An inconvenient extinction

By now, I suspect most people have heard about the Extinction Rebellion, or “XR” for short. In the past few weeks, XR-related actions have begun to crop up here in Australia, too, along with hints of the inevitable backlash (even in the “echo chamber” that is my Facebook feed.) One friend’s comments really resonated with me, but in preparing my response realised it really wasn’t suited (read: too long! Soz, not soz…) for a Facebook comment.

First a quick recap on what XR is about:

“Extinction Rebellion is an international movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience in an attempt to halt mass extinction and minimise the risk of social collapse.”

Surprisingly, I’ve been seeing a lot of support for XR in my Facebook feed. I suspect that the “echo chamber” effect is in full force, however. So my ears pricked up the other day when I came across a post by a good friend, whom I respect and know is very supportive of measures to address climate change, where he expressed that he didn’t feel XR was helping the cause:

Don’t get me wrong, I completely support people taking a public stand, however, I really find actions like this hinder the work many of us are doing in the crucial middle. It actually just clouds the issue and makes it harder to have real conversations because you have to wade through this crap first.

I can totally appreciate the sentiment expressed here, and for the longest time I felt the same way about “public disobedience” that caused disruption, outside of planned protest marches etc.

And I, too, am really not looking forward to the inevitable conversations with loved ones about the “idiots blocking traffic” etc. that are no doubt going to be shared next time I’m across the dinner table from them (especially when I head up north next month.)

But on this particular issue, and in this particular time, I don’t hold this view. Why?

Well, my answer to that question comes from unpacking a few things in my friend’s statement.

Firstly: “wading through this crap” means having the conversation in the first place. This is sorely needed.

Having a conversation presents an opportunity to not only talk about the crisis, but also to have a lever to use to explain both the urgency and scale of action required.

It’s important to share the stories of the everyday people that are involved in these protests, to cut through the Government and shock jock spin. Stories like this one:

Inevitably these protesters, myself included, will be reduced by some news media to just another bunch of climate activists. …

It certainly doesn’t capture the truth of who I am or why I joined XR. It doesn’t tell you that I am a mother of two small children. Or that I have lived a law-abiding life. …

We are 80-year-old grandparents, and 40-year-old parents and 20-year-old tradies. …

We are psychologists and truck drivers and electricians.

We are ordinary people who can’t sleep at night worrying about the climate emergency.

… after much soul-searching, and endless cycling between fear, anxiety and denial (“surely our leaders will do something?”), I have come to see that my inaction is an act of betrayal committed against the people I love most in the world, my own children.

Another example: I was speaking to someone yesterday at a wedding, a retired nurse who was quick to point out “I’m not an extremist,” who is active in the “XR choir” (literally a singing group) who feels that she has to do something to effect change, and that XR actions provide such an opportunity.

Ask the question: Why would everyday people resort to this? Why would otherwise law-abiding citizens be willing to be arrested?

These conversations are a chance to highlight that this is no longer an “intergenerational problem.” It requires action now. Real action. Not “I’ll wait until next election” action. Not “we’ll commit to targets in 10 years time and not do anything now” action.

They are a chance to point out the abhorrent position that the current government holds, and the lack of opposition and need for real change.

Point 2: My friend says “I completely support people taking a public stand.”

Here’s the problem… “taking a public stand” in more “traditional” modes has done very little for getting actual progress. It certainly has not resulted in action at the pace and scale needed.

As respected scientist and public figure Tim Flannery has conceded in this heartfelt missive:

But the reality is that we continue to live in a business-as-usual world. Our media is filled with enthusiastic announcements about new fossil fuel projects, or the unveiling of the latest fossil-fuelled supercar, as if there’s no relationship between such things and climate change.

In Australia, the disconnect among our political leaders on the deadly nature of fossil fuels is particularly breathtaking.

No climate report or warning, no political agreement nor technological innovation has altered the ever-upward trajectory of the pollution. This simple fact forces me to look back on my 20 years of climate activism as a colossal failure.

In part in response to our government’s failure to act—not only its continued inaction but in actively advocating for the opposite, like more coal-fired power stations and more coal in general—hundreds of Australian academics have come out in support of XR, stating:

Rather than making the urgent structural changes necessary for a sustainable and just transition toward zero emissions, the Australian government is continuing to prop up and expand coal and other CO2-emitting industries.

When a government wilfully abrogates its responsibility to protect its citizens from harm and secure the future for generations to come, it has failed in its most essential duty of stewardship.

The ‘social contract’ has been broken, and it is therefore not only our right, but our moral duty, to rebel to defend life itself.

Those last two paragraphs are critical.

The Government is there to serve us, the public—by definition they are “public servants.” We hand over certain rights to the Government in return for the public good it generates. That’s the “contract” in question here. “Laws” are the way that State power is enforced over the individuals it governs. What the academics are saying is that if the Government breaks its contract with us, by “wilfully abrogating its responsibility to protect its citizens from harm,” then that broken contract extends both ways. (The difference is that the State has the option of using force—XR is about non-violent protest and civil disobedience.)

Ex-Senator Scott Ludlum has joined the protests, and after being arrested posted this passionate call to arms:

Some of what happens now is going to be disorderly, inconvenient, noisy and unlawful. Clearly, this is not a measured moment. This is handfuls of caltrops hurled under the tyres to try and stop the car being driven over a cliff moment. People have been trying to turn the wheel, or hit the brakes, or even just point out the approaching precipice, for more than 30 years. Much more, as those of us with coloniser ancestry slowly shake off entrenched historical amnesia, to remember that the struggle against extinction and collapse on this storied and ancient continent is now into its 231st year.

So what happens now is brutally simple.

The minerals industry has moved way beyond the familiar and legal avenues of corruption: the cash transfers, lobbyists emplaced within ministerial offices, wormholed tax regimes. Out the other side of ordinary corruption is a thing called state capture, where institutions set up to protect the public interest are gradually hollowed out and repurposed to serve something quite different. That’s where we stand right now. With Labor no longer even putting up a pretense, fossil interests have a lock on our parliaments, from Capital Hill to Brisbane to Darwin to Perth.

Let that soak in. An ex-Senator making a claim of “state capture.”

This “state capture” is evident in the Queensland Government’s rush to bring a halt to public protest, while implementing “barbaric” water licenses that will destroy the environment and livelihoods. Of course the irony is the coal coming out of Adani will be exacerbating the climate crisis that is going to result in more drought and less water for the productive uses that we need as a people. (As an aside: read that article and tell me with a straight face that the licence granted isn’t tangible evidence that something is desperately amiss in the Queensland parliament.)

Similarly, Dutton and others in the Liberal Party call for punitive measures against protestors. All the while, our Prime Minister invites coal magnates to dinner with the US President.

Our police personnel (they too are “public servants” after all) have essentially been seconded by the coal industry, via our parliament, to do their dirty work. To shut down the vocal opposition to these abhorrent and destructive policies.

This is also part of that “breaking the social contract.”

This is why more than just letters to our MPs or polite protests have become necessary. And the evidence suggests that it’s working, evidenced by the strong response from both the Queensland and Federal government. Their response suggests that they are fearful of a wide-spread public backlash building on the back of XR’s actions. Or at least their purse-string holders are concerned.

Point 3: My friend says “I really find actions like this hinder the work many of us are doing in the crucial middle.”

I’m sorry… but we just don’t have time to wait for “the middle.”

The middle has had 30 years to wake up to this threat. They haven’t. We no longer have time. This affects our kids (in my case, my nephew and niece, and my God-daughter, and my friend’s kids,) and those kids are asking for us to step up because the middle has not treated this with sufficient urgency. And the science backs all of this up, with many milestones towards irreversible climate change already locked in, those that have been passed often faster and/or more extreme than anticipated.

Besides, what exactly is the middle going to do?

If I was looking at effecting behaviour change around water usage, or encouraging the uptake of renewable energy, or changing buying habits, I’d probably agree we need to win over the middle.

Our politicians are not listening to the middle, on this issue at least (though I’d argue on many more issues as well.) And even if they were—have they not got a resounding endorsement of their coal-loving ways, being handed yet another election by the middle?

So, I can’t really see the middle doing anything but (maybe) swing their vote from Liberal to Labor (if we’re lucky.) And Labor is a party that has all but given up, continuing its swing to the right and apeing the Liberal’s policy. Even if people did change their vote, and Labor changed its spots, we can’t wait another 3 years for change, only to have any progress undone at the next election. The middle will never vote Greens, which is the only “other” party in the supposed two-horse race with any clout in parliament, that has a sensible and principled climate policy.

The middle certainly isn’t going to write or visit their MP (although that would help, especially if done en-masse with a clear threat to vote elsewhere if real change is not effected immediately.)

The middle isn’t going to ring into Alan Jones calling for action on climate change (even if they did, the producers would be sure they wouldn’t get through, or if they did only so our mate Alan can berate the crap out of them and not let them get a word in edge-wise.) They’re too busy ringing him complaining about the traffic disruptions…

I think the reason that XR is gaining momentum and (seemingly) growing support—heck, that it even exists—is that we are (collectively) at wits end as to how to effect change.

Logic and reason (the science) hasn’t worked—the latest reports coming out of the IPCC are the closest the scientific community gets to shouting from the rooftops—don’t be fooled by the conservative tone of their language.

A significant shift in business (examples like this, among many others) and investors) has not worked.

Public protests like those promoted by have not worked. Massive public support behind campaigns like 1 Million Women and Earth Hour have not worked.

Advertising campaigns by organisations like GetUp have not worked.

So people are turning to history and drawing inspiration from the movements that have changed history: for women’s rights, civil rights in the USA, anti-forestry in Tasmania (another “unpopular” movement against industry and government), anti-slavery. All change supported by non-violent public disobedience. Remember that each of these movements were contesting “laws” that were unjust, and considered untenable in this day and age, but were common and broadly “accepted” by “the middle” at that time.

I think part of the backlash against XR is a result of not having had a broad scale public movement of this nature in a long time. So a lot of younger people (i.e. born in the 70s or later) haven’t witnessed or experienced what a civil disobedience campaign looks like.

XR alone won’t get there, but I think they play a very important role and are critical for the movement’s success overall.

So, even if you don’t agree with XR’s tactics, perhaps looking at it this way is helpful: a little discomfort and effort “wading through the crap” to explain the problem, to express the urgency, to examine why Government policy and more importantly rhetoric, as a result of the conversation arising due to XR’s actions, is a small price to pay in support of the next generation.