How Not to Save the World

There’s a vanguardist streak in the environmental movement which I think does more harm than good. It can lead to an alienating kind of arrogance that we can’t afford. We desperately need more people on our side if we are to build up the critical mass of public opinion necessary for the scale of change we need. Not that we don’t need people to take the lead. But taking a lead is not an end in itself. It’s pointless if you don’t take people with you. The vanguard is not the movement; the vanguard is a possible catalyst for the movement.

There are many lessons to learn from the twin fiascos of Trump and Brexit: one is that people act on their feelings, not on rational analysis. Another thing to consider is that most of the damage inflicted on the environment is carried out by wealthy people and corporations. It’s important for the rest of us to be good, green consumers, but that’s nothing compared to the scale of change we need, which is radical and systemic. Basically, we need government action and, while protest and publicity stunts are fine for bringing issues to attention, large-scale change is only going to happen if enough people care. Most politicians will only do what gets votes. Put all these things together and, as I’ve been saying for a long time, the way to save the environment is for people to want it to be saved. They need to feel it’s their struggle, to choose to make the necessary sacrifices now so that future generations may live bearable lives.

I spent some time at the Extinction Rebellion protests in London in April. Much of it was inspiring, and the disruption was more symbolic than serious; roads got closed but, on the whole, you could still get where you needed to go, and you might have a wonderful encounter with a free gig or an impromptu bit of urban gardening on the way. I heard some great speeches too. But I also heard a speech that, while I agreed with every word, made me unexpectedly angry. The gist of it was: we have made this huge sacrifice, giving up our lives and risking arrest to save the planet and you [i.e. the audience] need to understand how serious the threat is. Why did this trigger anger? Chiefly because it cast me as ignorant and cowardly, and the speaker as enlightened and brave. I was definitely ‘them’ and she was ‘us’. I was being unfairly judged. I’m a committed environmental campaigner and yet this made me want to walk out. What would it do to someone who was already feeling inadequate or guilty in the face of the climate crisis, or who was sceptical about it? Would such words really bring them round to the cause? The opposite is more likely.

The other factor at play is the argument that disruptions now are justified by the threat of the greater disruptions that climate change will bring. I think this is an entirely sound principle. The trouble comes when you apply it to tactics. Who gets to decide who suffers? It becomes an exercise in arbitrary power and sometimes in collective or arbitrary punishment. This doesn’t matter so much if it’s just a matter of a short detour to avoid a closed road. It does matter if your flight for the holiday you’ve been saving up for all year has been cancelled because someone randomly picked one particular day at one particular airport to stage a protest.  That unfairness might be entirely justified in the wider scheme of things, but it’s ethically dubious in the specific act. And again, we should ask if it is going to bring more people round to the cause? Of course it’s not.

And can we afford to alienate people to this extent? Only if we believe that a vanguard – a small movement without mass support – is sufficient to save the world. I don’t.

There are numerous ways to save the world and we need to build a movement that combines many different approaches, from debating policy detail in government committees to hanging banners from oil rigs. And of course what inspires one person alienates another. It’s impossible to find actions that will please everyone. I find the school strikes very moving and uplifting but that’s clearly not a universal view. What I do think we can do, however, is make sure we target the worst perpetrators, not ordinary people. For a start, we need to be much, much more inclusive. We also need to avoid appearing to have private parties at other people’s inconvenience. And, while we sometimes have to put our bodies on the line, we need to stop fetishising arrest as a form of martyrdom. It makes us look like privileged douchebags. Above all, we need to stop talking down to people or hectoring them, and focus on creating a mass movement rather than a self-consciously vanguardist one.

What does this mean in practice? For a start, we should forget about proving how right we are, which is really just a performance for the mirror, and serves to harden our positions, and instead ask “whose mind and which policy do we need to change, and how are we going to do that?”*

A big part of the solution, I suspect, is positive messaging. This is perhaps counterintuitive, given the gravity of our situation, but necessary, given what we know about human psychology. Dire warnings, though true, terrify many of us but force others to go into denial. Yet there are plenty of positive messages, because the struggle against the climate crisis and the system that created it is also the struggle for a much better world. I’ll end with what I think is one of the strongest of the many positive arguments we can make:

Future generations will be able to enjoy amazing lives on a flourishing planet. Look at how far we’ve come already: the tech will in time catch up. We must be the generation that gets recorded in history for having the spirit, courage and vision that’s necessary now to allow that future to happen. Let’s work together and do something amazing.



Please Note: This blogpost has been revised after I asked for feedback on Facebook. Thanks to everyone who shared their thoughts. Special thanks to Thomas Chant, whom I quote directly (marked *), James Whiteman for making me be clearer about the role of vanguards, and Dan Cox, who provided some nuance to the final paragraph.

A Further Note: Before anyone calls me out for hypocrisy, I shall do so myself. I haven’t been able to give up flying and I write this with the knowledge that I may soon be affected by protests. That’s why, although I’ve been incubating this article since April, I have been motivated to finish and post it now. I fly because I’m in a long-distance relationship and also because, as a result of this relationship, part of my career is also based abroad. On the other hand I’ve been involved in environmental campaigning all my life, became vegetarian 25 years ago, gave up my car 10 years ago, rarely buy new clothes, have planted more trees than I could possibly ever count and am continuing to plant more, and give up my spare time to campaign for the Green Party. Furthermore, as a result of my links to Thailand, I have been instrumental in the launch of a major new campaign to encourage greener consumer behaviour. Does that balance out a few long-haul flights a year? I don’t know.

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