12 years a slave to the rhetoric

[Update 13 Jan 2019: hmm, this blog has been put somewhere on facebook and had some click throughs. Could someone share the link in the comments? Curious to see what/if any comments. ALSO, this latest post on this site may be of interest- “Infiltration and environmental movements – what is to be done?“]


It’s twelve years since the first climate camp, in the UK. Twelve years since that outfit decided to camp its way into a trap of its own devising. This year, the IPCC released a report saying we’ve got 12 years to have completed a transformation of our energy systems/economies, or else you can kiss goodbye to the Holocene (and of course, the IPCC is a small-c conservative body: the reality is far worse).

Anyway, we’ve also seen, this year, in the last 12 weeks or so, the giddy rise of “Extinction Rebellion” (hereafter ER). The people I’ve spoken to, who have memories going back to 2011 or 2006, compare it to Occupy or to Transition Towns respectively. The words “flash in the pan” get used by others; me, I prefer “Up like a rocket, down like a stick.” But we’re so short on hope these days, that people are willing to suspend their critical faculties, and chide anyone who keeps them. So it goes.

Fwiw, I think there are huge dangers to the millenarian rhetoric (see Jonathan Atkinson’s points in this), the naivete about the British state and the work that would be needed to keep it vaguely honest and,  besides the clunky Overton window, ignorance about the basics of social movements literature (though much of that is worth ignoring, of course).

So what will happen? Well, prediction is a mug’s game of course. Call me a mug.

On the way up, ER will – I suspect – effectively be inadvertently chugging for Friends of the Earth and other culpable/complicit/comedic organisations. These beneficiaries of ER’s work will get invited onto the airwaves to give the “reasonable” (i.e. craven eco-modernist) viewpoint, while being asked to distance themselves from the “irresponsible” “eco-loons” of ER (who understand – and are willing to say – just how much trouble we are in).

er trajectory-page001

If (I think when) ER peaks/implodes, then on its way down, some erstwhile ERors will pass through those very groups, on their way “out” of activism. Some may stick around, but not many – their mindset, experiences etc will simply not a good fit for those organisations, that eschew millenarian thinking. Others will try to create new organisations, some of which will survive.

This time it’s different

Of course, as investors will tell you, the four most expensive words in the English language are “this time it’s different”. It may be that the words of the scientists cut through, and that the “12 years” meme gets more traction with Jane Public. If the UK hosts the 2020 COP, that will sustain the wave for a bit (the opportunity for a good emote on home turf), and the Met will be grateful for all the overtime. But

a) fear sends people into inaction more easily than action. Or into religious salvation narratives.

b) ER will need to play a blinder, and from the (limited) evidence I’ve seen, I don’t think it has the capacity to do that, or even the awareness that it lacks the capacity. It has a few repertoires, that it is imprinting on (it’s early days of course, things may change!). Most organisations stick to those initial repertoires, and if people want to use others, they have to form different organisations, with all the costs that that entails (exit, voice and loyalty and all that).  Meanwhile, the effectiveness (both internal and external) of the small set of repertoires, well, it has a half-life, a shelf-life.  Externally, opponents learn how to counter it, internally, it stops giving the same ‘buzz’ and effervescent/bonding affect/effect.

Of course, I hope I’m wrong, and there are things that could be done to make this trajectory less likely , but probably won’t be.

3 thoughts on “12 years a slave to the rhetoric

Add yours

  1. I don’t disagree with anything you say here; things are beyond dire on almost all fronts. That said, given your experience with all the things that can go wrong with mass movements, would your energies not be better expended trying to prevent them, and to maximise whatever good XR, and whatever may come after it can achieve? Aware you may have “been there and done that”, too – but I don’t think things are so far gone that we’ve reached “there’s no point in even trying to mitigate anything at all”.

    1. Hi Calum,
      thanks for taking the time to comment.
      I guess I am doing everything that I can – for example, by doing Manchester Climate Monthly and interviewing v. smart people (yes, that’s a reference to the interview that went up last Friday!) and so on. And blog posts on that site and this site that try to layout for “newbies” and old hands some of what the history (mine and other people’s) can tell us about what to expect, what is likely (though not written in stone).

      My experience is that social movement organisations are very very conservative (small c), even the soi-disant radical ones. I have some ideas about why that is (based on Jo Freeman, Jacques Camatte, Robert Michels, the nature of the smugosphere). I have tried to show innovations that would give “us” more options,, but various personal factors (my temperament/demeanour/demographics and my reputation) make those never seem to go from grudging agreement to sustained implementation.

      Recently I offered to get a meeting of ‘old’ and ‘new’ activists together. I was told yes, that’s great. Then prolonged silence. Then a chance encounter that was another ‘oh yes’… then more silence This is not the way I want to live the remaining time we have. It also smacks of a level of (at best) disorganisation too rich for me. So I have just this morning sent an email rescinding that offer: maybe someone else will take it on, I don’t know.

      What I’ve seen is that organisations are very resistant to new ways of doing things. I think my only contribution can be to write (endlessly) about how things could be better, have various (there are a few) people say that they will take it on board and try to do things differently… and then see those things… not happen. Again and again.

      This might be the gods’ “punishment” for the choices I have made in my life, the reputation I have (some of it deserved, other bits not). It’s not the worst punishment of course, I am certainly no martyr: I (still) have clean water coming out of my tap, a bed to sleep in, an amazing wife, some friends. On a dying and doomed planet, as part of a ecocidal cvilisation, sure, but that was always the way it was going to turn out…

      All best wishes


  2. Hi Marc,
    thanks for these insights and all you do, I really appreciate the honesty, intelligence and care you bring!

    As you may know, Extinction Rebellion’s 10 Principles and Values include “5. We Value Reflecting and Learning”. (https://rebellion.earth/who-we-are/)

    So I encourage you to share any insights you have that may help us – yes Extinction Rebellion is our movement – a movement for all life (and after 30 years researching, teaching, campaigning, acting, etc. I’m now devoting the next year to Extinction Rebellion as I see it as the best chance we have and want to die with no regrets) – offered in service that it may help, with no guarantee of ‘success’ or how things will turn out.

    I doubt Extinction Rebellion will last 3 years, we don’t have that much time. It’s not meant to, it’s an offering right now and It’s the most incredible gift. So, pease add your insights, wisdom, experience ad intelligence! Please share ways you see that we can be the most effective we can in the precious time we have. Feel free to email me and I’ll bring it to the wider movement. larch.maxey@plymouth.ac.uk with many thanks, Larch

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