There’s no Plan A
Plan B, you will remember, is that we relatively rapidly reduce our population, our activity, our production and our consumption to a level that can be supported with renewable energy alone. The last time we did this was some time in the seventeenth century, when there were less than a billion humans on Earth. I leave it to the reader’s imagination as to how quickly we might make such a transition. But I also ask readers to note that while Plan B is extremely unpalatable; Plan A doesn’t actually exist.
A reality that, once you see it, explains a large part of why humanity is currently hurtling toward our own extinction despite fully understanding what we are doing. This is, quite simply, that nobody on Earth has a mission to halt or reverse climate change.
The latest manifestation of protest in the shape of Extinction Rebellion is much the same. The tactic of protest may help raise awareness (although outside the USA this is unnecessary) but the aim is to get government to tell the truth about the mess we are in and then take the action required for change. And so, once again, it is the governments and corporations that cause climate change that we are relying on to bring it to an end… good luck with that!
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) advises but it is for states to take the necessary action (or, more usually, pretend to take the advice while continuing with business as usual). Indeed, for political reasons, the IPCC has a track record of being ultra-conservative in its assessment of climate science and in the policies it suggests various governments adopt. So even where states do take action, it is woefully inadequate. Once again though, it is the states and corporations responsible for causing climate change that we are relying on to reverse it.
Extinction Rebellion’s campaigning appears to have fallen for the myth that there is a conspiracy between the fossil fuel companies and various governments around the world to obstruct the switch to an entirely viable alternative energy system. But neither states nor corporations are homogeneous in this way. The state is nominally directed by politicians whose primary goal is to get re-elected. Those politicians may be influenced by lobbying; but they must also keep an eye on public opinion. In any case, most of the business of state falls to various departments; each divided into myriad sub-departments and headed by permanent staff; whose role is to address just one piece of the governmental jigsaw. And nowhere within this structure is an all-powerful environment Ministry with the power to coerce every other department of state into reversing climate change.
Any corporate attempt to embark on change that is considered financially risky will meet enormous opposition from the banks, the shareholders, and very likely senior management themselves. Moreover, since few of us are prepared to boycott the 100 corporations that are responsible for nearly three-quarters of greenhouse gas emissions; there is little incentive for the corporations to change their behaviour.
Only the elected politicians are impacted by public opinion; but even then, they have to balance such things as the long-term projected impact of climate change against the immediate economic catastrophe that would ensue if we ceased burning fossil fuels immediately. And so they will make various not insubstantial changes – like deploying wind turbines on an industrial scale – that give the appearance of addressing climate change even as global greenhouse gas emissions and global temperatures reach record highs.
But in spite of all the friendliness and culture making, this is a difficult story to tell: Extinction Rebellion is not just about the political liberation of citizens. Biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, deforestation, pollution — every area of planetary life has been affected by decades of rapacious fossil fuel and mineral extraction. And none of us is on the side of the angels. You cannot walk into a supermarket, fill up your tank or put on a winter coat without getting blood on your hands. We are all embedded in a civilization that wreaks havoc on the planet.
How we extricate ourselves is the challenge at hand. Extinction Rebellion’s demands take a step beyond the Paris Agreement; they insist that Britain reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025. And their creative actions have captured the attention of the public, bringing many more voices into play.
“We need to go through the path of ashes,” Simon Bramwell, one of the group’s co-founders, told me. “This is not a hero’s journey.”
If you ask people why they have sat down in the road, why vicars, teachers, nurses, ex-policemen, electricians, a former stock trader, elderly men and young mothers allowed themselves to be arrested, they will tell you that they have done everything they can on their own: signed petitions, made lifestyle changes. None of it worked.
But when you find yourself among others who know that our boat is leaking, you can play a role in an ensemble act. Nonviolent direct action is effective because you are showing that you are willing to put your body and your liberty on the line. You are standing by your words. Who you are matters, what you say matters. And you are not alone in saying it.
We live and die by the stories we tell each other — and that story on the streets of London is changing.