No one is
coming to save us. Only rebellion will prevent an environmental apocalypse
Monbiot, published in the Guardian 15th April 2019
Had we put
as much effort into preventing environmental catastrophe as we’ve spent on making
excuses for inaction, we would have solved it by now. Everywhere I look, I see
people engaged in furious attempts to fend off the moral challenge it presents.
commonest current excuse is this: “I bet those protesters have phones/go on
holiday/wear leather shoes.” In other words, we won’t listen to anyone who is
not living naked in a barrel, subsisting only on murky water. Of course, if you
are living naked in a barrel, we will dismiss you too, because you’re a hippie
weirdo. Every messenger, and every message they bear, is disqualified, on the
grounds of either impurity or purity.
the environmental crisis accelerates, and as protest movements like YouthStrike4Climate and Extinction Rebellion make it harder not to see
what we face, people discover more inventive means of shutting their eyes and
shedding responsibility. Underlying these excuses is a deep-rooted belief that
if we really are in trouble, someone somewhere will come to our rescue: “they” won’t
let it happen. But there is no they, just us.
political class, as anyone who has followed its progress over the past three
years can surely now see, is chaotic, unwilling and, in isolation,
strategically incapable of addressing even short-term crises, let alone a vast
existential predicament. Yet a widespread and wilful naivity prevails: the
belief that voting is the only political action required to change a system.
Unless it is accompanied by the concentrated power of protest, articulating
precise demands and creating space in which new political factions can grow,
voting, while essential, remains a blunt and feeble instrument.
media, with a few exceptions, is actively hostile. Even when broadcasters cover
these issues, they carefully avoid any
mention of power, talking about environmental collapse as if it is driven by
mysterious, passive forces, and proposing microscopic fixes for vast structural
problems. The BBC’s Blue Planet Live series exemplified this tendency. As TV
comedy and drama have become ever more daring, factual and current affairs programmes have
become ever more timid. Truth now has to be smuggled into our homes under the guise of entertainment.
Those who govern
the nation and shape public discourse cannot be trusted with the preservation
of life on Earth. There is no benign authority preserving us from harm. No one
is coming to save us. None of us can justifiably avoid the call to come
together to save ourselves.
I see despair as
another variety of disavowal. By throwing up our hands about the calamities
that could one day afflict us, we disguise and distance them, converting
concrete choices into indecipherable dread. We might relieve ourselves of moral
agency by claiming that it’s already too late to act, but in doing so we
condemn other people to destitution or death. Catastrophe afflicts people now, and, unlike those in the rich world
who can still afford to wallow in despair, they are forced to respond in
practical ways. In Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, devastated by Cyclone Idai, in Syria,
Libya and Yemen, where climate chaos has contributed to civil war, in
Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where crop failure, drought and the
collapse of fisheries have driven people from their homes, despair
is not an option. Our inaction has forced them into action, as they respond to
terrifying circumstances caused primarily by the rich world’s consumption. The
Christians are right: despair is a sin.
As the author
Jeremy Lent points out in a recent essay, it is almost
certainly too late to save some of the world’s great living wonders, such as
coral reefs and monarch butterflies. But, he argues, with every increment of
global heating, with every rise in material resource consumption, we will have
to accept still greater losses, many of which can still be prevented through
transformation in history has taken people by surprise. As Alexei Yurchak
explains in his book about the collapse of the Soviet Union – Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More – systems look immutable until they suddenly disintegrate. As soon as
they do, the distintegration retrospectively looks inevitable. Our system –
characterised by perpetual economic growth on a planet that is not growing –
will inevitably implode. The only question is whether the transformation is
planned or unplanned. Our task is to ensure it is planned, and fast. We need to
conceive and build a new system, based on the principle that every generation, everywhere has an
equal right to enjoy natural wealth.
This is less
daunting than we might imagine. As Erica Chenoweth’s historical research reveals, for a peaceful mass movement to succeed, a maximum of 3.5% of
the population needs to mobilise. Humans are ultra-social mammals, constantly
if subliminally aware of shifting social currents. Once we perceive the status
quo has changed, we flip suddenly from support for one state of being to
support for another. When a committed and vocal 3.5% unites behind the demand for
a new system, the social avalanche that follows becomes irresistible. Giving up
before we have reached this threshold is worse than despair: it is defeatism.
Today, Extinction Rebellion takes to streets around the world in defence of our life support systems. Through
daring, disruptive, non-violent action, it forces our environmental predicament
onto the political agenda. Who are these people? Another “they”, who might
rescue us from our follies? The success of this mobilisation depends on us. It
will reach the critical threshold only if enough of us cast aside denial and
despair, and join this exuberant, proliferating movement. The time for excuses
is over. The struggle to overthrow our life-denying system has begun.