Over the past few days, the #ExtinctionRebellion has been variously creating havoc on its guided tour of London: a bonanza of pink boats for street voyages, organised naps in the Natural History Museum, catering tents and skate parks for the entertainment of the protesting masses. All several hundred of them.
They only ask for net carbon emissions to zero by 2025, a ‘people’s assembly’ (referendum, anyone?) to make sure only sensible decisions are made, and no lies from politicians (…..). When 16-year-old Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg appeared, after an arduous train ride eschewing air travel, to give her speech, the numbers swelled to over a thousand, eager to receive the uplifting, palatably brief pat on the head from a focal figure of the movement. She told them that they were all doing very well and ‘making a difference‘. Twittergram conservationism at its finest.
I am not entirely sure what to think about the protests. But I certainly have a few reservations about them. On problem is that, climate change, extinction and ecological collapse are an exceedingly complex set of interlinked problems, which nobody fully understands or has immediate solutions for. Protests with poorly-specified ideals and goals offer no solutions at all, nor do emotive speeches and Nobel peace prizes to high-profile teenagers. As much as Greta Thunberg is admirable in many ways – I certainly would not have had the balls to do what she’s doing at her age- she isn’t making any substantive developments to the discussion. She sets up a straw man of ‘adult lies’ and ‘global inertia’ against which to make generalised objections.
This is a level of argument not at all unexpected for a 16 year old, but, fortunately, it is just simply not quite true. She claims, ‘nothing is being done’ about climate change. Actually, quite a lot has been done about climate change. Not enough, but rather a lot. It is just a very, very difficult problem. This form of conservationism-by-soundbyte tells us nothing we don’t already know and does nothing to convince the hardcore denialists who are the real problem, politically. Then there is the danse macabre of gender, class and race politics that such public discussions inevitably reanimate.
It is easy to blame politicians for their astounding faliures to pay more attention to science surrounding ecological issues, whether that be the result of mercenary interest, power-chasing or pure idiocy (EU fishing policy, for example, is a long-running travesty of science-denial). But they are also walking a tightrope between what people want and what is possible. The fact remains: were politicians to impose the necessary changes on the populations they represent, there would be a far greater uproar. Many of the #ExtinctionRebellion crowd, I would wager, just simply wouldn’t accept the living conditions it would take to make a dramatic move towards the goals they are picketing for. To get carbon emissions to zero by 2025 via political means, as demanded, would take a Draconian set of controls on everyday life, akin to that of a hardcore communist regime. It would cost over a trillion Euros a year, were it even possible. There certainly wouldn’t be any pink boats.
I have to admit to a significant amount of personal apathy when it comes to my own actions with respect to climate change, leading often a deep, depressive funk. It takes only a few moments watching an orangutang vainly fighting the machines scything down its forest home to tip me into an apocalyptic sense of loss, which connects as much to my own psychological makeup as much as to the reality. Knowing how to convert that catastrophic horror into positive action is incredibly difficult. And this is part of the problem we are dealing with here: ecological breakdown is not just a practical issue, it is a deeply psychological one which descends rapidly into the nihilistic. This is a fact that has to be taken into account when influencing public opinion – it must not be prioritised when it comes to finding solutions.
The paradox of our existence is that we have come closer than any other creatures on Earth to escaping death, extending our lives and and physicalities well beyond the boundaries of our biology and ecology. In pushing past the limits of nature we have become the new gods of our own origins. But, we have also become the agents of nature’s destruction, and with it, our own. This reversal has left us with nothing to look to as we face the monsters of our own apocalypse. So we project these monsters outwards: they are the politicians, the corporate CEO’s, the oil-drillers. The middle-class vegan recyclers and their progeny are but the victims of their greed. This perception is true at a very limited level, but also stunts real action.
By allowing the practical and emotional to become overly entangled, to laud widely publicised emotive outcries over the real, small steps that entrepreneurs and scientists are making will only cloud our vision in finding the technological and economic routes out of the practical problems. Partaking in the #ExtinctionRebellion might make people the illusion that they are part of the solution, but they are arguably simply participants in a mass act of self-soothing. Many are highly-informed, dyed-in-the-wool sustainable-living activists, no doubt, others well-meaning people wanting to do something to help, but many are simply virtue-signalling joy-riders. My inner, prematurely aged curmudgeon can’t help but think that if the same damn hippies who are occupying central London right now hadn’t opposed nuclear power thirty years ago, we would have burnt a hell of a lot less fossil fuel in that time.
So, that said, what is the solution? I think it will come, not from social media stunts, botched recycling schemes and vegans hiding eating disorders behind eco-friendly eating, but from clever, motivated people finding innovative ways to change our infrastructure. People simply don’t want to be uncomfortable, or inconvenienced. Bottom up changes in individual behaviours won’t be enough. There have to be top down changes in the way economies are run and the technologies available to us. There have to be fundamental changes in the way we live and in the ways we supply our lifestyles. Politicians cannot simply implement these changes, or only to a small degree- these changes need to be seeded to flourish organically, fertilised by government action and funding, my primarily market forces. Developing carbon-sink technologies, re-thinking economic structures, nuclear fusion energies and smart cities will be part of the solution, collaboration between countries and companies. This process won’t be helped by Bank holiday demo jollies, but by better communication of the science and the technological developments, funding for companies trying out smart new ways to make our lives more sustainable, and spotlights on the success stories.