For the past few weeks, the bridges and streets of central London have at times become clogged and impassable. That is, even more clogged and impassable than usual, which is saying something. This chaos has been planned and the disruptions scheduled, thanks to a group called Extinction Rebellion.
You may wonder, as the surly black cab drivers caught in traffic were surely wondering: Who are these tambourine-banging weirdos dancing to Abba in the middle of Waterloo Bridge? Why can’t they just go home? What is the point of all this? The answer is that the chaos is the point. It’s a mad solution for a mad world.
The activists of Extinction Rebellion are protesting government inaction over climate change – the British government’s inaction, although the protests are mushrooming up all over the world. The group’s goals are both hazy and ambitious: The British government must “tell the truth” about climate change, reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2025 and appoint a citizens’ council to ensure these ends are met. Their plan of non-violent civil disobedience seems both too simple to be effective, and at the same time so perfectly simple that it might be the one thing that could spur action, if it catches on.
“Sometimes the world makes so little sense that the only thing to do is engage in civil disobedience,’’ Masha Gessen wrote in The New Yorker in October. She was writing about a teenaged Swedish activist, Greta Thunberg, rather than the bridge-blockers of Extinction Rebellion, but really, they’re all of part of a continuum of humans who are furious about political foot-dragging on climate change, and who have decided that they can no longer wait politely on the sidelines while the planet turns to dust. They’re the people putting their bodies on the line – sitting down, walking out, suing their governments.
Greta is a 15-year-old who’s been on a school strike in Sweden, sitting outside the Parliament in Stockholm to protest what she sees as inadequate, short-term climate-change policies. Her vigil, in turn, is inspiring other teenagers. In Australia – where a heatwave and wildfires are currently devastating the northeast of the country – thousands of students followed Greta’s example and walked out of class this week to protest their own government’s failure to enact useful climate policies.
The young have a special stake in this, of course, since they’ll still be here cleaning up the mess the rest of us created like drunks at a party. In Canada this week, the group Environnement Jeunesse launched a class-action lawsuit against Ottawa on behalf of 3.5 million Quebeckers aged 35 and under. The lawsuit argues that the federal government, in failing to adequately act on climate change, has trampled on young people’s Charter rights, including the right in the Quebec charter to live in a “healthful environment.” This strategy is also global, part of an international legal fight that has seen young people sue governments in Colombia, Brussels, the Netherlands and the United States.
These strategies may seem disconnected from a distance, but taken together, they represent something bold and hopefully revolutionary. Activists, especially young ones, have taken Facebook’s discredited “move fast and break things” and turned it on its head: Move fast and fix things. There is no time to left to wait. No time to argue with politicians who have no viable climate-change policies, and who hilariously position themselves as bold mavericks because they’re happy to fiddle while the world burns.
The devastating fallout of political stasis is all around us. It’s in the fourth national climate assessment prepared by more than 300 scientists and 13 U.S. agencies, which might well be called the fourth-horseman report for its devastating prediction about the United States’ prospects by the end of the century if it does not act immediately to reduce emissions. There will be hundreds of billions of dollars lost in economic growth, and untold consequences for human health and livelihoods, never mind for animals and the rest of the natural world. This is the report the U.S. government tried to bury over the American Thanksgiving weekend; it is the meticulous documentation of an impending calamity, prepared by his own scientists, that President Donald Trump ignores with a shrug.
This week also brought an equally dire report from The Lancet about the worldwide health costs of unchecked climate change, which the medical journal compared to “multi-organ system failure” in a human body. The section on Canada is not comforting. A warming planet will bring increased risk of various diseases, from respiratory illness to heart disease. There will be more deaths from heat-related causes and insect-borne illnesses, and our health system isn’t prepared to deal with these consequences. As Courtney Howard, who wrote the Canadian section of The Lancet report, told journalists, “I’m an emergency doctor and I’m working on this because this is an emergency,”
Yet how do we respond to such an emergency? So far, quite feebly. In the province where I live, Ontario, the government has just announced a vague and regressive climate policy. As the province’s environmental commissioner, Dianne Saxe, tweeted, the “plan is about 1/3 as ambitious as the climate law that the government repealed a month ago, though overwhelming evidence shows that we need more action to reduce climate pollution, not less.”
This seems less like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic than taking the deck chairs and throwing them into the ship’s furnace to pick up speed toward the iceberg. In other words, absurd.
As environmentalist Bill McKibben recently wrote in The New York Review of Books, “We’re running out of options, and we’re running out of decades. Over and over we’ve gotten scientific wake-up calls, and over and over we’ve hit the snooze button.'' The old ways of thinking and putting pressure on governments haven’t worked. Radical options don’t seem so absurd at the moment, even if they are disruptive. Especially if they are.