What’s good, is everything okay? To be honest, I’m starting to get a little worried. Things are looking fairly dire here at the beginning of 2020 with the oceans heating up, Australia still being on fire, and the recent announcement that we just came out of the hottest decade on record. At this moment in time, the future we’re creating looks increasingly Hadean as the global newsfeed recovers from imagery of flourishing Antipodean ecosystems transformed into morbid, fiery hellscapes. There are times when I wonder if we took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in a shitty alternative universe.
This is not a drill
That being said, It looks like we’ve finally woken up to the alarming prospects of climate breakdown. People are out in the streets protesting, fuelled by righteous rage. More specifically, they’re getting themselves arrested in the world’s major cities, guided by the bright neon placards and uncompromisingly punchy rhetoric of a group of decentralized eco-activists who call themselves Extinction Rebellion. I bought their book ‘This is not a drill – An Extinction Rebellion Handbook’, and I thought you’d like to hear what this era-defining organization has to say about the escalating predicament we find ourselves sinking deeper and deeper into as the days go by. Unsurprisingly, it makes for very intense reading.
Featuring essays by climate scientists, firefighters, ex- drugs cops, conscientious lawyers, former admen, righteous arrestees, humanistic advisors to tech-billionaires, and a range of other agreeing, occasionally dissenting voices, ‘This is Not a Drill’ is a visceral literary slap in the face that leaves you reeling with feeling. In other words, it really messes with your head. Needless to say, reading about human extinction scenarios – written by people who actually did legit research on the topic – will never be a comfortable undertaking. Then again, the aims of Extinction Rebellion are anything but leisurely. They’re here to shock a failing system into action, and onto a regenerative, sustainable path.
Judging by recent efforts, that strategy is working. Using ‘direct, non-violent action’ as their central tool against political inaction, the organization blocks the traffic flow of cities all over the world to get their message heard by politicians, the public and the media while making mass-mobilizing headlines and pissing of willfully ignorant pundits in the process. There’s no getting around the fact that Extinction Rebellion is an idealistic, tree-hugging force to be reckoned with. An unrelenting, courageous constipation in the digestive system of the exploitative, extractive capitalism, which is fast-tracking us towards ecocide and civilizational collapse. They’ve got some great slogans, too:
Tell the Truth and Act Now
The book is divided into two main parts: ‘Tell the Truth’ and ‘Act Now.’ The foreword is written by Extinction Rebellion-academic, Vandana Shiva, and the co-editor of the book, Sam Knights, with the latter chronicling ‘the story so far’, including the humble beginnings in ‘a small English town.’ The introductory segment also provides details of how the founding principles and current organizational structure came to be by drawing on the successes of the big civil rights movements in our immediate past.
With passionate essays than run the gamut from despair-inducing to enlightening, ‘Part 1:Tell the Truth’ takes Al Gore´s ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and raises the stakes by several dying coral reefs to offer a new and different kind of truth with implications far gorier than anything the stocky, waspy millionaire has ever been able to muster: Indigenous people tell us that the mountains are melting. Douglas Rushkoff describes how Silicon Valley billionaires are mainly concerned with keeping the guards to their swanky survivalist bunkers from rebelling against them after the end of the world has happened (yes, really). Former undercover drugs cops draw insightful, forward-thinking parallels between drug addiction and fossil fuel dependency, laying out a plan for harm-reduction on a macroscale. At the most downcast and depressing end of the spectrum, a harrowing doomsday prophesy, subscribing to the Jonathan Franzian view that we might as well just come to terms with an imminent Armageddon, leaps from the page like little, soul-sucking apocalypse goblins, and make you feel like running for the green, temperate hills.
Time to rebel
If part 1 is the rude awakening that hits the gravity of the situation home with the rhetorical equivalent of a spiked baseball bat, part 2 is about the steps we can take, locally and globally, to prevent a planet-wide catastrophe. Kicking things off with the apt Frederick Douglas quote: ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand and it never will’, the second part of ‘This Is Not A Drill – An Extinction Rebellion Handbook’ gets down to the nitty-gritty of activism with hands-on practical instructions as you how you become an Extinction Rebellion rebel. Thrown into the idealistic mix are tips on the best way to get arrested; Extinction Rebellion-founder Roger Hallam explaining the benefits of the civil resistance model; a formula for building an action (featuring 3 steps: disruption, outreach, and visioning), and arts and craft pointers to creating your own posters and other attention-grabbing XR paraphernalia. We also get a fascinating peek into the Extinction Rebellion media strategy, which has brought about a finely tuned messaging machine that consistently makes all the right moves by reading the zeitgeist and communicating the same powerful message over and over: It’s time to rebel. Minor flukes notwithstanding, it’s extremely impressive what this decentralized organization has managed to achieve within the space of around 3 years or so.
In one of its most constructive and visionary moments, the second part of the handbook offers an uplifting proposition for a new economic model with the statement: ‘…such extreme inequality is neither inevitable nor immutable. It is an economic design failure.’ It made me think of the famed Ursula K. Leguin quote:
‘We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.’
The essay, written by economist Kate Raworth, the author of ‘Doughnut Economics’, outlines how we can move from the broken, centralized economic model, currently exploiting and depleting our ecological infrastructure, to designing a system, which is far more distributive. According to Raworth, this will lead to renewable modes of energy production with the final aim of establishing and maintaining regenerative societies. With unswerving clarity, it problematizes mainstream economy’s fixation on an endless growth curve, contrasting it with what she calls ‘Nature’s Growth Curve’ while calling for the urgent transformation of the extractive economy.
A lot of these points grow out of common sense. For example, you can’t have infinite growth on a planet with finite resources. But Raworth frames her central contention with an optimistic, intellectual heft that breathes new life into well-worn thinking. It makes you think that everything might turn out alright after all if we manage to steer the ship away from choppy waters and capitalist siren-singing laced with death. Moving from ‘me’ to ‘we’ rarely ever sounded so appealing.
Critique: where’s the future?
If you’ve read any of my previous letters, you’ll know that Letters to 2120 is, by-and-large, dedicated to furthering common, constructive optimism in the face of all-consuming cynicism also known as Capitalist Realism. In light of that, it goes without saying that some of the overwhelmingly pessimistic pieces in ‘This Is Not A Drill – An Extinction Rebellion Handbook’ were hard for me to swallow.
One thing that struck me a few times when I read this book is that it’s mainly preoccupied with the here and now. Outside of the grim apocalyptic scenarios, it concerns itself with prevention in the present. When you take a hard look at the frustrating lack of political action on climate change, that seems like a perfectly reasonable response. However, given that I’m the type of person who’s prone to bouts of emotional pontification, predominantly in the form of sci-fi extrapolations and futuristic vistas, I’d personally love to see a more elaborate, inspiring vision of the future from Extinction Rebellion. In my opinion, that’s also the most effective way of persuading people to buy into your message. Having a clear and compelling idea of where we should go and, crucially, what that journey looks and feels like, is an approach that very few eco-activists have tried their hand at. As Katherine Wilkinson, the senior writer at the brilliant Project Drawdown puts it:
‘We need to have a vision for the future beyond averting catastrophe. The most vital climate solution is our capacity to hold a vision of what’s possible – for our species, society, and world’
The dangers in the visionary approach are many. If Extinction Rebellion were to lay out a comprehensive plan for a future society in stirring words and images tomorrow, the backlash could be imminent. You can almost hear the hypothetical uproar from the Tory government, accusing them of disseminating communist/totalitarian/crypto-fascist propaganda or having turned into a weird and dangerous cult. Be that as it may, I suspect they might have to navigate that volatile path somewhere down the line. The thing is that apathy is a major problem in 2020. Some experts believe that this is down to the way that everything is framed in disaster. On a daily basis, we’re carpet-bombed with sensationalist, doom-laden images that more or less make positive change seem impossible. As Norwegian psychologist and economist Per Espen Stoknes points out, climate change is almost entirely framed as a looming disaster, making us deeply fearful and paralyzed. After the initial fear subsides it becomes a topic that our brain wants to avoid altogether. And because more than 80% of the media still use ‘disaster framings’ when communicating climate change, it’s gotten to a point where we all suffer from ‘apocalypse fatigue’ – as ludicrous as that might sound.
Considering that dynamic, what we need right now are better stories. Narratives and trajectories far removed from both totalitarian propaganda and cloying, wishy-washy bullshit of the neoliberal Obama variety. By no means will that be an easy feat. The ghosts of our ideological past loom large, and it will take inordinate amounts of otherworldly creativity and dogged, unflinching belief to overcome the manifold trappings of the present, some of which we’re probably not even aware of.
Buy it for everyone
But that was a self-indulgent little stray off-topic. The main event here is ‘This Is Not A Drill – An Extinction Rebellion Handbook’, an essential collection of essays echoing the contemporary zeitgeist.
There’s a lot to get into in this incendiary, mind-altering book. My review barely scratches the surface of this potent trove of ideas and opinions. Anyone wanting to read more will have to acquire it for themselves. I can say without any kind of hesitation and pussy-footing around that it’s a veritable must-read for people who care about things. It comes with my warmest recommendations – I’m guessing you still have books in 2120.
If you’re reading this in 2020 I suggest you get it for yourself, your friends, your mom and anyone else who might be swayed into taking action for a better planet. If you’re reading this in the future, I’m hoping that our present state of anxiety and desperation will have been consigned to the dustbin of history. That the Australian outback has been restored to a fertile wonderland abound with merry kangaroos skipping joyfully across the lush, undisturbed plains and cheerful koalas frolicking with giddy delight in in the swaying eucalyptus trees. Ultimately, my optimistic hope is that the pessimistic scenarios outlined in the first chapter of the Extinction Rebellion Handbook will seem like the melodramatic histrionics of a bygone era when the world worked itself into an international tizzy because of our transgenerational, human inclination for being obsessed with the end of the world.
This Is Not A Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook is out now on Penguin.