Extinction Rebellion, or “XR”, as it is frequently abbreviated, is an environmental movement which is focused on using nonviolent civil disobedience to compel government action to slow the impending climate catastrophe. It was organized in the UK in 2018 and has spread to the US and other countries. Major actions were organized by XR in London in November 2018 and April 2019 when the group effectively shut down the city.
When XR was started, I was organizing as part of a similar organization, 350.org. 350 and XR are similar, but XR is more focused in its goals and tactics. And the name … well, it’s really cool. That’s not something to be dismissed when we’re talking about mobilizing people. The name captures both the gravity of our predicament and the scale of the response which is called for. (For sci-fi fans, it may also evoke images of the heroes of the original Star Wars trilogy, who were part of the “Rebellion” against the evil “Empire”.) The organizers of XR see themselves in literal rebellion:
“We, in alignment with our consciences and our reasoning, declare ourselves in rebellion against our government and the corrupted, inept institutions that threaten our future.”
— “Declaration of Rebellion” in This Is Not a Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook
We discussed organizing a chapter of XR in our region, to work in tandem with 350. But in the end, we ended up disbanding 350. Left without an organizational umbrella, I considered starting an XR chapter on my own. But I now find myself taking a different path.
Over the last couple of years, the possibility of near-term extinction of the human species (not to mention the reality of mass extinction of other-than-human species) has settled deeper in my consciousness. At the same time, I have grown increasingly convinced of the need for rebellion, but also increasingly convinced of its futility.
Not too long ago, I, like many climate activists, insisted that we needed to “go down fighting”, by which I meant pursuing resistance, even if futile, until the bitter end. But I’m increasingly ambivalent about the whole notion of fighting. It seems to me that we often end up fighting the wrong things or the wrong people. What’s more, I’m starting to think that the posture of “fighting” precludes the kind of nuanced response that these times call for. What if the problem is the whole notion of “fighting”? We’ve been fighting against nature (and hence our fate) since at least the Industrial Revolution, and we see now where that attitude has gotten us. In a certain light, the fight against climate change looks uncomfortably like the war being waged on nature by human civilization. Guy McPherson, who is credited with coining the term “near-term human extinction”, expressed a similar sentiment about Extinction Rebellion:
“Because nature always bats last and also because nature always gets her way, a human rebellion at this late date hasn’t got a chance at preventing or slowing human extinction. Even if we did have the means and fortitude to rebel, I don’t know how we can meaningfully rebel, and against what. After all, our several-thousand-year-old rebellion against nature, in the form of civilization, is precisely the route by which we’ve found ourselves peering into the abyss of extinction.”
To be fair, it’s not nature that XR activists see themselves rebelling against; it’s the political and cultural system which is causing extinction. But consider that it is the fate of all species — including the human species — to one day go extinct. If we believe — as I do — that the acceleration of our extinction is nature’s response to global industrial civilization, then a rebellion against extinction starts to look indistinguishable from a rebellion against nature.
But if we’re not going to fight, if we’re not going to rebel, then should just give up? No. What I’m suggesting is that the “fight or give up” scenario is a false dichotomy. Paul Kingsnorth, co-founder of the Deep Mountain Project, explains this in the context of his his own experience with the environmental movement:
Only two ways of reacting to the current crisis of nature were offered. On the one hand, there was ‘fighting’. This fighting was to be aimed at the ‘elite’ that was destroying the planet–oil companies, politicians, corporate leaders, the rich. On the other hand, there was ‘giving up’. Giving up meant not fighting. It meant running away from a necessary battle. It meant being selfish. It meant ‘doing nothing’, and letting the planet go to hell. All of this hinged on a narrow definition of what doing something involved, and what action meant. It seemed to suggest that action must be something grand and global and gestural. Small actions were not actions at all: if you couldn’t ‘change the world’ there seemed little point in changing anything. Being seen to be able to say you were ‘fighting’ rather than ‘giving up’ could sometimes appear to be more important than whether that fight had any measurable impact. This military language, this focus on action-at-all-costs, this shaming of those who question it, seems strange to me. In an age in which ‘fighting for the planet’ most often means tweeting, signing petitions, writing blogs and sometimes going on a march, the rhetoric seems not only overblown but likely to obscure the value of more focused, small-scale personal commitments to changing things for the better.
So what are the alternatives to rebellion? What do we do when we stop fighting?
Jem Bendell is a professor of sustainability leadership and the author of the now (in)famous 2018 paper, “Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy”. A Vice article described it as “The Climate Change Paper So Depressing It’s Sending People to Therapy”. In the first part of the paper, Bendell lays out the case for near-term social collapse due to catastrophic climate change. He concludes that we are facing “inevitable collapse, probable catastrophe and possible extinction.” This is the part of the paper that seems to get the most attention.
But it’s the second part of the paper which most interests me. In it, Bendell outlines a conceptual map for responding to our possible extinction. The “map” consists of three parts: Resilience, Relinquishment, and Restoration. In a subsequent essay, Bendell added a fourth “R”, which I think is essential — Reconciliation.
Resilience means adapting to changing circumstances, especially trauma or catastrophe. This means both physical and psychological resilience. It means individual resilience, but mostly communal resilience. We practice resilience by maintaining certain norms and practices which which will help us adapt and survive.
Relinquishment means letting go of certain beliefs, behaviors, and things, because holding on to them would make the predicament worse. Examples of Relinquishment, says Bendell, include withdrawing from coastlines, shutting down vulnerable industrial facilities, and giving up expectations for certain types of consumption.
Restoration means rediscovering attitudes and ways of organizing our lives that have been lost since we started following the path of “progress”. Examples of Restoration, says Bendell, include rewilding landscapes, changing our diets to eat more seasonally, and rediscovering non-electronically powered forms of play.
Reconciliation means making peace — with ourselves, with other people, and with the natural world. Bendell explains this means making peace with the inevitability of our own deaths (individual and collective) and making peace between people of different genders, classes, generations, nationalities, religions and political persuasions. I would add that it also means making peace with the more-than-human world and the other-than-human beings with whom we share. It is this last one, Reconciliation, which, to my mind, is the most important. Reconciliation is the overarching concern which should drive our practice of the other three.
These four R’s — Resilience, Relinquishment, Restoration, and Reconciliation — can be expressed with the convenience shorthand XR4 (“XR to the fourth”*).
I have presented XR4 as a kind of alternative to XR. But in fact, many people in XR have embraced Jem Bendell’s work on Deep Adaptation. For his part, Bendell has been actively supportive of XR and has even authored an essay in the Extinction Rebellion Handbook, entitled “Doom and Bloom: Adapting to Collapse”.
It’s not a question of either/or, but a need for both/and. Yes, we must continue to rebel against the structures of power which have brought us to the brink of near-term extinction. At the same time, we must prepare for “inevitable collapse, probable catastrophe and possible extinction”. We can prepare by practicing Resilience, Relinquishment, Restoration, and — above all — Reconciliation.
You can read more of John’s writing on climate catastrophe and deep adaptation at AnotherEndoftheWorld.org.
* Note on the fourth power. The operation of taking a value to the second power is called “squaring” and taking it to the third power is “cubing”, but unfortunately there is no similar term for taking a value to the fourth power. The closest we can come is “tesseracting” since a four dimensional object is called a “tesseract”. I like the idea, since it suggests that XR4 is operating in a different dimension. But that’s way too nerdy to catch on.