What were you doing 11 years ago? Do you remember? I remember very well what I was doing in spring of 2008—looking for a new job. I was looking for a new job because it had become clear to me then that the job I had would be gone by the end of the year. As it turned out, many other people were out of jobs too, or defaulting on their mortgages, or in otherwise serious financial trouble by the end of 2008 which, in hindsight, marked the beginning of the 2008 global financial crisis.
What’s the purpose of this thought exercise, you ask? Its purpose is two-fold. For one thing, 11 years isn’t a very long time; 2008 almost feels like yesterday to me, and indeed it often seems that echoes and ripples from the events of that year are still strongly influencing events of the present. But 11 years isn’t an arbitrary number—it’s how long, according to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, we have left to solve perhaps the greatest problem to ever confront humanity. That problem is anthropogenic climate change and all of the social, ecological, and geopolitical problems that are bound up with it. And the 11-year window is just the time we have left to prevent the worst outcomes of climate change, the lesser effects of which are already making themselves felt.
The other facet of this two-fold thought experiment is to fully appreciate the clarity of hindsight. As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20, and it’s in looking back that we most clearly understand the conditions and dynamics of the present. Conversely, it’s often difficult to accurately appraise one’s situation in the fluid and evolving circumstances of the moment. But as with the financial crisis of 2008, there are abundant and troubling signs of an unfolding climate catastrophe that, if we only pay attention, are prompting us now to take immediate action. Around the world, many people are finally awakening to the urgent threat posed by climate change, and they are beginning to take much-needed action.
‘School strike for climate’ is one international youth movement that has been building momentum in recent months. Begun in August 2018 by Greta Thunberg, a Swedish high school student who was alarmed by the uncharacteristic heat, drought, and forest fires raging across northern Europe at the time, School strike for climate was Thunberg’s one-person protest outside Sweden’s parliament. When she later announced her intention to strike every Friday until Sweden agrees to meet the climate goals of the COP21 climate summit agreed on Paris in 2015, an international movement was born—FridaysForFuture. Since November 2018, over a million students on six continents have taken part in Friday mass strikes demanding that the leaders of their respective nations take immediate action to bring about climate justice and work to avert the looming catastrophe.
Extinction Rebellion (XR) is another movement begun in May 2018 in the UK by a group of academics including Gail Bradbrook, Simon Bramwell and Roger Hallam. Perhaps inspired by the troubling conclusions of the widely read and circulated paper of another academic researcher—Jem Bendell’s “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy”—XR began a campaign of mass civil disobedience in London in November of 2018, temporarily shutting down key public spaces throughout the city. Committed to a campaign of mass, non-violent direct action, XR members have engaged in a number of protests and sit-ins since the beginning of 2019 in the hope of forcing political action on climate change.
During the week beginning April 15 of this year however, the group successfully occupied four locations throughout London in their largest action yet. Thousands of protesters from all over Britain peacefully demonstrated throughout the week in highly visible public spaces such as Parliament Square and Oxford Circus, disrupting traffic and risking arrest there to bring government attention to the climate crisis. XR protesters occupying Waterloo Bridge, another key London landmark, even spontaneously created a garden there, as if to demonstrate the almost magical and transformative potential of collective non-violent action. Other protesters glued themselves to commuter trains or protested outside Heathrow Airport and the headquarters of fossil fuel giant Royal Dutch Shell. Close to 1,000 individuals were arrested by week’s end filling London’s jails with peaceful protesters, which was one of the original aims of the April events.
The London XR protests were the subject of much media coverage, at least in the UK, with papers like The Guardian, the Independent, and Financial Times providing mostly sympathetic coverage of the events, as well as reporting on the mission and background of the movement. XR has also received support from such high-profile figures as Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, while others such as Sir David Attenborough have voiced their approval for the student climate strikers and others working for climate justice. The most important immediate outcome of the London April protests though, is the British government’s formal declaration of a climate emergency, one of XR’s key demands. The Irish government recently followed suit in declaring a climate emergency, while in the upcoming Australian election, action on climate change is anticipated to be the key issue at stake.
Here in the United States, action on climate change and debate surrounding most environmental issues is currently heavily politicized. At the urging of the Sunrise movement—a domestic youth organization acting against the threat of climate change—sweeping legislation promoting a “Green New Deal” has been proposed. There will likely be partisan debate on this proposal, but climate change is not in fact a partisan or ideologically-driven issue—it’s a universal threat to much of life on earth, and certainly to all human beings.
Most of the students and protesters involved in the recent mass movements demanding climate action are not disgruntled teenagers, social malcontents, professional agitators, or political ideologues of any stripe—rather, they are ordinary people who are deeply concerned with the future of the planet and life on it. They are frustrated with the continued inaction of governments and corporations in the face of the greatest threat to ever confront humanity. The student climate strikers are rightfully distrustful of the current generation of leaders who act without heed of the dangers they have thoughtlessly created and left for future generations to deal with. Meanwhile, grandparents and parents are rising up through movements like XR to force political action on climate, using non-violent civil disobedience to disrupt the status quo to achieve their aims. These are simply human beings demanding of their leaders the most basic of human rights—a habitable world for the future.
Climate change, mass extinction, and the wholesale destruction of the physical environment are not political issues. Rather, they are as Paul Kingsnorth and others have noted, the manifestations, at root, of a spiritual crisis. The forces of materialism, consumerism and individualism among others have eroded our spiritual and physical connection with the natural world. Setting ourselves above and apart from the natural systems that sustain us as a society, we’ve foolishly bought into the myth of human centrality and supremacy in the universe. But now that we’re running up against hard limits in the physical world—largely the consequences of our civilizational hubris and our indifference to other forms of life on the planet—we must reappraise and recenter our human relationships with the natural world. We must start by acknowledging the urgency of the climate situation and make a radical commitment to bring about change, at whatever cost, before it is too late.
The youth climate strikes and XR have been somewhat slow to catch on here in the US, but this seems to be changing, particularly after the success of these movements in Europe and especially in the UK. XR chapters are popping up in many cities in the US, and the movement encourages individuals to start their own chapter if one doesn’t already exist in their area. Other groups like 350.org have a longer history of campaigning in the US for ecological justice, and these are also laudable and worthy of support. What sets XR apart however, and what has made it an effective force for change so far, like the American civil rights movement before it, is the willingness of the individuals involved to organize en masse, and to successfully, sustainedly, and non-violently disrupt the status quo. It is this radical commitment to bring about change through non-violent civil disobedience, up to and including risk of arrest, that is urgently needed now in the United States from every one of us.
So where do you see the world in 2030? Will you look back on 2019 with profound regret and sadness, recognizing it as the beginning of the end, the historical moment that the window on a liveable future began to close? Or will you look back on these days from a brighter future, one where 11 years later the ‘Gaian spring’ that began in 2019 is beginning to bear the fruit of real progress, a future that is improving for all life on the planet?