Grieving the Planet - Reflections on the Extinction Rebellion Movement

Activists from around the country come together to rebel, protest and importantly, grieve

Kübler-Ross famously described grief as a process of five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. As a society, we are grieving a dying planet and slowly but surely going through the five stages of this process.

First comes denial. People have been talking about ecological collapse at least since Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ but for the most part our society ignored the concerns. Over the following decades activists began to take a stand. Activism at this time was fuelled by anger, with activists gaining a reputation for damage and destruction in the act of blocking activities deemed destructive to the planet. As the anger swelled international institutions sat up and began to act. This action came in the form of specific international agreements (eg CFCs and oceans) and economic innovations (eg carbon trading and carbon taxing), bargaining between our current economic paradigm and the growing awareness of ecological limitations. For years, this is where the climate movement has stalled, bargaining elites and angry activists. And this is the moral ground that Extinction Rebellion has planted itself within.

Extinction Rebellion is a movement of activists performing acts of civil disobedience in a structured and organised way in a quest to force decisive government action on climate change. What feels different about this round of climate activism is that activists are moving away from anger and instead are working with the depression that so many are feeling, moving on to the penultimate stage of our collective grieving process. The march this Saturday will “mourn all the life we’ve lost, are losing and are still to lose.”

The movement is very visible, no hidden names or faces, but open, honest people stating their cause. Within the movement the grieving process is actively encouraged. Bells ring to remind participants to take a moment to reflect. Self-care is central. Peoples directly facing the effects of climate change are given centre stage to share their stories. The shared grieving process is key. If our society is ever to reach the acceptance stage in grieving our planet, in which we really take the necessary steps required to prepare and adapt as a society, then taking the next step along the grieving process is essential. This is what Extinction Rebellion are pioneering.

Extinction Rebellion have three demands, and plan to continue peaceful acts of civil disobedience until they are met. These demands are:

1: The Government must tell the truth about the climate and wider ecological emergency, reverse inconsistent policies and work alongside the media to communicate with citizens.

2: The Government must enact legally binding policy measures to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 and to reduce consumption levels.

3: A national Citizen’s Assembly to oversee the changes, as part of creating a democracy fit for purpose.

Demand 1 requires ‘telling the truth’ about something uncertain and complex, a near impossible task. This demand comes in the wake of admissions that the BBC gets climate change coverage wrong too often. It comes as David Attenborough states that they hide the realities of ecosystem destruction from viewers. As social media diversifies our news sources and personalises our content it is increasingly difficult to create a consistent narrative that can change the attitude of ‘consumers’ and ‘citizens’. However, simple actions like the BBC removing climate deniers (who represent less than 2% of climate scientists) and giving representative air time to climate bargainers and climate mourners could significantly move the public debate forward.

Demand 2 far exceeds the current projections and aspirations on carbon reduction to reduce emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. However, our current targets are widely recognised to be insufficient. As such, demands from activists to be more ambitious should be welcomed. Demands for tighter legislation to enable this are legitimate. Ecological destruction is a political and economic issue, but it is also fundamentally a moral issue. History will indicate that moral issues are not tackled by economic incentives alone. Extinction Rebellion liken themselves to the civil rights movement and the suffragettes, for good reason. The abolition of slavery, for example, was not achieved by figuring out the best way to tax slave owners or finding the best incentives to decrease slave ownership. It was achieved by making slave ownership illegal. Similarly, the moral abhorrence of ecological destruction cannot be prevented through economic incentives alone. Legislation must be decisive, economic innovations can follow and enable.

Finally demand 3, to setup a Citizen’s Assembly to help navigate the big decisions that need to be made, is a demand that resonates with the work of influential organisations like the RSA. Their work on the Citizens Economic Council shows the power of deliberative democracy to design thoughtful, progressive policies that make difficult decisions while putting citizens at the heart. To make the fundamental changes needed minimise the effects of climate change we need processes that put real people at the centre, and deliberative processes like Citizen’s Assemblies do just that.

Social movements have succeeded in shifting the moral norms of societies around the world many times in the past. Social movements gain momentum when the people in positions of power and privilege begin to support the peoples that are oppressed — when men supported the women’s suffrage, when white people supported the civil rights movement, when the middle classes in India and Brazil supported social movements there. Ecological collapse is a global issue. Thus it requires the globally privileged — we in the rich countries of the world — to stand up and support those globally that are feeling the effects right now.

Ecological collapse is a global issue, but individual countries play an important role. The abolition of slavery did not come about by an international treaty or global agreement. It came about because individual countries legislated it, one by one. The same is already true of climate change, with the real progress being made by the domestic policies of countries like the UK and China. But globally concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions are at a record high. The progress we are making is too slow to avoid the worst of the possible effects.

So together with people around the world who have lost their homes, their livelihoods, family members and friends to the effects of climate change, the Extinction Rebellion movement invites our society to come together and mourn. In the half a century that campaigners and activists have been working to reduce our climate impacts, the actual rate of ecological destruction has increased. Perhaps this movement represents a vital step in a collective process of grieving, such that we can move forward with strength, resilience and belief that change is possible.

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