[Sequel to the March 2017 piece titled Don’t Just Wait For a Movement.]
The final piece in Rebecca Solnit’s collection of essays advocating a positive approach to tackling what often feel like overwhelming problems, Hope in the Dark, is quite memorably titled Everything’s Coming Together While Everything Falls Apart. In this excellent essay, Solnit says,
“… I began to contemplate how human beings half a century or a century from now will view us, who lived in the era when climate change was recognized and there was so much that could be done about it, so much more than we have done. They may hate us, despite us, see us as the people who squandered their patrimony, like drunkards gambling away the family fortune that, in this case, is everyone’s everywhere and everything, the natural world itself when it was in good working order. They will regard us as people who rearranged the china when the house was on fire.”
I find the metaphor in the final sentence particularly striking: people rearranging the china while the house is on fire. To me this suggests the image of someone who knows that something is terribly wrong and is trying to stay busy to keep it off their mind. This is an easy place to arrive at. The scientific reports and news pieces on climate change often seem so overwhelming that it feels like the only rational response is despair. Indeed, eco-anxiety is a widespread and real problem, brought on by the feeling that nothing you can do will do anything at all to fix the colossal mess that we have got ourselves into, along with the enormous sense of responsibility that comes along with the privilege of living in this era where the onset of catastrophic climate change could still be halted.
Attempting to tackle global problems through changes to one’s own lifestyle is a profoundly individualistic approach. However, it is something which is encouraged on one level or another by governments, companies, friends, family and this very blog: recycle more, fly less, eat less meat, etc.
One article suggests that we have the rise of neoliberalism to blame for having such an instinct. Neoliberalism reduces society to a collection of individuals, also referred to as consumers. If people act as consumers – rather than citizens – then it becomes difficult for them to arrange any sort of resistance to the campaigns and actions of powerful organisations, meaning that they just have to accept new laws, higher prices or worse working conditions as a fact of life. As remarked in the article linked above,
“We are all Thatcher’s children”.
Moreover, when it is down to people to make changes, responsibility is shifted from those with direct power onto those who do not. Greenhouse gas emitting companies and lobbied politicians are able to go on without drawing too much attention to themselves.
But personal changes are only half of the story.
Of course, reducing your carbon footprint, making considered purchases and accounting for your past emissions are things that we all need to do if climate change is to halted. But alone these things will not solve the problem. There are necessary changes to the systems by which energy is provided to homes and businesses, everyday products are manufactured and people are transported which require more time than it takes to make comparatively small personal changes. The average citizen is not directly able to make these ‘bigger’ changes happen. However, encouraging systematic change to occur as soon as possible is becoming increasingly important.
In Everything’s Coming Together While Everything Falls Apart, Solnit goes on say,
“They will think we were insane to worry about celebrities and fleeting political scandals and whether we had nice bodies; they will think the newspapers should have had a gigantic black box above the fold of the front page every day saying ‘Here are some stories about other things BUT CLIMATE IS BIGGER THAN THIS’ and every news broadcast should have opened with the equivalent. They will think that we should have thrown our bodies in the way of the engines of destruction, raised our voices to the heavens, stopped everything until the destruction stopped.”
In the second quote, a path forwards is revealed. We can stop rearranging the china and instead do something about the rising fires, if only we are willing to throw ourselves into the cause.
Earlier this year, I read George Monbiot’s excellent book ‘Out of the wreckage’, which is a pseudo-sequel to his collection of essays ‘How did we get into this mess?’. Whilst the earlier collection took account of the numerous ways in which humans are damaging the natural world and each other, the new book provides both hope and suggested ways out of crisis.
Monbiot details how many societal and ecological problems faced today are either caused or exacerbated by the degradation of community. Without strong communal bonds, those experiencing injustice find it difficult to gather sufficient support to free themselves therefrom. Only by working together can progress be made. This much is evident from historic protests such as the campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline, which has been stopped numerous times and pushed back years, largely by local direct action.
The role of social media in all this is unclear. On the one hand, it is difficult to see how the replacement of physical encounters and conversations with virtual ones can lead to friendships of the same strength and resilience. On the other hand, social media has proved on multiple occasions to be an effective platform for organising large numbers of people at relatively short notice, or across vast distances.
There is no longer a need to wait for a movement. There are already large movements sweeping across the globe, uniting in their stance on stopping climate change and its causes within our society. From the Friday strikes and protests of School Strikes for Climate to the direct action of Extinction Rebellion (XR), people are rising up together to insist that change happens where there has so far been negligence. In the former case, the action has been led by teenagers who are deeply concerned about the future world they are to inherit. It is time that older generations joined them in calling for the systematic change which is necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Acts of civil disobedience grab the attention of the media where protests have largely failed for decades. Typically, a protest involves a large number of people being sufficiently frustrated about a particular issue that they are willing to travel (potentially across the country) to a city, where they will gather, wave placards and chant, whilst knowledgeable folk make speeches. Eventually, the crowd will go for a march around a few nearby blocks and ultimately most attendees will go home feeling like so much potential energy was wasted.
What is different with the school strikes and acts of XR is that they are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. When there are multiple children missing from the classroom or your commute is delayed because someone glued themselves to the train, it isn’t quite so easy as to just pretend you didn’t see. Research into past non-violent protests suggests that once 3.5% of the population is on board with a cause, it becomes impossible to ignore. Thus far, no movement which has reached this many people has failed in securing its aims. There already many, many people wholeheartedly onboard with the campaign to halt climate change, but a few more are needed yet…
If you do nothing else, join the global strike next month. One day off work isn’t so much to ask, for the future of the human race.
 Everything’s Coming Together While Everything Falls Apart – Rebecca Solnit. [Essay can be found in the collection Hope in the Dark.]
 Out of the Wreckage – George Monbiot
Header image: source