More and more talk of climate change in the papers, on the news. New documentaries that cut through the public’s lack of awareness. Soothing words come from the politicians, but the Prime Minister has become a weakened figure, everyone counting the days to the (long-promised) departure. Citizens fed up with the lies and empty words, move to take direct action, to the consternation and ridicule of the right-wing tabloids. But those citizens make tight emotional bonds, full of exhilaration, friendship, and that rarest of emotions for anyone who knows the facts – hope. Climate change is now on the top of the agenda, and surely will never go away again.
I refer, of course, to the summer of 2006. I was involved in the first “Climate Camp,” held near Drax power station in Yorkshire. The camp was to be the launchpad of a growing movement of citizens willing to take non-violent direct action on climate change, in solidarity with other peoples, other species, future generations. And yet a fateful strategic error later that year holds lessons, I believe, for Extinction Rebellion activists and (therefore) the broader climate movement, such as it is. This article – and interviews I’m publishing on this website – try to help boost and contribute to crucial conversations.
But first, it’s crucial to acknowledge what has been achieved by thousands of ordinary citizens in this last week. There has been a staggering beauty in what has been done. The bridge, the square, the boat, the people stepping forward to be arrested. It has been a huge relief, after the numbing psychotic silence of media for years, to finally see the issue talked about again for the first time in almost a decade, to see interviews – however stupid the questions – on mainstream news. It’s been beautiful to see the numbers swelling of people wanting to take action, of those talking about it. It’s been beautiful to see how the usual escalation to “property damage” and “resisting arrest” has been sidestepped.
Back to 2006. We were all very knackered after the camp, which ended in the beginning of September. In October we met in Manchester, where the first public meeting had been, at the beginning of that year. We were there to celebrate, to reflect and – obviously – to ask the crucial ‘what next?’ question, which had been drowned out in the rush to get the camp happening.
Other people will doubtless have different views, but my view at the time and still today, was that the discussion about what to do next wasn’t just bungled, but was actively facipulated. Before you reach for your thesaurus, I’ll say facipulated is a portmanteau word (not one I made up, like smugosphere, emotacycle and ego-fodder). It’s a combination of facilitation (in the sense of trying to help a group reach a decision through proper deliberation) and manipulation. Facipulation is fake discussion, where people are primed (especially emotionally) to reach the “right decision.” In this case we were all asked to stand up if we’d had a really great time at the Camp, and cheer. We were then asked if we wanted to do it again. A huge cheer went up, and a groan from me (and possibly a couple of other people).
What that meant was this. There was no consideration of
whether switching from being an organisation that was building a network to take action on climate change to becoming one which held annual camps,might suck all the energy, oxygen and time into annual jamborees
- what the alternatives might be (e.g. camps every other year and local action in between)
how the camp could (would) get captured by those dreaded reformists and NGOs.
And so it all came to pass….
Why was it so, and how does all this connect to Extinction Rebellion?
Well, let’s put aside all the free advice (some of it reasonable – here and here, some excellent) and think about what might still be the same. Yes, we now have the talismanic IPCC 1.5 degrees report, and Greta Thunberg, and far more hands on deck than we did 13 years ago. Mother Nature may keep providing the long hot summers which are supposed to be a wake-up call. But social movements are still the same,with the same individual emotional dynamics, the same possibilities of the tyranny of structurelessness, and the same blinkers.
That’s something the mainstream commentators don’t seem to grasp. Not their skill set, not their history.
So here’s my contribution. Besides the active facipulation, I think there were also collective emotional and cognitive factors at play. On the emotional side, I mean this:
Climate change is absolutely bloody terrifying and exhausting. It’s an extremely rare day when there is any good news, any smell of victory. If you understand that renewables are not replacing fossil fuels but are merely an adjunct to it, if you understand that emissions have climbed by 67% since 1990, if you understand that atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases (and trust me, you’re gonna start hearing the word methane a lot more soon) are climbing remorselessly… well… you don’t have to be a GuyMcPhersonite to believe we are in very deep shit indeed.
So, when you find a place to drink hope, you want to drink deep from that well, and you want to keep taking your bucket back to that well. It is, surely, a very understandable response to the dread we feel (we need grief resources, but that’s another issue).
On the cognitive side, I mean this – if something ‘worked’, why innovate? Why switch what got lots of attention for something else that won’t feel or smell like winning – the drudgery of trying to get Members of Parliament [see interview with Rebecca Willis] and – god help us – local councillors – to be less shit on climate change.
Meanwhile, the status of the Extinction Rebellion London crew will be sky high. They will have a status as experts in rebellion that the Bolsheviks had after the Russian Revolution. Because they were the ones who had been successful in having a revolution, that prestige meant the Bolsheviks could ride roughshod over objections that situations were different in other countries and that different methods were needed. (Some will say that is an inflammatory analogy. To be clear, I’m NOT saying they will behave as Bolsheviks, just that the same dynamic is in play as back then). It would be extraordinary for them NOT to plan further actions in London, and even more extraordinary for local XR groups to say “nope, we’re gonna do local stuff, good luck.”
Full disclosure – I’m not at all sold on XR’s demands or necessarily its methods. XR’s repertoire so far seems to consist of a set-piece powerpoint (And yes, I’ve sat through it. It comes in at almost 100 minutes, and is extremely problematic, imo), and the large set-piece public order situations. The former won’t get more people onboard. The latter is harder to do than it looks, if you don’t have very large numbers of people. Also, the police forces of the UK are probably already game-planning this stuff. They will adapt. (And who knows, it may be that the Met has thought a few days of disruption in London would put them in a very solid negotiating position the next time their budget is up for discussion…)
My assessment of XR is irrelevant at this point. I am an avid (rabid?) climate campaigner, and my life will be a lot less shit if XR sticks around, or at least doesn’t go up like a rocket and down like a tumbling stick. That’s why I’ve started encouraging Manchester activists involved in the Extinction Rebellion activities to start answering the following questions, and publishing them on manchesterclimatemonthly.net, inspired by the great answers given by youth climate strikers, their parents, and some very smart academics. We need to air the possibilities and the dangers, before meetings (and details of XR Manchester meetings are at the bottom of this post).
So back in 2006 we were facipulated- but we were also not ready to think through the alternatives, the costs of doing more of the same. I think there is an opportunity to do some better thinking than we did back in Sept-Oct, and at least make more eyes-open decisions. I’ve come up with some questions, already answered by some people on a website I run.
1. Who are you, why did you get involved, what have you done in Mcr and in London
2. How can XR be more inclusive, address legitimate race/class concerns
3. What skills, knowledge, relationships do you think XR ppl need to cultivate in the short term?
4. Given that intense activity is unsustainable (emotionally, physically, practically), how does XR Mcr plan to sustain radical action over the summer?
5. What can so-called “non-arrestable” people do?
6. How does XR plan to cope with the “Tyranny of Structurelessness” identified by Jo Freeman?
7. Anything else you’d like to say.
Ppl can skip qs, and I won’t edit answers (unless there is libel etc). People can also be anonymous (not every employer will be delighted to know how people used their annual leave).
I hope other organisations (and to be clear Manchester Climate Monthly has been a one person band since my co-editor was demoted to working for Al-Jazeera, back in June 2013) do this in other parts of the UKl. I believe that it perhaps will get us all thinking a little more carefully
There’s an old joke among venture capitalists that “This time it’s different” are the four most expensive words in the English language. Well, we also (I suspect most people reading this are not venture capitalists) can’t afford them. Someone, I forget who, said that history happens twice, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Someone else said she doesn’t repeat but she rhymes. It’s the rhyme that worries me…
Details of XR meetings
On Monday 22nd April (today!) there is an informal social for people who want to come and chat, learn more (i.e. this is not an offical XRMCR meeting). It’s at the Sandbar, 120 Grosvenor St, just south of the city centre.
On Monday 29th April from 6pm there will be an official meeting of Extinction Rebellion Manchester. The venue will be announced shortly.
And yes, I am aware of a recent email within XR about where things might be going. That doesn’t change the deeper dynamic, the deeper danger. Thus this post, written last week and checked by various friends and friendly critics, is still worth posting, imo.
[Manchester Climate Monthly, running since 2011 and preceded by Manchester Climate Fortnightly (2008-2010) is an independent news source, not affiliated to any political party or particular pressure group, including XR. The editor has recently co-founded Climate Emergency Manchester, a campaign to connect concerned citizens and get 4000 signatures on a petition calling on Manchester City Council to declare a climate emergency. Anyone who lives, works or studies in Manchester can sign that petition, and get involved in the campaign at whatever level they wish, learning new skills and making new friends.]