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.