It is Friday evening and I am on the way home. It is one of these days where the sky clears up just before sunset to make way for a beautiful play of colours. The city is buzzing with life, the Bruxellois are enjoying the start of the weekend outside. The chatter and laughing mixes with the sounds of music and clanking beer glasses.
The lively city streets are in stark contrast with the thoughts that are swirling through my head. I just attended a talk by Roger Hallam, one of the founders of the Extinction Rebellion movement. Given the waves they’ve made in recent months, there is a good chance you heard of them before. But for the uninitiated, let me quickly introduce them before heading into the beef – or tofu for the vegans – of this blog post.
Extinction Rebellion is a grassroots movement that declared a rebellion against the UK government back in October 2018. The Rebellion will not cease until their democratic representatives 1) declare an ecological and climate emergency, 2) bring the loss of biodiversity to a halt and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2025, and 3) install citizen assemblies that will inform government decisions on the way forward.
Every weathered activist will know these demands are not entirely new. Many environmental organisations and movements have called for similar action before. Yet, how come this Rebellion, seemingly coming out of nowhere, grew to a movement with over a hundred thousand people engaging in protests in a matter of months?
Listening to their co-founder Roger Hallam, it slowly became apparent to me how Extinction Rebellion was able to rally so many people with such different backgrounds, from kids barely able to write their own name to granny’s usually found in a swinging chair, knitting bonnets – a feat other environmental organisations could only dream of. First, their pure and deliberate honesty about the dire state of the planet and its repercussions. Second, their choice to use peaceful disobedience to bring their demands across, knowing that traditional methods like petitioning and marching are just not doing it anymore. Extinction Rebellion draws a lot of inspiration from past civil disobedience movements such as the Free India movement led by Gandhi and the American civil rights movement personified by Martin Luther King.
You might be wondering: declaring an ecological and climate emergency, isn’t that a tad exaggerated? Well, the truth is that based on the latest scientific observations, things are looking bleak indeed. We are in the middle of the sixth mass extinction on this planet. Biodiversity is degrading at a rate never seen before. In the meantime, we have emitted so much greenhouse gas emissions that global temperature rise seems to have kicked off some of the notorious feedback loops, risking the warming spirals out of control completely.
If you thought the (in-)famous IPCCC 1.5 degree study last year was remarkably pessimistic for UN standards, you probably didn’t know yet that they totally ignored the melting land-based ice caps in their models. That 12-year (now 11-year) window to get on the way to carbon neutrality turns out to be overly optimistic. Meanwhile, the extreme weather events of the last years have reduced agricultural yields in the Northern Hemisphere about 20 to 30%.
Not everybody in the Rebellion seems to be reading the latest scientific results in the same way. Some, like Roger Hallam, argue that it may be a matter of years before we face food shortages in Europe. One of their other spokespersons, Rupert Read, seems to be less pessimistic in his public appearances. Nonetheless, the predicament of the movement is clear: we are in deep trouble, wether that will start playing out in 5, 10, or 15 years.
But this blog post is not about climate science, nor is it about Extinction Rebellion. Not really. It is about what my encounter with them triggered in me. It’s about how we might need to reconsider the way we look at the current ecological and climate crisis, how we talk about it, and how we feel about it.
Looking for answers
“Are you a rebel already?”
It was my friend Xavier, involved in Extinction Rebellion Belgium, who noticed me at the reception after Hallam’s talk. “I am not sure yet”, was my honest answer.
Since a Belgian branch started forming at the beginning of 2019, I was watching Extinction Rebellion’s developments with a mix of eager curiosity and skepticism. It was Xavier’s question that made me ask myself: Why am I avoiding making up my mind about them? Seeing their massive success in Great Britain to raise awareness among the general public around the urgency of climate change and their demands to the UK Government, shouldn’t I be an outspoken supporter? It is no secret that I want carbon neutrality sooner than later and I have called for citizen assemblies myself in a recent blog post. What was the source of my hesitation?
While descending into downtown Brussels, finding myself among terraces filled with bon vivants at that lovely summer evening of Hallam’s talk, I realised there were two important factors at play. The first one has everything to do with my personality. Although I subscribe to the predicament that we find ourselves in a climate emergency – it is in fact that very realisation which made me decide to start this blog 5 years ago,- I did not and still don’t see how the Rebellion wants to deal with that emergency. Declaring it is one thing, coping with it another. You can call for citizen assemblies, but without solutions to tackle the root of the crisis, we’re still nowhere. I don’t like that I cannot see the goal Extinction Rebellion should ultimately be working to, I want to see that phase 2. That’s just who I am – I like to envision, plan, execute. And I know there are many people like me.
My second, more existential, concern is that I personnaly would not be able to cope with the feelings of loss and grief that are so prominent in Extinction Rebellion. How long can their members, submersed in a movement where so much of the language and symbolism is centered around extinction and death, stay motivated? Waking up every single day with the idea that the world is going berserk can’t be beneficial for one’s mental health. For thousands of years, humankind has developed complex religious and mystical traditions to overcome the fear of death. Will Extinction Rebellion need to do the same to assure people don’t get paralysed or depressed by their anxiety?
When I arrived home that night, I rushed behind my computer to look for answers. Yes, it was about time to do some research. Research that ended up being a good portion of soul searching as well. Regardless of the fact that you believe in the imminent threat of climate change-induced disruption of our food provision, water supplies, and energy production, I think the conclusions of my analysis are worth considering either way.
Am I in climate denial?
Per recommendation of a friend, I dived into a paper written by Jem Bendell about a year ago. This 36-page document with the downbeat title ‘Deep adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Emergency’ turned out to be a perfect manual to investigate my slight yet stubborn skepticism for Extinction Rebellion. Half an hour into the paper, I started wondering: am I what Bendell calls an implicative denier? Referring to earlier research by Foster, he defines implicative denial as ‘recognising the troubling implications of these [climate emergency, red.] facts but responding by busying ourselves on activities that do not arise from a full assessment of the situation’.
I asked myself: given the imminent emergency, are my current efforts ill-conceived? However well-intended, are my job as a renewable energy engineer, and volunteering work on plastic pollution and citizen activism the best response to this crisis? Shouldn’t we all stand on the barricades of the rebellion right now? As much as I genuinely hope to have an impact, I am also very much aware that my current efforts are a coping mechanism – to have the feeling I am at least doing something. Could unconscious implicative denial be a reason for my skepticism for Extinction Rebellion?
Although it is nothing to get cheerful about, it is consoling to learn I would not be the only one. In fact, implicative denial is rampant among climate scientists and environmentalists. Think about all these people that fly from conference to conference to talk about climate change, emitting tonnes of greenhouse gases in the process. It seems like implicative deniers fully acknowledge the facts about the climate emergency, yet disengage emotionally with their implications. Heck, you could be doing exactly the same!
Not talking about the crisis is counterproductive
Bendell argues that many environmentalists and climate scientists not only busy themselves to avoid facing the climate crisis face and centre, but many also seem to restrain from publicly talking about it. An argument that is often heard is that it would be irresponsible to discuss the true urgency of the climate crisis with the public, because of the hopelessness it might trigger. And I have to admit I saw things in a similar way. Yet, Bendell thinks that our general view on hopelessness might be pretty wrong. It has been shown that people going through a severe period of despair, for example, because of the loss of a loved one or a terminal disease, might be triggered to rethink life and what matters most. Hopelessness can be transformative. And transformation is what we are in dire need of right now.
Did I, too, fell in the trap of extrapolating the fact that I struggle to think about societal collapse due to runaway climate change, to everybody else? Didn’t I thankfully cite theories of famous climate change communicators to support my approach to talk about climate change from a positive angle? Wasn’t I saying that negative communication about climate change wasn’t working, because I didn’t want it to work? Reading through Bendell’s work makes it difficult to believe I didn’t at least suffer a bit of good old confirmation bias.
This is an important lesson. Holding back from talking about the scary ramifications of the climate crisis is not only unnecessary, but it is also likely to be counterproductive. Hopelessness could be a necessary phase to reinvent one’s place in the world and what we really value most. A phase of collective despair could hence deliver the push to truly rethink our societies.
But don’t get me wrong, I am still very much convinced that we need to work hard on the positive message as well: people need inspiration for that phase 2! Without it, it is hard to believe that we’ll ever get to what Bendell calls the new radical hope. This radical hope is based on the belief that we’re going to sort things out in time, even though today it’s impossible to foresee exactly how. In fact, building up this radical hope is exactly the equivalent of how most religions have dealt with the idea of death and apocalypse I reffered to earlier. Therefore, it seems to me there is an existential need to link despair with hope. To embrace the uncertainty to come and stay determined in our hope will be one of the most challenging feats in the decades to come.
Nobody wants to be the doomsday evangelist
Even when environmentalists and climate scientists acknowledge that talking about the disruptions as a result of runaway climate change is a necessity for transformation, there are many reasons why they wouldn’t do so. First of all, nobody wants to be the doomsday evangelist, the party killer. But it is also true that most people don’t like to voice thoughts that go against the social norm and are afraid to disturb or annoy others.
To make things worse, it turns out that especially people that have climbed up the social ladder in the status quo system, such as climate scientists and the diplomats negotiating climate agreements, are inclined to imagine its reform rather than its upending.
Could these be the reasons why four decades of climate negotiations at the local and international level have not been able to stop greenhouse gases spiraling out of control? Could it be that the people ought to solve the problem, have in fact been standing in the way of radical change, while condescendingly claiming that the public wouldn’t be able to cope with ‘the truth’, as Bendell suggests?
These types of concious or subconcious motivations are something to be wary off, both to evaluate our own behavior and that of others. But I also think both the causes and the impacts of anthropogenic climate change are so complex that the above reasons alone cannot be blamed for the failure to deliver meaningful climate action up to now.
We have come to a point though where there is not much need any more for climate scientists and environmentalists to be doomsday evangelists. The signs in the natural world have become so strong, that the general public doesn’t need complicated models or theories to explain something is awfully wrong. The popularity of Extinction Rebellion with people that have never been active in political or environmental movements is the best proof of it.
Phase 2: beyond adaptation and resilience
This brings us back to my other question: how to deal with the climate emergency once it is widely recognised? Coined as ‘deep adaptation’, Bendell proposes a new framework to think and talk about what is next for human societies facing massive disruption. He is clear: the growing interest and financial commitment to climate change adaptation shows that institutions like the World Bank are recognising the unavoidable impacts of a changing climate. Yet, current climate resilience and adaptation measures are mostly physical interventions, such as building higher dikes against rising sea levels, better irrigation infrastructure to deal with changing weather patterns, etcetera. This will soothe the pain to some extent but won’t be enough when we face social upheaval in the coming decades due to mass migration and food shortages.
We need to start thinking collectively about how we want to deal with the situation right and centre as a society. Beyond resilience, we’ll need to reconsider what we want to keep and save and what we want to let go off. Are we going to save coastal cities threatened by the, now exponentially, rising sea level, no matter the costs? Are we really going to hold on to meat and dairy consumption? We’ll also have to think about how we can undo some of the damage we’ve already done to the world’s ecosystems. Can we reforest certain areas, can we restore coral reefs? And how are our political systems going to deal with the massive disruption of our food system, the migration flows that follow, natural disasters, and the likely collapse of the global banking system?
These questions must be answered to be able to perform the necessary deep adaptation, as Bendell calls it. Looking at the fundamental nature of these issues for our society, I would rather call it deep transformation myself. These questions once seemed to be reserved for apocalyptic Hollywood movies, but the inconvenient truth is that we’ll need to discuss them right now and not when a further decline in food productivity will put a knife on our throat.
Whether we will start having these discussions with the general public soon will depend on the success of movements like Extinction Rebellion. Either way, I can’t help but think: will the newly installed citizen assemblies, as demanded by Extinction Rebellion, one day have to decide not what, but who we’ll let go off?
Hope after hopelessness
Bendell offers the beginning of a framework to look for answers together. It is now up to all of us to figure out how deep adaptation is going to look like. And as I learned by going through his work, I discovered that adaptation starts within oneself. It starts with looking the scary truth into the eyes that within my lifetime, things will go down South big time. That no matter how hard I work today on mitigating disruptive climate change, there will come a day that it might feel as if it didn’t matter.
Over the course of a week, in which I wrote this blog post, I slowly started to accept the hopelessness that rose from emotionally engaging with the climate emergency on the night of Hallam’s talk. And I accept that this could be a necessary phase for a new start for society. A new start for a future that will undoubtedly be very different from what our stable and comfortable lives look like today. The start of deep adaptation, or as I like to call it, deep transformation.
One day, this hopelessness will make way for a radical new hope. Hope that embraces the unknown and trusts that we’re going to figure things out. Hope that this future will bring people back in touch with nature, community, and spirituality. Hope that this future is, in fact, the biggest opportunity for a lost species to find its purpose again.
Cover photo courtesy of Vladimir Morozov and Extinction Rebellion