Change your lifestyle, sure - but maybe get arrested too. The urgencies of climate crisis compel new actions
A fortnight ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s departure from its usual moderate tone on our ecological crisis - giving us a 15 year time-line, and a clear sense of how runaway warming could be - seems to have triggered a new and urgent wave of climate activism.
It’s not that there’s one key action for individuals and communities to take, but that there’s a spectrum on offer. From these two options, we’ll let you decide what’s appropriate to you.
Extinction Rebellion: Rebel For Life
In one of our editorials recently, we recalled meeting the academic and protest researcher Roger Hallam in 2016, at one of his Radical Think Tank meetings in London, and being struck by his logic of direct action as one of the key elements of shifting the argument on climate change. “Get young mothers (bringing their children) to put themselves on the line”, he noted, “and bad policies won’t last too long”.
Roger has now resurfaced with Extinction Rebellion, a powerful and focussed call for people to “get arrested” - or to support those willing to do so - as they face the existential challenge of global warming. The kick-off event is on October 31st (yes, Wednesday!), Parliament Square.
The Guardian article contains his rationale:
Those behind Extinction Rebellion say almost 500 people have signed up to be arrested and that they plan to bring large sections of London to a standstill next month in a campaign of peaceful mass civil disobedience – culminating with a sit-in protest in Parliament Square on 17 November.
Roger Hallam, one of the founders of the campaign, said it was calling on the government to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2025 and establish a “citizens assembly” to devise an emergency plan of action similar to that seen during the second world war.
On top of the specific demands, Hallam said he hoped the campaign of “respectful disruption” would change the debate around climate breakdown and signal to those in power that the present course of action will lead to disaster.
“The planet is in ecological crisis – we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event this planet has experienced,” he said. “Children alive today in the UK will face the terrible consequences of inaction, from floods to wildfires, extreme weather to crop failures and the inevitable breakdown of society. We have a duty to act.”
Extinction Rebellion is part of the Rising Up activist group, and organisers have spent the past few months holding public meetings in towns and cities across the country.
Hundreds of people have gathered in libraries and meeting halls, cafes and universities, pubs and churches to hear dire warnings about the consequences of the unfolding climate emergency – and what they can do about it.
“It feels like we are tapping into something very powerful in terms of the frustration and urgency many people are feeling as the evidence mounts of the scale of the climate emergency we are facing,” said Hallam, an academic at King’s College who specialises in social change and protest. He said the group was now getting 20 requests a week from people across the UK wanting to be given the talk.
“To put it simply,” he said, “we’re fucked. From the melting ice in the Arctic to the release of methane from the permafrost, the evidence is overwhelming and people are starting to realise that. What we need now is to start working out what we are going to do about it.”
The attempt to organise wide-scale civil disobedience around the looming climate breakdown comes just weeks after three people were jailed – and then released – for anti-fracking campaigns in the UK. And it follows dire warnings from the UN that there are only 12 years left to prevent global ecological disaster.
And in their widely-endorsed letter (including the ex-Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams), they lay out their strategy:
When a government wilfully abrogates its responsibility to protect its citizens from harm and to secure the future for generations to come, it has failed in its most essential duty of stewardship. The “social contract” has been broken, and it is therefore not only our right, but our moral duty to bypass the government’s inaction and flagrant dereliction of duty, and to rebel to defend life itself.
We therefore declare our support for Extinction Rebellion, launching on 31 October 2018. We fully stand behind the demands for the government to tell the hard truth to its citizens. We call for a Citizens’ Assembly to work with scientists on the basis of the extant evidence and in accordance with the precautionary principle, to urgently develop a credible plan for rapid total decarbonisation of the economy.
We also note that they are trying to promote a very striking symbol - somewhere between a peace sign and an anarchy sign, but cleverly based on the idea of a hourglass entirely run out of sand (and the X of “extinction”). We hope it catches on.
Reducing Your Carbon Footprint Still Matters
So does the urgency of Extinction Rebellion mean that our primary focus should be on governments and corporations - and that it’s too late to be thinking that personal lifestyle changes could make much contribution to a zero-carbon world by 2040-50?
This article in Slate says "no” to that. How exactly do modern people change their behaviour in complex, media-dominated societies? The response from the Slate writers:
We don’t recommend taking personal actions like limiting plane rides, eating less meat, or investing in solar energy because all of these small tweaks will build up to enough carbon savings (though it could help). We do so because people taking action in their personal lives is actually one of the best ways to get to a society that implements the policy-level change that is truly needed.
Research on social behavior suggests lifestyle change can build momentum for systemic change. Humans are social animals, and we use social cues to recognize emergencies. People don’t spring into action just because they see smoke; they spring into action because they see others rushing in with water. The same principle applies to personal actions on climate change.
Psychologists Bibb Latane and John Darley tested this exact scenario in a now-classic study. Participants filled out a survey in a quiet room, which suddenly began to fill with smoke (from a vent set up by the experimenters). When alone, participants left the room and reported the apparent fire. But in the presence of others who ignored the smoke, participants carried on as though nothing were wrong.
The IPCC has sent up a flare on climate change, but this warning is not enough. Many people will need to see others making real changes instead of carrying on with business as usual. Ask yourself: Do you believe politicians and businesses will act as urgently as they need to if we keep living our lives as though climate change were not happening? Individual acts of conservation—alongside intense political engagement—are what signal an emergency to those around us, which will set larger changes in motion…
when individuals supplement policy efforts with substantial, sustained, and wide-ranging action, they inspire new social norms. These norms can then aggregate to large-scale impacts. For instance, mass lifestyle change—flying and driving less, eating less meat, heating and cooling homes less, reducing food waste—helps cover gaps where policy change would fall short of our climate goals. More importantly, social norms can spark collective action and move the needle on policy.
As in previous cultural shifts—like those around smoking or drunk driving—more people will need to see fossil fuels as an extreme danger to human health and safety. A powerful way to spread this attitude is to act like it in our own lives, minimizing the fossil fuels we burn. Climate scientist Peter Kalmus—who has not flown since 2012—summarizes this attitude: “I try to avoid burning fossil fuels, because it’s clear that doing so causes real harm … . I don’t like harming others, so I don’t fly.” One person skipping a flight will not solve global warming alone, but when one person withdraws from a system that causes harm, they make that harm palpable to others.
How can we get large numbers of people to make such changes? Psychologists find that conservation behavior spreads across people. It’s not enough to tell people they shouldconserve; people have to see what others do. For instance, the odds of someone buying solar panels for their roof go up for each home in the neighborhood that already has them. In fact, homes with solar panels more visible from the street have an even larger impact on neighbors. This is because people’s actions reveal what they value. When people see their neighbors conserve energy, they infer that their community values environmental action.
It’s tempting - and we’ll surrender to temptation - to say that this should be a “both-and” scenario. Both the thrill of street politics and on-the-line commitment for those who feel brave enough for it, and norm-setting and behavioural emulation for those who don’t. But the urgency of the moment is clearly expanding the tool-box for active, creative citizenship around the climate crisis. Let us know if you know any more great ideas and practices.