophe is the continuation of things as they are’, Robinsons writes. This will be the last extinction; because there will be nobody else left for the system to kill.
These are the implications of the future that will arise from the homogeneous empty time of our past. Because we are not all in the same boat when others are clearly drowning. The idea of a deadline for climate change forecloses the present suffering of colonised and indigenous people from the discussion of what actions to take. Some would argue that XR is not complicit in this, that they have responded to the criticism, and no doubt point to the many places on the site where it mentions a willingness to hear those voices often excluded from the discourse. But I would argue that their rhetoric shows symptoms of reactionary ideology. In their ‘About Us’ section of their site, the first principle of their organisation is ‘creating a world that is fit for generations to come. Our duty is to create a world fit for the next seven generations to live in’ and there is a common rhetoric of ‘doing it for our grandkids’ such as in this 2019 protest outside Buckingham Palace where as the Daily Mirror describes it a ‘group of grannies and grandads motivated by fear for their grandkids’ futures are pushing for drastic government action to halt runaway climate change’. Seemingly harmless and even optimistic language, but it reflects a problematic worldview.
By this I mean it reflects a view of political activism that associates political action and events with the image of a dialogue between equal parties rather than violent, antagonistic struggle, one where the aim is to get concessions from the system and to gain a place within it, rather than be emancipated from it. Benjamin ascribes this to the Social Democratic lines of thought in his own time, and the similarity between them and Extinction Rebellion is that they both ‘assign to the working class the role of the redeemer of future generations’ which has the effect of making ‘the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren’. Such thinking does not see anger or hatred towards the establishment as necessary and is more keen to promote an image of positivity, and of institutions such as the police as possible allies simply caught on the wrong side of the argument.. Benjamin argues that this perception of oppressed people as being liberators of future generations arises from a view of progress in history that treats progress as a historical norm. It ‘recognises only the progress in the mastery of nature’, elements which appear in more vulgar form in fascism. Benjamin notes that this theory of progress was the view that it was:
‘the progress of mankind itself (and not just advances in men’s ability and knowledge). Secondly, it was something boundless, in keeping with the infinite perfectibility of mankind. Thirdly, progress was regarded as irresistible, something that pursued a straight or spiral course.’
In the minds of western society, its conquest and accumulation of the land in the developing countries in the global south were just expressions of its natural superiority, and were inevitable rather than actions driven by the need to fund its expansion and development of its productive forces. Political figures or movements that do not reckon with and reject this idea of progress seek only to be determined by the system that has been built out of it. Benjamin speaks with particular contempt of the fact that ‘the politicians’ stubborn faith in progress, their confidence in their ‘mass basis’, and finally, their servile integration in an uncontrollable apparatus have been three aspects of the same thing, which is to say, Fascism. Under this view, Fascism can become prominent because in the end it can present itself as the force that seeks to preserve and maintain the relations that have developed through this “progress”. And this is what is problematic about XR and its conception of the future. Whose grandchildren will inherit the earth? What will they inherit? Most likely it will be property, its laws and relations that their grandparents benefitted from as well. This is why XR protestors can send flowers to the police station where young black men like Wayne Douglas, Ricky Bishop and Sean Rigg have died in custody. The blog Collectivists summarizes how this attitude manifests itself:
‘These individuals will band together to attempt to influence politicians and ‘important people.’ The politicians and important people will in turn have their own ‘aha’ moments. They will have a sudden realisation of how bad things really are, or feel pressured by the protest. They will then make a moral stand in taking the actions needed to avert further climate catastrophe than we’re already heading for.’
They don’t see the state or its law enforcement branches as enemies. They simply believe that their interests are temporarily out of sync, and that through kind words and song, they will once again realign.
Extinction Rebellion and the British state’s interests will realign in the future. But not in the way XR believes. And certainly not on their terms. Not if they hold to rhetoric which aims for the maintaining of a “progress” that has harmed millions, and is harming millions still. This is why the perception of the future as empty, homogeneous time must be demolished. For as Benjamin proclaims ‘a critique of the concept of such a progression must be the basis of any criticism of the concept of progress itself’. How then, do we work against this progress? First and foremost, we must rethink our relationship with the past. What is meant by this is that ‘history is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now’. We must make efforts to establish the links between the colonial atrocities of the past, and the threat of extinction today, because the latter is simply the completion of the former. They both run using the same logic.
‘To articulate the past historically’, Benjamin writes, ‘[…] means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger’ because for the oppressed and colonized, time is not necessarily linear and in this we understand that there ‘is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one’. We must show solidarity with the past that has been excluded by colonialism, our task is ‘to brush history against the grain’. Any society or organisation that avoids this will inherently be prone to ecofascism. Benjamin describes such a use of historical materialism through the concept of ‘the angel of history’. Where we see progress, the angel ‘sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage’. The angel ‘would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole that which has been smashed’, but the force of progress propels him into the future before he can ‘redeem and put back together what is broken’. Robinson adds that ‘the power to resist this cumulative worsening is simultaneously ruptural and healing’. This suggests a twofold nature to possible solutions to this problem.To start the process of healing the damage done to colonised communities, we must rupture the British ecological movement’s understanding of its history by placing colonised black and indigenous voices at the forefront. Not just being willing to hear voices from communities that do not get heard, not just presenting a welcoming front, but by placing the descendants of the wronged communities and peoples at the forefront of the climate struggle. As the Collectivists blog piece makes clear ‘XR needs to take itself out of the centre of its own story’. We must actively engage in decolonising projects of political education, and put our resources behind that, rather than just paying lip service to it. Making clear the parallels between the historical situation of the oppressed, and the global south today. The hold that white, middle class activists have on the climate justice movement must be interrupted. In his final thesis, Walter Benjamin highlights the power of interruption in political situations; ‘where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration full of tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystallizes into a monad.’ The tensions and antagonisms within XR and other groups must be made apparent through the rupturing of their public appearance with the colonised bodies they have previously excluded and ignored.
This idea of interruption is integral to Benjamin’s idea of thought as a kind of practice: ‘thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well’. By putting the oppressed in control of the climate justice movement, we interrupt the mythology Extinction Rebellion (and in a wider context the western climate change movement) is building around itself. Benjamin concludes his Theses by attesting to interruptions of dialectical power; ‘as a result of this method the lifework is preserved in this work and at the same time cancelled’. By making this interruption part of our praxis, we can understand capitalism itself as a network of relations of production and consumption that can itself be interrupted. This, in part, was one of the truly radical things about Extinction Rebellion, its willingness to interrupt the everyday routine of neoliberal capitalism. But we must do more. We must go further. We must interrupt the desire to go back to normal after the COVID-19 pandemic, we must interrupt all the forces they wish to put back in motion. All of these things will place us in the position to start overcoming them. By doing so what radical core is there in XR may be put into the hands of the oppressed.
Though I may have presented this through the lense of one particular theorist, I am not the first to argue for this and in the past this proposal has been met with great resistance by the climate change movement. During a march in 2015 the Wretched of the Earth bloc, composed of several indigenous groups protesting against climate change, were invited to a march in London only to be asked to change their banners, present a ‘palatable’ message, and when they resisted were separated from the march despite being told they would be at the head of it. The group stated in response: ‘ Our place at the front of the march was therefore rightful, because we are from and of frontline communities.’ and in the closing section of their open letter summarised:
‘To paraphrase Utah Phillips: The climate movement is not white, but it is being white-washed. Indigenous rights and racial justice are not a distraction. They are the heart of climate justice. There is no more time for your dirty games. The clock is ticking.’
Here we see that not only are white climate justice groups complicit in the creation of an empty homogeneous future in ecological, but will actively maintain it when faced with the presence of the colonised people who have suffered in order to produce it.
In some ways, the desire for such a time and history where all experience it equally is understandable. If the perception is that all moments are the same, then the moments when the western plundered, exploited and underdeveloped the global south cannot be singled out to blame.
And in terms of the future, it makes it all seem so optimistic. 10 years left. Worded like that, it seems like there is still enough time to change things.
But it is not our time to waste.
Originally published at https://www.thecommoner.org.uk on May 25, 2020.