On the Extinction Rebellion and Realism

It can only be a good thing that so many people are suddenly talking about climate change, and about the myriad other components of the oncoming eco-apocalypse. These conversations are long overdue. However, as things stand, we have a very long way to go before the brutal reality of our predicament becomes widely understood. There are multiple levels of delusion and denial to work through first.

Level 1 is that of the climate change deniers. These are the people who’ve spent the last thirty years trying to convince everybody that large-scale climate change isn’t happening at all, or that human activity is not responsible for triggering it in the first place and continues to drive it. They simply don’t understand the science, or, more frequently, don’t want to. To do so would require them to completely rethink their political agenda, and they have no intention of doing that. Though there are still vast numbers of such people at large, especially in the United States, those numbers are declining as the effects of climate change become more obvious.

Level 2 is that of the pollyannas. “Optimists”, they call themselves. They admit the prognosis is bad, but react badly to anybody who tells them it is too late to stop climate change now. They have no time for such “pessimism”. Perhaps they will accuse the “pessimist” of selfishly advocating inaction because they don’t want to make any personal sacrifices. Or they’ll accuse them of giving up too easily: “We mustn’t give up hope, because hope is the only thing that keeps people going!” If you talk to them about overpopulation, they’ll tell you that fertility rates are falling globally, and that if only we could end global wealth inequality it would fall faster. Never mind the fact that there’s already far too many of us and that even if those humans of childbearing age only have one child (fat chance), there would still be a couple of billion more of us before the population starts declining voluntarily (it’ll actually happen involuntarily long before then). Or perhaps we can convince everybody to go vegan and stop flying, and this will make the crucial difference. Or we can be saved by lots of investment in renewables and recycling. These things either aren’t going to happen at all, or won’t make anything like enough difference to prevent the eco-apocalypse. It’s like trying to bail out the Titanic…with teacups. The number of people at level 2 is rising, because more and more people are being forced to abandon level 1, or simply becoming aware of these issues for the first time.

Level 3 is that of the people who believe it is too late to stop climate change, and the rest of the eco-apocalypse. In one important sense it is wrong to consider this denial or delusion, because what they are saying, from any mainstream point of view, is true: we really cannot stop climate change. However, “it’s too late” implies that at some point, presumably relatively recently, it wasn’t too late. Maybe ten years ago we could have stopped it. Maybe we could have stopped it if the Hippy Revolution of the late 60s hadn’t turned out to be a miserable failure. I believe the truth is that it has never been “too late”, because the seeds of the predicament we find ourselves in now were sown before the dawn of human history. Certainly the fateful moment was no later than the first agricultural (or “neolithic”) revolution circa 12000 years ago, when humans began the process of giving up their nomadic existence, and invented farming. It may even be the case that Homo sapiens has been heading in this direction for as long as we have been Homo sapiens. We are supposed to live as tribal hunter-gatherers – that is what evolution designed us for. Evolution also provided us with the cognitive power to create a global techno-industrial civilisation but, unfortunately, it didn’t provide us with the wisdom or organisational ability to make that civilisation sustainable.

But what, you might ask, is the point of moving beyond level 3? Even if the above paragraph is true, why should we actually admit it? Wouldn’t it be pointlessly destructive to do so?

I went through this process thirty years ago, in my early 20s. I’d spent my teens learning about science, environmentalism and politics. I watched as the United States torpedoed the early attempts to co-ordinate global action on climate change. I joined the Green Party and experienced the futility of trying to change anything that way. And eventually I came to understand the sociology and psychology that lies beneath our abject failure to do anything about the underlying problems. Slowly but surely I was forced to admit to myself that climate change was not going to be stopped, because there was never going to be sufficient political will to stop it. Why? Partly because of the psychology of the electorate: of ordinary human beings, including most of those who call themselves environmentalists. We just aren’t willing to give up our modern standard of living. But mostly because of what has come to be known as “The Tragedy of the Commons”. The global environment, including the climate, is a shared resource. It is in nobody’s interest to use that resource in a sustainable way unless everybody else does too. And how the hell is that ever going to happen? It would require global co-operation on an unprecedented and unimaginable scale. It would require the Chinese to stop industrialising, for the western world to subsidise the “developing” world sufficiently to convince it stop “developing” (no, there is no such thing as “sustainable development”, at least not in the context of most of the modern world). In short, it’s the stuff of fairytales. It was quite obvious to me thirty years ago that we weren’t going to avoid the eco-apocalypse, and nothing that has happened since then has given me any reason to think I was wrong. Thirty years later, greenhouse emissions are still rising, the seas are becoming ever more polluted, soil is still eroding and the population is still increasing. And all the rest.

One thing that really has changed since then is the number of people aware of it. Thirty years ago, my 20 year old self was in a very lonely place. Almost nobody understood, and the few who did were inaccessible to me, because there was no such thing as the internet. Today I see many people going through something like I did. In my case it involved a nervous breakdown. I was suicidal. People thought I was mad, but I wasn’t. I was sane, but trying to come to terms with living in a completely insane world. I did not feel like I wanted to live the life ahead of me. I came out the other side of that process a changed person — somebody who had effectively given up on my own future. There is much more I could say about this, and how the course of my life was affected, but this article is not supposed to be about me.

What is the point in admitting that techno-industrial civilisation is going to collapse?

The Extinction Rebellion of the late twenty-teens will fail, just as surely as the Hippy Revolution of the late nineteen-sixties did. Both were based on an idealistic hope for a better future, but lacked the foundations of realism that any movement needs if it is to end in success. Individual choice won’t be effective enough, because not enough people will make the right choices, and a co-ordinated global response on a scale required to halt climate change is political fantasy.

There is now a stark choice before us. There is only one risky and remote chance to stop climate change now, and that is geo-engineering. Regardless of the fact it might have catastrophic unexpected side-effects, it is the only way. It is one of the options available. We may end up taking it, but that can only happen after a widespread acceptance of the true severity of the crisis. The other option is to simply accept we are in the early stages of an unstoppable mass extinction of species and a major die-off of humans, due both to catastrophic and irreversible climate change and a plethora of other human-created ecological disasters.

The point in admitting that techno-industrial civilisation is going to collapse is this: that is what the future actually holds, and the sooner we start preparing for it, the better. We need to prepare as individuals, as families, as communities and as nations. Trying to prepare for it at a global level is unlikely to work, for the same reason that there will never be an effective global response to climate change. But at the lower levels, we can prepare. We can decide how to equip ourselves, in terms of knowledge and skills. We can choose what to tell our children, if we decide to bring any into such a troubled world. And we can have political debates informed by the harsh reality of our true predicament, rather than the many levels of denial and delusion that have prevailed for far too long. In the end, all there really is to play for is the preservation of the best bits of human culture and knowledge from the last three millenia, in the hope that if another kind of civilisation eventually rises from the ashes of our own, it might be able to learn from our mistakes.

Those political discussions are likely to take many of the Extinction Rebels a long way out of their comfort zone. We’re not just going to have to stop pretending it’s not too late, and that false hope is better than no hope. We’re also going to have to talk about things like population control, and how we are going to deal with an aging and ailing population we will lack the resources to look after. And we’re going to have to get very real about immigration, because if we don’t stop climate change then the current trickle of climate refugees is going to turn into a tsunami. The inhabitable parts of the northern hemisphere will become something of a lifeboat, which will sink if its borders are not ruthlessly controlled. There will be no room for political correctness when the reality of this hits home. The fact that the ancestors of white Europeans are disproportionately responsible for causing climate change is not going to justify allowing that lifeboat to sink. And in fact we can see from the current direction of politics in the Western world that the electorate will not let that happen anyway: if those in power aren’t willing to take the necessary action, the electorate will replace them with “populists” who are. And yes, this is  means that innocent people are going to die, just because they happened to be born in a part of the world where climate change hit harder and faster. Life isn’t fair, and it is going to become much unfairer.

Shout it from the rooftops, my friends. We’re fucked. Our civilisation is going down. The Holocene is over. Welcome to the Anthropocene.