Artillery Row

Why they rebel…

J. C. D. Clark delves into Extinction Rebellion’s new pamphlet in search of something more

Extinction Rebellion has been identified by the City of London police, in a counter-terrorism assessment, as a ‘key threat’. Although XR had engaged only in ‘non-violent disobedience’, its ‘disruption’ had, suggested the report, ‘the potential … to be hijacked or infiltrated by more extremist groups’. The Guardian was outraged: climate change, the paper announced, was ‘the defining issue of our lifetimes’.

Surely the group’s activists were just innocent Arcadians, intent on saving the planet? Had they not won the support of ‘celebrities’? The paper quoted without further analysis a spokesperson for XR, claiming that its method was ‘loving nonviolence’ and that the ‘real extremists’ were ‘the fossil fuel companies and those that do their bidding’. The police ‘at a national level’, perhaps predictably, apologised for ‘an error of judgment’.

But do XR’s aims go beyond loving nonviolence? Let us look carefully at a pamphlet currently being circulated, entitled Why We Rebel (not, one notes, Why We Lovingly Protest). It lacks the name of an author, a publisher or a printer, perhaps wisely. The only words on its back cover, ‘Extinction Rebellion’, suggest what to expect. In reality we learn much more.

But I am a historian, and instinctively analyse such documents historically. Let me try to historicise this one. First, consider the wider picture. If you want to promote a major cause in UK or US party politics, you have two basic options. You can start a new party; or you can capture an existing one. We see both strategies from time to time, but the second is much the more effective.

If you want to gather people in a social crusade, you have the same two options. Why We Rebel pursues the second. Environmentalism began as a helpful, practical cause. It tried to understand why dust storms had developed in the mid-West of interwar America, and what could be done about them. It noticed that wildlife was being destroyed, and traced the cause to pesticides. Accurate analysis led to feasible solutions. So far, so innocent.

But Why We Rebel shows something else being added, as the innocent environmentalists are taken over by the anarchists. The anarchists had not had a good twentieth century. Wilson and Blair proved to be as keen on state power as Lenin and Mao, though they put it to different uses. Now the anarchists have a better idea: environmentalism will be the bandwagon on which anarchism will at last ride to victory.

According to Why We Rebel, a ‘third world war’ is being fought, of ‘profit versus life’. We must hope that ‘war’ is a metaphor, although that is far from clear (despite a pacifist invocation of Gandhi, ‘We are fighting for our lives’). It might be replied that only profit has lifted humanity out of the stone age, supporting the lives of untold millions more people, and that the elimination of profit would return the survivors to that primitive state; but that is what Extinction Rebellion appears to want, under the label of a ‘decarbonised and relocalised system’. Indeed ‘There is no choice’, since a ‘pathological obsession with money and profit is engineering this breakdown’ of the economy.

Instead, it seems to offer a rural idyll, an echo of William Morris and Ralph Waldo Emerson. But first the countryside must be reconstructed, since at present ‘even the plants are confused’. To this idyll it adds a dash of ‘ancient wisdoms’, ‘older and wiser ways of living’, and a charming defence of ‘the finned, furry and feathered ones, the ones who scamper and swim, the chattering, chirping and hooting ones’ (these last three, perhaps, being the authors of the pamphlet).

Extinction Rebellion presents theological premises, even if skated lightly over.

Yet like most crusades, Extinction Rebellion presents theological premises, even if skated lightly over. It stands for ‘life … lived transcendently, for a purpose beyond the self’. It is captured in the claim ‘we are nature and it is us’. Nature’s voice is heard in ‘the Great Song that runs underneath all the melodies’. ‘Indigenous cultures’ sustain the insight that ‘we are the land: as earth-guardians, we are nature defending itself; land is alive, unfathomably deep, and there is intelligence within nature, thinking, spirited and alive’.

Thanks to climate change, humanity (all of it?) is ‘spiritually desolate’. The young lead the ‘rebellion’, since they carry ‘the moral authority of innocence’. Humanity, it seems, is naturally innocent. Except that adults have had ‘their clear vision dimmed’, although we are not told how or why. But the creed of Why We Rebel is clearly identifiable as animism, an ancient and primitive heresy, reinvigorated since the 1960s as neopaganism.

Its authors ignore Christianity, and equally do not notice that the two other great monotheistic religions, Judaism and Islam, would equally disagree with animism. But the authors shrug off this difficulty: ‘Extinction Rebellion is … of all faiths and none’. The beliefs of these three world faiths do not matter, provided their adherents fall into line. Extinction Rebellion’s ‘deepest longings’ are for people ‘to live a meaningful life, be in unity with each other and with the life-source, call it the spirit, call it the divine, call it the still small voice, it doesn’t matter what it is called or how it is spelled if it guides us in service to life’. Adopt the new faith and other things just fall away: ‘patriarchy’, ‘heterosexism’, ‘militarism’. By contrast, what these three sins are called does seem to matter.

This theological blur obscures the economic redistribution that the anarchists need to play down. ‘Humiliated by poverty and inequality, crushed by debt, powerless, controlled and trapped, many feel defrauded of what should rightly be theirs.’ But what, exactly, is that something? ‘The generations of yesterday trust those of today not to take more than their share’, but what is that share? Extinction Rebellion ‘embraces frugality for the sake of fairness’, but how much frugality? The ‘richest nations’ produce ‘the heaviest emissions’, continuing a tradition: ‘Europe stole its wealth through imperialism, colonialism and slavery’. By implication, should this wealth be returned? We might infer that the authors are not economic historians. Rather, they offer emotions: their creed ‘seeks to restore a sacred rightness to the world’. But why is this rightness ‘sacred’?

They profess to have a ‘vision’ of politics. Its means are perfunctory, for they would be structured through Citizens’ Assemblies (although not, we might guess, through referendums, or even through representative democracies). It is an optimistic vision: ‘The rebellion is regenerative, arriving with armfuls of cake and olives, bread and oranges’. The local branch of Waitrose must still be open, although this firm might not long outlast the banning of fossil fuels.

Extinction Rebellion has discovered the locomotive of progress, since ‘History is calling from the future’. Whenever I see my sceptical discipline inflated with a leading capital, I reach for my ‘Delete’ button. But wait: this deserves attention. In their argument, ‘History’ calls us to be ‘dedicated, selfless, self-sacrificial’. The third term must have a literal meaning, since the end of fossil fuel use for transport, agriculture, energy generation, industry, heating and cooking would certainly entail the deaths by starvation or disease of a large fraction of the human race. This could be a good thing only if it would be the consequence of martyrdom. We would have embraced ‘destiny’. But why would this be ‘loving nonviolence’?

Do we disagree with the case set out with such passion in Why We Rebel? If we do, it might be as well to equip ourselves with an analysis of its argument. Or perhaps I have been the innocent and gullible victim of an elaborate hoax?

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