There’s a song by David Rovics with a lyric that has haunted me
“What do you say to someone. Who’s just lost everything. Eventually things might be OK”
It’s from a song called Tsunami, about the 2004 catastrophe in Aceh.
And I’ve struggled to write this blog post, about things that happened three weeks ago because, well, what do you say to someone, who has understood that we as a species are about to lose everything – eventually things might be okay?
Because things won’t. The war is over, the good guys lost. It is very hard not to think that humans are the cusp of some really gnarly shit. A relatively small number of people understand that, and an even smaller number are willing to run towards what they perceive to be the root cause of the problem and, well, to quote Mario Savio –
“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.”
So I struggle to write this, and am only doing so because
- My failure to do so has gnawed at me
- I made a couple of promises on Twitter.
Enough with the I.
What follows is
- Some background about Just Stop Oil
- An account of the basic format of their spiel
- An account of what went “wrong” on two occasions
- What it all means, why it is anthropologically fascinating but politically terrifying
Just Stop Oil is the latest offshoot of Extinction Rebellion, the social movement organisation which sprang to enormous prominence in the second half of 2018 and has had a very tough time of it since late 2019 (before the pandemic).. There have been several spin-offs before, mostly only known by participants and careful readers of the Guardian. The one that did “take off” was “Insulate Britain”, which blocked roads – mostly in the south of England – while calling for the government to, well, insulate Britain. A small number of Insulate Britain activists – committed, brave, whatever else you might think of them – have done jail time for ignoring injunctions..
Now the same people (though they are trying to recruit– more on that later) are calling a new iteration “Just Stop Oil.” (I could riff on “Just Do It ” a failed climate group from 13 years ago, or Get Oil Out, from the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969, but, you know, life is short and the apocalypse is coming).
JSO folks are holding recruiting meetings across the UK – or at least England, a kind of “come with me if you want to live” thing. The “fishing for men” [and women] thing seems not to be going so well.
The basic format
Based on two exposures, here is what happens.
There’s a very basic introduction/thank you for coming. There’s no real effort to get people building links with each other. The idea is very much that people have come and will be filled up with the information – and the fervour – and either be converted to the mission on the spot, or else be willing to hand out leaflets for future events, OR come to some non-violent direct action training.
The first section of the talk is a long, rambling and not very coherent account of the “science” of climate change.
There’s no useful images and metaphors for people, no opportunity for them to test out their current understanding of the causes and severity of climate change. Most seriously, this is a deeply (and deeply unnecessarily) populist and quasi-conspiratorial vision and version of the climate science.
There’s no historical angle (I don’t mean Svante Arrhenius, or even Revelle/Keeling/Schneider/Hansen etc). There’s not even a structural explanation of why the IPCC is like it is, or an analysis of the media. Nope, it’s all ascribed to careerism and weakness by “establishment” scientists. Weirdly – and this is DEEPLY weird – one of the scientists they do quote is … Sir David King, who is about an establishment a figure as you can imagine. But because he’s retired, and a quote of his is useful to the Just Stop Oil people, well, it’s all elided.
The irony is that the mainstream science – as per the IPCC’s 1.5 report that was a key part of XR being able to catch the public mood in September 2018 – is quite scary enough.
There are consequences for this conspiracy-thinking, which we will come back to. Ultimately, if you’re going to spend 30 minutes talking about climate science and at the end of it those people are no better equipped to explain climate science to OTHER people (their friends, family, neighbours) then, um, you’re not movement-building, are you?
The second section of the talk is even worse. It’s labelled as “social science” but it’s an embarrassment that would get a failing grade in any university course worth the name.
What the speaker does (and they are speaking from a script handed down from on high, or at least on Hallam), is tell an ahistorical and vastly inaccurate story of the import of the Freedom Riders – brave individuals organised within CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality – to try to desegregate the interstate bus companies in the Deep South in 1961.
If you’re interested in this stuff, there’s a book all about it – Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice by Raymond Arsenault and a great review by Thomas Sugrue in the London Review of Books Again, there is no historical context, no mention of the lunch-counter sit-ins, of Ella Baker, of SNCC, of all the tensions within and between movement organisations (it wouldn’t be hard to paint this picture, in broad brush strokes, but to do so would complicate the saviour – and the WHITE saviour – narrative that is being painfully and clumsily laid-out.)
The third part of the talk is one I only saw once – it’s the testimonies from two people who have already been arrested, or heavily involved, speaking to the liberatory nature of being in a beloved community. After the fear (You have been lied to about climate change – it’s worse than you can imagine) comes the call to action (people got on a bus. YOU can get on a bus. Buy your ticket here).
There was no opportunity, no invitation to ask questions – these were all to be held to the end, and even then, not really.
The plan was for people to split into smaller groups, each with one of the organisers in the discussion, which was to be very much a brief “what did you think” (not, “do you have doubts/uncertainties”) followed by “so, are you going to dip your toe in the water a little bit – distributing leaflets – or are you gonna come back for another meeting about nonviolent direct action training?” For there is to be a blockade of oil industry infrastructure in March or April… And they need warm bodies on the barricades.
In the end that didn’t happen, for reasons I will come back to, but it felt for all the world like a high-pressure pyramid selling style thing, where people are recruiting recruiting recruiting.
What went wrong?
On the first time I turned up late and… doubled the number of attendees. We sat there, three young people, two presenting from laptops, one student and one old fart (me). So, not so useful for them.
The second time, on the same day that this appeared in the Guardian I went to a community centre in South Manchester, close to where I live (I wouldn’t have travelled further afield – my curiosity is limited). Numbers were marginally better (about 10 people, plus the three speakers). Slim pickings though, for the thousands of leaflets that were circulated…
What went “wrong” was three things, two of which were unavoidable and maybe not important, and one which was extremely telling, and left the organisers flummoxed.
The first was a person who had come with their carer. They didn’t really get the “hold questions for the end” and clearly didn’t want to be talked at for an hour, so began to interject. The Just Stop Oil person dealt with it firmly and compassionately (full disclosure – I know the speaker, and she is a very very admirable human being). But it continued, and in the bit where we were supposed to be brought to a fervour of joining, the person stood in the middle of the room and proposed that the way to deal with the problem was for shelters to be built – like bomb shelters in the war – where we could all retreat. Nobody quite knew what to say, and their carer then had to gently intervene (btw, if you’re after this as a plot for an eco-novel, you’re too late – Ben Elton did it in “This Other Eden” almost thirty years ago.)
The second mattered even less: it was me. We were in one group, rather than the two that was planned (because a couple of other people had left). I was sat to the immediate right of one of the “testifiers”, whose job it clearly was to guide the conversation quickly to declarations of commitment to The Cause. I said I’d pass (because I didn’t trust myself, and I didn’t want to piss on their chips/rain on their parade). He insisted, so I pointed out that I’ve been doing this for over 20 years and I’ve seen groups like this come and go, go up like a rocket and come tumbling down like a stick, that while the climate change portion of the talk was not actually wrong, the social science stuff was cringeworthy. Ooops. And it was dealt with in classic British fashion by… pretending it hadn’t been said, and the next person was asked for their view point.
The third problem – and the serious one, which merits the “politically terrifying” bit of the title – was this.
One of the attendees, an affable older chap, was there to try to recruit people to the fight over the Clean Air Zone in Manchester. Or rather, to the fight AGAINST the Clean Air Zone. He was keen to distribute the Just Stop Oil flyers, and equally happy to use the rhetoric of “scientists and politicians have been lying to us” to claim that air quality was fine, and that Andy Burnham is bringing this in as a personal wealth generator etc etc.
And the Just Stop Oil people had precisely no way of dealing with this. They were clearly bamboozled by it. It hadn’t been in their briefing…
But they’d left themselves wide open for this sort of anti-scientific opportunism by their completely unnecessary and cack-handed denigration of actual science. They had nowhere to turn, and no way back..
I was reminded from a scene in a Dirty Harry movie (that’s the way my brain works) where Harry Callahan is confronted in a multi-story carpark by vigilante cops whose language is precisely that of the student radicals…
Why it’s anthropologically fascinating, politically terrifying and what will happen?
So what happens when prophecy fails, when the streets empty, when the caravan moves on? Well, folks tend to double down on the rhetoric, and keep trying what worked in the past – like the T1000 in the vat of molten steel at the end of Terminator 2 – flicking through all previous incarnations, in the hope one will work.
This feels to me like we are going into another period of abeyance, of climate change protest just not being “a thing”. There is an existing cost of living crisis for many, and it will spread and spread as food and energy prices go through the roof.
The protests in April (and it seems, since I went to the JSO thing, that it has been folded into the same day as the XR thing? I could be wrong) will be much smaller than the organisers hope, and receive much less media coverage than they are hoping for. Many people are burnt out already, others burning, like the planet.
Meanwhile, the rhetoric of populist anger, of having been lied to, used so ineffectually by climate activists, will be deployed with far greater effect and resonance by some truly horrifying people.
And it as times like this we need new thinking, beyond exhortation and faux-populist information-deficit maunderings. We need to build links, networks, self confidence, granular capacity to act. But in the space of three years XR has become its own tribute band, playing the same old songs louder and louder, to ever fainter cheers, as painful as a Spinal Tap. Meanwhile, the thermostat goes up to eleven…