Our ruined, lifeless planet

James Butler

Bertrand Russell leading an anti-nuclear march in London in 1961

Thinking seriously about climate change can bring on two distinct but related feelings. One is a sense of the disorienting triviality of most political conversation, like someone fretting about a chipped nail when their hair is on fire. The other – in the face of ubiquitous single-use plastics, or headlines about vanishing insects, new Arctic tipping points or acidifying oceans – is despair at the scale and speed of change needed.

Assuming you don’t accede to a burn-the-planet hedonic nihilism, the possible responses to the problem of speed and scale fork along two paths – one legislative, one extra-parliamentary. The legislative path assumes that the power of the state can be used to reform and constrain major emitters; it is encumbered by the slow-moving machinery of democracy, and the dilution of achievements by powerful hydrocarbon interests and delinquent nation states. Extra-parliamentary movements – such as the Camps for Climate Action – have been able to act quickly, leveraging press attention and sometimes slowing down or stopping extraction or pollution at a single site, while pointing to a systemic problem that conventional politics can’t overcome. Such movements tend to be unable to translate their brief exercises in autonomy into lasting political gains, or act at the scale needed, and are usually subject to state repression of varying degrees of brutality.

Extinction Rebellion takes the second path, sceptical of formal politics and mass media, convinced that direct action and a new kind of democracy – one of the group’s demands is for popular assemblies – are needed to tackle the problem. Its critics have left no cliche unmolested: Sky’s Adam Boulton (Westminster School, Christ Church) worked himself into a populist fury at ‘middle class’ protesters; David Blunkett, reminiscing in the Daily Mail about his years as home secretary, called for the ‘full force of the law’ to be used against them; Julia Hartley-Brewer meditated on running through their blockades in her car. Perhaps the most tin-eared response came from London’s anodyne mayor: Sadiq Khan insisted that he was very worried about the climate, but it was time to return to ‘business as usual’. An XR mole in his communications team couldn’t have handed them a better soundbite.

More substantial criticisms concern the group’s strategic relationship to the police. XR protesters differ from their recent predecessors in their active courting of arrest, and their ingenuous friendliness to individual officers. The hope is that the arrests – of smiling grandmothers, suburban priests and worried doctors – will generate moral force and public outrage. For veterans of the climate movement whose friends, comrades and lovers have turned out to be undercover officers this leaves a sour taste, underestimating the risks of arrest and misunderstanding the nature of policing. So far, however, it has had at least two interesting consequences: the tabloids have been starved of ‘violent protest’ stories, and the Met’s preferred tactic against protest – arrest a few demonstrators to encourage dispersal – didn’t work, allowing the group to hold Waterloo Bridge and other sites for the best part of a week.

XR’s strategy, though it appears to break a number of recent activist taboos, echoes the earlier strategy of the Committee of 100, the non-violent direct action group that emerged from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament under the tutelage of Bertrand Russell. ‘Our movement depends for its success on an immense public opinion,’ Russell told the Guardian in 1961, ‘and we cannot create that unless we rouse the authorities to more action.’ Ralph Schoenman, his secretary, saw the strategy as forcing the government to choose between ‘either jailing thousands of people or abdicating’. It worked for a time – Russell’s articulate moral authority and the willingness to face arrest stirred up a sedate public – but foundered once the police learned to split up and isolate the movement’s leaders, while dangling the threat of much more serious charges over the heads of their sympathisers.

Strategic lessons aside, the movement against nuclear war offers one of the few models for political activity appropriate to the scale of climate change. Taken to its intellectual conclusions, as in E.P. Thompson’s writings on ‘exterminism’, the anti-nuclear campaign offered an avenue for the development of an ethics counterposed to the world-system that had generated the nihilistic madness of mutually assured destruction. The best anti-nuclear works took aim at the popular postwar belief in a strong, heavily armed state and all that underlay it; the best works on climate change, too – Mike Davis’s ‘Who Will Build The Ark?’, for instance – combine the reality of global warming with attempts to imagine the world without the doctrine of private luxury and personal accumulation that undergirds much of contemporary capitalism.

Recent political responses to climate change – including the ‘Green New Deal’ – have ignored such reflections in order to propose relatively pragmatic measures to stem the worst effects of climate change, while leaving the door open to wider systemic change. Here the limitations of the legislative sphere reassert themselves. Walking across Waterloo Bridge last week, I wondered if that pragmatism was sufficient. Apostrophes to Gaia may be tiresome, but policy alone will not lead to the necessary reimagining of values. One thought to begin with may be with Russell’s message from prison, later in 1961, on the real stakes of nuclear disaster:

Our ruined, lifeless planet will continue for countless ages to circle aimlessly around the sun, unredeemed by the joys and loves, the occasional wisdom and the power to create beauty which have given value to human life. It is for seeking to prevent this that we are in prison.


  • 25 April 2019 at 9:03am
    XopherO says:
    XR is not the same as the CND movement. I was arrested at Holy Loch on the last demo organised by the Direct Action Committee (1961 I think) - I briefly shared a police cell with some of them. They were sent to prison (I was fined) which removed the organisers/ leaders and left a vacuum which was filled by the creation of the Committee of 100, the idea being that not all would be present at particular demos, so if some were imprisoned, there were others to take over at once. The movement faltered for other reasons post-1963, but kept going in different ways. I was a part of the demo in 1962 outside the US embassy in Grosvenor Square, the Cuba Crisis. Very anxious times.

    I mention this because there was fear and persistent anxiety that there was imminent nuclear war which could break out any day, deliberately or by accident. I, like many others, knew something of the effects from John Hersey's book Hiroshima (Penguin 1946). Sometimes late at night I would hear a plane overhead and think it was a bomber, and turn on the radio to hear normality. If nuclear war had broken out with multi-megaton H bombs lobbed here and there, the planet would have been/would be devastated - millions of instant deaths, millions dying soon with their skin falling off, millions over the weeks that followed from radiation poisoning, lack of food and uncontaminated water - mayhem - and a nuclear winter destroying most plant life (an end of global warming!). More or less instantaneous (though the southern hemisphere might last a bit longer if the war was largely in the north.) Russell's description is spot on.

    But it does not fit with global warming 'catastrophe', which would be more drawn out, with millions continuing to live in very changed environments - according to Darwin, new equilibria would develop between births and deaths for all species in given environments. Some would be wiped out, new ones would appear. It might be death (or not being born) for many humans, populations very much reduced over time, but certainly not a ruined, lifeless planet. Not Armageddon.

    I think it much more likely that nuclear war will happen before this, and untreatable disease and general pollution, fights over land and water supply. And to end I find that the Naturalistic fallacy and its concomitant Romantic fallacy are too much in evidence in the arguments. And the hypocrisy which many have pointed to of relatively well-off young people, who do not face imminent extinction by climate change, demanding that two thirds of the world's population should not seek the advantages which they have had. Futurology is a respectable 'ology' but is less about predicting the future than hedging bets on possible future scenarios - 'small is beautiful' and 'don't put all your eggs in one basket' are good examples of such hedging. We need a more measured approach which youthful hysteria does not encourage. I await the furies.

    • 25 April 2019 at 6:08pm
      Donald Weightman says: @ XopherO
      I don't follow your reasoning.

      Are you arguing for comparative catastrophism? (Yours was worse than ours is.) What follows?

      Are we forbidden alarm because life on earth may not destroyed immediately? The futures point toby The Uninhabitable Earth and the latest IPCC report look pretty grim - do they not warrant urgency?

      I remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, and wondering how far the fireball(s) from a major navy base not far away would reach. Now I live with dread about the climate day by day, and I am sick with shame when I consider the world we will be leaving to our children.

      I don't see how those compare to each other, or with your suffering or indignation fifty years ago, so why claim to be able to compare them? Does whatever comparison you come up with - disarmament faced a greater evil than global warming, or CND activism then is more worthy of moral approval or concern than climate activism now - advance some kind of argument about what is to be done? Did opposing nuclear armament make Bertrand Russell a better strategist than XR? (Or do weaker police tactics now make CND a more praiseworthy cause then?)

      As for strategy, I support both direct action (as with XR, and some climate activism here), and the Green New Deal. (Some major legislative and other change within the mainstream political rails is going to have to occur in any event, and Sunrise here in the US in support of . the GND seems to be doing as well as can be expected, or maybe a bit better,) I really don't see why we are to be forced to choose between them.

      You said you awaited Furies -I'm'm not furious, just puzzled by your logic.

    • 26 April 2019 at 12:02pm
      Harry Stopes says: @ XopherO
      I'm not sure that being banged up for a night and fined a tenner nearly 60 years ago gives you quite the authority on this subject you seem to think.

    • 27 April 2019 at 4:30pm
      XopherO says: @ Harry Stopes
      Contributors seem to have missed my point that the blogger makes a comparison between the CND and the XR movement but they are simply not comparable. My own experience was to support this view and to correct the blogger on why CND (the new Committee of 100) stopped the direct action demos - it wasn't police tactics or imprisonment, though the police did get more and more violent. The Aldermaston marches fizzled out as well, and they were not direct action events - except the breakaways to hidden Regional Seats of Government. Authority on what subject? What do you mean? Is one's own experience always irrelevant? Are you a well known authority? If so, please enlighten, from your experience as well.

  • 25 April 2019 at 3:04pm
    neil blackhaw says:
    I don't agree that CND and the nuclear threat is a particularly useful analogy to the challenge of climate change. The existential threat that it poses is of a radically different kind as is its fundamental nature both in the political sphere and in life as it is lived. Climate change is only a symptom of the unsustainable exploitation of the planets resources. As such it represents the clearest expression of the ultimate unfolding of capitalism. The issue of inequality and the need for social justice is at the heart of thinking about it. Capitalist production is validated by classical economics that has demonstrated that it is incapable of producing a framework that effectively captures externalities and that prices the true costs of diminishing resources. It is no surprise that right wing theorists and politicians are in thrall to the resulting ideology of ‘progress’. What is utterly bizarre is that left wing theorists and politicians consistently see the recognition of climate change as a plot to undermine progressive policies.In reality failure to deal with it will, in the forseeable future, not only impoverish billions but will annihilate millions. A major part of its intractability is that virtually he whole of the worlds population is being dragged into culpability and this is to a large extent independent of their political orientation.
    So yes, we need to envisage a society that successfully overcomes climate change and establishes truly sustainable development but in essence that need not be much different from the socialist imaginings that have been expressed over the last two hundred years. Marx would be a good start. And certainly pragmatism is needed.

  • 26 April 2019 at 3:49pm
    mevan says:
    The archaic bacteria which lived for a billion years - and still d0 - will survive even a nuclear war and so life can evolve again. Millions of species have since evolved and died off. With global warming , Gaia will just make a slight adjustment ( 5 degrees?) and carry on with plenty of other species. Homo sapiens has only been around for less than 200, 000 years and will not be missed. So what's the fuss?

  • 28 April 2019 at 9:18pm
    Rod Miller says:
    mevan is right, except the Earth will "soon" have an expanding Sun on its hands, so life will become impossible -- Gaia's goose will be cooked.

    All the groovy tree-huggers of Western Europe (of whom I am one) can do whatever they like. The Chinese, the Indians, etc. ain't listenin'. They want to drive themselves to death in cars just like we do.

    The Cardinal Sin here, of course, is gross overpopulation, which nobody ever mentions. (Possibly it's politically incorrect -- don't ask me.) I'm convinced it's too late anyway on the above-mentioned grounds. Which doesn't mean that Greta Thunberg is wrong. It's just too late is all. As Kurt Vonnegut would have put it, "So it goes."

    • 29 April 2019 at 11:05am
      cgo says: @ Rod Miller
      The Earth currently produces enough food for 10 billion people, and the myth of hordes of Asiatic consumers is damaging and wrong. We have a distribution problem, not an overpopulation problem.

      " The carbon emissions of one American today are equivalent to those of around four Chinese, 20 Indians, 30 Pakistanis, 40 Nigerians or 250 Ethiopians" - Prospect Magazine, March 2010

      While this has changed somewhat in the last decade, the clear point is that the way in which we do business is what we are getting wrong, not the number of people.

      If we would like to curb the population growth in any case (infinite growth on a finite world is obviously impossible, can someone tell capitalists, please) the fastest way to do this is to tackle extreme poverty. Developmental data shows that as poverty decreases, the number of children born per family also decreases, which is as true in Sub-Saharan Africa as it is in China, India, the UK and elsewhere.

    • 29 April 2019 at 8:29pm
      Rod Miller says: @ cgo
      The "myth" of "hordes of Asiatic consumers is damaging and wrong". Sorry, but it is most certainly not a myth, nor is it "wrong". It is precisely why there is now virtually Zero hope of stopping catastrophic climate change.

      Sure, there's lots of food grown with fossil-fuel fertilizers. Real good. But it won't last, and every new mouth further dooms homo sapiens.

      Your nine-year-old figures are Changing Fast, as you acknowledge "somewhat". But your expression "doing business" betrays your failure to grasp the magnitude of the disaster.

      I totally agree with the points in your final paragraph. Unfortunately, in practical terms, it's nevertheless just so much bien pensant wishful thinking. It Ain't Gonna Happen. Ever. And there's no time left for it to happen anyway.

      As the French say, if only you could pour Paris into a bottle....

    • 30 April 2019 at 12:10pm
      Coldish says: @ cgo
      Thanks, cgo, for injecting a bit of realism into this depressing discussion. As a scientist with an interest in politics I'm reluctant to get involved in this quasi-religious debate but I do appreciate cgo's presentation of a secular viewpoint.

    • 1 May 2019 at 1:43pm
      XopherO says: @ Coldish
      What do you mean by quasi-religious? In terms of a self-righteous movement with fixed beliefs, it seems to me you can't beat the global warming catastrophists and their messianic hopes it can be avoided (if true). It is not that they are necessarily wrong about the consequences, it is just that they run around like headless chickens (where did I get that from?) when challenged in any way whatsoever. I don't know why to say that it is very unlikely a rise of over 1.5 degrees can be stopped is 'unrealistic', or why one view is more 'scientific' than another (I thought it was scientific to be sceptical, even of one's own theories). But let us not go there! It makes sense to seek to reduce population growth, cut down general pollution including CO2, but foolish to put up unattainable targets. We shall see what we shall see over the next 80 years (well, some will). In the meantime it makes sense to spend precious resources on methods of coping with the possible consequences, rather than trying to achieve the impossible, particularly if those methods have a practical utility today. It may never happen, but we should at least be prepared and have taken measures over the 80 years to minimise the impact. But the world does not act like a rational actor.

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