So following the R&R Debate, the Just Stop Oil wagon is lurching into motion with a round of recruitment talks. I was intrigued to see how they'd pitch it, so I've watched a video of Larch Maxey, well respected serious activist (and ex-academic scientist) deliver The Talk in Falmouth a week or so ago.
The first thing that struck me was a reminder of a comment a friend made when I was delivering "Heading for Extinction" (HfE) talks for XR a couple of years ago. He came along as a fellow traveller to see what this XR thing was all about - at that stage we hadn't done the first London Rebellion, just a Declaration of Rebellion proclaimed in the Town Square and nailed to Launceston Town Hall doors. His immediate comment after the talk was "Why do I feel I've just been to a recruitment meeting for a cult". Of course I protested that its not like that - there's no formal membership, just a common set of principles (including Tell the Truth - more on that below) and everyone is crew etc etc. He came along to some events after, but was basically more at home in Rupert's Moderate Flank and doing good traditional greenie stuff in that context.
Anyway watching Larch's introduction I could see quite clearly what he had meant - it did feel a bit like a cult recruitment drive. All the hand wringing about 'some people will find this material difficult', and 'we're all in denial to some extent'. The building of a common identity in the room against an external threat, and the rest of the world may be against us and hate us because they don't get it. And so on.
Ok, maybe we should let that pass. In truth it is after all a recruitment drive, and it does rely on a common (cult) identity to define itself.
The first half of the talk was essentially the same climate crises material beefed up by the latest science and with a strong thread of the need to "tell the truth". To unpick the words, and also to understand that the science community itself doesn't actually speak its truth in public (vested interest in not rocking the boat that is powered by the academic treadmill - it's no good saying there are only four (now three) years left to avoid catastrophe when you've got bills to pay and grant proposals to write tomorrow).
The truth from the current scientific understanding of the world eco-system is indeed alarming/terrifying - and if you start to delve into the short-term consequences in practice for humans on the ground even more so, as Larch nicely illustrated. Larch quoted a recent authoritative paper showing we have less than four years to make significant changes in our habits, and went on to discuss another paper spelling out the on the human ground consequences of a +2deg world - and it ain't pretty.
Its when he then tries to use historical data from social science to back up the core contention that non-violent civil disobedience and disruption can be effective in this situation that it all starts to fall apart for me. It seems to me that they are not in fact speaking the truth about the social consequences and the necessary actions to bring about a change.
The same old tropes about the effectiveness of NVDA civil disobedience that we were using two years ago in the HfE talks were trotted out- but those nags are burnt out bags of bones only good for the knackers yard. This time even the fall of Apartheid in South Africa was used, so lets unpick the examples.
Firstly, as I noted in response to the R&R session, in none of these cases did the outcome involve an overturning of the old order. In the case of the human crisis with changes that we, and our civilization, are causing in the stability of the world eco-system, there is now no way that a human global civilization living within the bounds of planetary stability will be anything like the existing order. That train left the station some decades ago.
What NVDA can demonstrably achieve is change that doesn't upset everything - there is always some (in fact most) of the old order remaining intact and accommodating to the change.
My contention is that there are three pillars that a human civilization is built upon
- a social order - the mesh of peer to peer relationships that form a society between communities and individuals.
- a political order - the means by which decisions are taken and executed both within the society and regarding its external relations
- a cultural order - the ideas and beliefs and their expression through which the society communicates with itself
Any particular change - giving women the vote, giving equal rights to all citizens, changing the autonomy of different elements of society, even extending to self government for colonies, will impact on one or more of the three pillars. But so long as it doesn't completely dismantle two of the pillars the civilization can repair itself and sail on into the future.
The truth we have to acknowledge is that the changes required to accommodate to our changing world will dramatically impact all three pillars - there is simply no way that I can see that the existing civilzation can survive more or less intact. Apart from anything else the technologies which are currently used to maintain each of the pillars are simply not going to be available in a sustainable human future. Every aspect is probably incompatible with a sustainable future.
This is the truth that no-one seems to be prepared to admit yet, and that is one of the fundamental flaws in both the XR radical flank and the StopOil more radical flank.
What flows from that truth has to be a recognition that NVDA is simply not going to cut the mustard.
A further truth that has to be acknowledged, is that all of the presumed successful NVDA movements actually had a violent wing associated with them. In some cases it remained an implicit threat that assisted the accommodation of the required change, but in other cases, like that of South Africa it was absolutely central. I do not believe that apartheid would have ended when it did without the actions of the ANC and its rebel army.
Which fits with my thesis, as to get rid of apartheid certainly involved massive changes to all three pillars - the social, the political and the cultural. What the NVDA element did manage to achieve was a relatively peaceful transition once the change was inevitable. The same can be said of Indian independence - without Gandhi's side of the rebellion the transition wouldn't have happened as peacefully, but without the violent wing it wouldn't have happened at all. Here the violence also included the British Empire expending itself in the battle against Nazism in Europe and so not having the strength to continue to withstand the demands of Indian mutineers. Gandhi simply provided an acceptable face the Empire could deal with without itself loosing face. Even in the case of US civil rights the threat of the Black Panthers and rioting in the cities was a significant factor in Kennedy's change of tack .
So whilst they are following the silence and saying significant changes must be achieved within 3 years, the truths that I do not hear Just Stop Oil uttering are
- This Civilization is incompatible with a sustainable future for humans. It has to end as soon as possible.
- The changes required can not be achieved in the required timescale without extreme levels of violence against the material fabric of this civilization
and there is probably a third truth that has not been fully explored and that is the need to establish what is the size of a sustainable human population within a thriving ecosystem on a sphere of diameter 8,000 miles whose surface is 70% covered with water. (etc etc). Which might lead to further difficult questions if it transpires that the number is less than 7 billion and it has to be achieved in less than three generations (70 odd years till the end of this century).
The immediate need is for some people to step outside and start to take action to permanently disable the most toxic parts of our human infrastructure. Is not a question of blockading oil refineries - rather of bombing them.