Extinction Rebellion Isn’t About Climate Change

It is funny how the universe delivers us all the right things. Or perhaps it is just our penchant for recognizing patterns that makes it seem so. In either case, it is remarkable how often the signals come through the noise exactly when we need them to.

Only recently I began thinking how the outcries around climate change and mass extinction were actually manifestations of a greater longing, that of a need to transcend our previous modes of social organization — tribes and kingdoms, empires and nation-states — to create a new, planetary entente, one that treated the rest of life on earth, not as competitors, but as fellow stakeholders in a common enterprise.

Then I came across this:

“Such problems both require and provide opportunities for learning new ways of problem solving as a global society.”

It was in a paper titled “Carbon dioxide from fossil fuels” by Kan Chen, Richard C. Winter, and Michael K. Bergman, published December 1980 in the journal Energy Policy. I would never have known anything about it were it not for the fact that Google served a Scientific American article that referenced it up to me. The first two sentences of the abstract alone are enough to make one place their head in their hands and weep.

If present scientific information is reasonable, the world is likely to experience noticeable global warming by the beginning of the next century if high annual growth rates of fossil fuel energy use continue. Only with optimistic assumptions and low growth rates will carbon-dioxide-induced temperature increases be held below 2°C or so over the next century.

I first heard the term ‘global warming’ in January 1990. We were just pulling into the small town in northwestern Montana where I grew up, having spent the holidays visiting my father’s family in southern California. My brother Jeb, an avid skier, was looking out the window of the ragged Ford van my dad’s band used to haul their equipment around, his profile silhouetted by the reddish glow of high pressure sodium lights. There was hardly any snow.

“God damn global warming,” he said. I was stunned. I had never heard him swear.

Global warming. I didn’t know what it was, precisely, but I had heard it mentioned enough times, had collected enough data somewhere in the back of my mind, that I understood what he was referring to. But I was 17, and much more concerned with getting together with my girlfriend after being gone for ten days than how much snow was on the ground, or why. I believed in peak oil and thought that would be the first catastrophe that our petroleum fueled economy would visit upon us. Cars were woven into the very fabric of American society, especially for a teenage boy growing up in rural Montana in the latter part of the 20th Century, and there was no reason to expect we would abandon them.

But still. My brother’s words haunted me. Global warming. He seemed so sure of it.

My brother Jeb is a scientist, and he doesn’t talk much. When he does, he is usually correct, at least in the sense that he has his facts straight. Unlike me, he doesn’t draw many conclusions. Once, I asked him to make a judgement on a matter of ecology, one that he had been studying for the previous five or so years. His response: “Need more data.”

As it turned out, he was correct in attributing the lack of snow to global warming. Not only that, he was referencing a scientific theory that was already a decade old, at the very least, a well-documented one that had very little need for ‘more data’. This wasn’t knowledge I should have had some vague recollection of. It was a fundamental law of physics underlying the current, past, and future existence of life on earth.

And yet I still don’t think that global warming is what this is really all about.

(By the way, I don’t call it climate change, and I don’t think it was a good idea to pivot away from the original term. Climates change. The issue at hand is that the earth is warming, beyond that narrow (Overton, for those buzzwordy among us) window for which the current crop (yes, I did that deliberately) of life forms on earth is adapted, which will likely cause another ice age following a brutal period of excessive heat. I don’t know if changing it was a PR play on the part of the science community or a psyop on the part of the sequestered energy industry, but, in either case, we should go back to global warming. And we should repurpose Nancy Reagan’s infamous ‘Brain on Drugs’ ad in doing so. “This is the Earth. This is the Earth on sequestered energy.”)

There was a time, when we lived as tribes, that, should you range too far from the group alone, you stood a high likelihood of encountering another tribe and being either captured or killed. Later, that fear expanded to include assault by army or boat, culminating in the threat of a thermonuclear weapon (or precision drone strike) incinerating you without your ever even knowing it was there.

Somewhere in the middle of all that (right around that atomic bomb point, in fact), that fear went from being a valid one, to being absurd.

There is never going to be another global conflagration. I have said this elsewhere, and you may tire of hearing it, but I will never tire of saying it. They aren’t my words, I borrow them from Dwight D. Eisenhower, who presided over the last great war to end all wars. A cliche, except this time, it really was.

“The only way to win the next world war is to prevent it.”

— Dwight D. Eisenhower at a rally in the Civic Auditorium, Seattle, Washington, October 17, 1956

During World War Two, and certainly throughout every single conflict we engaged in since, we traded with our enemy. What this means, in an economic sense, is that this wasn’t a war that needed fighting.

Fast forward to today, and we are so entangled in a web of global supply chains and overseas markets that a world war would not only be unthinkable, but infeasible. Who would ally with and supply whom, and to what end? And who would fight it?

In times past, we were limited in our knowledge of the world outside our own by a singular limiting factor, the horizon. We had notions about what was on the other side of the mountains or the sea, but the only way to test their validity was to physically move beyond that horizon. Today, we not only know what is on the other side of the Pacific Ocean (it’s Asia, in case you were wondering. I just looked on Google Earth), we can observe it remotely in real time, or at least get eyewitnesses accounts (the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming — they should be there in 18 hours or so).

“What we do not understand, we fear. What we fear, we judge as evil. What we judge as evil, we attempt to control. What we cannot control … we attack.”

— Author unknown

The thing is, we understand just about everything, at least about what’s lurking over the hill. Thus, we have nothing to fear, nothing to control, nothing to attack. The Chinese or Russians have no more need to fear our attacking them than we do their attacking us. Again, the preeminent Dwight D. Eisenhower:

I think that people want peace so much that one of these days government had better get out of their way and let them have it.

Which brings us back to global warming. Our concerns about global warming are as much about the potential for it to shake this final and tenable peace as they are about its very real physical dangers. That existential threat — of crop failures or an outbreak of some virulent pandemic — posed by climate change is real, but the potential for violent conflict brought on by fears arising from that threat, aroused or otherwise, even more so.

But does that mean we should arm ourselves and prepare to defend our shrinking coastlines, flooded crop lands, and drying wells from hordes of climate refugees fleeing even worse off places? Or better yet, launch a preemptive strike and rid the world 3 billion CO2 spewing East Asians? I realize there are voices in the crowd, loud ones, crazy ones even, that say ‘yes, that, exactly’. But the answer is no.

What we need to do, have to do — what I would argue we truly long to do — is reach out, despite our fear of the unknown (because we can never really know what is going on in the minds of people halfway around the world, even with the technological wizardry of CNN and the International Space Station at our fingertips), and extend the olive branch of peace to say, “we understand that we share this world with you and we want to figure out how we can best do that”.

This, more than anything, is what is driving movements such as Sunrise and Extinction Rebellion and whatever similar such movements in Russia and cloistered China and the Muslim world call themselves. The concern isn’t with global warming. It can’t be; we’ve had 40 years to do something about that and have done nothing but make it worse. The concern is with missing the opportunity to finally free ourselves from the fear and distrust and competition that have so long shackled us and to begin crafting a collaborative commonwealth that does justice to the magnificent gift that is planet earth and the existence of life upon it.

The rebellion isn’t about stopping climate change, even though that has become the latest in its rallying cries. The rebellion is much older than that, easily dating back to the times of Christ and Buddha, probably to the very dawn of civilization itself. It is an expression of our collective desire to move beyond these governments, these oligarchs, these nationalists, these fascists, these cultural norms and primeval instincts, to realize our true nature and answer the call for love and kinship that resounds within us.