“In many countries the public knows the old promise of tomorrow being better than today is finished. But they don't quite know why that is, or what to do about it. ...We seem trapped within the dynamics and momentum of this system. Therefore, my guess is it means that we won't change things. At least not in time to prevent catastrophe from a range of societal stressors, the most unavoidable of which is climate damage. So what to do about it? The first step is to stop pretending that we will prevent things from getting worse. Instead, to consider just how bad things will get and what in that context we could do to help. Once you have let go of those old stories of progress, there is nothing negative in working for a lesser dystopia.” - Jem Bendell.
The Madrid round of annual UN climate talks in December utterly failed – a perfect example of world leaders lacking seriousness about the existential threat we face. Australia continues to burn; a perfect example of how very serious our vulnerability is.
Here in the UK, the party with by far the worst rankings of its climate-policies – so bad that its leader preferred to be represented by a melting piece of ice rather than defend Conservative policies in live televised debate – has been handed electoral victory and a landslide 80 seat majority.
In the face of our new, darker post-election reality, the foremost question must be: Is Bendell right? The decisive Conservative victory and the total lack of serious international actions means all those sympathetic to Extinction Rebellion must undertake a period of reflection; reassess some of our demands, hopes, and perhaps methods; and probably make some significant adjustments.
There is absolutely no way that our ‘3 demands bill,’ nor anything like it, will be willingly passed by this Parliament. Painfully, we have to admit to ourselves that the 2025 deadline of net-zero carbon emissions and biodiversity loss, perhaps our best-known of the three demands, has suddenly become almost unachievable (barring a very risky and improbable notion of some kind of seizure of power from the current government). For we are simply running out of time.
Last year, Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the UN, said that to have even a chance of realising the UN’s climate goals of keeping global overheating to under 1.5 degrees, serious, unprecedented action must begin during 2020. And that’s even before we consider that the UN’s 1.5-degree threshold is far less stringent than our 2025 demand, and that the most recent data on the accelerating pace of climate breakdown suggest we have even less time than the UN’s IPCC warned us of last year.
The UK’s contribution to the climate and extinction crises is not small, as the Government suggests. Much of China’s seeming-contribution to the problem is actually ours. We’ve merely offshored our emissions along with our manufacturing. And 15% of all fossil fuel finance passes through the City of London. In terms of carbon emissions responsibility, this country punches well above its weight.
Even if the government will not meet Extinction Rebellion’s first demand – to “tell the truth” – doing so ourselves is our foundational principle. If the 2025 deadline was based on hard science and the precautionary principle – which it was – we cannot simply move the emissions deadline back to 2030. So our three demands should remain targeted firmly at 2025. But we must begin to accept and discuss what the future will look as that 2025 deadline becomes in-credible.
The UK, ‘standing alone’ outside the EU, is primed for the mother of all falls. For, unable as we are to feed ourselves, we are deeply vulnerable to the vicissitudes of a deteriorating climatic situation for which we have much historical responsibility.
We might, through further larger smarter rebellion combined with attempts to awaken the governing elite, influence this government in a better direction, by influencing the consciousness of the many and hitting the profits of the few. We should of course try. But the reality we now face probably makes it too late to stop this civilisation from ending during the next generation (or two) at most. We must start thinking seriously and realistically about the possibility of society being likely to decline or even collapse. The situation also reflects our tragically broken democratic processes: a dire corporate media, a free-for-all zone of paid lies on Facebook and a laughable electoral system. XR’s call for a profound renewal and deepening of democracy is more pertinent than ever and will be very hard to implement under this Government.
So yes, we must keep fighting against the self-destructive tendency of our society every step of the way, and keep pressure on government to reduce emissions and biodiversity-loss drastically. But the dismal character of recent events mean we also need to start preparing ourselves and our society for the possibility (probability?) that our efforts will fail, and that we will undergo, within the next generation or two, some kind of collapse event. In that light, we must now start to take seriously the role of transformative adaptation and yes, even what Bendell has termed deep adaptation.
We need in this connection to start talking more about ‘solutions’ about what needs changing in Britain. We can no longer put this off, awaiting a Citizens Assembly (the third of our three demands), which a Johnson administration won’t make happen. We need to emphasise things like restoring wetlands, making nuclear waste and nuclear power plants safe against the coming storms (literal and metaphorical), reducing food waste, eating lower on the food chain, learning and sharing food-growing and other skills, and a thorough relocalisation. We need to be talking about all this, bringing to life the story of the climate and ecological decline that the Conservative’s manifesto will likely lock in. And we need to start thinking, fast, about how to do these things, including helping to bring about Citizen’s Assemblies to help chart the way forward, with or without central government backing.
Above all, we must remain truthful. XR is most advanced in the UK, but even here we could not make real a ‘Climate election’. As climate and ecological deterioration becomes a fact of daily life, we increasingly need to rely on each other and our local communities. We must also therefore redouble our efforts to affect local governments and force them to take seriously the task of preparing their (our) communities. We need to look more seriously at deep alliances with the Transition Towns movement, with permaculture, and so on.
This civilization – growthist industrial-capitalism – is in its endgame. Heartbreakingly, under the Conservatives, that process is very likely to accelerate. We in XR need to start being more truthful and direct about this, and we need to make that directness real by starting to call for and to seek to enact transformative and deep adaptations. We are set free from fantasies of progress and salvation. Instead, living in truth, let’s regenerate our movement and start to get clear on what is now to be done. On what can now still be hoped for - and what we have to let go of.