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Love and… Rage?

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Matt Stemp proposes that anger might be more fruitful than frustration as a galvanising emotion for climate protest.

One of Extinction Rebellion’s (XR) rally cries in its early days as a social movement organisation was ‘love and rage’. Love is certainly difficult to miss in XR’s emotional culture. At its 2019 protests, the climate activists would often read what became known as the ‘Solemn Intention Statement’, which invited everyone present to ‘recall our love for all humanity’ and ‘remember our love for this beautiful planet’. It was this universalism of love and compassion that, in part, has made XR an attractive and welcoming space for faith-based activists. As one member of XR Buddhists once said to me: ‘What could be more Buddhist than that!?’. XR members habitually sign off their emails with ‘L&R!’. But in my interviews with (predominantly white) activists, anger is one of the least frequently mentioned emotions. Far more common, when asked about their feelings about climate change, are fear, anxiety and despair about the future (especially for younger activists and parents), sadness at the state of the natural world, and guilt at their own complicity with inaction. XR groups sometimes meet in ‘grief circles’ and ‘empathy circles’, but I have yet to find activists gathered in the name of anger.

Instead of outrage, XR activists are far more likely to talk about frustration (often without using the word). They are frustrated with the government, with corporations, with churches, even with the apparent apathy of their colleagues and friends, struggling against the relentless and immoral continuity of the socio-political status quo. They are perennially dismayed that ‘the world’ continues to ‘binge’ on oil and gas, as one recent eye-opening Twitter thread by XR Cambridge puts it, listing all the new ventures for the extraction of fossil fuels that continue to be funded by countries allegedly committed to reducing carbon emissions. Underneath all of this is activists’ sense that their agency is frustrated by an undemocratic society that does not recognise the voices of its citizens, requiring a politically liberal response of civil disobedience as a last resort.

Emotions are slippery things—if they are things at all. In line with its Latin roots (emovere, to move), it is common to refer to ‘emotion’ as something ‘inside’ people that moves them to act. Historically, protestors have been portrayed as irrational, moved not by reason but by passion, and that tradition continues in the labelling of anti-racism demonstrations as ‘riots’. But, as Sara Ahmed argues in her classic book The Cultural Politics of Emotion, emotions are not psychological states, even if late capitalist culture has taught us to experience them as the private feelings of some innermost self. Rather, emotions are social and cultural practices that create the very distinction between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’.

Conceived in this way, frustration is an emotional practice that constructs the difference between an all-powerful external world and a disempowered internal self. In XR, this distinction is often morally (or sacrally) charged by language of pollution and purity, describing how a generalised ‘toxic system’ is poisoning the planet for future generations and fellow species. In terms of inside and outside, frustration is therefore closely related to despair and guilt: in despair, the world pollutes the self, while in guilt, the self pollutes the world. Indeed, James Jasper, in his comprehensive volume The Emotions of Protest, describes frustration as a ‘desperate mood’ that in its most productive form creates a ‘nothing-to-lose effect’—in XR’s case, direct action to protect ‘all we hold dear’.

By contrast, Ahmed argues in relation to feminist anger that anger ‘moves us by moving us outwards: while it creates an object [e.g., patriarchy], it also is not simply directed against an object, but becomes a response to the world, as such.’ Ahmed draws on Audre Lorde’s essential essay, Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism, to argue for the necessity of anger as the foundation for a feminist and anti-racist politics, while remaining cautious about when and how anger should be performed. Importantly, Lorde’s essay distinguishes between hatred and anger: ‘Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is a grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change.’ If frustration partners too easily with despair, then, for Ahmed, anger belongs with hope: ‘Hope is crucial to the act of protest: hope is what allows us to feel that what angers us is not inevitable, even if transformation can sometimes feel impossible.’

It is always a dangerous move to make a normative claim about emotions. But I have been convicted and inspired by attending the recent protests in London against police brutality, the suppression of protest and institutional racism, to consider why my own activism with XR has been shaped more by frustration than by anger. The answer, I have concluded, at least in my own case, is very simple: that the emotional regime of the ‘toxic system’ (let us call it what it is: white and male supremacy) serves my interests rather too comfortably. Deborah Gould, in her magisterial work Moving Politicson ACT UP’s activism around AIDS in the 1990s, states that: ‘Feeling anger is sometimes an achievement, and not always easily accomplished.’ For me, and I suggest for my fellow white activists too, anger is a practice we need to do the hard work of (re-)learning for the cause of climate justice. Then the slogan ‘Love and Rage’ might return to us with fresh meaning and purpose, in greater solidarity with those whose lives are oppressed and destroyed by the fossil fuel industry and the capitalist interests it serves.

Images by Matt Stemp.

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Silence, solidarity, society

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In a final blog on Extinction Rebellion’s recent activities, Matt Stemp turns to stillness and meditation as a vital grounding for social connection and political transformation. You can read the previous blogs here and here.

My eyes are closed, my hands are on my chest. It’s happening again, I think, as I steady myself on my ill-suited desk chair. By this point, I am used to my body being placed in an unexpected position. This time, I’m not sitting on top of a kitchen trailer in the early hours of the morning. Neither am I carrying an enormous fluorescent green turtle over a bridge, nor sneaking a compost loo past the police. These are simpler times.

Instead, I’m just being still and silent, gently focusing on my heartbeat and my breath. “Be present to this moment, to each other, and to God,” the meditation leader says. I lay my theological doubts aside for a moment in this brief escape from the omnipresent glare of the screen. The digitally mediated voice invites my muscles to relax and my internal rhythms to slow. I find myself in embodied and imaginal connection with people I have never met.

I’m on a Zoom call with a small group of Christians and spiritual seekers who have been profoundly impacted by the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement—most via Christian Climate Action (CCA), one of XR’s faith groups. Wrestling with the lack of conversation and action around climate change in their churches, as well as the deeper narrative struggle about the complicity of Christianity with colonialism and quietism, they have started meeting to discuss what it means for them to follow the ‘rebel Christ.’ They call it a ‘heartspace,’ a place where practices of embodiment, vulnerability and vibrant discussion help them explore what this time of overlapping socio-ecological crises means for them. Their desire is to integrate their spirituality and their activism, their personal and political lives.

The vitality of social movements, as good organisers know, depends upon just these kinds of interactive and emotional spaces. Street protests are a part of the equation, yes, providing the context for solidarity to be expressed. A charismatic speech that articulates a movement’s identity and purpose goes a long way, too. But far more important is what happens away from the visible drama of demonstrating; it is off-stage, in formal and informal meetings, where the real work of social movements takes place. In ordinary times, it’s in the community centre, the church hall, the café and the pub where movements are socialised into being. The vast majority of them fail to begin. The rest emerge because the conversations and engagements behind the scenes have touched upon a felt sense of the sacred, something that ultimately matters enough to dedicate week after week to organising, recruiting and strategising.

Randall Collins’s sociological theory of ‘interaction ritual chains’ helps to explain this sense of how movements move, and why maintaining and building a social movement is so difficult in lockdown. For Collins, interaction rituals are gatherings where bodies share the same space, the same focus of attention, the same emotions and the same rhythms. Successful interaction rituals, where all of these dimensions can be found, generate ‘emotional energy’ among those involved. Without keeping this emotional energy alive, a movement eventually becomes drained of its passion and its ability to draw in new people.

In XR, it is the samba band that wins the contest for the most successful interaction ritual. Picture drummers leading the procession, followed by dancing, chanting, banner-waving rebels, their bodies and voices united in sound and movement. They are enjoying what Collins calls ‘rhythmic entrainment’: what happens when people’s physical actions become highly synchronised, leading to intense feelings of solidarity. But this sense of being ‘in the flow’ isn’t limited to these high-energy situations. For example, there is also the flow of a meaningful conversation, with its rhythms of call and response, combined with the mimicry of gestures, cadences and laughter. Whether or not someone joins or stays in a social movement (or any form of voluntary community), depends in large part on the success or failure of the ordinary-level interactions that take place. Holding boring meetings where only a few people speak is the perfect way to kill a movement stone dead.

But, as many of us are becoming all too aware in this third lockdown in the UK, meeting online significantly lowers the chances of leaving an encounter with good vibes. Without ‘bodily co-presence’ (Collins’s term), we can struggle to connect even to those who are usually closest to us. For many, the everyday has succumbed to a level of fatigue that no amount of self-care can adequately address. In a time when social movements are desperately needed, the conditions for their emergence and sustainability could not be more difficult.

Yet I left the online ‘heartspace’ feeling strangely alive again, a welcome contrast to the usual Zoom fatigue. As that feeling slowly faded, I recalled a similar moment with XR Buddhists. We had been sitting silently for over an hour in meditative protest outside a branch of Barclays bank as part of the rebellion in September. We all had blindfolds on, and we were wearing signs that said ‘Barclays: Blind to the Climate Crisis.’ After the sit, eyes reconciled to daylight, we reconvened to share our experiences. Someone memorably said that, for them, meditating was like having an ‘inner samba band.’ They found emotional energy to keep going through the practice of turning attention to the rhythm of the breath and knowing that others were doing the same. Being silent and still with others can also generate a deep sense of solidarity. Far from being merely individual acts of piety, these practices of silence and stillness are in fact thoroughly social. They are, of course, not a full answer to the problems faced by social movements right now. But, perhaps, if they are understood not solely as spiritual practices but also practices of embodiment and connection, they can help organisers to negotiate the glitches in our digital-social worlds. As Arundhati Roy says: ‘Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.’ Perhaps attending to the rhythm of the breath is one way to focus our energies on the political transformation to come.

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Is the climate really beyond politics?

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In the second of a series of blogs on Extinction Rebellion’s recent protests, Matthew Stemp argues that the movement must overcome views of religion, spirituality and ethics that are preventing it from telling the political truth about climate change.

‘Tell the truth and act as if the truth is real.’ This was XR’s distinctive rallying cry when the climate movement first announced itself on the streets of London at the end of 2018. The appeal to the truth that the climate crisis is urgent was a compelling one. We were ready for radical honesty, and we hoped that telling the truth would somehow transform the landscape of British climate politics.

But British climate activism now finds itself negotiating a starkly different political and emotional space. The initial COVID-19 lockdown in March was greeted by many as a welcome pause, a chance to notice signs that ‘nature is healing’ and for a cultural appreciation of slower, more locally grounded lifestyles to flourish. But those who hold out hope for a mass turn to green consciousness cannot help but be disappointed. The Conservatives, dominated by their most extreme free-marketeering faction, have shown few signs of environmental conversion, pursuing a no-deal Brexit that promises the ideal conditions for the erosion of environmental standards.

The pandemic has therefore shone a difficult light upon XR’s founding narrative that climate activism must transcend the politics of ‘left’ and ‘right’ with a universal message of climate emergency. Though the explicitly left-wing frame of climate justice has gained a stronger foothold in the movement, the idea of going ‘beyond politics’ still continues to hold considerable sway. This narrative is actively promoted by co-founder Roger Hallam, despite him no longer holding a formal role in the movement.

In an early presentation of the ‘Heading for Extinction’ talk, Hallam contrasts his approach with what he calls the ‘secular rational’ culture of NGOs—targeted prior to XR’s recent rebellion by his splinter group ‘Beyond Politics’. For too long, he argues, the mainstream climate movement has been afraid to unsettle the status quo, out of an over-attachment to mobilising people around incremental and measurable outcomes. Instead, he appeals to the ‘not educated, religious, non-rational’ Global South who are motivated by views of virtue ethics and spirituality, which he finds universally across all non-Western cultures. For Hallam, mobilising people into radical activism with these ideas means first asking people to courageously face the full horror of climate breakdown, equivalent to going through the ‘dark night of the soul’.

Hallam’s talks consistently finish with similar calls to mobilisation in moral, spiritual and religious language. In a more recent talk called ‘Pivoting to the Endgame’, he talks about these themes in terms of what he calls the ‘prophetic tradition’. Being prophetic, as he understands it, means listening to ‘the voice of God’ rather than the ‘herd’ (the rest of humanity). The difference between herd mentality and prophetic psychology, he explains, is the difference between being driven by material interests (by which he means economic, political and personal interests) and spiritual interests. ‘The prophetic tradition is basically spiritual, it’s outside, metaphysically outside the material world.’ This binary between the material and spiritual is central to his theory of revolutionary social change, what he calls a ‘sociology of miracles’. As he puts it in a recent interview:

‘[I]t’s not psychologically sustainable, to be attached to the material world. When that material world is evidently going to die. Human beings can’t cope with that sort of thing. So they’re going to get into ever more extreme denial or they’re going to […] move to the other side, they’re going to move from fatalism to revolutionary activity.’

Hallam neither identifies as religious, nor is he particularly interested in the transcendent in terms of traditional belief. For him, it is the ‘simple physics’ of climate change that plays the role of the divine call, providing a scientifically grounded vocation to direct action. The failure of both the political left and right to address climate change, Hallam thinks, is due to a ‘postmodern’ consensus that treats the climate crisis as a social construction rather than as a question of ‘objective morality’ grounded in scientific fact. In a recent video justifying the actions against NGOs, he grounds the potential success of his approach to direct action on universally held values that ‘everyone’s more or less agreed on’:

‘You don’t kill your children, you know, you don’t do child abuse, you don’t murder women, you don’t go and destroy a minority. Those are like core values of most societies most of the time, right? So if you’re doing civil disobedience about those actions, those immoral activities, you’re on a winning streak.’

The climate crisis, for Hallam, is just the same; it’s the ‘most cut-and-dry catastrophe in human history’.

Yet Hallam’s ‘politics of the beyond’ depends upon a litany of errors. His universalism relies on crude binaries of materiality/spirituality and secularity/religion, alongside extreme generalisations about the cultures of the Global South and Global North. He employs a thoroughly confused understanding of the ‘postmodern’ with regards to truth, and an entirely ahistorical view of moral values that erases how the rights of children, women and minorities have been recognised only through political struggle. He holds to an apolitical understanding of human knowledge, failing to recognise how our conceptions of climate change are mediated through competing cultural and political representations. All the while, Hallam’s appropriation of ideas from religion and spirituality effectively acts as a moral cover for what are, in fact, problematic exaggerations of climate science and misinterpretations of social movement research.

Furthermore, if the politics of COVID-19 have demonstrated anything, they have shown that a public awakening to a global emergency is insufficient for human lives to be valued above economic interests, especially when they are the lives of Black, poor and vulnerable people. In countries like the UK and the US, the sacred values of economic growth and individual freedom—upheld not just by corporations but segments of the population represented especially by the political right—have justified allowing hundreds of thousands of people to die unnecessarily, despite countries such as New Zealand demonstrating alternative political possibilities. If the politics of the pandemic are analogous to climate politics but on fast forward, there is little reason to think that an awakening to climate truth would be any different.

Where, then, should activists turn? While the social conditions of the ‘new normal’ have severely hampered the ability of movements to organise as before, many activists around the world have responded with great resilience, creativity and clear-eyed political analysis. In XR, encouragingly, some local groups are turning to participatory democracy projects such as Trust the People, forming alliances of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and campaigning for MPs to support a just transition through the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill. This slow, difficult and unglamorous work of building a grassroots movement requires listening, openness to critique, and patient negotiation with communities, movements and political parties. It recognises the political truth that there is no quick tactical fix to the political predicament of climate change, nor any hope in a moral and spiritual revival beyond politics. Accepting this truth, I suggest, is what takes real moral courage and spiritual discipline.

More blogs on religion and public life…

TikTok, Pastoral Care and Lockdown Britain by Kenneth Wilkinson-Roberts

Behind the mask: uncovering symbols of hope in uncertain times by Matthew Barber-Rowell

Review of ‘What Algorithms Want: Imagination in the Age of Computing’ by Ed Finn by John Reader

Reflecting on emotions as the music returns by Ben Thompson

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Is XR undergoing a just transition?

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In the first of a series of blogs on Extinction Rebellion’s recent protests, Matthew Stemp explores how the movement is beginning to learn the hard lessons of neglecting climate justice.

Extinction Rebellion (XR) returned to national media coverage last week with its controversial action against the right-wing press. With elaborate, ‘high tech’, suspended bamboo structures, around 100 activists blockaded the delivery of newspapers, specifically targeting those owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. The action was unique amongst the scores of actions against various targets during its 10-day ‘rebellion’ this month, in that it not only brought the movement back into the headlines, but it also provoked direct responses from the government. With attention otherwise absorbed by the crises of COVID-19 and Brexit, climate politics was once again given a fleeting glance.

In the public exchange that followed, Home Secretary Priti Patel offered the most notable statement among the Tory leadership. Her (empty) threat to relabel XR as ‘organised criminals’ was met in the following days by XR activists in typically satirical fashion. Three rebels, dressed as suffragists, held a sign quoting the Conservatives’ recent penchant for breaking the law ‘in a specific and limited way’. Meanwhile, one local group in North Devon demonstrated outside a police station, with yoga teachers and retired librarians confessing their organised crimes of ‘crocheting with intent’ and ‘criminally-bad dis(c)obedience dancing’. After a difficult year for the movement financially and organisationally, Patel’s comments backfired at least to the extent that they regalvanised the movement’s energy and playfulness.

But far more important than that was the basis of Patel’s defence of the ‘free press’. She stated, revealingly, that: ‘We must defend ourselves against this attack on capitalism, our way of life and ultimately our freedoms’. This is a significant moment in the discourse that XR has managed to provoke, insofar as the government has been forced to show its hand with respect to the climate and ecological crisis and the neoliberal ideology of so-called ‘freedom’ it rarely has to actively defend. Patel’s comment reveals the extent to which XR has begun to be more explicit in its analysis of the ‘toxic system’ it seeks to overcome, and more strategic in its choices of targets as a result.

Alongside highlighting News Corp’s complicity in climate denial, XR’s targeting of neoliberal think tanks based at 55 Tufton Street was also an important provocation that likely contributed to Patel’s remarks. At an evening organised by Writers Rebel, speeches exposed the climate-sceptical, free marketeering organisations such as the Global Warming Policy Foundation, the Institute for Economic Affairs and the Tax Payers’ Alliance. All of these think tanks, who have a huge media presence despite refusing to reveal their funding sources, are directly linked to the current crop of hard Brexiteering politicians in service of disaster capitalism.

One of the most incisive of these speeches was by the author Zadie Smith, speaking to a subject close to the heart of XR’s contribution to the new climate activism (and to my own research): emotions. Smith began by referring to a piece she wrote in 2014, grieving the despoliation of the natural world and the problem of interpreting climate denial in purely psychological and emotional terms. ‘But now we know better,’ Smith continued,

‘Now we know that the outsized, unruly emotions that surround the scientific subject of climate change are fuelled by something far more calculated than species-shame. They’re not organic, natural or unavoidable, but rather feelings manufactured, targeted, organised and paid for, largely by oil companies and other vested economic interests who are prepared to sacrifice your long-term future for their short-term profit. Now we know that there really are people, some of whom work on this very street, whose business it is to make science look like opinion, who aim to transform genuine feelings of climate grief and guilt into defended ignorance and positive denial.’

Other actions and events throughout the nearly two weeks of civil disobedience also highlighted structural issues, relating climate inaction to migrant justice, racial justice and indigenous justice, with demonstrations outside the Home Office and symbolic buildings in the City of London representing neo-colonialism. XR’s regular chanting of ‘What do we want? Climate justice!’—a staple part of the international climate movement’s protest repertoire—had previously been at odds with the movement’s official line to be ‘beyond politics’, with language of justice considered to be too left-wing despite XR participants’ strong leanings towards Green and socialist politics.

This rebellion there was certainly a greater congruence between strategy and the use of justice language, primarily targeting sites of economic and political power and privilege rather than the general public. This is due to the persistent work of BIPOC climate and environmental justice activists building movements within the movement, such as Global Justice Rebellion (GJR) and the Internationalist Solidarity Network (ISN), now thankfully gaining in influence in XR’s culture at large. Yet their work was often undermined during the recent rebellion by some of XR’s old routines, rooted in its original strategy of mass arrests.

To give one example, an event at Parliament Square run by GJR and ISN focussed on listening to the voices of different faiths and cultures. Yet rather than encouraging XR members to listen to the speakers, a number of white activists encouraged everyone to sit on the roads on two sides of the square, in front of the police lines. A familiar XR protest ritual of moral display ensued. The loud rhythms of the Samba Band began playing, drawing people onto the roads. The speeches by Black and Indigenous activists became barely audible above the noise of the drumming and the cheering at people being arrested. Meanwhile, the practice of celebrating the arrests of white activists continued unabated as police numbers around the square increased in response. This was one among a number of examples I could give in which BIPOC speakers were undermined and potentially placed at risk.

There are some encouraging signs that XR is now going beyond ‘beyond politics’ and correctly targeting the right-wing, neoliberal organisations that have been delaying climate action and causing climate injustice for decades. Many rebels are discovering this more coherent basis for a justice-orientated climate politics and movement strategy, and the recent protests played an important role in educating the movement around these issues. Further, XR has adopted the important new Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill as its intermediate demand, which calls for a ‘just transition to a zero carbon society’ on the kind of timescale necessary to take into account the UK’s historic carbon emissions, consumer culture, and the principle of equity.

Yet some deep problems remain. To address them, white activists in XR must interrogate the ideological underpinnings of XR’s founding apolitical narrative, and how it continues to be acted out in habitual practices of symbolic arrest. In her speech, Zadie Smith put it precisely: ‘This is no longer, if it ever was, a question of personal morality. This is a structural question of corrupt politics.’ To fully undergo a transition towards justice, XR must go beyond treating the climate crisis as a merely moral tale.

More blogs on religion and public life…

Review of ‘Christian hospitality and Muslim immigration in an age of fear’ by Matthew Kaemingk by Greg Smith

Review of ‘Future Politics: Living together in a world transformed by Tech’ by Jamie Susskind by John Reader

On your bike: exploring the relationship between obesity, poverty and inequality by Gill Reeve

I was wrong: how hard can it be to say? by Helen Paynter

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I once was lost, but now… I’m a rebel?

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As Extinction Rebellion reaches its first birthday, it seems at a loss for what to do next. But, Matt Stemp suggests, if he is learning anything from his research, it is that it is okay to lose our way.

PhD students often joke to each other that they are suffering from “impostor syndrome”. I must confess that I have never been able to identify. Bluntly, being a white, straight, middle-class, Oxbridge-educated man does not allow me to feel like an impostor at a British university. Quite the opposite: far from feeling out of place, my vast collection of privileges is all I have ever needed to feel like I am a real academic. The only times I have felt like an impostor were when I laughed along at the jokes in the first place.

As Nathalie Olah points out in a recent piece in the Guardian, by psychologising feelings of inadequacy, being underqualified and undeserving, talk of “impostor syndrome” obscures the structural problems that generate those feelings. She writes:

“What far-reaching and harmful message are we sending out when we paint the natural reaction of working-class and marginalised people as evidence of some kind of “syndrome”? Some will say it’s only a word, not a medical diagnosis, but it represents an attempt to individualise a structural issue, and to place the burden of responsibility at the door of the undervalued, or excluded. This only adds to the list of things that working-class and marginalised people already have to contend with in the continuing struggle to achieve any kind of self-esteem.”

PhD theses typically go through many iterations before finally getting to the heart of the matter in hand. The first version of my PhD thesis, in which I was absolutely confident from the start, made precisely the same mistake of individualising and pathologising the climate crisis. My interpretation of the inaction around climate, drawing on a simplistic reading of research in ecopsychology and other related fields, was that people find it almost impossible to accept the urgency and scale of climate change for the same reasons it is difficult to accept our own mortality. I thought (half-correctly) that the rise in eco-anxiety, which has lately become widely reported in the mainstream media, is a symptom of a broader anxiety about death (leading to a rather too obvious Nietzschean critique about the world-denying role of religion).

As PhD students we also often talk about how it is impossible to disentangle our personal and academic lives. For me, it was only events in my personal life that stopped me writing what would otherwise have been a terrible PhD. (It may still end up being terrible, but at least not for the same reasons.) Over the summer of 2018, my marriage, faith and religious vocation all fell apart. The proverb is true: a three-stranded cord is not easily broken; but with difficulty and time, it can be unravelled until there is no cord at all. By a fortunate coincidence, during the 6 month break from research that followed, the (white, middle-class) world seemed to be waking up to its own existential crisis around climate breakdown. The IPCC published its devastating report on the difference between the impacts of 1.5°C and 2°C of global heating. Seemingly overnight, the new climate activism emerged and became a major voice in public discourse. So much for my thesis on inaction; now the challenge was to interpret why people (including those who identify as religious or spiritual) were mobilising around climate in this new way.

Extinction Rebellion (XR) came along as the perfect solution to my individual loss of identity and my need for a new object of research. On October 31st 2018, around 1000 people gathered outside Parliament Square to read out a Declaration of Rebellion. Intrigued by news articles about this strange new movement, I went along, initially sceptical. “This is our darkest hour,” we all announced, addressing the government. “We refuse to bequeath a dying planet to future generations by failing to act now. We act in peace, with ferocious love of these lands in our hearts. We act on behalf of life.” Many of us were moved to tears. In an unplanned act of disobedience, we all walked into the road alongside the Palace of Westminster, and sat down. We were breaking the law. It was invigorating and empowering, the way children feel when they are naughtily breaking school rules. Then, as people made speeches, sang songs and even read liturgies on the road, there was a sense of spirituality and community I had not felt since being a church-going believer. Many other rebels, as we have now come to call ourselves, have told me that they have come to feel a similar way. It has become a new cultural home for us, a new aspect to our identities.

Now only a year old, XR has had to mature very quickly—too quickly—into a fully-fledged social movement of hundreds of thousands of people. The movement is already showing signs of deep strain, exhaustion and loss, despite its infancy. The rebellion in April that gave XR extraordinary media coverage is remembered by rebels as a celebration of freedom and solidarity. The pink boat on Oxford Circus, the trees on Waterloo Bridge and the car-free roads around Westminster stand as symbols of how the movement created and inhabited a joyous, liberated public space (at least for those who felt safe to be there). The latest rebellion in October was a very different story. Learning from XR’s previous tactics, the police arrived en masse to clear every one of the twelve protest sites, targeting the infrastructure that made April’s symbolic takeover of central London possible. Twice as many rebels were arrested, but with less to show for it, the spectacle of mass arrests no longer being the newsworthy novelty it was before. Instead, XR became the target of intense critique: unfounded and utterly illogical ridicule came from the right-wing press (no surprise there); accurate and completely justified analysis came from the progressive climate justice movement for XR’s failure to listen to earlier criticism about race and class. Now XR finds itself in its own darkest hour, unsure what to do next, if anything at all.

During my own recent dark nights of the soul, I have often turned to Rebecca Solnit’s exquisite book A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Rebels and XR as a whole, I think, could learn from her wisdom about how being lost and uncertain about the future need not be the end of the story. Describing loss of identity poignantly, she writes:

“Sometimes an old photograph, an old friend, an old letter will remind you that you are not who you once were, for the person who dwelt among them, valued this, chose that, wrote thus, no longer exists. Without noticing it you have traversed a great distance; the strange has become familiar and the familiar if not strange at least awkward or uncomfortable, an outgrown garment.”

Now in this season of autumnal reflection, rebels like me are looking back with melancholy at old pictures of XR: that first feeling of rebelliousness, the excitement of starting a new movement, the pink boat. But at the same time, it is impossible to return to life as we previously knew it. As Robert Brulle and Kari Marie Norgaard explain in a profound academic article, the trauma that climate breakdown brings is not (merely) individual, but cultural. The neoliberal social order (that serves privileged people like me so well) resists action on climate with all its colonial might, because to do otherwise would be to accept a cultural trauma it cannot bear. Rebels in XR have largely accepted that the status quo must come to an end if climate breakdown is to be addressed; but those of us who are still invested in the reigning social order have not yet fully faced the cultural trauma as we must, accepting the loss of privileged identity that would necessarily come with it. We are still wearing outgrown garments, just in a slightly more rebellious style.

Rumours are already circulating about a next big rebellion in April 2020, even protests as soon as Christmas. To continue acting without giving time for rebels to deeply reflect on XR’s successes and failures would be a huge, potentially movement-ending mistake. It is time for us in XR to give up the pretence that we really know what we are doing, that any of this was planned or expected, that there is a sure and certain route forwards. It is time for XR to realise that it has stumbled into unknown territory—unknown at least to those of us who have not yet fully understood how deeply our identities are wedded to the contemporary culture, the culture that is ultimately killing us. It is time for privileged rebels to learn that climate breakdown is not the only existential crisis human beings have ever faced. It is time to accept with humility that XR is lost—and that getting lost is the only way for our young and naïve movement to learn and grow. As Rebecca Solnit says:

“Never to get lost is not to live, not to know how to get lost brings you to destruction, and somewhere in the terra incognita in between lies a life of discovery.”

It was in my own terra incognita that I discovered something new, unexpected, beautiful and life-giving; there is no reason why lost rebels cannot do the same.

More blogs on religion and public life…

Review of ‘Theologising Brexit’ by Anthony G. Reddie by Roger Mitchell

Representing the End of the World by Tim Howles

Review of ‘#newpower’ by Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans by John Reader

Spaces of Hope in an Age of Division by Matthew Barber

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Tell the truth and act as if the truth is real

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In this extended article, William Temple Scholar Matt Stemp urges us to see how radical honesty is changing the landscape of climate activism.

Funeral processions marching through town centres. Students occupying US governor’s buildings. Children, teenagers, and teachers striking from school. Declarations of open rebellion against national governments. Local councils declaring a global emergency.

Welcome to the new landscape of climate activism.

In just a few short months, hundreds of thousands of people have been rising up in protests around the world. And this new activism looks very different to the climate activism of the last two decades. Activists have begun to recognise that the tried and tested campaigning methods are not working. Polite emails to MPs, petitions for incremental measures to reduce carbon emissions, cleverly-marketed appeals for individual behaviour change, and A-to-B marches in capital cities have not led to significant change. Global carbon emissions are still increasing, now at 2.7% a year. This fact alone is enough to tell us that the climate activism of old has sadly failed.

So, what has sparked this revitalised climate activism? One factor is clear: a new-found commitment among activists to radical honesty. Three truth-telling moments stand out as catalysts of this dramatic shift in the public climate conversation.

Radical honesty about climate breakdown

The first moment came in July 2017 with the publication of an article in the New York Magazine that went unexpectedly viral. Reaching over a million readers, The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells expressed the possibility of climate breakdown in the starkest possible terms. Sub-titled ‘Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak—sooner than you think,’ the article broke all the previously-accepted rules of climate science communication. Hope, not alarm, was supposed to be vital in raising awareness of climate change if readers were not to be left in paralysing despair. But this piece, with its prediction of almost inevitable civilisational collapse if the present trajectory of increasing emissions is not immediately averted, refused this well-established consensus.

The argument of The Uninhabitable Earth—now published with the same title in extended book form—helped to clear the way for US-based climate activism to find a new lease of life amidst a hugely resistant political context. Far from leading to paralysis, the acceptance of a climate emergency has led to massive mobilisation and a sense of agency. To give just one example, the 29-year-old, recently-elected congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become, almost overnight, the most influential politician in the US, putting the climate change emergency at the front and centre of her call for a Green New Deal. Her campaigning, supported by the youth-led Sunrise Movement and their tactic of occupying government offices, has completely reshaped the debate within the Democratic Party. Climate change could now be the issue that decides the 2020 presidential election.

Radical honesty about governmental complicity

The second moment, a year later, came from the most unlikely of people. Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old girl with Asperger’s Syndrome, went on strike from school in protest against the inaction of the Swedish government. “The adults have failed us,” she said. “And since most of them, including the press and the politicians, keep ignoring the situation, we must take action into our own hands.”

Far from being a disability, Greta Thunberg believes her Asperger’s has enabled her to speak in the black-and-white terms that the climate situation demands. Her voice, more than any other, has cut through the noise to reach the generation that will be worst-affected by the consequences of continuing to burn fossil fuels. Now, hundreds of thousands of young people are taking to the streets every Friday, striking from schools and universities across Europe, the UK, the US, and elsewhere. Last week’s international youth strike drew mass media attention.

As well as expressing the urgency demanded by climate change, Greta Thunberg’s rhetoric has been most effective in uncovering the inaction and complicity of even progressive national governments like those in Scandinavia. Her message is grounded in a basic but powerful appeal to intergenerational justice. Governments around the globe are failing in their responsibility to ensure that today’s teenagers can become adults on a planet capable of sustaining their lives. The negotiations among governments internationally, resulting in the Paris Agreement in 2015, have not resulted in sufficient commitments to reduce carbon emissions to (net-)zero quickly enough, even if those commitments were to be fulfilled. National governments, subservient to the money and influence of the fossil fuel lobby, are undermining the possibility of young people growing up and flourishing in a safe and secure future. No wonder students are rising up en masse.

Radical honesty about commensurate action

The third moment is the most controversial. Exemplified by the new international movement Extinction Rebellion (XR), which started in London in October 2018, this moment of radical honesty centres around the question of what it means to act in the light of the truth. XR’s slogan is: “Tell the truth and act as if the truth is real.” XR’s claim is that if the climate situation is urgent, and governments are complicit in the failure to respond, then (since everything else has been tried) the only course of action commensurate with the truth is mass civil disobedience. Inspired by the nonviolent direct action employed by the Suffragettes and the Civil Rights Movement, XR has begun mobilising and training thousands of people in local groups around the UK and internationally in pursuit of systemic change.

By balancing the desperate truth of climate breakdown with a strategy of creative civil disobedience, XR has enabled activists to inhabit an emotional space that embraces both grief and joyful solidarity. On the one hand, XR deliberately employs powerful symbols and rituals that are evocative of finality and death: the ‘extinction symbol’ displayed on flags and banners is an empty hourglass signifying that time has run out; and mock funeral processions have taken place in towns and cities around the country, mourning the extinction of species. On the other hand, the XR movement is infused with a playfulness that has been absent from previous incarnations of environmentalism. The lack of guaranteed success, and seriousness of climate change, has ironically liberated XR activists to embrace a mischievous sense of fun, hosting street parties on roads and picnics in branches of HSBC.

It remains to be seen whether XR will be successful in achieving its three hugely ambitious aims:

  1. That the UK government, like many local councils including the London Assembly, will publicly declare a climate emergency;
  2. That a target of 2025 will be set for the UK to become carbon neutral (shifting the ‘Overton Window’ of what is politically feasible—many councils have set targets of 2030);
  3. That a Citizen’s Assembly will be set up with the purpose of overseeing a rapid economic transition.

Nevertheless, XR has already been successful in changing the culture of climate activism, clearing the ground for the youth strike movement to emerge in the UK (which, unlike mainland Europe, has not traditionally been fertile soil for activism involving civil disobedience).

“In times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” – George Orwell

The radical honesty of the new climate activism, as I have described it, attempts to express the truth in a way that transcends and, in some ways, resists the limits of scientific precision. This mobilising form of truth is not equivalent to that found in academia, in the disciplines of climate science, psychology and political theory—though I would happily argue that it is consistent with the key insights of these disciplines. The truth of the new climate activists is far more encompassing.

The truth of climate change seems to be finally getting through, I believe, not because correct information is being accurately presented to the public and to those in positions of power—that has been tried and tried again, to no avail—but because climate change, for the first time, is being expressed not merely in words, but in emotions, desires and actions. The honesty of the activists is a rhetorical, affective, symbolic, existential honesty. Climate activism has, at last, found ways to tell the truth about complex, scientific assessments of probable futures, and started to translate it into an embodied representation of a political future that has a chance of being realised.

What this means, I think, is that the new climate activism opens up the possibility of a transformation in the nature of contemporary politics itself. In the face of likely catastrophe, these climate activists are courageously asking fundamental questions not just about what it will take to survive the 21st century, but about what it means to be human together. Their honesty is expressed above all, I think, in the new alignment that seems to be forming across party political lines and amongst a plurality of religious and non-religious perspectives. Against the deceit and denial that defines contemporary politics in the age of Trump and Brexit, these activists might be carving out a course not just towards a stable climate, but a more honest politics.

Isn’t that reason enough to join the revolution?

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The Anthropocene: Disrupting all our Stories

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William Temple Scholar Matthew Stemp reflects on the 30th anniversary of an important intervention in the debate and discourse around climate change.

On June 23rd 1988, James Hansen gave his famous testimony before the US Senate. Now known as “the father of climate science”, he announced that “…the greenhouse effect has been detected, and is changing our climate now.”

Hansen’s testimony that global warming is anthropogenic – human-caused – had an immense impact on public awareness and political debate. But at the time, there was still some doubt as to whether things were so clear cut. Hansen was somewhat going out on a limb, despite speaking boldly and without reserve. By contrast, the First Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change two years later was far more cautious, stating that the observed increase in global temperatures “could be largely due to …natural variability” and concluded that “The unequivocal detection of the enhanced greenhouse effect is not likely for a decade or more.”

But Hansen basically turned out to be right. Now three decades on, it is difficult to argue that we are on the way towards meeting the climate challenge Hansen so presciently declared. In 1988, renewables and nuclear provided around 21% of the energy supply. Today, for all the technological, political and economic advances that have been made, zero-carbon energy sources meet only 19% of the world’s energy needs. Meanwhile, economic and population growth have driven a 68% rise in carbon emissions from fossil fuels and this rise seems to be continuing.

Thirty years is a long time in climate science. Behind all the numbers lies a story of dramatic change that academics of various stripes have now started calling the “Anthropocene”. The previous 10,000-year epoch was called the Holocene, during which human civilisation developed and flourished. But Earth scientists and philosophers alike have begun to argue that the extent of our impact on the climate and the ramifications of this for the whole Earth System has initiated a wholly new time.

This Anthropocene narrative tells us that even if human beings were to disappear tomorrow, our influence would continue for thousands of years. The brutal mathematics of global warming is such that even if we were to completely stop emitting greenhouses gases today, the CO2 already accumulated in the atmosphere would keep driving up the average global temperature (by about 0.6°C over the next century). That makes meeting the ambitions of the Paris Agreement to keep temperatures “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels” extremely difficult. The greater the delay to ending the burning of fossil fuels, the more rapid and likely more turbulent the energy transition will have to be.

The delayed response of the climate system means that already certain processes like the melting of ice at the Earth’s poles and the resulting sea level rise are locked in for centuries at least. Scarily, it is very difficult to ascertain exactly to what extent these processes are reversible, and in particular where the “tipping points” are beyond which these processes enter into feedback loops that contribute even more to global warming. The more the ice caps melt, for example, the less sunlight is reflected by the planet’s surface, and the greater the amount of energy absorbed by the ocean waters. As climate scientists Katherine Hayhoe and Robert Kopp put it, we are “conducting an unprecedented experiment with the Earth’s climate system.”

Clive Hamilton, in his book Defiant Earth, argues that the Anthropocene has ironically arrived at a time when we were meant to be getting used to living without such “grand narratives”. According to Jean-Francois Lyotard famous definition, ”postmodernity” was supposed to involve the failure and rejection of “grand reçits” that assume a bird’s-eye view of everything. Modernity was the story “enlightened” human beings imposed upon the natural world, turning it into a dependable supply of “natural resources” to fuel our political projects.

Flipping this upside-down, the Anthropocene is a grand narrative that is imposed upon us. Its message is simple: “Humanity may have become the most powerful force on the planet, but the Earth has become defiantly unpredictable.” The Anthropocene, Hamilton argues, therefore disrupts all our stories. We are no longer in stable time of the Holocene, during which all our grand narratives emerged and our various traditions (both religious and secular) evolved. We have unwittingly entered a new time, defined by the ambiguous relationship between human beings and the Earth. That means that no single story, no one tradition of human thought, can claim to have warned us in advance; only climate scientists like James Hansen saw what was coming (through a glass, darkly).

Put simply, no worldview or religion can say: “I told you so.”

For unlike the story of modernity, the Anthropocene does not provide a foundation for a newly imagined social order, or new ways of thinking about what it means to be human on a “defiant Earth”. The future is radically open-ended, paradoxically both shaped by human power yet not controllable by human hands.

The climate scientists will continue over the next few decades to make their models and predictions increasingly precise. For all the fear and anxiety that comes with working on climate change, the fascination of discovery continues to drive their work forward, and figures like James Hansen will continue to inspire them to communicate their findings with clarity and conviction. What remains for the rest of us is to discover what it means to inhabit the Anthropocene, against all the forces of denial and distraction of which we are all too aware.

If nothing else, the Anthropocene has the potential to humble us all, requiring a new level of openness towards other traditions, faiths, philosophies and spiritualities. If the Anthropocene compels us to recognise our inadequacies, it can also help us face out of our silos towards unexpected sources of wisdom and insight. And that alone should give us reason enough to keep going.

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Hope Against Hope: A Necessary Madness?

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William Temple Scholar Matthew Stemp writes on the climate crisis and the psychology of a politics of hope.

It’s a difficult time to be an environmentalist. During the recent UN meeting on climate change, COP23, a timely report was released with the news that CO2 emissions increased by 2% in 2017. The report dashed hopes that after three years of emissions levelling off, they might soon begin to decrease. Despite the urgent need for a rapid, international response, wealthy nations like the UK continue to perpetuate a collective “soft denial” of the climate crisis. This was underscored in the latest Budget, in which the Treasury quietly published a document stating that there would be no new subsidies for renewable energy until at least 2025.

This state of cognitive dissonance set the context for Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley’s recent Annual Lecture for the William Temple Foundation. Entitled “Engaging a Politics of Hope”, the lecture powerfully explored a wide range of policy areas, presenting nothing less than a Green paradigm shift made necessary by the interconnected crises of environment, economics, immigration, education and health. As both a Green Party activist and an Anglican – clearly I have a fanatical sense of commitment to struggling institutions – I resonated deeply with his call for the Church to get worked up about these critical issues of our time, rather than being offended by misplaced pastry.

Yet “hope” is a word that I have struggled with as I have begun to research the strange psychology of our response to issues like climate change. As Bruno Latour puts it in his book Facing Gaia, there is something about the climate crisis in particular that “drives people crazy”. There is of course the insanity of outright denial, represented out of all proportion by the media on both sides of the Atlantic. But the danger of focussing on the madness of the “climate change deniers” is that it normalises our own often equally “mad” responses. Latour suggests there are at least four other forms of commonplace madness:

“There is no cure for the condition of belonging to the world,” says Latour. If we are living in a mad world – a situation the novelist Amitav Ghosh calls “The Great Derangement” – then perhaps there is no alternative to madness. In which case, we can only choose which form of madness we will embrace.

We can perhaps do no better than the form of madness proposed by LSE anthropologist Jason Hickel: the necessary madness of imagination. At the end of The Divide, a critique of the project of developmentalism in the light of global inequality, Hickel invites us to imagine a world in which every nation has achieved economic and social prosperity as we typically understand it today. But such a future, as Hickel points out, would also lead to inevitable environmental catastrophe, as the planet’s resources are irrevocably plundered and fossil fuel emissions continue to spiral out of control. As the heterodox economist Kate Raworth has argued so persuasively in her book Doughnut Economics, we need an alternative economic vision that places social need at the centre within the wider context of our planetary limits.

Jonathan Bartley’s “Politics of Hope” provides just such a vision of economics-beyond-growth. It’s a vision that seems mad both to the Right and the Left of mainstream politics: a universal basic income; measuring progress (of our schools, hospitals, society as a whole) in terms of well-being rather than GDP; a vision of common life based on shared meaning rather than consumption, made practically possible by a shorter working week. These proposals have been the staple of the Green Party’s agenda for many years, but perhaps they are needed now more than ever to re-engage an increasingly disenfranchised public.

This madness of Green imagination also has the potential to energise what John Caputo has called “hope against hope” amongst environmentalists. This is a paradoxical kind of hope, a hope that does not depend up foolish appeals to theological, technological or political guarantors of success, but a hope nonetheless for a seemingly-impossible future. It rests upon an openness to the obligation of the future calling upon us in the present, awakening us to shared responsibility, creativity and endurance. I cannot sum up this mad hope any better than the way Jonathan Bartley concluded his lecture with a call to courageous, hopeful action:

“Friends the challenges are huge. There are no easy answers. But what is at stake is nothing less than our collective future. And so the solutions must involve our collective endeavour.”

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