Monday, July 29, 2019

Extinction Rebellion - This is Not a Drill

The emergence of radical mass movements demanding action on the environment have, given the scale of the crisis, been a much needed sign of hope. The school student strikes which began in late 2018 and the Extinction Rebellion (XR) movement that uses mass civil disobedience as a tool to force action from the UK government have revitalised the environmental movement. Already they have had some impact. The April 2019 actions that lead to 100s being arrested and the shutting down of central London by mass protest forced the British Parliament to declare a “climate emergency”. More action is planned as declaring an emergency does not automatically mean action will follow.

For someone who has been part of the socialist and environmental movement for almost 30 years it has been an exhilarating few months. The Manchester XR group that I’ve been part of since April 2019 has brought together many activists – though the young people far outnumber veterans like me. But what has been most refreshing is that the majority of those activists see the need for radical action because they blame the system itself.

Extinction Rebellion’s book This is Not a Drill tells the story of XR and the environmental crisis. It is designed to inspire people into action and to put across XR’s ideas in an accessible form. Unlike some radical movements of recent years, XR is not an undifferentiated mass of ideas, its leading figures and key activists share a core ideology and are building a movement around them. So This is Not a Drill is an important read. It tells you about XR and offers a way to get involved.

The opening chapters lay out the scale of the crisis. These chapters are not an easy read. Scientists Professor William Ripple and Nicholas Houtman complain that:
We scientists have been frustrated and even in despair over the many years of inaction, but we will continue to speak out, telling the truth about what we all need to do to protect life on planet Earth. 
They call for “evidence-based solutions to the emerging planetary catastrophe”. Other chapters are by indigenous activists, the President of the Maldives and farmers in India who tell how climate change is destroying their communities. Climate change is not something that is far off, but something that is real for millions of people. Action is needed now.

This is Not a Drill is also a guide to action – it lays out XR’s strategy of mass civil disobedience; it also emphasizes key tactics that its leadership focus on, in particularly mass arrests. The final few pages are a detailed guide to how to organise a blockade, emphasising that doing this requires making sure that the protesters do not alienate those caught up in the demonstrations.

One of the great strengths of the book (and XR in general) is that it understands that ordinary people are not the problem. For instance, in his chapter on the Maldives, the country's former President Mohamed Nasheed argues:
Here’s the thing about climate change: we cannot frame it as a war between working people and saving the planet. If we do that, we will stir up the forces that led to the wave of populism that has engulfed the West, and some of the East too. Let us not forget what we owe to decent, working people such as coalminers. The tremendous wealth the world enjoys today, the technological progress, the huge increase in living standards, is due to the work of the people. We should not blame coalminers, or loggers, or oil-rig workers for causing the climate crisis. Instead we should thank them for helping to fuel human civilisation.
Instead, the book aims its fire at the system itself. It is a system “more concerned with profits and the status quo than with the health of people and the planet”. As Farhana Yamin concludes, “we can and must succeed in catalysing a peaceful revolution to end the era of fossil fuels, nature extraction and capitalism. Life on Earth depends on it”.

The book is less clear on what it is about capitalism that makes it so environmentally destructive – other than putting profits before people and planet. This might seem political nit-picking, but I think it means that the authors are less clear on what the alternative might be. One writer, Kate Raworth, argues that “what we need are economies that make us thrive, whether or not they grow.” Later she argues “economic rebels” must “create thriving, regenerative and distributive economies that can meet the needs of all…within the life-supporting systems of… this planet”. These are noble aspirations, but we a more than these generalisations.

In his article, the Labour MP Clive Lewis argues that neo-liberalism is the problem. Now it is important to highlight that XR says it is “beyond politics” and includes contributions from Clive Lewis and Green MP Caroline Lucas to demonstrate the way that some politicians are thinking, not because it endorses them. But I feel that Clive Lewis’ argument is what lies behind some of the writers’ vision of a sustainable world. In effect they are pushing for a greener, more sustainable, more regulated capitalism in which fossil fuels have been driven to the margins. That in itself is a worthy aim – but I’m not sure it’s practical as a solution to the crisis we face.

Capitalism is a system where blocks of capital (firms, companies, corporations) are driven to accumulate wealth because they are in a system of competitive production. It’s thus a system where growth is inevitable, and which can only see the natural world as a source of material for production or a dumping ground for waste. Capitalism cannot operate in any other way – it is wasteful, inefficient and damaging precisely because of its nature. Hopes that a Green New Deal will change that are an illusion, even if it might be a good starting point.

Socialists, in contrast, argue that we must fight for green reforms today – such as the One Million Climate Jobs campaign – but that we also need to use that struggle as a bridge to build a movement to end capitalism and create a new way of organising society. But a society that rationally manages its interaction with nature will be one where production is democratically planned, and which will arise out of the mass movements that overthrow the capitalists. This process will also transform those making the revolution – something I think is essential in transforming our conception of our social relationship with nature. It is the working class – whose labour keeps capitalism functioning – who are the only force capable of making that change.

But these ideas are not a million miles away from the thinking of many XR activists. In his chapter, Roger Hallam, one of XR’s key founders, says that:
The key lesson about all structural political change is that disruption works. Without disruption there is no economic cost, and without economic cost the guys running this world really don’t care. That’s why labour strikes are so effective against companies and why closing down a capital city is so effective against governments.
I’d go further and point out that strikes also change workers’ perceptions of their own power and their understanding of capitalism itself. For this reason, I think Hallam (and XR in general) are wrong when they say that fundamental change can happen with a movement of only a few tens of thousands.  Nor do I believe that the focus on mass arrest is a viable strategy. I think you need the vast majority of ordinary people’s involvement to effect fundamental change – particularly in the face of the wealth and power of the capitalist state. History has shown how any fundamental challenge to the status quo will be met with mass violence and repression.

The involvement of workers in the movement is crucial and so from personal experience I’m really pleased that XR is taking outreach to the trade union movement seriously.

This is Not a Drill has some really important arguments. One of the things that is great about the new movements is that they are full of discussion and debate. XR in particular is a place where people can get involved and contribute whatever they feel they are able to. The debates will have to continue – in particular I think we need to discuss through the type of movement that we need. But I do highly recommend the book. It is an inspiring, if frightening, call to arms. Some of the chapters left me depressed, others cheered me. But it is the product of a living, growing radical movement that everyone should get involved in. Reading This is Not a Drill is a good first step.

Support radical book-selling. Purchase This is Not a Drill from Bookmarks, the Socialist Bookshop.

Readers of this book review may also enjoy a new book I edited System Change not Climate Change: A Revolutionary Response to Environmental Crisis.

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