Negotiating the Surrender

An essay written for This Is Not A Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook (Penguin, 2019).

The place looks like an Italian monastery, all cloistered gardens and red-tiled rooftops. On a bright spring day you can get caught off-guard: stepping out onto the open walkway that links one building to another, you find the air two seasons colder than the view from the windows seemed to promise. We are a long way north of the Alps, in the small lakeside town of Sigtuna, thirty miles outside Stockholm.

There are advantages to the location. A few weeks after I moved to Sweden, we had a friend passing through, one of the fiercest activists I ever knew, whose work has run from hacking together networks for the Syrian resistance to fighting for transgender people’s right to exist. As we sat together in a patch of sunshine on a chilly April morning, she stretched her arms and sighed: ‘This is the one place I come where it feels like I’m back from the frontline.’ No country is without its frontlines, but two centuries of neutrality have given Sweden a sense of peace that is striking by comparison to most corners of the world, and nowhere more so than in Sigtuna, a town whose street plan hasn’t changed in a thousand years. In an upper room of one of the wooden houses that line its main street, in 1942, the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer held secret meetings with George Bell, the Bishop of Chichester, bringing news to the Allies from the German Resistance of its plot to overthrow Hitler.

For a hundred years, the cloistered buildings of the Sigtuna Foundation have been a place of meetings between worlds, where artists and priests and scientists gather on neutral ground. The Climate Existence conference belongs to this tradition: a gathering where the facts of climate change are not kept at arm’s length, where we grapple with the ways that we are changed by what we know. This latest meeting took place over three days, and though it was only the start of May and the leaves had not long been on the trees, the temperature was rising to match the architecture, the first taste of a relentless summer when forests would burn and wells run dry.

At the end of the first day, Kevin Anderson took to the stage, the deputy director of the Tyndall Centre. Before he was a climate scientist, Kevin built oil rigs for a living, and he has the bluntness of an engineer, together with the moral clarity of a man who hasn’t flown in many years, rejecting the logic of many in his field who justify their carbon footprints on the grounds of the importance of their work. His message was stark: to have a chance of meeting the goal agreed by governments in Paris, to keep climate change within a limit of two degrees, impossible things need to happen. Things beyond the bounds of what even the most progressive elements in mainstream politics have been willing to contemplate, even on their best days, over the past thirty years. The less bad news, he went on, is that a lot of things have happened over the past decade that weren’t meant to be possible – and he listed the banking crash, the Arab Spring, the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and the election of Donald Trump. The point is not whether we would welcome these developments, whether they represent a move in the right direction, but what they tell us about the nature of the times in which we are living: these are times in which impossible things happen, things which all the sensible voices whose job it is to tell us how the world works were busy telling us couldn’t happen until they did, and in this there lies a dark vein of hope.

As I listened, I thought of something Vanessa Andreotti – professor of race, inequalities and global change at the University of British Columbia – had told us earlier that day. They have a saying where she comes from in Brazil: ‘When there’s a flood coming and the water’s at your ankles, you can’t swim. When the water gets to your knees, you still can’t swim. But when the water reaches your butt, it’s time to start swimming.’ When things get bad enough, types of action that were previously impossible become possible.

These two thoughts about impossibility set me wondering: whereabouts in our societies is the water high enough already to start swimming? Because when it comes to climate change, it can still seem like it’s only lapping at our ankles. Even against the backdrop of the fires and the drought, the conversations I heard in supermarkets and at family gatherings last summer were mostly: ‘Isn’t the weather amazing?’ and ‘Don’t the farmers moan a lot?’ and ‘The government ought to buy more of those firefighting planes so we don’t have to keep borrowing them from Italy!’

If I had to guess where the waters are highest, I’d say it’s places like loneliness, mental health among young people, technology addiction. And of course, compared to what climate change means right now in Kiribati or Mozambique, these are the very definition of ‘first world problems’: crises of meaning, rather than ‘existential crises’ in the literal sense of the ability to subsist.

But what I’m asking is, where are the sources from which ‘impossible’ change might come, the points where things are bad enough right now in the societies whose ways of living need to change most in the next few years, if the worst of climate change is to be averted? And my hunch is that the answer might lie somewhere other than the obvious places in which action around climate and behaviour change tends to focus.

*   *   *

17 November, 2018. I’m watching footage shot on camera phones. Against a backdrop of famous monuments, protesters bring traffic to a halt, interrupting the business-as-usual of Saturday in a capital city.

The images come from both sides of the Channel. There’s something uncanny about the emergence on the same day of these two movements, Extinction Rebellion and the Gilets Jaunes, the similarity of tactics, even the aesthetic coincidence of the fluorescent colours, the yellow vests in Paris and the yellow, green and pink flags on London’s bridges. At first glance, they look like mirror opposites, two sides ranged against each other in the battle for the future – and, as George Monbiot points out, the BBC is far more generous in its coverage of French activists protesting fuel price rises than British activists protesting climate change.

Yet there are other lessons here. The carbon tax on diesel may have been the last straw for the French protesters, but there had been plenty of other straws. When market incentives are employed to tackle climate change, they tend to fall hardest on the people already getting the hard end of the deal in a market society, whether at a national or an international level. William Davies calls neoliberalism ‘the disenchantment of politics by economics’ – an attempt to get the processes of measurement, competition and price to do the work of remaking society, without the qualitative judgements and collective decisions of politics – and in this sense, what went up in smoke in Paris was the fantasy of green neoliberalism. This is where the third demand of Extinction Rebellion comes in: a serious response to the climate emergency will require a radical democratic process, a transformation of our way of living in which we participate as citizens, not just as consumers.

The shared tactic of the roadblock already points in this direction, insisting on the urgent need to slow down, to bring the rush of business-as-usual to a halt, so that we can start to have a real conversation about how we are going to live, how we are going to change our lives, given what we know about the mess in which we find ourselves.

*   *   *

There’s a clickbait ad that keeps appearing in my Facebook feed for an organisation that wants to plant eight billion trees. I haven’t checked them out, but let’s assume that the people behind it are for real, that they are as scared as you and me by what is happening with the climate and that their over-simple story about how we can fix things is offered in good faith. What gets me is their idea of hope. Because, after a vivid account of the future towards which we are headed, they offer this proposition: if only we plant more trees, then ‘instead of the post-apocalyptic dystopia… everything continues as usual.’

In this morning’s news, there’s a report that the number of young people in the UK who say ‘life is not worth living’ has doubled since 2009. It now stands at almost one in five.

Think of the word ‘sustainability’. Whatever it once meant, it ends up meaning the project of sustaining as much as possible of our current way of living, only with wind turbines and electric cars. Like the commentators caught off-guard by Brexit and Trump, the mainstream proponents of sustainability fail to grasp how limited is the appeal of ‘everything continues as usual’.

*   *   *

When I think about what is at stake now, there’s a phrase that keeps coming back: this is about negotiating the surrender of our whole way of living.

How much of the economic activity that you see around you could just go, overnight, and no one would honestly miss it, if this could happen without anyone going hungry or homeless as a consequence? Of course, that’s a huge if, especially when – as in the UK – rough sleeping and dependence on food banks have already been rising for years. Yet this is what a surrender looks like: it’s about how much of the organised activity of a society can be decommissioned, not by 2050 or 2030, or even 2025, but as soon as possible. The fact that, as David Graeber found when he wrote about ‘bullshit jobs’, much of the activity that shows up as GDP is widely recognised as pointless, including by those carrying it out, is one of the hidden assets here.

To negotiate a surrender, you need a credible threat – and this is where the movement that began in London last November might look again at its strange twin across the Channel. Clearly, Extinction Rebellion would not seek the edge of chaos which drew so much attention to the Gilets Jaunes. Yet if this is truly a rebellion, then – in its own non-violent way – it needs to carry the kind of threat to the existing order that forced Macron to back down. When the big NGOs start talking about ‘the next wave of climate change protests’, we should be alarmed, because if that’s all this is, it will achieve as little as the waves that went before.

Yet there is another side to negotiating a surrender. The militancy that brings the existing order into question needs to be matched by the quiet places of conversation, away from the frontlines, where unlikely partners enter into dialogue. This is the story of peace negotiations everywhere. It is also the spirit of the campaigners in the Irish referendum on abortion who were willing, as Fintan O’Toole writes, to ‘talk to everybody and make assumptions about nobody’.

Finally, if this is a surrender, it’s a strange one, for there are no victors here. We are not equally implicated, for sure – but we know that it is our way of living that must be surrendered, and not only the lifestyles of Macron and his friends in the Davos set. Recognising this, we might set the insights of military strategists and peacemakers alongside the understandings of surrender to be found in spiritual traditions or in the treatment of addiction. Between them, they could tell us that to surrender is to give up, to be humbled, perhaps humiliated, but with a chance – not a guarantee – that we may live to tell the tale. 

First published in This Is Not A Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook (Penguin, 2019).