Why Extinction Rebellion won't save the world
Extinction Rebellion was established in the United Kingdom in October 2018 as a movement that aims to use tactics of nonviolent direct action in order to avert the effects of climate change. Since its formation, it has rapidly spread to at least 35 other countries, including New Zealand, who have recently carried a few headline-grabbing protests, with the promise of more to come.
Aotearoa Workers Solidarity Movement are encouraged by the fact that the movement has managed to tap into the sense of alarm over climate change and mobilised many people not previously involved in protest, and we do not want to undermine the important work that they are doing, but we feel that there is a conversation that needs to be had about some of their demands.
While we support the means of using direct action tactics it is their ends that needs greater examination. Extinction Rebellion is essentially a reformist movement, whose earnest activists lack a real vision of what is needed if we are serious about halting the damage to our environment. Instead, they are pinning their hopes on merely making adjustments to the present system which is destroying our world.
We argue that this isn’t enough, and the only way to effectively campaign to halt climate change is to impart a true picture of a capitalism whose insatiable hunger for profit is not only undermining the working and living conditions of hundreds of millions of working people but the basis of life itself. The future of our planet depends on building a livable environment and a movement powerful enough to displace capitalism.
Extinction Rebellion Aotearoa NZ are guilty of thinking that their demands can create an idyllic capitalism, managed by the state, that can end the destruction being caused to the Earth’s environment They see their role as just needing to make enough noise to wake up political and business leaders. Theirs is a view which sees capitalism moving towards sustainability and zero growth. It is the idea that capitalism can be reformed to become a green system. In this model of capitalist society lifestyles change and infrastructure are reformed while technical green advances are applied. It supposes that all would be well if we all bought organic food, never took a holiday anywhere which would involve flying, and put on more clothes in winter rather than turn up the heating. Green capitalism presumes it will be enough to replace fossil fuels with renewables, whilst leaving the overall system intact.
We argue that such a scenario completely ignores the way capitalism operates, and must operate, and is therefore hopelessly utopian. The present capitalist system is driven by the struggle for profit. The present system’s need for infinite growth and the finite resources of Earth stand in contradiction to each other. Successful operation of the system means growth or maximising profit, it means that nature as a resource will be exploited ruthlessly. The present destruction of the planet is rooted in the capitalist system of production and cannot be solved without a complete break with capitalism. Yet ending capitalism is something that Extinction Rebellion Aotearoa NZ does not appear to be prepared to countenance, they are only attacking the symptoms rather than the cause. They see their green capitalism as a type of capitalism worth fighting for.
We, rather, see the need to create a different form of social organisation before the present system destroys us all. The entire system of production based on wage labour and capital needs to be replaced with a system which produces for human needs. All the half measures of converting aspects of capitalism to limit the damage to the environment, while the fundamentals of capitalism remain in place, are just wishful thinking, and to pretend they could solve our problems is deception on a grand scale.
The fact is that before production can be carried out in ecologically-acceptable ways capitalism has to go. Production for profit and the uncontrollable drive to accumulate more and more capital mean that capitalism is by its very nature incapable of taking ecological considerations into account properly, and to be honest it is futile to try to make it do so.
A sustainable society that is capable of addressing climate change can only be achieved within a world where all the Earth’s resources, natural and industrial, are under the common ownership of us all, as well as being under grassroots democratic control at a local and regional level. If we are going to organise production in an ecologically sound way we can either plead with the powers that be or we can take democratic control of production ourselves, and the reality is to truly control production we have to own and control the means of production. So, a society of common ownership and democratic control is the only framework within which the aims of Extinction Rebellion can be realised. In reality, to achieve their wish of halting climate collapse, those within Extinction Rebellion should be anarchists.
One of the demands of Extinction Rebellion is a call for participatory democracy, and yet they also talk of giving governments emergency war-time powers. It’s not altogether clear what they mean by this. Does it mean, for example, seizing fossil fuel industries and shutting them down? Enforcing new low-carbon, low-travel, and low-meat shifts in consumption? Or imposing sanctions against companies or countries trafficking in fossil fuels? Will it see imprisonment for those whose protest when they feel their interests may be compromised by green government legislation?
In the past, warlike conditions and major disasters typically were seen to justify the temporary abolition of democratic liberties, but how long will they last for this fight, what will be the endpoint, or will the special war-time powers last indefinitely? Would such a suspension of democracy be easy to reverse anyway? These are big questions, and, for those of us that value the limited freedoms we have, they need to be addressed.
Giving more power to the state is also a case of putting all your eggs in one basket as there is no one simple response to fixing climate change. Climate change will bring many issues, those that we can have a go at predicting, but also many unforeseen. Increasing the powers of the state reduces its ability to be flexible and capable of learning from policy mistakes. The fight against climate change must be associated with greater local democracy. We need more democracy, strengthening local and regional capacities to respond to climate change. For those in Extinction Rebellion who think that there can be only one pathway to addressing climate change, the erosion of democracy might seem to be “convenient.” History, however, tells us that suppression of democracy undermines the capacity of societies to solve problems.
Those campaigning with Extinction Rebellion are no doubt sincere and caring people who want something different for themselves and future generations. In their own lifestyles they probably have made genuine changes which are in line with a more ecologically sustainable way of living. So have we, but we are well aware that our individual lifestyle changes are not going to change the fundamental nature of the social system which is damaging the planet. Millions of us might give up using products which destroy the environment, but what effect do we really have in comparison with the minority who own and control the multinational corporations. Just 100 companies have been responsible for 71% of global emissions since 1988. They, and all businesses, have an interest in keeping their costs down, and profits up. If their profits come before the long-term interests of people, who can blame them for sacrificing our needs? They can act no other way.
We do not have faith that capitalists, or their parliamentary representatives, can act in time to limit climate change in a meaningful way, but when we make a call for revolution, the answer we mostly get is that the lesser evil of piecemeal reforms will take less time to achieve than our grand anarchist aims. However, we think it is an ill-advised attitude to take that small improvements are more worthy of support than realisable big ones. There is unlikely ever to be a government passing meaningful green legislation. Governments may pass a few minor reforms to appease green voters, the business owners themselves may realise that some of their brands may be harmed by a lack of environmental concern, and greenwash their product, but ultimately these acts will be a sticking plaster when what is required is major surgery.
If anyone concerned with Extinction Rebellion read this and grasps the impossibility of what they are asking for, then we would say it’s time to keep the methods of direct action that you are advocating, but change the demands. If Extinction Rebellion ever wants their arguments to carry any force, then they need to campaign to abolish capitalism and create a system of grassroots democracy.
In the UK a Green Anti-Capitalist Front has been created to work alongside Extinction Rebellion but with a greater focus on the capitalist roots of climate catastrophe. We feel that such a coalition is needed here in Aotearoa / New Zealand. If anyone is interested in working with us to create such a group we can be contacted via our e-mail address.