Category Archives: Extinction Rebellion

What Greta Means To Me

The tension between reason, reduction, technology and industry on the one hand, and feeling, holism, intuition, empathy, compassion and light-touch living on the other, has long haunted us. It continues to smoulder in the friction between environmental movements, such as Greta Thunberg’s Climate Strike, and the powers of business as usual. It became obvious once the ideas of the Franco-Scottish Enlightenment were absorbed, monetarised and weaponised by the English to create the Industrial Revolution. But one suspects that these very different ways of thinking have much deeper roots, since there is so clearly a tendency for simple, close-to-nature lifeways, with their shamanic beliefs and spiritual art-forms, to be ploughed under from time to time by more rational and better-armed cultures, who live to exploit and destroy everything that cannot be used.

One such model in Europe is the Ancient Roman Empire – a notably harsh and invasive cultural system that shaped so many of our values – but even here there is tension between this heritage and the non-Roman parts of Europe, notably that of the German peoples. This, based on federation among equal local societies, was later given expression through the (confusingly mis-named) ‘Holy Roman Empire’, the Reformation and the European Union. By contrast, the Roman model itself gave us the Roman Catholic Church and a tendency towards hierarchy and centralisation. But this is all wildly complex, as the various influences swirled and settled in different places, and then influenced one another. It may be decipherable one day, if we can ask the right questions and reconstruct enough social history and folklore, but meanwhile we are left with tensions between just-discernible tendencies and ways of doing things that seem to be associated with different local histories, languages, myths and political traditions.

Trying to make sense of some of this, in my 2008 book Water: Life in Every Drop, I built on the many lines of evidence that support the idea of humanity having both a fully terrestrial and a semi-aquatic heritage, and extended the idea from anatomy to behaviour. I observed that “humans seem equally adept at living in either of two alternative and contrasting models of society: one militaristic, controlling, male-dominated and hierarchical; the other peaceful, accepting and egalitarian. It seems we can do either, depending on circumstances.” So I argued that our minds must be inclined, and have the capacity to think, in two contradictory ways, which I called a ‘hard’ way, which I associated with the Confucian tradition in China: top-down, mechanistic, reductionist, the thinking of a terrestrial ape; and a ‘soft’ way, which I linked to Taoism: bottom-up, organic, holistic, the thinking of an aquatic ape. And I claimed that “Their different implications are expressed sometimes this way, sometimes that, in response to social context, lessons learned in upbringing, and the observations, reasoning and self-discipline of which people are capable during their long lives.”

Now, from Tim Flannery’s 2018 book Europe: The First 100 Million Years, we learn that the invention of truly spectacular cave art – at Lascaux in France and El Castillo in Spain – and the carving of works such as the Löwenmensch (Lion-man) figurine of Hohlenstein-Stadel – and the domestication of dogs, can all be dated to about 35,000 years ago, and may have resulted from hybridisation between Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens in the Danube Corridor, which is known to have occurred at about the same time. Flannery argues that neither parent species showed much sign of artistic-religious creativity or the kind of empathy needed to domesticate animals before then, and that some kind of ‘hybrid vigour’ induced it. The hybrid element in our gene pool was later swamped by subsequent invasions of ‘unimproved’ humans from Asia, leaving the ‘neanderthal’ component as a tiny fraction among our genes.

There is very much still unknown about the flow of humanity across the world, the human-like species with which we interacted and interbred – including Homo denisova, whose genes are now so widespread in Australasia, and Homo erectus or its descendent species which persisted among the Indonesian islands until very recently – and the nature of the various actors and their habitats, so firm conclusions cannot yet be drawn. But the suspicion is there again in Flannery’s work that a tension exists in modern humanity between an artistic, creative, pacific side, and a mechanistic, analytical, warlike side, which may be traced to distinct and ancient heritages.

And we find a similar pattern in Wendell Berry’s 2002 essay ‘Two Minds’, in The World-Ending Fire. Here he nails the difference and tension between what he calls the ‘Rational Mind’ and the ‘Sympathetic Mind’. As Berry summarises it: “The Rational Mind is objective, analytical, and empirical; it makes itself up only by considering facts; it pursues truth by experimentation; it is uncorrupted by preconception, received authority, religious belief, or feeling. Its ideal products are the proven fact, the accurate prediction, and the ‘informed decision’. It is, you might say, the official mind of science, industry, and government. The Sympathetic Mind differs from the Rational Mind, not by being unreasonable, but by refusing to limit knowledge or reality to the scope of reason or factuality or experimentation, and by making reason the servant of things it considers precedent and higher. The Rational Mind is motivated by the fear of being misled, of being wrong. Its purpose is to exclude everything that cannot empirically or experimentally be proven to be a fact. The Sympathetic Mind is motivated by fear of error of a very different kind: the error of carelessness, of being unloving. Its purpose is to be considerate of whatever is present, to leave nothing out. The Rational Mind is exclusive; the Sympathetic Mind, however failingly, wishes to be inclusive.” (pages 181-182).

So what light, if any, does all this shed on the current environmental movement and the reaction of its participants to the eruption of Greta Thunberg onto the scene in 2018? To simplify slightly, let’s consider only the Extinction Rebellion (XR) and Greta’s Climate Strike for the Future, which arose together in late 2018 (Greta spoke at the launch of XR in London on 31 October), and have been growing in global influence, in dialogue and in parallel, ever since.

Participants in the XR movement call for official truth-telling and declarations of climate and ecological emergency, urgent action against GHG emissions with an early goal of zero net carbon, and governance reforms built on citizens’ assemblies to provide leadership and participation at all levels of society. These participants are a very mixed bag of people, all of whom share a fear of impending climate chaos, ecological collapse and mass extinction, and frustration over official denial and inaction over the decades since the dimensions of the crisis became known. The culture of the movement is determinedly non-violent, inclusive, egalitarian, tolerant, welcoming, transparent and regenerative through mutual support. It is also highly respectful of art – and wonderful art has been a hallmark from its beginning – spirit, healing and the ecological and climate sciences, and practitioners of all these traditions are highly valued. Everyone else is seen as persuadable through the logic of environmental truth, the feeling of shared nature and humanity, and the recognition that we are all equally terrified by reality but can help one another through ‘existential nausea’ to a better, more accepting and more determined frame of mind.

This is all both benign and electrifying. There are no great ideological tomes to read – if only because, as yet, there is no theory of governance to promote. There is only the manifest truth that all is very far from all right, that we have been lied to, and that it might be possible to build a better world if we can only summon enough spiritual energy and collective goodwill. There is, however, a deep and potent back-story: the history of life on Earth as told by palaentologists and planetary ecologists; the inexorable decline of the Arctic Ocean’s summer ice towards zero in about 2030, and what this means for runaway global heating; mass extinction at a level that may be as high as a million species annually; the processes of human separation from nature and the pretence of human ascendancy over the rules of ecology; and the consequences of that separation in broken societies and broken ecosystems. These consequences, it is understood, may soon include total breakdown: mass starvation, desperate migration, unconstrained war, and the wholesale end of the biosphere that we as a species have known for ever.

Since all this is well-founded in consilient knowledge (i.e. ‘science’), the question and frustration arises over why it has not been acted upon. Clearly, the science has been ignored, and it isn’t hard to make a list of reasons for this: it’s complicated, difficult, expensive to do anything, and it’s much easier to rationalise denial and delay, using whatever entitlement myths may be to hand – religious, racist, nationalist or neoconservative. From an English perspective we might cite two contributions by the folk hero Winston Churchill: the ‘ten year rule’ for not doing anything about a threat until it can no longer be pretended to be more than ten years away; and the aphorism that ‘scientists should be on tap – not on top’. These traditions of English conservatism can stand for a whole raft of reasons why the establishment is reluctant to respond to the urgings of science, and specifically ecological science whose practitioners have been pilloried as ‘tree-huggers’ since the 1960s when ecology first came to political prominence.

Well, that’s the problem – or part of it, since in addition to ecology there’s also the whole set of other things in XR, including the art, shamanism and anarchism, the purple-bearded men and the children and young mums with their naïve hand-made posters. Greta’s School Strike adds to the mix a million or two disobedient adolescents. This lot is virtually guaranteed to activate hostile feelings among more conventional thinkers, or Rational Minds, or Confucian officials. In this sense, as it has been since the ancestral environmental movements of the 1960s, ecology can be seen as a pseudo-scientific front for the anarchist left, easy to ’other’, easy to ignore and isolate, and, like the rest of the ‘hippies’ and ‘subversives’, if push comes to shove, easy to do away with. Which is frustrating for all concerned, and especially for ecologists.

But this brings us back to Greta Thunberg, and what her advent may mean. To me it is very clear. Greta activates a potent archetype: the virgin girl-child inspired by divinity, speaking truth to power, taking on the world. These figures are recognisable throughout history, and are powerful because they spark a deep response in our collective minds, summoning us to great out-pourings of spiritual energy which often have the effect of changing history. Since we need a great outpouring of spiritual energy to overcome resistance to change, and we need to change history very urgently, this is all as it should be. Whatever is going on in Greta’s mind, and for all I know in the mind of God in communion with her, it is necessary and welcome.

But the other thing here is that Greta’s message, essentially is: “Everyone and everything needs to change. Make the best available science the heart of politics and democracy. We must start today. We have no more excuses.” (from No One is Too Small to Make a Difference). The sailing yacht on which she is now crossing the Atlantic Ocean bears the slogan ‘Unite behind the science!’ on every boom and spar. The call is for policy and action on climate chaos to be based on scientific realism (i.e. what is needed) rather than political convenience (i.e. what is cheap and easy). That’s the message, and that is the green line that runs through the XR and Climate Strike movements, that holds them to the truth, that validates the knowledge we need for change, and that provides us with the indicators we need to measure real progress.

By uniting in one person deep respect for consilient knowledge, open-mindedness, creativity, compassion and social union, Greta symbolises everything important that we have been trying to say for decades, and quite possibly for millennia. As a girl-child/eco-warrior/hero-archetype she’s impressive and necessary enough, and one important thing is that she may summon our energies to change what needs to be changed, as a matter of deep and immediate urgency. But another important thing is that she may succeed finally in inspiring us to unify the divided mind of our species. This attempt seems to me utterly worthy of passionate engagement.

© Julian Caldecott


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

On Citizens’ Assemblies

The Extinction Rebellion (XR) is a growing movement among those willing to take or support non-violent direct action to reform ‘business as usual’ (BAU) in order to fix global heating, ecological collapse and mass extinction. It’s allied with like-minded movements and blessed by the gurus, priests and shamans of numerous faiths and philosophies. I joined XR because after so many years pushing for ecological system change around the world, here at last was a global mass movement that might be able to create political momentum for serious reform. It has three demands which I summarise and interpret as follows.

  • First, the governing elite must tell the truth about the state of the biosphere, the ways of the BAU that threaten its integrity, and their implications for humanity and nature.
  • Second, the governing elite must act effectively and with extreme urgency to address and resolve all threats to the integrity of the biosphere.
  • And third, a new system of leadership and governance must be installed, to guide and supervise reform of the current BAU, so as to ensure effective change and maintain the spirit of inclusiveness and democratic accountability.

Meeting the first demand means building public understanding and support for decisive action, while accepting that depression and fear are natural responses to truth about the world that we have made. Meeting the second demand means making deep and far-reaching changes to the BAU system, going far beyond anything so far agreed but consistent with the true situation that has resulted from past inaction. The third demand is the one that strikes most directly at the ability of the governing elite and BAU system to resist, delay and undermine reform efforts.

It is based on the reasonable beliefs that the ecological problems confronting humanity are too complex and urgent to be handled effectively by current decision-making arrangements, that the BAU system cannot be trusted to reform itself, and that the existing party-based political arrangements are too influenced by those who control BAU to be able to take the necessary hard decisions. This is not to say that individual legislators and businessmen are incompetent or untrustworthy, but it does recognise that established systems of interest and privilege tend to paralyse or misdirect change, at a time when urgent, directional reform is essential.

How decisions are made is important, as it sets the tone for future relationships among people and between people and nature. So any new decision-making forum should be inclusive in its construction, while also being informed and free of undue influence in its deliberations, and able to reach clear, quick, wise and useful decisions. Taking these factors into account, XR proposes to put in place a new Citizens’ Assembly to make strategic decisions. Members would be chosen through ‘sortition’ – that is random selection, like in jury service. The several hundred members would then be given access to expert advice (including a crash-course in ecology and planetary systems science) before deciding how we should proceed.

I speculate that such strategic decisions might focus on how to ensure that ecological reality always takes precedence over human laws (e.g. a Peace with Nature Constitution), or on how to protect the interests of vulnerable and future people and non-human species in all decisions (e.g. the appointment of Tribunes with veto powers). But they would certainly include priorities for combating climate change and mass extinction that are binding on all institutions and sectors. In short, for the specific purpose of making hard decisions to solve the problems of climate change, ecological collapse and mass extinction, a Citizens’ Assembly offers a way to combine the democratic strengths of informed public opinion with the serious responsibilities of jury service. This seems to me well worth demanding. See you on the streets!

© Julian Caldecott

Towards a Peace with Nature Constitution

People ask why I carry a ‘Peace with Nature’ flag at Extinction Rebellion demonstrations. I say it’s because humanity has got into the habit of waging war on nature, but this is a war that we simply cannot win. So we need to give up, surrender, relax, and submit to ecological reality instead. But the habit of war against nature is so strong – how do we break it? My answer is that we need a process of steady, educational change in a consistent direction, as our forces are demobilised and our societies reorganised for peace and sustainability. Then I explain about the daring and imaginative ways that Costa Rica has used to build Peace with Nature over decades. And I say that it’s time to pay attention and learn how to do peace.

Costa Rica is a country in Central America, between Panamá and Nicaragua. In 1948, it abolished its armed forces and redirected its military budget to healthcare, education and environmental protection. During the 1970s and 1980s, despite this early wisdom, rapid deforestation convinced local conservationists that virtually all private lands were likely to be cleared of natural ecosystems. Their lobbying led in 1989 to a National Biodiversity Planning Commission, which started with the premises that biodiversity was economically valuable so should be preserved and used for public benefit, and that forest protection could not succeed unless the people living around each protected area were willing to help protect it. The Commission proposed new laws to consolidate a National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC), with all the units being managed locally and for local benefit. To help pay for this, the Commission recommended a national biodiversity inventory, to find out exactly what made up Costa Rica’s biological richness and what it might be used for, and also the creation of a National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) to manage the inventory. All of this was done, and it led in the early 1990s to the high-profile birth of bioprospecting as a strategy for tropical developing countries to use and conserve their own living resources for their own long-term benefit.

By the mid 1990s, the logic of using ecosystems creatively to pay for their own conservation and contribute to national well-being had resulted in a ‘payments for ecosystem services’ (PES) programme in Costa Rica. This is a national system to manage payments for carbon storage, hydrological services, and the protection of biodiversity and landscapes. It is mostly financed by a 3.5% sales tax on fossil fuels, but the aim is that all beneficiaries of environmental services eventually pay for those they receive. In 1997-2004, some US$200 million was invested in PES to protect over 460,000 hectares of forests, to establish forestry plantations and to provide additional income to more than 8,000 forest owners. It had the effect of turning deforestation in Costa Rica into net reforestation by the early 2000s.

These environmentally-based economic programmes, together with debt-for-nature swaps and the rapid growth of genuine ecotourism (i.e. nature-based tourism that pays for conservation and promotes environmental education), helped to transform the country’s self-image and future, and by 2007 Costa Rica was ready for the next logical step, which was to declare Peace with Nature. This involved a number of specific commitments by the government, to abolish all forces that destroy nature by 2021: by banning net GHG emissions and single-use plastics, and promoting environmental action planning by all state institutions, investment in the protected area system and biodiversity, arrangements for users of ecosystem services to pay for their conservation, and environmental education in all schools.

Costa Rica’s 30-year process of change is built on consistent ecological reasoning, appropriate technologies and the sharing of costs and benefits to involve multiple aspects of society and the economy. The factors that made such an approach feasible in Costa Rica (with historical starting positions, luck, and leadership among them) need to be understood, but there are lessons to be learned here that are applicable in all other countries. Three factors are particularly relevant:

  • First, that the social and ethical development of a country or group of states needed for a Peace with Nature Declaration can now be achieved far more quickly than it was in Costa Rica, since we’ve all been wrestling with and learning from similar issues.
  • Second, that ‘Peace with Nature’ need not stop at a declaration and a set of government programmes, even over-arching and mainstreaming ones. Rather it could also be the basis for constitutional reform, applicable equally to a country like the UK that currently lacks a written constitution, and to countries where an existing constitution lacks adequate attention to environmental sustainability.
  • Third, that with ‘experimentalist governance’ as a proven idea (i.e. networked, exploratory peer learning, as applied in the UNFCCC Paris Agreement, the EU Water Framework Directive, the Chinese and Canadian development processes, and in air-traffic and nuclear safety systems), Peace with Nature can provide a goal to which all countries aspire and which they compete and cooperate to achieve.

I reckon that every country needs a Peace with Nature Declaration (to include commitments to Climate Emergency and Carbon Neutrality, but going far beyond them), and a cross-sectoral implementation programme through which to give it meaning, and a Peace with Nature Constitution to embed the key principles at the heart of its legal system, so that laws passed by its parliament can be challenged and judged against the standard of compliance with ecological reality, and struck down as unconstitutional if they fail the test. This would allow a country’s laws to be guided steadily, quickly and irreversibly towards ecological compliance, which is the key essential part of any survival strategy for our species and biosphere. And that’s why I carry a ‘Peace with Nature’ flag at Extinction Rebellion demonstrations! Do join in.

© Julian Caldecott