Disaster environmentalism 3: what to do

The gap in disaster environmentalist thinking, the absence of any kind of sense of how society changes, or could be changed, explains its’ exponents political tactics, in my view.

Non-violent direct action (NVDA), which has become a hallmark of XR, is seen as a way of pushing the existing political system to change. For disaster environmentalism, it’s a last ditch attempt: if this fails, only collapse – whatever that means – awaits, and social renewal can only be achieved through “deep adaptation”.

This is underpinned by misunderstandings and half-thought-out ideas about how society changes, in my view.

The danger of co-optation

Read writes that XR wants and needs “to transform the whole existing system […] within years, not decades. Such transformation will mean that many economic interests get challenged, or indeed ended”. This “attempt to rapidly change the entire economic, social and political system” will be far more difficult than the task of previous movements; “the vested interests opposing us are vast, as are the ideologies that have to be overcome or transformed.” And what he describes as his “key point”:

Women and black people could be accommodated into the existing system; in this way the task of the Suffragettes and of the Civil Rights Movement, while hard, was doable. But what we want – need – is to transform the whole existing system, not merely to allow excluded people access to it.

This shows a breathtaking lack of understanding about how the political representatives of capitalism work to co-opt, subvert and control social movements.

To state the completely obvious, while the specific demands of the Suffragettes, for women’s right to vote, has been won, countless aspects of the repression of women have been

School students marching in London, 29 November 2019

reproduced by capitalism in new, more sophisticated forms. Women’s legal rights to abortion is currently under threat in a series of countries.

As for the Civil Rights Movement in the USA, the gains it won in terms of voting rights for black Americans have been under vicious attack from that time to this. Gerrymandering, ID requirements, laws depriving former prisoners of the vote, and more blatant measures are used across the USA to stop black people from voting. Rights are won in struggle, defended and extended in struggle, and can be lost in struggle.

If, then, tackling climate change requires a deeper-going transformation even than these battles for the right to vote – and I agree that it does – it surely follows that the battle will be at least as long, as deep and as complex as the battle against the oppression of women, or against racism, of which the Suffragettes and the Civil Rights Movement were particular parts.

And yet Read specifies repeatedly that “transforming the whole existing system” can be done through the existing political structures. He writes, with reference to XR:

We want our three demands to become law. We want an at-least-partially legislatively empowered Citizens Assembly to start deliberating on how to change everything. If we win […] then we will expect people’s lives to start being impacted within months of that, by democratically-agreed major changes.[1]

Read stresses that success can be achieved by pushing and persuading existing political and business elites; XR needs to “give politicians the sense that we can help them out of a hole”, and “allow politicians and government to say, truthfully, that they are following democratic will”. He advocates that XR should target “the 1%”, to “give everyone the sense that in that process [of changing the economy], some, roughly, the 1%, have to change a lot more than others”. Symbols of the elite’s power such as Canary Wharf and London City Airport should be targeted, so that “citizens understand that the rich are the ones who need to cut back the most, and that this is going to happen”.[2]

Read’s faith in working through existing structures is restated with respect to the Citizens Assemblies that XR demands. XR can “realistically expect, within months, to be ‘negotiating’ with the government to bring in real Citizens Assemblies”; these would have to have “real decision-making power” to “put together the drastic package of changes, the as-wartime mobilisation, now needed”.

My argument is not that Citizens Assemblies could never be set up, nor that they could never become potentially useful forums. It is that the political establishment, should it set them up, will use them to co-opt and confound social movements. That’s the way that the political establishment has always worked.

Read seems completely oblivious to such dangers. He cites the parliamentary declaration of a “climate emergency”, politicians’ meetings with XR representatives, and Theresa May’s legislation of a carbon-net-zero target as victories; the establishment of a consultative Citizens Assembly by some parliamentary committees, he claims, was a “historic and substantial result”. Really?

For people who frequently accuse many others of unfounded optimism, the disaster environmentalists are certainly incredibly optimistic about the system’s ability to reform itself.

Roger Hallam of XR, likewise, offers a theory of social change in which “disruption works”.

Without disruption there is no economic cost, and without economic cost the guys running this world really don’t care. […] You have to hit them where it hurts: in their pockets.[3]

In his pamphlet Common Sense for the 21st Century, Hallam claims that non-violent civil mobilisation focused in a capital city, brings the desired results.

After one or two weeks […] historical records show that a regime is highly likely to collapse or is forced to enact major structural change. This is due to well established dynamics of nonviolent political struggle.

The authorities, he claims, are “presented with an impossible dilemma”: if they allow such action to continue, the movement grows; if they opt for repression, this risks “a backfiring effect”.

Really? Tell that to people in Hong Kong. Or Chile. Or Russia, where thousands turned out, and were arrested, on non-violent demonstrations this summer.

Nafeez Ahmed, in his excellent critique of XR leaders’ ideas on social change, writes:

Ultimately Hallam’s objective of shutting down the capital is based on an unfounded assumption derived from cherry picking [Harvard sociologist Gene] Sharp‘s work while ignoring the characteristics of London.

He assumes that simply by stringently adopting nonviolence while provoking the state, any escalating violence from the state will be seen as illegitimate by the general public in the capital, and will end up growing and empowering the movement. But this would only be the case if XR was sufficiently embedded with and mobilised through diverse communities throughout the capital – which it is not.

Some strange ideas about social change

Earlier this year, when XR started its mass actions, some of its leaders promoted a “3.5% rule”, claiming that non-violent direct action by 3.5% of the population would achieve its demands. This “rule” was loosely based on research by Erica Chenoweth, who made a quantitative study of a variety of social movements.

Nafeez Ahmed’s article takes the “rule” apart in detail. No need for me to say much more about it. The “rule” ignores the rich history of past social movements, and their successes and failures.

Chenoweth does not herself make any especially bold claims about what 3.5% of the population can do. And Read, too, writing in the summer, argues that this social science “can tell us relatively little”.

Read acknowledges that “we need to learn from history”, but shows little sign of doing so. His throwaway remarks about the fight for women’s suffrage and the Civil Rights Movement suggests an indifference to how they achieved what they did, and the limitations they came

Indian independence reported on 15 August, 1947

up against. In a long footnote[4] he compares XR’s aims to Mahatma Gandhi’s “struggle to reframe and rebase Indian civilisation; to extract it from the Western paradigm” – a struggle in which Gandhi “almost completely failed”.

He writes that XR’s demand to achieve a zero-carbon economy by 2025 “calls for/ requires something similar: and end to this civilisation and the creation of a quite new one, radically relocalised, energy-descended, etc”. And then continues:

Will the public be willing to acquiesce in, and welcome, disruption, when they get clear in their heads just how radical a Citizens Assembly would/will have to be in order to achieve [a zero carbon economy]? My bet would be that they mostly won’t, unless at minimum it becomes clear to them that the new civilisation that needs creating will be radically desirable in part because it will be much more equal (as happened in world war 2). So we have to signal clearly that we will all be in this together; we have to pre-figure contraction and convergence.

Read then underlines “the unlikelihood of having the public’s willingness thoroughly on our side”; that’s why “we need to be urging and undertaking serious prep now for collapse”; he has only “minute” hope that collapse can be averted.

All this prompts four thoughts in my mind.

First, it’s a stupid mainstream myth that society became more equal during world war two. There is plenty written by plenty of historians to show that the UK’s rulers did their best to maintain class divisions during the war.[5]

Second, the analogy with Gandhi’s vision of India’s future is surely relevant to disaster environmentalism’s wider world-view, rather than the more limited aims of XR. I think it is an

From the civil rights movement in the USA

important analogy – although Gandhi developed his ideas in the context of a liberation struggle against British imperialism, and in tension with the ideas of industrial development embraced by many of those with whom he was allied, such as Jawaharlal Nehru. Still, this comparison could be a good starting-point for discussion, because it underlines that XR’s aim of a zero-carbon economy implies a broad transformation of society.

Third, the fundamental nature of the change we are aiming for makes another aspect of Read’s writing seem all the more ridiculous. To compare XR to the years of struggle undertaken by millions of Indian people in the movement led by Gandhi is, to put it mildly, a bit presumptuous. I write this with no disrespect to the thousands of people who have participated in non-violent direct actions organised by XR; that is a breath of fresh air, and I have myself been involved in the XR group where I live, since it was formed.

Fourth, this absurd exaggeration casts XR in the role if a sect, that has understood the truths of disaster environmentalism and from this vantage point regards the largely passive “public” as a potential source of support – but doesn’t see society, in the wider sense, as the agency of change.

To cite a few phrases from Read’s pamphlet about XR, “it will become clear to people that what they think their interests are, are most definitely threatened [by XR]”; “we need by our actions to convey to the public that we are on their side” (but nowhere a suggestion that the non-XR population may themselves take action); before XR targets Heathrow airport, “we need people to understand that this is about whether there is food on the table in the next several summers or not. [And that refers not to countries that actually face food shortages now, but to the UK, which does not and is not likely to on that timescale.] They don’t understand that yet, with few exceptions.”

Read delineates XR from “the public”, as though the former have embraced “the truth”, and the latter have not. This approach is an obstacle to building a movement for climate justice and social justice.

We need a sweeping alliance, not a sect

In the UK, in my view, we need an alliance that unites all who are ready to do something to tackle dangerous climate change, whether or not they support XR; whether or not they are prepared to get arrested; and whether or not they are disaster environmentalists. In fact this alliance needs also to embrace those fighting on related issues; it needs to make climate change an issue in already-existing movements for social justice.

There are community energy projects and co-ops; other environmentalist groups; people in Yorkshire dealing with the consequences of recent floods, who with good reason fear that these may have been linked to climate change; people who for years have been resisting construction of a third runway at Heathrow; Labour Party members who pushed the “green new deal” motion through at their recent conference; trade unionists battling against the false dichotomy of “jobs vs climate” pedalled by some union leaders.

Moreover, there are also millions of people who repeatedly tell opinion polls that they see climate change as a major issue, and for whatever reason have not yet found a way to do something about it.

And there are the hundreds of thousands of school pupils, who – together with millions in other countries – have repeatedly joined the Fridays for Future strikes.

Read supports the school strikers. But his suggestion that the next step for these students – not “children” or “kids”, as he calls them – is to join XR’s rebellion, and get arrested, is presumptuous and absurd. He claimed that the arrest of minors in Birmingham, Alabama, was a crucial turning point in the US civil rights movement, and continued:

When there are arrests and imprisonments of children alongside adults, the game will have changed, and the authorities will be placed by our dilemma-actions in ever more difficult action-dilemmas: whatever action they take will look very bad.

These are the words of a would-be leader of a sect. A particular formula for activity – participating in direct action in such a way as to court arrest – is laid down from on high, and young people coming into political activity for the first time urged to follow it.

Why this activity and not something else? Why not a call to take matters into their own hands; to be creative, to expand their movement in the way they decide, to workplaces or to wherever else they see fit; to organise collectively inside schools and out; to take over control of space and of their time; to push the adults in their communities to act?

I don’t know if any school students responded to Read’s appeals. I hope they are finding their own ways to build on the huge success of the strike on 20 September. Judging from the speeches made that day at the demonstration in London, Read and others could themselves learn a great deal politically from representatives of the UK Student Climate Network, the Wretched of the Earth and others … learn, provided they are not too busy “teaching” those who are, in many ways, miles ahead of all of us.

Finally, the essential alliance needed by movements in rich countries is with the huge movements on related issues in the global south. How are we going to forge links with those who, for decades, have resisted the international oil companies in the Niger Delta? With indigenous peoples who are combating those companies’, and mining companies’, projects that desecrate their land in a string of countries in the global south? With communities dealing with the consequences of flooding, wildfires and other consequences of climate change? And, probably of greatest relevance, with migrants who – pushed to abandon their communities by ecological and climate stresses, among other factors – are making their way to countries of the global north?

Here, the contribution of disaster environmentalism, leading exponents of which are in favour of immigration controls in rich countries, is completely negative, as I argued in the first part of this article.

The school students’ movement is already moving forward in this regard, as young people in an increasing number of Asian, African and Latin American countries are taking part. The adults could do with catching up. GL, 5 December 2019

Download the whole article as a PDF here

Back to Disaster environmentalism 1: looking the future in the face

Back to Disaster environmentalism 2: roads to a post-growth economy


[1] Rupert Read, Truth and its consequences, from section on “Our coming leap into the unknown”

[2] Rupert Read, Truth and its consequences, several sections

[3] Roger Hallam, “The Civil Resistance Model”, in This is Not a Drill, p. 102

[4] Rupert Read, Truth and its consequences, footnote no. 39

[5] Selina Todd writes in The People: the rise and fall of the working class (London: John Murray, 2014), p. 120: “To call the second world war ‘the people’s war’ does not mean that Britain became classless. The government sought to win the war by demanding ever greater sacrifice and effort from the workers in the factories and from ordinary troops. Only when the crisis absolutely demand it did they oblige middle- and upper-class people to share in some of these sacrifices.”

2 Responses to Disaster environmentalism 3: what to do

  1. Philip Ward says:

    Thank you for this vital series of articles. The potential morphing of disaster environmentalism into eco-fascism and the unwillingness of some environmentalists to challenge the capitalist order was I think first raised by Hans Magnus Enzensberger in his Critique of Political Ecology in 1974. It looks like we are now seeing what he warned us about gain more traction and your rebuttal of this way of thinking and acting is very timely. I drew on Enzensberger’s work my first article on climate change in 1989:


  2. […] final post ‘Disaster environmentalism: what to do’ explores the political implications of the positions outlined in the first two posts and takes a […]

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