Extinction and Brexit: the Same Struggle

People ask why I campaign at the same time for the Extinction Rebellion (XR) and for the UK’s continued full membership of the EU. Some argue that Brexit is a trivial matter compared with climate chaos, ecological collapse and mass extinction, so why bother, why get distracted? I say the opposite: that the two issues are utterly one, that XR should be completely against Brexit, and that the anti-Brexit movement should be completely with XR. The two being separated is just what the poisonous elite who ruin the country want, the better to divide, delay, starve, and kill off the united opposition, and unity is what they truly fear.  So why do I think all this?

Before I answer, I want to acknowledge two things. First, the UK has in fact led the world in raising the alarm about climate change. I have documented in my books the impact on international aid priorities, for example, of HM Treasury’s 1997 Stern Report on the economic costs of climate change. The UK has also led the world in making legally-binding commitments to reduce GHG emissions. The EU’s relatively advanced position on climate change mitigation is largely a result of Britain’s lobbying and example in 1995-2015. The problem now, since 2016, is that the UK has fallen into the trap of Brexit, compromising its ability to lead on these subjects.

And second, I do acknowledge that the EU is in part a ‘liberal’ free-trade zone, dedicated to support capitalist enterprise and the ‘bourgeois’ middle-class lifestyle, with all that that implies for unsustainable and unequal levels and patterns of collective resource consumption and pollution, including the exploitation of the weak and the direct and indirect promotion of GHG emissions. However, the EU is also much more than that. It is a system of standard-setting, conflict-resolving, experimentalist governance that is capable of driving steady improvements in social and environmental well-being, and has in fact done so (with the Water Framework Directive being a potent example). Its underlying model, which allows for all its member states to solve common problems in their own ways with the intellectual, material and moral support of their neighbours, is equally applicable everywhere and is, I believe, the only viable model for a practicable global system that could ‘save the world’ and improve the human condition.

Any big diverse system is going to have more or less progressive parts, and the EU has plenty, but only an EU-type system is able to manage them all and help them all find their own paths to success in line with common standards. This is why the Paris Agreement on Climate Change was so good: it allowed everyone to agree on common standards, to compete and cooperate to build capacity to achieve them, and to tighten the standards and goals over time. It may be too slow for the climate campaigners, and it may be too slow for the biosphere, but top-down global planning and enforcement could not have worked without universal coercion, which was not and is not an option. This way, the EU way, we have a chance, especially with XR putting on pressure to demand tighter goals. As Greta Thunberg said: the EU must double its climate goals! And the EU could do that, and with EU leadership, so could the Paris Agreement signatories. Slowly, no doubt, but this is what global cooperation on solving a wicked problem actually looks like.

So, duly acknowledged. But where does it all leave XR and Brexit? My points are simple. First, the people of major parts of the EU are far more progressive on climate change than those of major parts of the UK. Because those parts of the EU also have proportional representation, their governments are much more responsive to public concerns than in the UK. Thus, we see the Nordic countries, the Low Countries, Germany, Portugal and increasingly France exerting themselves mightily on climate change, while England dreams of the past (specifically, and alarmingly, the 1930s). If a few hundred people turn out for climate strikes in the UK, tens of thousands do so in Belgium, etc. Thus, being part of a system influenced by mass support for climate action helps the UK make progress, even if it is now a follower rather than a leader.

Second, the EU has tough and progressive targets on climate action, and these are improvable through public demand. Moreover, the EU has potency at a global level which it can use, and is using, to protect and push its climate agenda forward, influencing trade, transport, aid and industrial standards worldwide, standing up to those countries that temporarily fall to bad leadership. This makes the EU almost the only entity that is remotely capable of promoting system change on the scale that the climate emergency demands. At least at a conventional level, negotiated, transparent and agreed. Obviously a universal Zeitgeist shift and the rise of a new globally-effective mass movement of militant ecologists might happen, or something else might happen, to change the whole situation. But while we hope and strive, there’s a lot to be said for working as best we can with what we have right now. And what we have right now is the EU.

Third, outside the EU there are few powers that have much interest in saving the biosphere. Whatever non-EU trade deals the isolated UK might negotiate will be with repressive regimes selling toxic and/or socially-suspect and/or environmentally-compromised products. An isolated UK will inevitably be forced to ‘dine with the devil’ or starve, and it will also have to be much more complicit than it would otherwise be in the destruction of the living world, while also having walked away from the only grouping that is determinedly willing and has the proven capacity to save nature, and us. And that’s why I carry on waving an EU and an XR flag, in solidarity with both, in the same struggle.

© Julian Caldecott