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.
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.
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.