I do not feel Extinction Rebellion is ‘nihilist’; I do not think it is even despairing, just desperate to change things. Life is precious; intelligent life is precious. I mind about risking the fate of homo sapiens. (And the UK.)
Is this simply that there are very wonderful and very terrible sides to being human? That we don’t yet, or maybe again, really understand?
Sometimes these days I wonder if I am out of time. I was a child of the 1960s, came into adulthood through the women’s liberation movement and gay liberation. The seventies seem awkward and even ugly in memory – the clothes! the politicians! – but I had hope. Things can only get better.
When did I stop hoping? Well, Margaret Thatcher didn’t help; the 1970s died with her election, and AIDS. Worse, personally, was falling out of the WLM, although I held onto a congenial group of radical feminists (in Washington DC) for a while. Ok, so I grew up a bit, and understood that things don’t always progress without setbacks. Had a nasty shock in the early 1980s with cruise missiles and remembering we’re still living with nuclear weapons that could wipe us out. In the 90s I just kind of went underground, and now can’t help but wonder how much I played my part in burying our collective heads in the sand. (Shout out to all those activists who did not, of course.)
On the state of the world, I was bounded into more active fear by a book called The Long Emergency, in 2005, on peak oil; but it almost felt like a wake-up call that change had to happen. We could not go on burning fossil fuels, so that might slow down climate catastrophe, right? The idea of peak oil wasn’t wrong, of course. We will run out of fossil fuels generally, even if that’s not in my lifetime, because it’s non-renewable and we are using it at an astounding rate. But by the time we do, climate catastrophe will be inevitable.
But something was also happening economically. The ‘post war consensus’ in the West of the growth of prosperity – and even the undoubted development of poorer regions to raise life expectancy and living standards – was tied up with an apparently more acceptable face of capitalism. Workers’ rights, anti-racism, less deference and more liberal social attitudes, that was all real, even if still built on some gross exploitation, and no real diminution of the power of the rich.
But the rich then decided they didn’t need the rest of us quite as much they had thought, and fought back against any restraint on their greed and power. They poured money into propaganda in favour of the market and their freedom to be psychopaths, through controlling media and lobbies that bought off politicians… I wish I were exaggerating. Are they really worse human beings now than they were a hundred and fifty years ago? The answer wouldn’t help me in either case. They have an awful lot more (literal) weapons now.
And the one thing I took for granted – fatally, perhaps – is that we would not choose as a society to return to the 1930s and fascism. Treat other peoples as less than human, even within our own country; whip up xenophobia to protect the privilege of the privileged; descend into rabid discourse without regard to evidence, or other people’s rights. I don’t know where we are now, but I don’t have hope that we can stop this if those rich white men decide this, after all, is what they really want.
We never quite got democracy, in England. That it isn’t just about every adult having a vote, but also what that vote achieves, in first-past-the-post constituencies. How voters are assaulted with propaganda, and propaganda is all about who can pay the most. Not having a written constitution (though for those who do, how much it will protect you in practice if you vote in people who won’t follow it). Gerrymandering. And if you win a simple, bare majority vote, whether it matters what happens to the minority.
Brexit fills me with real horror. Not only how insane it is to attempt to drop out of a customs union to fight from the back foot a world where tariff wars are rachetting up, not diminishing, and choosing to depend deals with on either undemocratic or nationalistic or just plain unhinged regimes as opposed to more or less benign democracies. I can just see horrible deals ahead with not only the US but Brazil and Saudi Arabia – at the same time as, in practice, having no choice but in fact mostly to deal with other European countries anyway, but now without any political leverage. To make ourselves less powerful. One reason, I understand, that some of the benign Left support Brexit; but what do they really think is going to happen then? Making yourself less powerful in Trump-world doesn’t equate to giving the powerless elsewhere more power. Who else around the globe do you think we would be better off allying with than Europe? I mean, I love Australia and Canada and New Zealand, but they aren’t a substitute for or better than European countries. (And Australian politics itself looks to be firmly on the wrong side of climate catastrophe and the increasing refugee challenge in a deteriorating environment, racism, and mainstream politicians flirting with fascism. But that’s an aside, in sympathy for my many Australian friends.)
And meanwhile, England tears itself apart as a society because the rich twits who think they will benefit by less EU regulations managed to get a win in an insanely worded referendum that other rich twits were too arrogant to thin they could lose. The majority of national newspapers now actively promote the idea that ‘remainers’ are traitors to the UK. While caring, it is clear, not a single fuck about Scotland or Northern Ireland. Conservative, UKIP and Brexit party voters who support Brexit say Brexit is more important than the economy or the ‘Union’, because somehow they have come to put all of their political identity into not being European. Despite history, geography, and all sense. They do not seem to care what actually happens; or anything about the morality or philosophy of the individuals they vote for. And they kind of hate everybody anyway, because if they don’t trust other Europeans, they naturally despise anyone not white even more.
And technology… Can’t help but think technology has helped to get us here. It has led to some realising they didn’t need the rest of us (because of automation) or had a new way to get rich and take control to stay rich (such as social media, and use of the internet to help them run businesses with less people and far fewer workers’ rights). Changes in technology are surely part of that breakdown of the post-war deal?
I do not feel Extinction Rebellion is ‘nihilist’; I do not think it is even despairing, just desperate to change things. I am not sure you can overstate how awful many things look, and even if it’s sentimental to mind about the fate of polar bears, rhinos, whales and orangutans, I am not sure anyone sane would claim it’s purely sentimentality to worry about our grandchildren. Actually, I mind in a whole other way about risking the fate of homo sapiens; life is precious, intelligent life is precious, and I care about it in the universe.
Nothing about politics or the environment makes me optimistic. But.
But. I am an optimist by nature. I love my family, my friends, my work, books – and recent books even more than older books, because knowledge on so many things is still increasing. (Even if we may be losing other knowledge – but then some great books are even tackling that.) I love the Earth, its astounding geography and biosphere. I think Buddha was entirely right, and we just have to keep on working at love. I understand myself more, and grow, every week. I decided many years ago that intelligent co-operation was my life’s goal, and this week we finish an intelligently co-operative project and get praise from the people we most wanted to like it. (That it probably wouldn’t seem interesting or exciting to most other people doesn’t worry me.)
This apparent chasm between my hope for the future and my current pleasure with other people, and with other animals, with plants and landscapes – between, perhaps, the good and bad parts of being human – I wrestle with.