This morning I was asked on-line how I felt about yesterday. I’m pondering. Intellectually I was stimulated by more than 2,000 mostly young people marching through Plymouth and enacting a die-in near to the Council House – the source of the local political administration. Again, cognitively, I challenged the Labour Party leader of Plymouth City Council – the only speaker to be invited to use the megaphone to the assembled masses – in his claim to support the Climate Emergency whilst calling for the reopening of Plymouth Airport and so adding to the carbon emissions we were all protesting against.
Having distributed all the 1,000 leaflets I had created and printed for the Extinction Rebellion group, and helped with the People’s Assembly process of group discussions on what is to be done, I met in the later afternoon with key local activists for a debrief and short beer in the back garden, and then watched the news, exhausted.
“We’re so worried about this, we’re even scared to have children…” was the interview with a 15 year old young woman at the London demonstration. And finally my emotions kicked back in. The views of hundreds of thousands into millions of young people demonstrating in 148 countries and seven continents across the world (yes, including Antarctica) made me cry and feel heavy of heart, not elated.
How strange. Perverse? Earlier, in the debrief, a few of us oldies had acknowledged the potential power of the mass and at the same time the scale of the challenge. We recognised, solemnly, that we each had by now undergone a sustained period of mourning for what has already been lost and what is still to go. Perhaps advancing age does indeed allow us to face mortality more honestly. And probably its just as well that the youth cannot.
The bereavement process enacted by the physical images of climate change as well as the outrageous graphic displays of runaway emissions has informed the emotional intelligence of most activists in Extinction Rebellion. We were organising to stop the barbarism of social and environmental collapse. For most of the youth, shouting “whose streets, our streets, whose planet, our planet” and replying “Rebellion” to the call out of “Extinction”, this was a day of festival and release. A protest for the Planet, but as much an emotional release from the confines of school and college and work and good behaviour.
The Russian revolutionary socialist, Vladimir Lenin, writing in the wake of enormous social protests in 1905, called revolutions the festival of the oppressed and exploited. Yesterday’s protests are a far cry from any revolutionary upsurge, but echoed Lenin’s notion back to me. This was an outcry, the largest global protest against climate change ever, competing with the 2003 anti-War upsurge against the illegal and genocidal invasion of Iraq. The protests should offer an enormous sense of hope.
But I don’t feel that way. It may be resonant with the depression described by rock singers or football players that comes from the excitement of being adored by a stadium crowd only to now be alone in a hotel room.
As such, I have left a sober evaluation for later. But these large manifestations I have found (and I have been on quite a few) to be a joyous experience only for the energy to evaporate into thin air by the following morning. The evaluation has to ask – what was built out of the event?
The striking students clamoured to be the ones to carry and brandish the “System Change not Climate Change” placards with their sub text of “One Solution – Revolution!”. Whether wittingly or by force of habit, the forces of the status quo – the Police, the local politicians and their cohort committed to winning parliamentary power and influence, the accompanying parents of school children and their teachers – were all there to contain and coral the energy and upset of this new generation. There was to be no question of revolt.
Greta Thunberg, struggling to avoid being the pin-up or stooge for the co-option of the Movement by the very System she has called to be dismantled, has her face across all media this morning. Her original cry that “there can be no more business as a usual” appears to be being co-opted by the Capitalist class and watered-down to a shabby set of pledges by business corporations to “go green” sometime soonish.
Those who have studied the science know we face a minimum of 3-4 degrees warming, before which time all societal coherence will have been destroyed unless we stop extracting and using fossil fuels now. The accompanying Ecocide, already well-into the 6th Great Extinction, is fast making the world uninhabitable.
It is this “scale”, this magnitude, this all encompassing and fast-approaching Armageddon, that floods my senses and prevents me feeling the joy of yesterday. The millions on the streets did not represent the breakthrough needed for real change. The System that must be changed can easily suck-up, confuse, mitigate, divide and conquer such numbers which, in real terms, amounted to less than one percent of the population of Plymouth, and an infinitesimally smaller proportion of the world’s population. We need so much more.
Lenin, also wrote, “At no other time are the masses of the people in a position to come forward so actively as creators of a new social order as at a time of revolution. At such times the people are capable of performing miracles, if judged by the narrow, philistine scale of gradual progress.” There is a heady resonance from such an ancient observation as the pictures of the masses flood our morning TV screens. But we will need a Lenin’s “miracle”.
With every muscular sinew and clenched emotional determination, we have to build and magnify yesterday’s mass protests. We have yet to activate anything near to the critical mass of human revolt required for the scale of system change essential if we are to prevent extermination. Gramsci, the Italian Revolutionary, in an over-used posthumous quote from his prison cell, mused that revolutionaries have to operate with a combined “pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the Will”. And so I will.
Saturday 21st September 2019