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Is the climate really beyond politics?

30 Oct 2020

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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