Extinction Rebellion: Activism needs theory

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The Extinction Rebellion protests hit London in late April 2019. It is indeed heartening to see all the energy and commitment. Yet such activism raises many issues.
The problem with action-based protest movements is not only that they have to keep upping the ‘ante’ to sustain interest and make an impact, risking, in the process, mass arrests, debilitating fines from the courts and possible alienation of the unconverted.
There is also the problem of practicable goals and the best means to achieve. It is all very well to pick a somewhat arbitrary date and simply proclaim that we must achieve net zero CO2 emissions by then. But it is another matter altogether to show how that can be done by, say, 2025, especially when, to have any meaning, other states would have to be doing more or less the same thing.
That could cause massive production bottlenecks and logistical nightmares, not to overlook possible political backlashes because of sudden changes to existing lifestyle patterns (new waves of demonstrations by groups in the footsteps of the Gilets Jaunes and Bonnets Rouges, ballot box revolts, strikes by fuel tanker drivers and other key workers, and speculation-driven currency crises… ).
Then there is the capacity of our political institutions to play their part. They have utterly failed to deal with the comparatively simple problem of Brexit. ER proposes a Citizens Assembly instead. It is not clear how it would avoid becoming a chaotic Tower of Babel, with many assembly members speaking, for example, the language of more growth, others talking about degrowth and steady-state economics.
Presumably, groups such as the trade unions and chambers of commerce would be invited to send representatives. That could create a big lobby for airport expansion, more nuclear power plants and other giant infrastructure projects, all ravenous consumers of energy and raw materials, not least cement and concrete, ie more CO2 emissions and other negative impacts.
It is equally unclear how such an assembly would deal with the complexities of selecting what elements of schemes for, say, bioenergy and carbon capture (BECCS) or hydrogen fuel are practicable and truly sustainable in terms of total ecosystem impacts. It is all very well to proclaim a renewable energy revolution but there are questions to answer about problems such as demand for rare earth elements, variability, low power density and associated land take.
The activism of ER has pushed climate breakdown far up the agenda. To date, climate campaigners have largely failed but things might be changing thanks to ER (and David Attenborough!). Yet activity on the ground is not enough. We meet ‘theory’. It might be surmised that many climate activists in London today see theory as so much hot air, akin to medieval scholars debating how many angels could fit on the head of a pin. It is indeed true that much theorising is removed from the real world and often there is sectarian disputation over the most trivial and arcane differences.
Yet theory and related debate, constructively conducted, really matter. Without values clarification, we will not know what are good goals. Without analysis, we won’t know in sufficient depth what are the key threats and what lies beneath them. Also, without analysis, we won’t be able to separate good policies from bad ones. Is, for example, the so-called ‘Green New Deal’ still fiddling about or something really worthwhile. Only theory can tell us. To take another example, the rewilding movement has hit some difficult choices (which reintroductions etc). It need theory to resolve them.
Without strategic and tactical thought, we won’t know what are the best opportunities and best ways to exploit them. Should we stick to pressure groups, reform a mainstream party or try to build independent parties such as the Greens. Should we support the ‘lesser evil’? It is theory that can shed light on the best options We need to analyse careful the appeal of climate deniers so we can find ways to counter it.
Good theory can however emerge through thorough, robust but still constructive debate. That debate will probably be more productive in participants are agreed on certain basics. Good theory further provides the vision of a better world without which it is easy to give up, such are the disappointments of activism. But good ideas — a compelling vision — can help to keep up one’s efforts. If we cease to make them, disaster must follow. If we keep up the fight there’s still a change, even if now a slim one.
So, it is not either/or, ideas and debate versus action. If I have to have surgery (‘practice’), I’d prefer to have a surgeon who knows something of the human body (‘theory’).

EU and big business

The EU’s benefits have to be measured against the influence of big business on its decision-making. Still we can best challenge the sway of corporate empires over the EU by working with others inside the EU, not by setting up some Little England Inc., where their stranglehold would probably ber even greater.

For examples of corporate influence, see:







The lessons of Philip Green and BHS

Phrases such as ‘greedy parasite’, ‘bloated plutocrat’ and ‘psychotic greedhead’ can be the stuff of cheap political rhetoric but they are the only way to describe the likes of Philip Green, as Owen Jones compellingly shows in today’s ‘Guardian’:

The problem with the politics of Jones and his co-thinkers is that blaming the rich (or for that matter, ‘capitalist system’) is simply not good enough. The biggest driver of today’s multiple and growing crises lies in mass culture, the lifestyles ‘enjoyed’ or sought by the majority of people, not just the super-rich. Beneath the individualism and materialism that run through all levels of society, not just its elites, lies the anthropocentrism that ultimately is the biggest ill of all.
Without the development of an Earth-centred ethic, more ‘efficient’ technology, ‘better’ management and ‘smart’ planning will not contribute to the long-term common good of all. Indeed they might only oil the wheels of destruction.
Furthermore, the combined impact of all consumption choices and preferences, both of rich, poor and in global terms, the growing ‘middle class’ (http://moisesnaim.com/columns/middle-class-rising/), is multiplied by the sheer number of consumers. But, for people such as Jones, that remains the elephant in the room.
Instead, they only see things in terms of redistribution. Yet it does not reduce the size of the total ecological footprint down to sustainable levels. It only shifts the ‘weight’ around. Philip Green’s luxury yacht, spotlighted by Jones, clocks up the same ecological costs as public ferry. The Earth only ‘experiences’ the impacts of production and consumption. It does not distinguish between, say, private greed and public utility.
Such matters notwithstanding, Owen Jones is all too right to call for Philip Green and his ilk to be brought to justice.

Clinton versus Trump – the real debate

Some useful context here for assessing the Trump-Clinton political rhetoric (and, by extension, the EU Referendum ‘debate’ here in the UK):

The Boiling Pot Richard Heinberg May 28, 2016 On the surface, things appear normal. The status quo of life in America circa 2016 isn’t to everyone’s liking, but at least the system is still working after a fashion. The price of oil is going up a bit: that means…

Greens & EU Remain debate

On June 3, 2016, Andrew Cooper, a Green Party councillor in Kirklees and national energy spokesperson (pictured) spoke at a rally here last night here in Newcastle with some 370 people present.

He made a very effective presentation and in the question and answer session made more telling and distinctive points. He also made some good jokes. Without being sectarian, he put clear green water between the Greens and the others on the platform, all Labour supporters. They were Owen Jones (by video link), Chi Onwurah MP and a regional Unison organiser Claire Williams. The chair was a Momentum leader in the NE.

All the Labourites failed to mention in their presentations any of the now desperate ecological issues facing the EU (the MP did say in passing “the climate is changing” but that was it!). Note the silence here too: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/vote-in-another-europe-is-po…

Instead, they simply talked in terms of more and right rights to this, that and the other. There was also a tidal wave of rhetoric from them about how the “workers united will never be defeated” (actually they have been on several occasions and no-one defined what actually is a ‘worker’). At times, the ‘Remain’ case was reduced by the Labour speakers to little more than a defence of the public sector (with zero recognition that it might have had shortcomings pre-cuts and that it will be hard (and in some cases, undesirable) simply to restore the old status quo.

Clare Williams said she was representing UNISON members in the region. I suspect it was a case of what Trotsky once called ‘substitutionism’. She claimed that a consultation had endorsed UNISON support for ‘Another Europe is Possible’. I could not but wonder what percentage of members voted or were at the relevant branch meetings or indeed knew what she was saying on their behalf. It might be suspected that some at least actually back Ukip, given its upsurge in the area. It could not have grown so fast without a lot of support from the said ‘workers’.

[For more on the mythology of the ‘labour movement: see; https://sandyirvineblog.wordpress.com/…/greens-and-the-lab…/]

One of the Labour speakers, I forget which, talked of “levelling everyone up”. Presumably this meant giving everyone in the EU a typical UK living standard. That would mean not a 3 but probably a 5-planet economy! Every problem was blamed by the Labour speakers on insufficient government spending (eg house construction, transport, school building English language classes). The land take and resource implications of building and spending more were simply ignored.

The enemy was deemed to be ‘neo-liberalism; even war in the Middle East was blamed on it. There was total unwillingness on the part of the Labourites to recognise that there might be other factors such as ethnic and religious conflict, forces with quite discrete non-economic dynamics. Actually the seeds of today’s planetary crisis lie not in neo-liberalism but were sown before in the enormous postwar baby boom and parallel boom in consumerism. The big corporations are certainly part of the problem but only one of many parts.

Chi Onwurah’s also asserted that “sustainable growth” was possible. It is a complete oxymoron (she also used another contradiction in terms: ‘green growth’). See: http://dieoff.org/page37.htmhttp://steadystate.org/brian-czech-dispels-five-myths-abou…/http://newstartmag.co.uk/…/why-green-growth-wont-transform…/. What’s more we are in total overshoot: http://www.footprintnetwork.org/…/GFN/…/earth_overshoot_day/. The Labourites cannot/will not see that most fundamental fact of life today.

Onwurah dishonestly or ignorantly argued that the alternative to more growth was “stagnation”. Actually a steady-state economy can have growth in some areas as long as it is balanced by ‘degrowth’ elsewhere and as long as total throughput is sustained by renewable resources and by the assimilative capacities of ecosystems. Parallel concerns about ‘human scale’ do not appear on the Labour radar screen.

Redistribution is the key to poverty relief. Growth, by contrast, produces, beyond a certain point, more losses in every respect than gains (see Richard Heinberg’s ‘End of Growth’, Richard Douthwaite’s ‘The Growth Illusion’, Eben Fodor’s ‘Better Not More’, Serge Latouche’s ‘Farewell to Growth’ and Clive Hamilton’s ‘The Growth Fetish’. We have to think in terms of post-growth (eg http://www.greenhousethinktank.org/post-growth-project1.html)

Andy also countered well the ‘right to move’ with the ‘right not to have to move’. It is an argument well worth developing. We advocate ‘freedom of movement’ without qualifications at our peril. For example, London just cannot keep on growing. Already, its ecological ‘footprint’ is enormous and grossly unsustainable. There is a critical difference between what might be good for individuals and what might be good for the long-term well being of society as a whole. Hiding behind cheap rhetoric does nothing to resolve the difficult choices involved.

It must also be noted, with the regards to the emerging debate about a ‘progressive alliance’ against the Tories, just how deeply hostile are Labourites to our ideas. It is not just ‘tribal’ but deeply ideological. Furthermore, they will also routinely betray any deals with Greens.

Such issues apart, the event as a whole was a big success. As the ‘Another Europe’ representative from London pointed out at the end of the evening, the ‘Brexit’ campaign seems to be picking up momentum. There has to be a drive from all parts of the Remain groupings to counter the outrageous lies being broadcast by Farage, Gove and their cronies. The divisions noted above are fundamental but can still be put aside for joint work to counter the Brexit campaign.

It was also a good night for the Green Party. Ten years ago Greens would not have been invited on the platform. Local GP members also spoke from the floor and a lot of literature was distributed from a stall and at the entrance to the auditorium. Local Young Greens organised the room and take care of the technical side, doing an excellent job.

All in all it was a successful event. Perhaps a crucial challenge is to articulate a more detailed (and attractive) picture of what ‘Another Europe’ would actually look like. For instance, we might no longer be talking about the UK, Germany, Belgium, Italy or Spain but Northumbria, Bavaria, Flanders, Lombardy and Catalonia. A ‘Europe of Regions’ instead of (pseudo-) nation states is part of that alternative.

Sandy Irvine's photo.
Sandy Irvine's photo.

Remain, BREXIT or Greening of the EU

The article below is a good take on the EU Referendum ‘debate’, going beyond the fantasies spun by the mainstream on both sides of the Remain-BREXIT split. The EU is a dynamic entity, not some monolith set in concrete. The CAP has changed significantly, for instance, so the task is to change things far more. Various EU Directives have brought some gains, for all the other negatives. Those gains would be lost come British exist from the EU..

The EU referendum debate is taking place between different wings of the corporate elite, dominated by assumptions in favour of big business, free trade and endless…

Limits of the Liberal democrats


Liberal democrats

A leaflet came through our door which reminds me why I dislike the Liberal Democrats and others of the so-called ‘centre’. It is a local election leaflet in which the candidate from the LDs proclaims himself to be “always on your side”, ie siding with anyone and everyone.

Yet large numbers of people receiving his leaflet want unsustainable and otherwise undesirable things. Thus many rallied to a campaign led by Ukip to oppose a bus priority ‘red route’ (true to form, the LDs now denounce this plan). There is a strong ‘bikelash’ here too, with many local residents vociferously claiming that cyclists are a menace. A good many seem to madly and deeply love their cars. I’ve even seen people in my street drive to the ‘County’ pub, even though it is only 5 minutes walk away. A good number want to drive into town even though there is an excellent bus service through the area.

Doubtless our local community has its share of the racist bigots, consumer fetishists, greedheads, petrolheads, narcissists, and indeed many other varieties of the weird and far from wonderful. Many, it would appear, want their council tax cut even though even more local services would have to be slashed. Big SUVs are parked outside many houses. There are doubtless not just unscrupulous landlords but also tenants both of whom play their malign part in the neglect evident in many rented properties and their gardens.

But there are many other examples of unsustainable and unfair options being willingly chosen by some local people (the candidate claims to be “speaking up for residents”, with “service guaranteed”) Many recycling wheelie bins are contaminated by people throwing inappropriate waste while perfectly recyclable materials are just thrown into the general waste wheelie bins. Many people cannot be bothered to support the local coffee shops such the perfectly good Rosie’s but take their custom to the chain ones. Then there are al those who reduce biodiversity and increase flooding risks by paving over their gardens, perhaps simply because they cannot be bothered to do the necessary work or prefer to have BBQs instead of birds and bees.

Thus there is evident conflicts of value and lifestyle preference within the local ‘community’. Some people are benefiting at the expense of others. But the LDs are apparently on the “side” of absolutely everyone. The one thing the LDs are unwilling to stand up for, putting it before all else, is the very thing that everyone depends upon: a healthy environment. Already, for example, air pollution levels in parts of the area sometimes reach dangerous levels thanks to the sheer volume of traffic, not just diesel vehicles.

Furthermore, in a finite space such as our local streets, it is impossible to maximise everything (walking, cycling, bus riding, motoring) to please everyone. Something has to give. In a finite world, more of one thing must mean less of something else. As those great ecologists, Mick Jagger and Keith Richard once put it, “you can’t always get what you want”.

Yet in another leaflet, LD candidates in the council ward to the north are attacking council plans to boost cycling on the grounds that very roughly 50% of people there travel to car. That fact may be true but such a statistic does not make ipso facto make that pattern any the more sustainable or desirable. All the evidence from greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution levels, congestion, accidents, and the likelihood of future big hikes in the price of oil suggests that we will have to plan now to discourage mass motoring. Instead, we should be shifting the bulk of investment into pedestrianisation, safe cycling schemes, better public transport and a general programme of ‘localisation’, one that would reduce the need to travel in the first place (the LDs are, in fact, big fans of globalisation and ‘free’ trade).

To be fair, most LD councillors round here are decent folk. Yet their politics are very much part of the problem, not the answer. Often in life, the ‘truth’ was not to be found in some alleged ‘middle ground’ but what many people (at the time) thought was extremism. Think of all the great scientific breakthroughs, for example. The ‘extremists’ (Trotsky, Churchill…) who warned about, say, the threat from fascism in the inter-war years turned out to be right and the ‘reasonable’ people disastrously wrong. The ‘middle of the road’ economists who failed to foresee the financial crash of 2008 also got it badly wrong whereas those radical economists and others who rang alarm bells about the unsustainability of asset inflation and mounting debt were spot on.

After all, if we took some ‘middle path’, trying to please everyone, with regards to climate change, ruination for all would result. Already in the months since the Paris COP21 conference, evidence has come in demonstrating that the ‘realists’ at that jamboree were in fact totally unreal about the scale of the danger, the speed at which it is getting worse and the very radical steps that now must be taken. The kind of moderation expressed by Liberal Democrat candidates is actually a recipe for extreme ruination.