|Extinction Rebellion founder Roger Hallam|
By Emanuel Pastreich
The global movement for peaceful disobedience to force society in general, and government in specific, to undertake a revolutionary response to the catastrophe of climate change is sweeping swept the Earth like wildfire. Extinction Rebellion was an unfamiliar term even a few weeks ago, but now this movement to radically alter the debate on climate change and compel people to act has gained tremendous momentum. The current general strike in London could well permanently alter the popular and the official discourse on environmental policy.
A central figure in the founding of Extinction Rebellion was Roger Hallam. Of course there are many other intellectuals involved in campaigns to address climate change, but rarely does one find a person in the movement who is also an expert on how to shift public discourse radically and rapidly, as opposed to an expert on the details of climate change policy.
That is to say that Roger Hallam is a researcher at King's College London who has spent years studying the most pertinent point for us at this late date: how to design effective radical political campaigns.
Roger Hallam took a moment to speak with Asia Institute about the background of this general strike and its explicit, and implicit, message. His comments give profound insights into the nature of the fix in which humanity finds itself today and a taste of future in politics now that we know that Kyoto Protocols and Paris Accords offer no hope of saving us from ourselves.
The interview offers bittersweet insights into human nature. I was reminded of the comments made by Gus Speth, a Yale professor who tried to address this problem through the standard role of advisor to the government. Gus Seth remarked,
"I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don't know how to do that."
We will soon see how successful Hallam and his Extinction Rebellion are in their mass protests in London. They have, however, already have altered the debate on climate change policy. We will see transformed environmental movement beyond Al Gore and laughable carbon trading as we enter the next stage of this fight for time against human apathy and selfishness.
What's the mood right now at Extinction Rebellion as you prepare for the general strike in London and the following global movement to end the use of fossil fuels immediately, and not in thirty years?
Well, let me first say that a bunch of people helped to found Extinction Rebellion, for the record. Having said that, I was responsible for doing a paper called "Pivoting to the Real Issue" last January for the "Rising Up Network," which is this network of activists, academics, and researchers who are involved in setting up Extinction Rebellion and who are engaged in the process, in the deep thinking, about how exactly we're going to sort this dire situation out.
So nine, ten months later, we're here in April, 2019, about to embark on what may well turn out to be the first major, significant, nonviolent uprising against a Western government. What can I say? There's a certain amount of excitement and nervousness.
This isn't just a verbal exercise, like most climate change activism. It's going to involve primarily occupying around five different roundabouts or bridges, with several thousand people. The intention is to stay there until the government meets with, I expect, young people from Britain and from around the world to seriously discuss the climate emergency and the imminent ecological breakdown.
If they don't, then we will be expanding our civil disobedience to start blockading the roads coming into Westminster. That is an essential government area of London.
And if that doesn't wake them up, then we will start blocking two trains in railway stations. So we're looking at a major escalation of civil disobedience, and we may well be all arrested and imprisoned by the end of the week. But we're all here to make a stand and to wake society up.
In that process of protesting, will there be a space for people who want to get out of the fossil fuel economy? For example, people who want to eat food produced without the use of fossil fuels? What about people who want to live a life that doesn't force us to use plastics, petroleum, or coal?
This is my personal interpretation: it's not necessary to set a line about every little detail. Feel free to get the take of other people in future videos.
But my understanding of Extinction Rebellion is that our primary goal is to create a political space through which people of various countries can come together and decide whether they want to live or die in the next thirty years. To be blunt, that is the primary question for the human race at this point is: "Do we want to carry on as normal and die ― or more particularly, do we want our children to die?" Hopefully the answer is, we want to live. If you want to live, there's a whole range of technical, political, and social questions on how we're going to maximize the probability that we're going to get through this massive crisis at this late stage of the game.
Extinction Rebellion is a broad church of people. We may disagree about the nitty-gritty details, but we're coming together through disruption and sacrifice, and through mass political action that breaks the law. It's the most effective way in our view ― and, arguably, objectively ― to actually create a crisis in society. I hope we all know, without a social crisis, it's not going to get sorted out. We're supposed to be reducing carbon emissions by 50% in the next ten years. There's no way that's going to be brought about by incremental, conventional political action.
I'm a political scientist at King's College, and in my scholarly opinion, it's a no-brainer that this is not going to happen through business-as-usual. No matter your political opinion or viewpoint, this is a matter of structural sociology. Societies don't change rapidly without disruption, unfortunately.
To come back to your main question, the idea is to create this space. We're not top-down. We're not: "You've got to follow us concerning the solution." We're here to create the space where we can democratically come together and decide what specific policies and transformations are necessary.
In the discussion about climate change, it's rather shocking how in many societies around the world, you have highly-educated, progressive intellectuals who have been entirely willing to downplay climate catastrophe and even take indirect kickbacks from fossil fuel interest-funded organizations. What went wrong with intellectuals?
Well, the fact of the matter is, from a psychological reset point, individuals tend not to believe things they don't like. That's something of a downer. A lot of us, particularly in the West, have this rather naive notion that through rationality and individual calculus, we can decide what to do, and we're not influenced by the world around us. Unfortunately, the evidence points to the opposite. If we're in a particular social context which is doing something highly dysfunctional objectively, it's actually very difficult for us to extract ourselves. It's particularly hard for us to extract ourselves if we're from a privileged social group that benefits from that dysfunction in the short term. It's a slight paradox in that the more intelligent you are, likely the richer you are, and the richer you are, the less likely it is you want to hear the message. So we in the UK are doing hundreds of talks around the country.
The supposedly not very intelligent normal people grasp the reality much quicker than the supposedly very intelligent, intellectual people who are more embedded in this death cult process of elites.
It's an extremely serious problem. I'll give you an example. There are piles of these progressive, leftist ― I hate all these terms, but I'll use them ― websites that talk about imperialism, foreign wars…but they tip-toe around, or even ignore, climate change. The most interesting to me has been in the US, where the far-left Socialist Equality Party's website talks about how capitalists are crushing the unions in automobile factories. But they don't say a word about making automobiles.
I think we've got a big problem, and the big problem is that for several hundred years, we've taken nature as a given that can be exploited without any consequence. That's actually been correct insomuch as nature doesn't have a conscious sort of mind that decides it's being exploited of and fights back, like the working class, as you might say. Nature doesn't have a conscious decision-making process like human beings.
However, that's got a plus and a minus. The plus is that we've been able to exploit it without any consequences. The minus is that now it's going to destroy us and we can't reason with it. We can't go to nature and say: "Sorry, we've realized we've been screwing you for the last two, three hundred years. Can you please put the ice back in the Arctic?" The ice is going in the Arctic, whether we're remorseful or not. We're in this situation where people on the left and the right have just not come to terms with some of the fundamentals of human existence, because for hundreds of years ― and particularly in the last forty years ― we've been screwing nature and we haven't been realizing that nature is about to screw us.
So it's not surprising. It comes back to your culture. If you're embedded in a particular culture, it's extremely psychologically unpleasant to realize that you've been completely wrong. We all know that in our personal lives. I'm not trying to be moralistic here; I'm just being analytical.
We have habits. We drink. We take drugs, or are abusive to people. At a certain point, we have a moment of reckoning and it is extremely difficult to realize. This is what's happening on a social and political level. We thought the world was A, but it's actually B. This is as true for people on the left as it is for people on the right. This is not going to change without mass disruption. That's just the way it is at this stage of the game.
We live in an age of glitzy, exciting technologies like the video chat we're using right now. Technology seems to be expanding exponentially. However, scientific thinking and analysis seems to be in a free fall. How is it that humans have lost the ability to think scientifically?
Well, I feel like I've sort of answered that, insomuch as human beings can be as intelligent as you like, but at the end of the day, we're social beings. We live in a social space. Basically, our psychology trumps our rationality. If people around us are doing bad things, we'll tend to do bad things as well, even if we're supposed to be quite intelligent.
Now, obviously there are outliers like yourself or me who have come to this realization. But now, as things become worse and worse, there's a tipping point in a system where a critical mass of people realize that things have gotten so bad. They start to realize that just because they don't like something doesn't mean it isn't true. So we're at this stage and that's why Extinction Rebellion has really come along. There's enough people now who want to confront the reality of the situation.
Recently, there's been a lot of coverage in the media about this representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her Green New Deal. Having read some of the material in depth, it seems it's so full of holes you could drive a supertanker through it. And yet, within the so-called progressive political groups, it's a sacred cow. No one's actually willing to poke it or see what this really means. Is that Green New Deal really addressing what is actually required?
You can expect there's going to be an attempt to sort of deal with the ecological crisis while still maintaining the fiction that we can maintain an exploitative relationship with nature. I think part of the response of the left is to say that we can still have it really good, and we can question whether the good actually is good. We can still maintain consumer lifestyles and still deal with the crisis. There's strong evidence that that's no longer possible because of the extremity of the situation. I think we need to be clear that we're already heading to over two degrees centigrade.
Let's talk about the science for a minute. It's important that we realize that the Paris Agreement is based on a fundamental flaw of not taking account of locked-in temperature increases from the carbon lag, carbon already coming into the system, and global dimming, the effect of pollution leaving the atmosphere―and the temperatures warming up. That's before we add on the effect of the Arctic ice melting and the exponential increase in temperatures that that process will bring about.
We're already in a major crisis. The idea that we can simply maintain our lifestyles and maintain our vision―it's not going to work.
Having said that, I think it's a good sign that progressive people are starting to at least talk about the real issue, as I said last January in my paper "Pivoting to the Real Issue." The real issue is, every progressive change that we've had in the last two hundred years is now in danger of coming to nothing because soon society will collapse. There's a good chance our species will go extinct. There's no progressive culture without a human race.
I have another question about this debate in politics on conservatism. So many of the media reports that I've read say: "Well, we have these conservatives that have different values, that oppose our climate change policies, so we need to convince them over time and get them to see the light." But it seems to me, based upon what I've seen so far, that we have a small group of corporations who pushed a dangerous substance, which they knew was dangerous for the environment at least since the 1980s―so for forty or fifty years.
If you or I did that, even on a smaller scale, we'd be in jail tomorrow and all of our assets would be seized. So why do we call this criminal conspiracy "conservatism?"
The rich and powerful can get away with a lot, as we all know. We can spend a lot of time congratulating ourselves on how bad the bad guys are. There's a lot of people on the radical and progressive left who enjoy analyzing how "bad" the bad guys are. And that's important. It's important to know why bad people are doing bad things.
With all due respect, that's not the critical issue here. The critical issue is: we have ten years to revolutionize our economy if we're going to survive. And I think what we need to focus on is the practicality of rapid political change. That means looking at a different literature from the literature that tells us how "bad" the bad people are.
The biggest problem with political people is they're not reading he right literature at this stage of the game. They're not talking about the right things. What I suggest we need to do is to talk about how we're going to make this change happen, which happens to be what I specialize in as an academic. And the proposition of Extinction Rebellion, broadly speaking, is: the most effective way to change society ― actually to do something about these people and to do something about the power of the rich and powerful to destroy our children ― is to engage in mass-participation civil disobedience. This is a fundamental point about Extinction Rebellion.
We're moving away from analysis. We're moving away from information, and we're moving away from conventional campaigning, sending e-mails, sending donations, paying lobbyists…all that stuff. We're not saying there's something intrinsically wrong with that, or even that it doesn't have some effect. There's many good people doing this work. But the point we're saying is that, objectively, we're going to transform the economy in ten years.
It's not going to work. And we have evidence for that, which is, over the last 30 years, carbon emissions have gone up by 60% globally. They're still going up 1.6% in 2017, 2.7% in 2018…in other words, we've got a catastrophically dire situation insomuch as we want to understand the science.
That requires us, therefore, to engage in the most effective mechanism to bring about change, which is to break the law on a mass scale in order to create a political crisis both in society, so society starts to understand that it has obligations as well as rights, and in the government and the political class. So the political class starts to understand it has an obligation to protect the people. And if it doesn't undertake that obligation, then it no longer will have any political legitimacy to maintain its power. That's the general framework.