The new climate movement that thinks Greenpeace isn’t green enough.
One day in the middle of last October, Greenpeace experienced a sit-in by climate activists at their headquarters. Apparently, they weren’t doing enough to help the environment.
Greenpeace is possibly the most well-known environmental organisation in the world. From protesting against whale capture, monitoring illegal fishing, and lobbying governments to stop opening coal-mines in sensitive locations, they’ve done it all. Founded in 1971, Greenpeace now has a presence in 39 countries round the world.
The sit-in protestors, on the other hand, identify with the recently-formed Extinction Rebellion movement. Abbreviated XR, they believe the environmental situation is much worse than Greenpeace makes it out to be — so bad, in fact, that humanity could face extinction unless drastic changes are made now.
Which is why, for the past three weeks, activists have been blocking roads, holding placards, donning costumes, and generally bringing things to a standstill — and doing so in 80 cities across 33 countries round the world.
Hold on a sec — what was the issue, again? What exactly are these protesters protesting about?
At first glance, the main issue would be climate-change. As humans draw more coal and oil from the ground, they release heat-trapping gases like carbon-dioxide into the atmosphere — which trap more heat from the Sun, which makes the Earth warmer, which disrupts the delicate balances of various ecosystems, and you know what happens next.
If that sounds familiar, it probably is.
“Climate change” was first detected last century, and researchers have been finding more and more of its negative effects. However, most governments round the world don’t seem to be very concerned, preferring to let things continue as they are and perhaps implementing a few new policies to keep people happy. Climate-change, it seems, isn’t really something to be very worried about.
And that, according to Extinction Rebellion, is precisely the point
13th April 2006 started as a normal day for the residents of Iowa City, USA. Then, in the evening, something went wrong.
The Rev. Rudolph Jones, who was holding a congregation in church, remembers rushing down to a nearby basement with thirty or so other people. It sounded like a train, he recalls: “you hear the noise and I felt the air pressure changing, it was like the air was being sucked out of the house.” That was followed by a really loud rumble, and the whole thing was over in minutes.
What had happened was an F2-rated tornado ripping through the city, leaving a 4.5-mile stretch of flipped cars, toppled trees and destroyed buildings, and converting the 130-year-old St. Patrick’s Catholic Church into a pile of rubble before it left.
Luckily, no one was killed, though about thirty people sustained minor injuries and many of their homes were destroyed.
One person who escaped unaffected was Jerry Suls, then a professor of psychology at the University of Iowa. (His best friend’s house was completely destroyed, though, so he still knew what it was like). Suls decided to conduct a survey to gauge peoples’ reactions to the tornado: more specifically, how afraid they were of being hit again.
Surprisingly, the people in the worst-affected areas were also the most optimistic. “Not likely to happen here,” they seemed to think.
This effect happens in other disaster scene as well, and one explanation is people think of it in a “lightning doesn’t strike in the same place twice” kind of way. But there could also be an element of what psychologists call “denial”.
Without getting into the details, here’s a quick explanation by author Jared Diamond: imagine a high dam that, if it burst, would drown all the residents living below it for a long way downstream. If pollsters were to go round asking how concerned people were about a dam-burst, they’d find people were less scared downstream, and, the closer to the dam they went, the higher the level of fear would be.
Within a few miles of the dam, however, the concern level suddenly starts going down. Right under the dam, where people are most at risk, it actually reaches zero.
“That,” explains Diamond, “is because of psychological denial: the only way of preserving one’s sanity while living immediately under the high dam is to deny the finite possibility that it could burst.
Late last year, a United Nations panel released its latest report on climate-change. The news wasn’t good.
We have only twelve years, the panel stated, to make drastic changes keeping temperatures down. The Arctic is currently warming 3 times as fast as the rest of the planet, people in countries like Bangladesh and the Netherlands, are already losing their homes to the rising waters, and the Earth’s average temperature is now nearly a full degree above what it was before the industrial revolution. That last one may not seem like much, but remember: this is average temperature we’re talking about.
This kind of change isn’t unprecedented, of course — this planet has been through ice ages, after all. Instead, it’s the rate of change that’s the problem: this kind of warming might take place over millennia, or even millions of years. For it to happen over the course of a single century? That’s an issue. Because humans, just like most living beings on this planet, are adapted to this climate. And if this temperature shift were to take place over the the kind of timescale that it traditionally has, we might have been able to evolve for it.
But it isn’t. It’s happening in one lifetime. My lifetime. Yours.
So: global weather systems get disrupted, local temperatures fluctuate like a seismograph before an earthquake, and wind and rain cycles run haywire. Different areas are being hit by droughts, floods, heatwaves, and cyclones, all much more common and intense than before. Insects are dying out at a rate of 2.5% per year.
Still, the report tells us, limiting the temperature rise to 1.45C is a lot better than going up to 2C. Food won’t be quite so scarce. Climate-related poverty would affect hundreds of millions of people instead of a few billion. We’ll only lose about 90% of our coral reefs, instead of 99%. Insects are only half as likely to lose half their habitats. Fisheries will only lose 1.5 million tonnes in yearly catch, as opposed to 3 million.
This report tells us that we’ve failed to diffuse the bomb, and all we can do now is chose whether to let it detonate on a crowded street or a slightly less crowded one.
As you can see, the current situation is far from a happy one. In fact, there’s so much going wrong, it’s not possible to take it all in at once. (It’s a bit like trying to visualise the number of stars in the Universe, or the distance to the Moon). If you’re like me, you’ll probably read through it, feel outraged or depressed for a bit, and then shake your head and move on with life.
In effect, we’re acting like the people living under the dam: ignoring what’s happening, because the alternative would drive us nuts.
The problem is, if everybody keeps quiet, there’s no motivation for anyone to do anything — least of all governments, who have rich industries and oil-companies to answer to.
India is currently in the middle of the world’s largest general election. Drought, and its devastating impact on farmers, is a major issue, as are pollution of drinking-water and breathing-air. And yet, none of the dozens of major political parties have a proper plan for the situation. Apart from vague statements like “…in a sustainable manner” and unrealistic suggestions like linking all the nation’s rivers, there’s no comprehensive plan to manage and conserve the environment.
That’s where Extinction Rebellion comes in. Through their activities and demonstrations, they hope to keep the environment in peoples’ consciousness — and, through that, pressure governments to take more than the nominal, hesitant steps they’ve been taking so far.
If governments don’t have a plan, Extinction Rebellion doesn’t have one either.
They do have three demands: that governments tell the full truth about the ecological emergency, enact legally binding changes to bring net carbon emissions to zero by 2025, and to create a Citizens’ Assembly to oversee the changes.
They also have a strategy: XR is a decentralised movement, allowing anyone to spontaneously start a session anywhere. But the rule is, they have to be a non-violent protest — break the law enough to irritate authorities, but don’t give them an excuse to start attacking you.
What they don’t have, is a plan. As Peace News editor Gabriel Carlyle put it, looking at press reports, on could easily get the impression that they simply plan to block traffic and bridges in London until their big demands are met.
However, that may be overlooking the point.
Extinction Rebellion isn’t trying to be a solution, but more like an alarm-call. “We’re not trying to build fire-safety awareness and improve the provision of emergency exits,” says activist Theo Simon, “we’re trying to evacuate a burning theatre.”
Extinction Rebellion isn’t the only such movement around. Last August, student Greta Thunberg skipped school to launch a protest sit-in outside the Swedish Parliament. This triggered a global “School Strikes for Climate Change”, where children around the world skipped school to protest against the adults who were ruining their future.
On a similar line, in 2015, then 19-year-old Juliana Olson, along with a group of others, sued the US government for not taking adequate measures to safeguard her future. In other places, like the Netherlands and Pakistan, environmental lawsuits have actually pushed governments to make a difference.
These are only some of the ways people are waking up and pushing back. There’s a lot to be done, of course — the UK government just sanctioned the development of new pollution-promoting highways, and the President of Brazil wants to sell the Amazon rainforest to loggers. It’s all too much for you and me to handle.
But if movements like Extinction Rebellion catch on, maybe we won’t have to handle this alone. Maybe we’ll have seven billion other people working on our side.
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