Extinction Rebellion – some caveats

Can Extinction Rebellion save the ecosphere in time? At 84, I have never previously risked arrest, or worse. Demos aplenty, but never NVDA.

I joined what is now the Green Party in 1973, when it had no policies or political orientation, merely exactly the same purpose as Extinction Rebellion has now. I thought, this has to have a political answer. I still think so, but as Molly  Scott Cato MEP has said that is demonstrably not enough on its own.

I was naïve in 1973. I now understand better the enormity of what PEOPLE (now the Green Party) had taken on, but I was jolted by two books in particular: The Political Brain, by Drew Westen (2005), and The Origin of Capitalism: a longer View by Ellen Meiksins Wood (Verso, 2002).

It is now clear to me why, although economic growth is already damaging the ecosphere, the thin shell where life is possible, and threatens to do so beyond repair, it remains the unquestioned orthodoxy. Is Extinction Rebellion fully prepared for the forces which it will encounter?

There are two interacting problems: public attitudes, and the actions of those in positions of economic power. The thesis of The Political Brain is that emotions always defeat rational arguments and that humans, in common with many other species, are hard wired to avoid loss.

For most of the last 200,000 years biologically modern humans were able to assume growth, because mutations had given them the ability to exploit environments in ways their hominid ancestors could not. Once expansion becomes the norm, anything else feels like loss.

Rationally, zero population  growth would have made sense eventually, but emotionally that was out of the question. So less than 10,000 years ago several societies (independently) tried agriculture – a desperate expedient.

In A Green History of the World (Sinclair Stevenson, 1991) points out that

Agriculture is most definitely not an easier option than hunting and gathering. It requires far more effort in clearing land, sowing, tending and harvesting crops, and looking after domestic animals. It does not necessarily provide more nutritious food, nor does it offer greater security because it selects and depends on a far smaller range of plants and animals.

The one advantage agriculture has is that in return for more effort it can provide more food from a smaller area of land.

The explanation that best fits modern knowledge is increasing population pressure.

A logical answer is that any individual who is expected to lower their expectations must be given a sense of security. The unconditional basic (citizens’) income has not yet caught on emotionally. I answer practical difficulties in my weblog ‘Pages’, but unless someone in Extinction Rebellion has a better idea, we shall make heavy weather of loss aversion.

But Ellen Wood leads us to the more devastating part of the problem. After criticizing both pro and anti theories for the origin of capitalism, her insight is that the introduction of money instead of goods in kind, in late medieval England, gave rise to opportunities which became imperatives.

Those opportunities have given us the modern world we live in. Why stop now? Answer: because the competitive strategies to take maximum advantage of opportunities for growth become the worst possible strategies as Limits to Growth are reached.

Consider hydraulic fracturing. When Limits was published in 1972, the oil was thought to be running out. Oil is actually far more plentiful than coal, but extraction needs a technology which allows enough methane to escape to cause runaway heating of the atmosphere. But if company A does not frack, company B will, so this new opportunity is an imperative. The capitalists are as trapped as the rest of us.

This logic underpins the entire industrial infrastructure. If we are to stop environmental destruction before it I too late, we must all use fewer cars, fridges planes . . .

China now has large numbers of iron foundries, and the power stations to run them. The stark reality of the Tragedy of the Commons is that no one country, or industry, can reduce output unilaterally, as Venezuela has accidentally demonstrated.

To spell this out bluntly, blocking fracking anywhere will be seen by this government as harming the country’s short term interests. Until all other such opportunities cease to be exploited, that view is correct. At Orgreave a determined body of workers failed  to save their livelihoods. Can Extinction Rebellion match that?

The attack on David Attenborough by George Monbiot is for me particularly saddening. We should all be on the same side. Attenborough is at least half right. The basic income may not amount to the other half, but if Extinction Rebellion is to succeed, ordinary people do need something to ensure downsizing is not frightening.





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