Monday, January 02, 2023

We won't slow climate change with niceness

Extinction Rebellion UK says it will prioritize "relationships over roadblocks" this year and move away from public disruptions as a prime strategy for getting the world's attention on climate change. 

That's a warm and fuzzy statement for a new year. But hopefully they aren't going to get too nice. Nobody's going to solve the climate crisis with niceness. 

Of course, one does want to be strategic when in the business of disrupting. Throwing cans of soup at famous works of art - not the work of Extinction Rebellion; that was Just Stop Oil - and other poorly considered attention-grabbing antics may get your unknown organization headlines, but simply being offensive in a public space is not a strategic protest. (Put away the soup cans, go disrupt a fracking operation.) 

That said, we sure as hell won't move this crisis with niceness. Co-operative behaviour is one component of an effective change strategy, just like acts of protest, but systemic change at this grand scale cannot be achieved without anger, shouting, threats, arrests, financial loss, deaths and a lot of other not-nice things.

In the case of the climate crisis, consider the long list of potential opponents who benefit from the current system, a number of them with deep pockets for dragging this out indefinitely.

First, there's the vastly wealthy fossil-fuel corporations, which have enjoyed almost $3 billion US in daily profits for the last 50 years. Then there are the governments that are absolutely dependent on the revenue and jobs. International energy policies so friendly to industry that countries that sign on have to promise not to make energy policy changes without consulting Big Oil first. 

There are the global investors clamouring for endless returns on investment. The billions of people completely reliant on fuel to heat their homes, operate their businesses, get to work, and wage war on real and imagined enemies. The travellers, the tourists, the legions of individualists who have never had a collective thought in their life and are just fine with riding Earth into oblivion as long as they can be "free."

There are mega agricultural operations spread across mega land holdings to serve a world that eats 350 million tons of meat a year. There are more than 50,000 merchant ships criss-crossing our oceans every day just to feed our hunger for stuff. There are trade agreements in all directions that bind our governments' hands even when they're willing to do better.

Every one of those things and so much more is going to have to change if the end of this global story we're living is going to be remotely happy. We need to have so many big, brave conversations. We need big, brave leadership at all political levels - leadership that gets past the typical political urge to pander and please and treats this issue like the global emergency that it is. 

And while we can strive to be respectful in all of that, we can't expect that any of this is going to be nice. 

Extinction Rebellion says part of its decision to shift tactics is because we live in times in which protest has been criminalized. "Thriving through bridge-building is a radical act," the group says.

But really, what big change has ever come about without arrests and conflict with the law? In the case of global emissions, we're talking about trying to stop activities that make people so much money. They're not going down that road without a really big fight. Read sociologist Frances Fox Piven's eye-opening Poor People's Movements for more on that.

While it's certainly important to get your allies in order and build those relationships, there still has to be disruption in a crisis this big. If XR wants to play nicer, then somebody else needs to step up to be the disruptor. Climate change is a disruptor itself, and those of us who want better for our world are going to have to meet its chaos head-on.

Change this big will be very painful for those who benefit from the current system. That can't be sugar-coated. 

For the sake of future generations, let's just go straight to being tough and skip the part where we all think we can settle this like friends. That's just going to drag out the bloody ending that's coming one way or the other. 

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