Here’s the tl:dr – The Paris Agreement and Extinction Rebellion are two sides (or symptoms) of the same coin, i.e. the suspension of critical faculties by people who know better but are in desperate search of reasons to be hopeful about our grim meathook future….
Back in 2015 I wrote a piece about the Paris Agreement called Why the hype over Paris and #COP21? Politics, Psychology and Money. I predicted that within two or three years the whole thing would begin to run into the sand. It was not the most risky oracling that I ever did.
I said that there were three reasons people who ought to have known better were hyping the wretched thing. While these intersected and overlapped, I subdivided them into psychology, money and politics.
On psychology –
Firstly, climate change is bloody depressing, and if you’ve chosen – or are paid – to think about it, it exacts a toll. You get grumpy, demoralised, angry, whatever. And mostly you get the hope kicked out of you year after year after year. The UNFCCC process has been one of repeated let-downs, since the first COP in Berlin in early 1995. You have to go all the way back to the Rio Conference to get any stirring words about large-scale ambition and equity. (e.g. article 2)
On the money –
Secondly, financial – lots of the non-governmental organisations that are usually more critical of this have pretty delicate finances of late, and if you’re reliant on guilty middle-class people sending in direct debits, you have to frame your critiques ‘just so’. NGOs are in the business of monetising hope. They need to keep middle-class people signing the direct debits. Thus “world leaders just need to be held to account, and combined with some New Technology, everything will be okay” is an acceptable message to send out in the aftermath of COP21, whereas “this agreement is too little, too late – middle class lifestyles like yours have caused the problem and have to go for us to have any chance whatsoever of avoiding total apocalypse” is … not. People on the receiving end of the second message are less likely to renew their direct debit donations.
On the politics – well, it was about not wanting to lose momentum –
They on some level know that there will be a counter-attack from the denialists and the fossil-lobby, so they want to talk the Paris agreement up, building its credibility.
More recently, applying the same knowledge of history, the same personal experiences of how things turn out in social mobilisation organisations, I’ve written a fair bit about Extinction Rebellion. There was this one, and this one and this one. (By the way, I think outfits like Extinction Rebellion should be called social mobilisation organisations rather than social movement organisations, unless they happen to stick around for a few years and do actual movement-building, as opposed to repeated mobilisations).
The response has been, basically, underwhelming. The major strand that doesn’t try to engage with the (friendly) critique but instead say “critiques not welcome, you should get on board and cheerlead” or “hmmph, you just want to be the leader” or “prediction is ridiculous.” None of this is surprising, but it is kind of like the Lewis Law (“Comments on any article about feminism justify feminism.” .)
So, if your response to the rest of this article is along the lines of “have you even tried to get involved/been to a meeting?” [fwiw, yes, yes] or “cheerlead, don’t lead and shut up“, then please save your time and my bandwidth and keep your useless response to yourself, ‘kay? If you think I am wrong and you can say WHY I am wrong without changing the subject/resorting to ad hominems, then by all means, engage.
The Ominous Parallels between Paris and Extinction Rebellion
- Come after a long history of failure which is then ignored (leading to a high likelihood of history repeating – or at least rhyming) (The UNFCCC process has been staggering on since 1991. Climate activism has a similar provenance.)
- Hyped by people who ought to know (and I suspect DO) know better, but can’t afford to voice their concerns for psychological and social reasons – and the chilling effect of what happens to other people when they voice concerns is part of that).
- Has the function of allowing people to take a hearty suck on the Hopium pipe
- If criticised, the response of proponents reverts pretty quickly to brittle defensiveness and straw-manning/subject changing, with a bizarre reading of past failures as success.. Rather than engaging in an understanding of the critique, the “this is the only game in town” line is trotted out.
- Focus on voluntary action/voluntarism. Paris is just the old Japanese “pledge and review” warmed over. Extinction Rebellion is just the RTS/Climate Camp critique of formal NGOs dialled up to 11, with higher numbers compensating for less of a core experienced group [meanwhile, Reclaim the Power, a Climate Camp successor organisation presumably has its nose well out of joint re Extinction Rebellion’s media profile). Voluntarism relies on social pressures. Social pressures are not uniform over time, space or class. There is a real problem with free-riding and accountability. In the honeymoon phase, this is glossed over, but the chickens do eventually come home to headlessly roost…
What is to be done?
I have written endlessly about how things could be done differently as well as making videos about it (see also videos new person’s experience of meetings and newbie in a parallel universe) . And these ideas are applauded and then ignored. I am not alone in this of course. But if you are going to comment on this with a “well, where are your concrete ideas” then don’t bother, because you haven’t bothered to do any research.
- Er, actually engage with the substance of critiques of Extinction Rebellion
- Understand that throwing around words like “decentralisation” and “holocracy” doesn’t actually add up to anything new at all. It’s new whining in old bottles, basically.
- Understand that the information deficit model, and the hope deficit model, have been tried before, and that they quickly become opportunities for (self-appointed and unaccountable) leaders to indulge in a little light/heavy ego-foddering.
- Understand that busyness is its own reward but also its own punishment, and that activity and action are not the same thing.
- Understand that its very unlikely indeed that Extinction Rebellion and other social mobilisation organisations will be immune to the problems of incompetent/malicious leaders, overcommitment by followers (and lunchoutism), burnout, co-optation and repression, and that “hoping” it will be different is not, in fact, a strategy. Hope is not a strategy. Building up false and unrealistic hopes is actually irresponsible, and dangerous.
In essence, this: we can accept that past social movements were shit on some things. For example, suffragettes and race (as well as class, but let’s stick to race for now).
That’s okay if it’s safely a century ago – we can wag our fingers and shake our heads. If it’s more recent, and we are more culpable, well...