Remember why: A note from my past self in Extinction Rebellion

This post is time travel. It’s a message from the past.

Really. I am writing this in mid-August. The sun is hot. The days are slow and lethargic. The Czechs call this season “cucumber season,” because in our short growing season mid-to-late August is the only season when cucumbers are ripe and so many people spend their time pickling.

My pickling cucumbers all died of mold, so my children will go without pickles this winter. Such is life.

But the other thing about this season is anticipation. And this year that is more true than ever before. We’re working up to what we grandiosely call “the Autumn Rebellion.” It is supposed to be a massive worldwide uprising of people demanding truth, justice and action to avoid ecological disaster.

Creative Commons image by Carl Nenzén Lovén

Creative Commons image by Carl Nenzén Lovén

In London, Paris, Berlin and other western cities, it is supposed to bring transport and industry to a screeching halt. It is supposed shake the major state and corporate structures to their foundations and wake up their CEOs and legislators to the crisis. In smaller and less progressive places, like my own Prague, it is supposed to be the first major rallying cry, the days of love and courage with crowds of protesters, arrests and media coverage.

That’s the plan.

In the midst of a cucumber season with no cucumbers, I am filled with a bit of trepidation. Every day brings a fresh wave of new Extinction Rebellion volunteers. More than anything else, I fear they will be disappointed. They have finally risen, most for their first time doing anything even remotely activist. It’s the first real rising of public demand for change in a generation here. There were small protests, sure, but nothing that captured the hearts and minds of regular people beyond a committed (eccentric) few.

Beyond that, I am putting in far too much time and effort, more than is good for me. And I’ve already encountered some of the social ostracism I dread in any kind of group situation. I can’t help but look ahead with hope and anxiety side by side.

What will the first weeks of October bring? Will our dreams be realized? Will real change come at last? Will it be worth all the effort and sacrifice? Will anything happen at all?

That got me to thinking about sending a message to my future self. Because I know how hard it can be—in the midst of things—to remember the most basic reasons why we throw ourselves into something like this. I could so easily get caught up in worry, get freaked out over failures or be torn up over social rejection. So, if that’s the case, I hope this may help.

Here are the reasons I am doing this:

  1. All last winter I was so depressed I couldn’t move. Every day I took a nap for an hour and a half or two hours because nothing seemed worth it and my body and mind were saturated with grief and despair. When I found Extinction Rebellion that changed overnight. Finally there was something worth doing.

  2. I wasn’t in it to win. When I first joined in April there were ten active people in the entire Czech Republic. They were nice people, but I didn’t really think they could have hundreds or thousands of people active by the autumn. Neither did they. They just said that because it was a sort of goal to put out there. “A thousand people in the fall,” that’s what they said. But I was in it for the moment, for those ten and for whoever came each day.

  3. My role in Extinction Rebellion quickly became that of hearth mother. I am among the older members and that’s a new experience for me, the first time I’ve ever been considered “old” by any standard. I also know how to cook. It’s fun to bring cake, carrot sticks and homemade hummus to a meeting and hear the cries of genuine gratitude from a dozen twenty-something vegans who can’t get a decent meal most places in this city. All of my work has been about feeding the earth defenders, holding hands, nurturing, reassuring, even hugging, as well as teaching empathy and first aid. And no matter what happens in the end, that endless, nearly invisible work will have gone on the same way a mother’s nurturing work goes without guarantees, just because it is needed.

  4. We knew that a thousand people wouldn’t change government climate policy, even in one tiny little Eastern European country. We were doing it because it was the only reasonable and logical thing to do. We did it to be able to get up, look at ourselves in the mirror and not sob with shame and rage.

  5. So, now we have 250 active rebels and it’s August. While I was a raw recruit in April, I am now considered a hardened elder and as such I have to play politics and fend off criticism. But I still have to get up every morning and look in the mirror. So, my reasons haven’t changed that much.

Some people have great hopes for this fall. All around the world people are gearing up and hoping for a massive uprising to force governments and corporations into real action, so that we can survive climate change.

I am among those who hope. I cannot help it. But at the same time I know that no plan survives contact with reality and that things could go haywire in a dozen different ways. It could be far bigger than we expect. It could get ugly with police or football rowdies or impatient drivers. It could be depressingly apathetic and small. We don’t know.

I also know the foibles and imperfections of humans. Extinction Rebellion has built a structure meant to foster a regenerative culture with equity, inclusion and ethics at its core. But still the people running it are just as human as the rest, coming from and living in a society that is toxic, ego-driven and unethical. Will this structure, which looks so good on a flip chart, hold? Will we live up to our ideals?

This is my note to my future self. Keep to your values. Welcome each one. Defend the vulnerable. Stand in your own strength. Seek authenticity.

Remember your reasons. Remember that we do this beyond hope, not for what it might bring in the future but for our self-respect here and now. Don’t lose sight of empathy. non-violence and love.

I will publish this at the midst of it—just before the full moon—when I will likely be too busy to write. It will be a note from the past to myself and to all those working hard the same way.

P.S. This is present-day me again. I’m glad for the reminders. There are now 400 organizers. If they all bring a friend or two, we’ll have a thousand at the big event on Saturday. But the most famous Czech pop singer has died and his memorial service will compete with our actions for media coverage. A massive soccer match will draw six thousand drunk Brits and who knows how many drunk Czechs to the city. And the local Extinction Rebellion group is fractured by factions banning this or that person, including me, from key information channels. Much of it looks like utter chaos. And yet, I have vegan chocolate cake, a fresh batch of hummus, camping chairs, a tent and first aid supplies. Come what may.

You can't force focus, but you can nurture it

What would it take to realistically face the climate crisis?

I’ll tell you. Not that much and yet it would take a huge, unaccustomed effort.

It would take people who have a yard digging it up and planting vegetables. It would take going to massive protests demanding science-based energy policy after work instead of going home and kicking back in front of a screen. It would take riding a bike to work even in the cold autumn rain and sleet. It would take remembering to bring a cloth bag when you go shopping. It would take going back up the stairs to turn off the light you forgot… every time. It would take fixing that old heating system, not next week but right now. It would take researching new recipes that have more legumes than meat.

In short, it would take constant focus, a million small actions and talking about it with everyone all the time as our highest priority in all the small moments of the day.

This is our unavoidable reality. Only about a quarter of our personal carbon footprint (that’s basically your personal contribution to climate change from being alive in an industrialized society) can be influenced by our small daily actions. BUT constant focus on this crisis, talking about it and demanding systemic change does matter and does help.

Creative Commons image by Jumbero of Flickr.com

Creative Commons image by Jumbero of Flickr.com

In five short years, Germany went from being a major coal country to having a full 40 percent of its energy come from wind, solar and water, pushing coal into second place. That was only achieved by the incessant and fierce demands of regular people who never became famous like Greta Thunberg.

It can be done and we know what it will take. The tough part, of course, is that pretty much everyone has to focus on this for it to work. And that looks like a very tall order when a quarter of the people in a lot of countries still choose to believe ads by oil companies over scientists, and even those who “get it,” don’t get it because they don’t think about it unless a pollster specifically asks and they certainly don’t act on it.

When have people ever focused on something like this?

They did during WWII. In fact, a lot of the things we need to do now would be similar to those civilian wartime efforts—conserve resources, redirect industry, create jobs through planful programs and grow food in every yard. People talked about it every day and thought about it most hours of the day. It was stressful. Focus does that.

The Civil Rights movement was similar for those who were involved or directly impacted. Humanity pretty much hasn’t achieved anything massive or worth having without that kind of focus by at least some people. But it has occasionally happened. And it could happen now.

Except… except that the focus isn’t there. Focus is a kind of energy inside human beings. When it’s there we do amazing things. That whole thing about a mother being able to lift a car off of her trapped child—superhuman strength and all that? All that is is extreme focus. Every fiber, all the energy in a body, focused with laser-like intensity in one moment on one thing.

And this is a matter of focus too, though a bit broader and definitely longer lasting.

So how do we get people to focus on the climate crisis? Obviously, one of the problems with it is that because most of the threat is a decade or two in the future and realistic threats of apocalyptic scenarios are a generation away. What we have now is mostly theory with a few examples of major weather disasters, which are mostly someplace distant (and if they aren’t distant then you probably have a lot of very necessary survival tasks distracting you). It’s hard to sustain focus on something that is distant in time or place and it’s difficult to focus on something that it takes a chart to explain.

But there is also the despair factor.

One of the reasons I became particularly focused on the climate crisis this year was that I discovered a reason for hope—a very specific and concrete reason, a local Extinction Rebellion group. When I found that group and saw that the members were serious and dedicated to both responsible action to bring societal focus to the climate crisis and to the kind of social inclusion that will actually make it worthwhile, I essentially stopped needing to sleep.

I wasn’t forcing myself to focus. It was easy. i had to force my body and mind to relax in order to make the effort sustainable. But the actual focus, the effort involved, felt effortless for months.

Then a strange thing happened. Whereas this group had begun as an oasis of positive focus, a thread of infighting, egoism and social exclusion entered into it. It happens in groups all the time.

Extinction Rebellion has safeguards against this sort of thing—conflict resolution mechanisms and decentralization to avoid power trips, but there were those who argued our group was too small and too fragile for these things to be implemented. In trying to protect what we had built, the safeguards were sacrificed, first for just awhile and then for months. Authoritarian methods were allowed, as a “necessary evil” and conflict resolution was put off indefinitely with vulnerable people being sidelined.

Most of the group is still going strong and still an excellent group. But the abandonment of these safeguards in those places where problems arose took the wind right out of my sails. I can already see the cost and I know what the eventual price will be, if this is not turned around.

I’m still involved, still keeping up the responsibilities I took on. But it isn’t effortless anymore. I have to force myself to do it. My focus is broken. I’m not entirely burnt out physically, just unmotivated.

I still have my personal focus on the climate and ecological crisis. I still do my garden and all the other little daily things that need to be done. I still talk about it and think about it most of every day. But I can understand why others don’t have that focus. A lot of people see no hope in the climate crisis or at least nothing truly useful they can do personally.

And I don’t entirely blame them. This is a massive problem and there is a lot of discouraging propaganda out there, either confusing people about the very clear scientific conclusions giving us existential warnings or pushing crippling despair.

I look at the historical accounts of times when large groups of people truly did focus on something important. There were exceptions, of course. There were people who didn’t pitch in or who took advantage, but vast numbers of people did focus. And I know we can’t force that kind of focus.

Sure, we need to eventually legislate conservation rules and we definitely need public figures, institutions and the media to start intensively telling the truth about the crisis. But we also can and must nurture the kind of focus we need.

That means acting with integrity. It means practicing the good things we talk about and following through with commitments. It means supporting one another and putting aside self-serving motives most of the time. It means, in short, being the people we always wanted to be.

Courage from wherever you stand

If there is one thing I wish I could give my readers these days it is the feeling that the climate crisis is like a war.

For some it is easy to see it as a war of us against them—us, the ordinary people who mostly want to do something about it, against them, the greedy one-percenters who run most of the industry and make most of the political decisions. But it isn’t at its core an us-versus-them war.

It’s an us-versus-ignorance war. Slowly the ignorance is falling away and we will focus more and more on fighting to mitigate the collapse of our ecological life-support system. But still it will be an us-versus-ignorance war. It will just be against the effects created by the ignorance of the past.

Even the wealthy have to eat and even if they may have bunkers, there is no possible future in which climate collapse goes forward unchecked and they don’t seriously regret not paying attention earlier. It is still primarily about ignorance. “Ignor-ance” has its roots in willfully ignoring and denying reality. That is what we are up against—the denial ignorance of the wealthy, the misled ignorance of the poor and the despairing and apathetic ignorance of everyone in between.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

Plenty of people are saying that we need to respond to the climate crisis the way we responded to World War Two. It’s true on so many levels. The climate emergency is already claiming hundreds of thousands of lives and it will soon claim millions and then billions, if we do nothing. The scale is at least as massive as the second world war was and it will reach into every person’s life just as that war did. It will require many personal sacrifices, political focus, economic manipulation and social solidarity, just as that war did.

It already requires a great deal of courage.

Of course, there is the courage of people protesting and putting their bodies in the way of fossil fuel extraction, processing and transport. There are the people chained or glued to government or corporate doorways. There are those sitting down in front of police wielding chemical weapons and people standing in the middle of intersections, demanding that other humans do indeed stop business as usual, stop driving, pay attention and treat science as a real-world matter.

Some people look at these protesters, often dressed up or in a excited, bonded group, and assume it must be fun or they must be in it for the adventure. And there may be some who are in it for adventure the first time around. But a lot of people are doing it again and again. They are willing to be roughed up by irritable police on extra shifts and willing to spend long, cold nights in improvised cells. They know what they are in for.

That is courage. I’ve seen a lot of people grasping courage these days, more than I think I’ve ever seen in my lifetime.

There’s the courage of a young mother, so scared she’s trembling, who he accepts the role of press spokesperson for an action anyway, because all the people without babies are either on the blockade line or doing risky conflict deescalation work. There is no one else who can address the TV cameras. So she does it, even though she’s never been an activist before.

There’s the fourteen-year-old girl who signed up to learn to be a field medic with her parents’ consent, willing to wade into fields of tear gas and distribute clothes soaked in antacid to people gasping for breath. There’s the courage of those worried parents who know this is something she has to do.

There’s the woman who I watched stumble through a workshop presentation for new climate action volunteers in which two young men decided to pick apart her every statement. Walking to the subway together after I helped her lock up the office in the evening, she confessed that it wasn’t just her first workshop presentation but the first time she had ever spoken in front of a group of people in her life.

I have not chained myself to anything strategic or refused to move under police orders. Not yet at least. Some of my rebel friends are willing to forgive me this reticence because I have a disability and a disabled child. “Well, that’s why Arie isn’t out there getting arrested.” I’m the one teaching the medics and the deescalation teams. I’m the one holding the hands of new volunteers, giving a dozen pep talks a day.

But I’ve had to poke deep into my own reserves of courage. When I first signed up my family and close friends were all warning me to be careful, even asking me not to join Extinction Rebellion because whenever I have joined community organizations before it has always ended in pain, social rejection and deep depression. The fact is that, especially where I live in the Czech Republic, a disabled. middle aged woman with strange-looking eyes and awkward social communication is not well accepted. My family didn’t want me to go through all that again.

When I go into groups, I can’t make eye contact or play out the little exchanges of non-verbal communication. Mostly people don’t realize this or understand what it means. They just get the feeling that I’m aloof or uncool, or most oddly, calculating and competitive. The inevitable result has been a lot of social isolation. I join groups enthusiastically, get a lot of confused reactions and soon find myself mysteriously dropped off the invitation list.

So joining Extinction Rebellion, I was so scared that I lay awake all night shaking after every meeting in the beginning. But I knew I had to go anyway.

I wish I could tell you those fears were entirely unfounded. I will say that Extinction Rebellion tries hard to be open to all—people with disabilities, older people and people with children included. It’s a real topic of discussion and those discussions matter. I’ve never found a group where I did feel this welcome. But I have run into people who reject me out-of-hand, even in the consciously inclusive culture of XR.

Facing fears doesn’t mean facing down only illusion. Much of the fear is real. Those protesters in France really did get viciously attacked by police while sitting calmly and quietly. Some people really did needlessly torment that first-time workshop presenter. And every time I play the role of social greeter at an XR event, I will get some hard looks and some cold shoulders, which cut deep because of the social context of long-term ostracism.

It’s a time for courage. Whatever terrors you have to face, now is the time.

And there is another part of courage we all have to seize together. Not a day goes by when someone doesn’t ask me some version of the question, “Isn’t it too late and hopeless anyway?”

There are a hundred arguments why the key strategies to mitigate climate disaster won’t work. Most solar panels are made in China using minerals mined at great environmental cost and then there’s the methane in the arctic lakes, all the tipping points we may have already crossed, And that’s just the science part. We have only just begun to demand real political and economic change and those systems don’t want to change. We may well not be able to bring our society to change quickly enough. And if we manage it here, will we be able to get China and India to join us? The odds seem awfully long on stopping CO2 emissions in the time frame scientists have said we must, if we want to avoid global calamity .

In 1938, when the allies signed the Munich agreement with Hitler to allow the Nazis to take Czechoslovakia in an attempt to deny the inevitable, people who warned of the encroaching tide of fascism were called “alarmists.” And then when the allied forces did go up against fascism, it looked hopeless. It looked like we had waited too long.

That’s what Hollywood portrayals of World War Two don’t show. They say they’re showing courage, the heroic battles in which good conquers evil in the real world. But the reality is that those French resistance fighters, those nurses in Blitz-torn London, those teenage girls holding the Eastern front in some Russian town, those Romani prisoners rebelling in a concentration camp, those boys on the Normandy beaches, those fighter pilots over the North Sea and those victory gardeners on the other side of the Atlantic waiting for husbands, sons and fathers to come home did not have good odds. We look back at them through the lens of what did happen. They fought and they won, so of course they had the courage to fight.

But it wasn’t an easy choice for many of them. There were times during the war when it looked very bleak. In our struggle now, it looks bleak. It looks like the risks we take and the sacrifices we make may be for nothing.

In that too, we need courage—not because we know we’ll win but because the only way to live well now is to fight this war against ignorance,

We are sorry but we must break the law

A rugged start in Extinction Rebellion deescalation practices

On a rainy Monday in Prague, a group of activists met in a neglected park near a major traffic artery -- Nervous, skittish and just beginning to pump adrenaline, they unfurled their banners in a few practice runs, getting them upside down more often than not.

The people I had trained as a deescalation team, mostly at the last minute in a rushed explanation of psychology--the prefrontal cortex, the door to the panic center of the brain and the principles of active listening--were so dazed that they repeatedly forgot to even go into action at all during the practice runs. About half of the deescalation team had done a few role-plays in my kitchen. That was it.

Rebel for life - Photo by XR Praha

Rebel for life - Photo by XR Praha

A large majority of us were first-time activists, barely having been to a few quiet (and completely legal) political rallies. And here they were preparing to flagrantly break the law.

But we got our signalling system drilled to the point where I was reasonably sure we wouldn't be hit by oncoming traffic and then we went into action.

Unsuspecting drivers whizzed by us while we politely waited at a red light. Then the first signaler called, "Blue team into action!" The small group with me started across the intersection unrolling our large blue banner, which read, "You can't outrun the climate crisis." . A minute later I vaguely heard the call "Green into action!" as the group with the green banner blocked the other axes of the intersection.

My deescalation teams were darting out into the traffic backed up in front of them, offering apologies, cookies and informative fliers along with their hastily trained active-listening and non-violent communication skills. Someone gave a warning shout about a motorcycle and I went for him.

I barely had to think of my calming techniques. My shoulders were relaxed, my hands nonthreatening as I loosely offered him a flyer. He smiled back at me under his visor and I thought things were going fine.

Then a van broke ranks behind him, lurched forward with aggressive honking and swearing. It had become clear that we were there to stay for at least a few minutes--seven minutes according to plan.

I immediately left the motorcycle driver and approached the van, which had stopped but continued to jerk forward in little starts toward our people at the banner. "I can see that you're upset," I said, forcing a little volume into my unwilling voice. "Can I help you?"

I never got the chance to exercise active listening and calm the driver down. By this time, our signal guy was bellowing at the driver with a megaphone and the van was physically pushing a teenage girl and a photographer into the middle of the intersection.

I think I said, "Please stop! This is dangerous!" The driver yelled incoherent curse words. I was torn with indecision for a second and then the chance to act was gone anyway.

Our safety people managed to get the two endangered individuals out of the way and I managed to stop the stream of cars behind the van by the simple expedience of stepping behind its bumper and standing still, thus avoiding a rush that would have seriously put the lives of my deescalation team--back in the traffic with cookies and fliers--at risk.

In the end, the crisis was averted but other drivers were upset because of the scene. One woman got out of her vehicle sobbing that her child was at home and she had to get to him, as if our protest truly heralded an immediate collapse of civilization. Our deescalation team hurried to listen, apologize and explain that we were only there for seven minutes. The tone reduced from panic to sullen angst.

Photo by XR Praha

Photo by XR Praha

Why take these risks, you might well ask, for a moment with a banner?

Of course, it isn't for the banner. Most of the drivers can't even see it. This is one of the basic tactics of Extinction Rebellion, one I was very skeptical about when I first joined. I wanted to protest big polluters and corrupt politicians. But as I read more and came to understand the psychological and socio-political dynamics of the situation I became less reticent.

This blockade, like every other Extinction Rebellion action, is part of a wave of disruption that forces the climate crisis into the forefront of everyone's minds and onto the front pages of every newspaper and the first minutes of every news broadcast. Without this disruption of the lives of ordinary people--without a shit-load of such disruptions--there is no way we will see change fast enough to avoid massive famine and economic collapse.

As just about every literate person on the planet has read by now, the latest IPCC report, which is a very conservative consensus of a lot of different scientific perspectives, gave us twelve years to solve the climate crisis if we wish to have any real hope of avoiding a vast collapse of our civilization and food-production systems.

That's not to say we have twelve years to START working on it. We have twelve years to implement changes in the global industrial economy so vast that there is really nothing to compare them to, though the build up to World War Two and the Marshal Plan combined are often invoked as an example solution. And so far, there is not one government on the planet that is truly taking it seriously.

But there is one that has at least pledged to do so, and that is the British government, where Extinction Rebellion really got started in April. The tactic of massive disruption achieved its first stated goal. The British government was forced to declare a climate emergency.

But more than that, it created an unprecedented storm of media coverage and public concern over climate change. Most of it wasn't even in support of Extinction Rebellion initially. But the more the media looked into it and the more people paid attention and read about the crisis, the more everyone realized how serious the crisis is.

We activists are not in a popularity contest. We are not out in the road risking our lives because we think that will convince someone to agree with us. We are an emergency siren. We are simply a wave of disruption that forced British society to wake up and pay attention and which will do the same in every place we can.

We are sorry. Really I am sorry. I want to apologize to the frightened woman with her child at home and to all the others who were just tired and heading home from work. We do not want to do this. I would apologize if I had to wake you up at night to warn you of a fire in the building, but I'd still do it. We have no choice but to disrupt life as usual and even to break the law. This is an emergency.

A line drawn in stone

What precisely separates Extinction Rebellion from Nazis, Stalinists and other massive, disruptive movements?

There once was a young man named Thomas who grew up in poverty and without hope, until one day a leader and a movement came and gave him hope and something to fight for.

He marched and demonstrated for a better future. He worked alongside others like him and felt the thrill of idealism and the bond of solidarity.

But his movement was the Hitler Youth. And as an old man he gave me a warning.

In another time and another place, there was a seventeen-year-old girl named Marie who followed a more decentralized, grassroots movement. She too had seen hardship and despair all around her. This movement wasn't just against something. It was for something--for equality and justice.

She knew hope and was willing to die for her cause. As an old woman living in the ashes and rubble of the Soviet Union, she showed me the Stalinist pins she collected that year she was seventeen.

Creative Commons image by Eric Wüstenhagen

Creative Commons image by Eric Wüstenhagen

After decades passed and the world changed, there was a young student of nineteen named Jan, idealistic, yet savvy. He'd studied all of the history and he knew to be on guard against power-hungry leaders. He beat the pavement and struggled none-the-less.

His band of anarchists and revolutionaries organized a few anti-globalization demonstrations, kept their independence and managed not to fall into the pitfalls of the past. But finally bickering and exhaustion took them down. Jan left his ideals behind and joined the exploitative world of unsustainable business-as-usual he had once raged against.

Again time rolled by and now there is a sixteen-year-old girl named Josefina wielding hope against despair. There is a movement and a stark black symbol on a flag.

This time the fight is not just against poverty, hunger and injustice, though it is about all that. It is a fight for our very lives, for the last hope of a future where our children will even be alive.

If there has ever been a worthy struggle, this is it.

All around the world, people are rallying and demanding change. I have been in activism for thirty-odd years and I have never seen a movement grow like this, doubling in weeks, raising people out of quiet backwaters in the middle of a sweltering, lazy summer to come to meetings and organize action.

i was sixteen when I met Thomas and I didn't judge him because he had never been in it for hatred and he regretted it. And because I too wished for a movement that would give me hope. I only knew I didn't want to fall for something corrupted as he had and idealism seemed a discredited thing for a lost generation.

I was twenty-five when I sat with Marie and I had been an activist but I didn't feel I belonged anywhere. A lot of my friends said they just weren't joiners, but I wanted to be a joiner. I just didn't see anything worth joining.

There were causes and activist organizations, but many of them had all the warning signs of cliquish social exclusivity, abuse of power, cult-like dynamics, unreliability, lack of accountability or demands that were either too watered down and vague or too specific and exclusionary. Even Jan's movement, though I personally liked him, had many of those flaws.

Now, I am forty-three and I stand in awe next to Josefina on the front line of an Extinction Rebellion blockade. This is where I make my stand.

Here in the Czech Republic an internet meme recently appeared showing the XR hourglass symbol with the caption: "The Nazis had the swastika. The Stalinists had the hammer. The climate-ists have this."

And most of our rebels just laughed at it. They made fun of it and passed it around on the internet as a joke. "Haha. How twisted!" But I didn't laugh.

What is it exactly that separates us from the early Nazis or Stalinists or other "idealistic" movements that went bad and turned to genocide?

We either answer that question unequivocally or we have no right to call the likes of Josefina to stand with us.

We are vast and incredibly fast growing. We are uncompromising in our convictions and we're willing to do almost anything to achieve our goals. We are willing to disrupt the lives of ordinary people.

We demand sacrifices for the greater good and for the future. We are done talking and discussing. When climate deniers come along and want to engage us in a long discussion about the science, we send them a few documents and then block them on social media if necessary.

Ain't nobody got time for that. We are in a fight for our lives and the lives of our children.

So, what is it? What makes us the good kind of massive, disruptive mob?

We are non-violent. Sure, we are, but not every climate activist is. And many an idealistic movement started out declaring non-violence. We like to talk about Gandhi and the US civil rights movement. And those are good examples but not every social movement that starts out non-violent ends that way and some end up simply being the non-violent wing of something that goes bad.

So, I don't think it is a laughing matter to ask this question. We ourselves say we are facing the very real likelihood of massive death, caused by climate change. Is it so hard to imagine that in ten years, as the crisis deepens and great numbers of people are thrown into desperation for survival, that our massive, coordinated movement could become a force for hurt?

It is not hard for me to imagine and that is why I am determined to put my energies into a safeguard.

Non-violence is a good start. But it is the concept of Regenerative Culture, developed over generations of activist experience, from the US civil rights movement to the anti-nuclear blockades in the UK, through the anti-fracking movement to today's Extinction Rebellion, that makes this movement different.

As my readers know, I'm mostly blind and I've seen my share of social exclusion and bad human behavior in my time. When I walked into my first Extinction Rebellion meeting, I had my doubts and skepticism. I'd seen enough examples of flaky, egotistical and/or slapdash activist groups to be wary.

And that first meeting blew my mind. Not only were they organized but there was a welcoming and friendly atmosphere that I have rarely encountered in groups of any kind. I didn't know it then, but that atmosphere was no accident caused by the people in the room just happening to be well-adjusted and nice.

It comes from a consciously developed and conscientiously implemented practice called "Regenerative Culture," which incorporates social inclusion, mutual support, conscious awareness, rigorous non-violent communication training, social sustainability and self care.

The concept of Regenerative Culture is not a nice, fluffy extra added onto Extinction Rebellion activities to make good atmosphere at meetings and sing songs during blockades. Instead it is the bedrock on which the foundations of the movement have been laid.

That is why we are different and as long as we don't ever lose sight of it, it will guarantee we don't go either toward tyranny or toward dissolution. At its core, Regenerative Culture is that line, a line that must be drawn in stone, not in sand.

The fact is that everyone thinks they are the good guys. Thomas thought he was just reaching for hope. Marie thought she was standing for justice. Jan was convinced that his activist group, not the one next door, was the only hope for social justice.

And in Extinction Rebellion we are equally convinced that we are right. We have now ninety-nine percent of climate scientists saying we are correct that human activities are destabilizing our climate, that this will have devastating and lethal effects and that we have a few short years to change course. We have reason to be staunch in our convictions.

The difference lies in how we treat one another first and second how we treat others.

The elements of Regenerative Culture are:

  • Non-violence in action

  • Non-violent communication

  • Respectful behavior toward all, including those who insult, jail, beat or kill us

  • Mutual support materially and emotionally

  • Acceptance of everyone and every part of every one

  • No shame and no blame

  • Rotating roles of power

  • A focus on amplifying the voices of underrepresented population groups

  • Self-care and prevention of burn-out

It is impossible to convey the entirety of Regenerative Culture in one post. I will be posting more about this, including this week’s post on conflict resolution in groups for inclusive resistance, social justice and environmental defense here.

Climate doomsaying as an excuse to be lazy

And other guaranteed ways to make sure the oil companies win

It can feel utterly hopeless. The climate crisis is so vast that individual actions can’t really make any measurable difference. There is little sign that our political and economic leaders are willing to do what is necessary.

And even if they were, no one can guarantee that we haven’t passed key tipping points already. Some scientific models say we may have. Others say we will pass tipping points within a few years, long before any major economic changes can rectify the situation.

It is so easy to give up.

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

Why don’t I? Most importantly I don’t give up because of my sense of self identity and self respect. If I truly believed that the earth would be uninhabitable within 30 years, as some claim, I would not personally be able to “just enjoy life while I can.”

And frankly, I doubt that most people who express that nihilist view actually believe it either. There may be some who do, but to me a comfortable, entertaining and fun life without purpose would be hell. I don’t need a great, earth-shaking purpose but I do need some small incremental purpose. It is the core of who I am.

And secondly, I do have kids. I didn’t give birth to them, but I tried to. And if I don’t see any hope for survival beyond the next few decades, then I would have some serious ethical problems.

I spend a fair amount of my limited time free from the necessities of eating, sleeping, working and raising kids on being a climate activist, whether that is through my writing or more recently through helping out with a local Extinction Rebellion group.

It’s a challenge to stay motivated and feel like my incremental actions are worth anything. On the other hand, I want scientists to tell the whole truth. I don’t want them to skimp on urgency in order to spare people’s feelings. We need to know what we’re up against, even if that someday means knowing we have lost our chance to avert massive deaths.

But there is one response to climate change I find as infuriating and morally questionable as profit-seeking denial of science. That is doomsaying as an excuse to be lazy.

An example, through an acquaintance who is also a responsible and hard-working climate activist, I ended up in an online discussion recently which devolved into a group of people I didn’t know having a mass “doom orgy.” It was in response to my acquaintance’s post but didn’t appear to involve him directly. A few dozen people were doing that online ricochet-in-your-own-bubble thing where one says something inflammatory and six other people try to one-up the hysteria and ten more try to top that and so on.

Pretty much it was a group of people, supposedly supporting climate activism who were saying “It’s too late. No action will save life on earth now. It’s the methane thing. Anyone who doesn’t recognize that everything is hopeless now is just stupid and in denial…” and so on and on.

They were obviously enjoying this titillating moment of doom-wallowing. And it pissed me off as much as a bunch of hillbillies with monster trucks gunning their engines and yelling, “F… Mother Earth!” And both scenes have about the same atmosphere.

My response was to say, “I hope you all didn’t have kids.”

Because most of these people were older than their twenties and likely many of them did have kids. It wasn’t that I think they’d be terrible parents in general or that I wouldn’t want little copies of them running around. It’s just that I am fairly certain if they had kids, they wouldn’t actually believe their doomsday statements. They are merely spouting off for the thrill and the self-righteous superiority they feel.

People who have kids can’t take so much pleasure in predicting total annihilation within the lifetime of the next generation. Or if they do, I pity their children. Hence my somewhat caustic statement.

I could respect a person who truly believed that they had scientific evidence that everyone is going to die in terrible suffering and starvation in a few decades, if they didn’t have children. I can’t very well respect someone who says they believe that but then goes ahead and has kids anyway.

They’re doing “business as usual.” They don’t believe their own rhetoric.

And worse than that, their rhetoric includes statements like, “No action will make any difference at this point.” The person I directly responded to had been ridiculing people who work for green energy and engage in political activism to get better climate policies. I would have been laughed out of the discussion if I admitted to working hard as an activist for climate justice.

The point of this verbal flagellation over climate doom is to absolve oneself and one’s cohorts of any need to take action or put out effort.

Climate activists are sometimes called scaremongers. Throughout human history tyrants have used scaremongering to drive groups of people to action usually to fight or exclude some group they are told to fear. Scaremongering implies a lack of evidence or reality. As such, climate science isn’t scaremongering.

Doomsaying is a similar tyrannical tactic used for centuries but instead of action, it’s goal is to freeze people into inaction, depression and apathy, or at times into panicked, chaotic flight. in the face of a real and factual crisis. Doomsaying is as heinous as denial.

In this case, doomsaying is actually the more virulent and damaging ideology.

Climate denial today primarily affects those who know they are in opposition to science and facts. People who refuse to acknowledge climate science are unlikely to change their minds until they are personally facing survival threats. However, doomsaying affects people who are aware and who are taking at least some small steps toward a solution. It demotivates and freezes those who would act and lulls those who know the danger but are inclined to laziness.

And so yes, I called out people claiming to be climate activists in the midst of their self-perpetuating hysteria of despair.

And it isn’t even about evidence and who is scientifically correct.

I am not a climate scientist. It is a real profession. It requires years of university-level study. I am not going to do some reading and a bit of “experimental research” as so many so-called “activists” have and start declaring my own conclusions. I don’t make my own science anymore than I do my own surgery or build my own computer.

I read the scientific papers as best I can. I know that the outputs of big organizations are watered down, as they always are in any document written by a committee. I know that governments give out information with an agenda attached. But in the end, I don’t see hard evidence of utter hopelessness.

And for me to throw up my hands and go live a life of entertainment and creature comforts because “it’s all hopeless anyway,” I would need more than absolute, incontrovertible evidence. I would need to give up on my children.

Trust... or the art of life amid crisis

I know how to trust.

Really I do. When I was younger, I traveled all over the world, met people who I didn’t share a language with and trusted them with my safety. I told people my story, my life, my vulnerability. I got rejected a lot or found that my story wasn’t important. And still I kept on being “naive.”

My children seem to be trying to train me not to trust. Since they grew out of toddlerhood and got past the stair gates, they have been getting into things, raiding the cupboards for slime-making ingredients, sneaking treats before dinner, hiding their dirty clothes and jumbled toys in the most ingenious places to avoid cleaning their rooms and memorizing my phone password every chance they get. I have learned that part of trust is trusting that kids will try to get sweets. electronics, dangerous chemicals and matches as soon as your back is turned.

Chick bird spring vulnerability trust - CC image via pixabay.jpg

Trust, in reality, means that if I give my first kid money to go to the store and buy bread and an ice cream, there is likely to be an armload of the worst junk food coming. If I give the money to the other kid, the money has a 50 percent chance of being lost on the way to the corner shop, but if it doesn’t get lost, the bread will come back along with a receipt for the devoured ice cream. Or at least the receipt will start the journey home.

But then again either might not happen. Nothing is guaranteed.

After many years break from community life and activism, I have joined an activist group again, this time focused on demanding emergency action on climate change from governments and corporations. It is a decentralized organization and yet one focused on coordinated, efficient and sometimes even risky action. It is also incredibly diverse, spanning the political spectrum and socioeconomic ladder. I sit next to students, psychologists, IT professionals, teachers and fast food employees in meetings. We don’t know each other and in order to accomplish the enormous task before us, we must trust each other.

I have to trust that our fellows will:

  • do what they promised, so that I can do my part in the work without having to wait too long on them,

  • not betray confidences to those that might stand against us,

  • forego temptations to pursue personal agendas that might harm our cause,

  • be honest,

  • care,

  • and not make careless mistakes that may endanger us all.

It is no small thing. I can see why a lot of people say they aren’t “joiners.” I am still more “naive” than most and the initial trust is not that hard for me. I trust that almost all of my fellows are good, conscientious and kind. I also trust that they are overwhelmed and busy. I trust that they will make mistakes and forget important tasks. And I trust that someday one of the few who are not conscientious will turn out to be an informant planted by institutions bent on bringing us down.

I am certain it will happen. But I also know that worrying about it will do little good.

After all this, you’d think I had trust down. But I don’t.

Recently someone in authority within the organization came to my group and asked us to do something that sounds like it could destroy much of the gains we have made over the past weeks. This person did not give details and insisted that authority and the traditions of the organization dictate that we must abide by these decisions.

I am confused. This is supposed to be a decentralized movement. How then, can we find ourselves under direct orders, required to follow instructions without understanding the reasoning? And part of the answer given is that things are bigger than we can see in the international movement. There are urgent actions needed for our goal and like soldiers on the front lines, there are times when we have to take orders as a matter of survival. Our mission to avert climate change is a matter of survival after all.

So, I am in a crisis of trust.

It would be immensely comforting to have a leader I could trust implicitly and automatically. That’s what my fiction is about. If you’ve read the Kyrennei series… well, I wish I had a Jace McCoy. But I don’t. We almost never do in the real world.

The reason Jace McCoy in the story—and his co-leader Dasha, for that matter—is so trusted and has the unswerving loyalty of J. Company is that he has been successful where so many others have failed. He has survived 40 years of guerrilla warfare against an immense foe. His gambles have almost always been right and he is a brilliant strategist and tactician. His people know that.

But they weren’t born knowing it. Each of them went through a process of becoming so loyal, including Aranka Miko. And in the end, he proves that her trust is warranted, no matter the cost to him personally.

Okay, that’s fantasy fiction. But that is why I wrote it. As dark as the Kyrennei series seems on some levels, it is actually a comforting fantasy to many. It is about the hope that we could have such trust among us in crisis.

And today there is no doubt that we are in a crisis of survival. I remember reading about the greenhouse effect in third grade science class in 1985. And now climate change is at the door and very little has been done since I was a kid to avert the looming disaster. Reports coming from scientists are increasingly desperate and our daily lives are being affected in ever increasing ways.

So, we need people willing to take risks and go into a massive struggle. We may not have a Jace McCoy but we do almost have a J. Company. There is one group that has achieved significant real results in forcing governments to take urgent action and that is the growing international movement of Extinction Rebellion. The structure and principles of this organization have been tried… maybe not for forty years, but they have been tested and have come through better than any of the many other organizations that have attempted this task. There is even a real-world sixteen-year-old prophetic voice of hope, just as in the my fantasy.

And yet I know that people are terribly imperfect. What I see right in front of me is a community movement poised at a fragile moment in new country and a leader with a heavy-hand and a plan that doesn’t make sense and doesn’t appear to follow the Extinction Rebellion model faithfully. And I am asked to believe that this leader is the genuine article. But I’ve only been with them for a few weeks.

Trust does not come easy this time, not even for me.

The morning after all this cames down I ventured outside to take a break from the messages online that bring troubling news. It’s chilly and bright with a stiff wind dropping the last of the blackberry blossoms.

And there in the duck house I found a miracle that I only thought might possibly occur. Baby chicks.

You see I have big black hens of the Australorp breed and I love them for many reasons. They’re hardy, have good homing instincts and they lay a lot of beautiful, large eggs with pale shells that come in handy for spring painting as well as eating. But they have one problematic breed characteristic. They are bad mothers. Apparently some people don’t think so, but my hens have shown absolutely no interest in sitting on their eggs in three years.

So, early this spring when one of the Indian Runner ducks that guard my vegetable garden against slugs started brooding and sitting on eggs, I replaced her eggs with the Australorp eggs. I have no male ducks, so she wouldn’t be able to have any ducklings, no matter how hard she sat on her duck eggs.

It was a fly-by-night experiment and I didn’t really think it would work. I also miscalculated how soon to expect the chicks and so I was completely unprepared for their appearance. The duck pen had not been secured and the chicks scattered out through the large holes in the wire fence into the empty lot next door. The adoptive mother duck could not follow them and she was frantic, calling them and flapping her wings, but the chicks ignored her.

I went out and waded through the knee high patch of giant nettles to herd the chicks back into the pen. Then I spent the next two hours shoring up the pen and catching stray chicks, which I could hear but couldn’t see because I’m ninety percent blind.

It would have been comic had anyone been watching me gingerly chase baby chicks around the yard while being careful not to step on those that stopped and curled into little gray balls. Oh yes, Australorp chicks are not handily yellow. They’re gray.

When I finally had everything that peeped contained, I peeked inside the coop. One of the chicks had fallen into the large water dish meant for adult ducks and was struggling to get out. The mother duck, thinking she had a duckling on her hand, was watching fondly, apparently assuming it was time for him to learn to swim.

I reached in to help the poor little chick out of the water but the mother duck struck at my hand with the speed and force of a rattlesnake. I jerked my hand back with a yelp of pain. I talked to her soothingly but continued to watch the chick, which was not drowning but should not be in cold water at all. Finally I made another attempt and earned a nasty bruise for my trouble.

Despite all my help in rounding up her adopted babies the mother duck was nowhere close to trusting me.

But my faith in the powers of life and mother nature was somewhat restored, even so. I could now ponder my own situation a bit more philosophically.

In some ways, I am like the mother duck. I have found something I passionately believe in and I have young, timid volunteers lining up with desperate hope in their voices. And anyone who looks like they might threaten that is libel to get bruised. I’m not particularly in the mood to take chances.

The tough little Australorp chick managed to get him or her own self out of the water dish and snuggle back into the mother’s warm feathers. He was still alive the next day.

I rigged up a small water feeder for the baby chicks in hopes that they would stay out of the adult water dish and made sure they had chick food. Each day I visit them several times, because the mother duck tends to accidentally upset the baby water container.

She doesn’t seem to be putting the chicks into the water as she might with ducklings. She’s keeping them warm and protected from the cold spring wind. And now she only hisses at me when I reach in to change the water and food containers.

Trust comes hard in these times. But I still believe in it, at least in theory.

An antidote to environmental depression

All I had to go on was a vague and anonymous Facebook notification. I followed my Maps app to the address but got lost when some of the Renaissance-era buildings weren’t numbered. A young Vietnamese immigrant with a child on her hip set me straight.

Finally, there was a sheet of paper taped to the mail box of a building in a narrow Prague street. A large Dagaz rune (which Ralph Blum called Breakthrough) tipped sideways was printed on the paper and repeated on one of the doorbells. It’s supposed to be a stylized hourglass, but my first impression was of the rune and a surprising good omen.

I rang, but there was no answer.

I gently pushed and the heavy wooden door creaked open. Inside was a dim hallway, like so many in the ancient city. A decorative railing ran around a spiral stairway and light filtered down from sunbeams coming through windows somewhere far overhead.

I passed a young man with long hair to the middle of his back, but then hesitated, glancing back at him. Prague is the kind of place where one might find new friends in a dimly lit stairwell.

“Are you with us?” he asked softly in Czech, addressing me in the informal grammar reserved for close family and friends..

Image via Pixabay

Image via Pixabay

“Probably.” I grinned, “if you’re the meeting.”

“Go right up,” he nodded and the welcome in his voice was again almost shocking to my battered nerves, accustomed to the acrimony and judgement so rampant in today’s society.

The sunlit room upstairs was filled with more of the same, open hands reaching to bring me into the circle, smiles and enthusiastic voices. I had come prepared for cynicism, long arguments, social cliques, power trips, poorly hidden political agendas and all the other problems that have plagued activism circles for decades. This friendly reception was already more than I’d hoped for, but would it turn out to be just a shiny package for the same old dead ends?

I took a seat and watched as the meeting unfolded. Someone took the lead but then quickly passed the speaking role to another. Everyone was introduced in 10 minutes. The agenda was on a board with precise times that were kept without strain. Plans and methods were explained with professional clarity as well as with heart. We broke into groups to discuss specific projects.

I have rarely seen an activist meeting run so well, reaching goal after goal with no sense of rush.

Activism? Who has time for that nonsense these days, you might well ask.

The focus of this group is no mystery—taking real, practical action to force government agencies and industry to behave responsibly on the climate crisis. It was nothing short of our survival at stake and for once the activist proposals were not merely about leaflets or poetry slams or rallies. The work on the table was practical resistance to destruction.

Instead of being frustrated by a long, acrimonious meeting and incremental pace as I had in countless community organizations before, I had to question whether or not I was ready to jump into this swift flowing stream.

This was my first Extinction Rebellion meeting—out on the expanding fringe of the movement in Eastern Europe. And I had to hand it to them. Excellent organization. Solid tactics. Laser-focused goals. And the flexibility to learn in a new country.

Image via Pixabay

Image via Pixabay

I have been struggling with deep environmental depression for years now. And a lot of that really is environmental—as in ecological. I grow my garden, hoard rain water, ride the train, recycle, try to speak up and all that. But it is clearly ineffective. For the past few years, I have looked for organizations to join off and on, but they were either inaccessible, just plain lazy or more serious about their donor’s goals than the real work at hand.

Keeping hope had become a chore. And a lot of serious environmentalists today have a lot of unpleasant things to say about hope.

So, is Extinction Rebellion just a bunch of well-organized naive idealists?

I might have thought so from just the one meeting. But deeper research reveals a strong foundation in realism and practicality. The movement is spread through local talks or lectures that summarize the status of climate science, describe the mounting effects of climate change and then outline the demands and strategy of the Rebellion. It’s a surprisingly anti-inflammatory, technical lecture to spread a revolution.

But even with level-headed words the scientific conclusions are pretty depressing. At the end of the talk, an opinion is given about whether or not we can still avert the worst effects of climate change even if we can generate the “political will.” The scientific jury seems to still be out on that. But there are plenty of reasons to believe we might not be able to stop a climate catastrophe that will seriously endanger our way of life and civilization no matter what we do today.

In the context of a motivational talk, this isn’t a logical way to convince masses of people. We are told that political and industrial leaders are ignoring the crisis and our best hope is to force them to pay attention and act through non-violent civil resistance. Yet we don’t even know whether or not it is already too late for them to avert disaster before they’ve even meaningfully started.

Still it’s real and honest.

Why do anything if the cause may well be hopeless? The Extinction Rebellion response is a question, “What does it mean to be human today?”

For me, it is about the quality of whatever life we have left. I have a choice. I can either live in a fog of depression and anxiety or I can do what needs to be done because it needs doing. Taking steps in the right direction is the only way out of depression I know of.

If that isn’t exactly a rousing pep talk, then so be it. Maybe the Rebellion is already rubbing off on me.

To my newfound co-conspirators in rebellion, I’ll give you some fair warning. I’m socially awkward, even a dork. I don’t do modern fashions. I can’t recognize faces and I can’t run as fast as I used to. I sometimes speak before I think and my daily life is pretty rugged at the moment.

But I have been in this kind of struggle before. I know about walking miles to distribute fliers and about herding cats. I know about long nights and the times when a lot of work goes for naught. I’m worth having around. I pack a good herbal first-aid kit and I’ve usually got food if you’re batteries are running low.

I have also always wanted to end my conversations and posts this way:

Love and courage! .