Climate justice and a community of communities

After a rather academic post last time, here I’m going to interleave a more activist one.

I’d been planning to write more about household farming but I’ve been on a brief odyssey away from home which terminated with a visit to XR’s Impossible Rebellion in London – and which also terminated on my part with a night in a police cell. The officers arresting me contrived to yank my shirt off me as they carried me away, before dumping me on the pavement to nurse a few minor cuts and bruises while I unwittingly treated the photographers in attendance to the sight of my somewhat over-capacious middle-aged belly. Dignified it was not, but I’m hoping that if anyone links the scenes back to this blog, they’ll take it as proof positive of the excellent diet available in a small farm future 🙂

To be honest, I’m still a bit too wired after my arrest to settle down and write the intended post about household farming and I’m feeling the need to process recent events a little more. So instead, just a few thoughts prompted by my London trip.

The day began with a rally in Trafalgar Square where a Haitian activist spoke about his country’s founding in anti-slavery revolt and taught us a song from those times whose words, as I recall, were along the lines that there are no mothers or fathers here, only warriors, and we will avenge those of us who are slain. I don’t think I was the only white middle-class person there to shuffle my feet nervously as we sang along, thinking first of all “whoa, not sure I’d quite signed up to that” while also contemplating the unimaginable courage of the Haitian revolutionaries and many others fighting colonial violence orders of magnitude beyond anything in our experience.

But this isn’t some historical beauty contest. It’s about building alliances to achieve political aims now. XR has received quite a bit of criticism since its founding for its alliance-building failures, for its whiteness and middle-classness. So I for one was pleased to hear the voices of many black and minority ethnic people and others in the forefront of oppression throughout the day who were engaging with XR. But inevitably, upon coming home and taking another sip of Twitter poison, I’ve found endless screeds fulminating against XR on all sorts of grounds, not least its need to engage and mobilise black, minority ethnic and working-class activism, and sometimes for the very fact that its activists are ‘middle-class’, as if this is intrinsically disreputable.

I find myself increasingly unimpressed by this onslaught – the bad faith of it from the political right announces itself from miles away, but the bad faith of ‘progressive’ voices more concerned to build paper hierarchies of activist entitlement than practical coalitions of political engagement runs it a close second. As I see it, there’s a contradiction within much leftist thought between a view of oppressed people as the natural aristocracy of anti-systemic politics and a view of the non-oppressed as having some special responsibility to channel the activism of the oppressed. Often enough, whichever of these contradictory strands best diminishes middle-class activism in the case at hand is chosen – perhaps a successful strategy for promoting whatever version of political authenticity the writer wishes to burnish, but not so much for promoting actual anti-systemic politics.

Enough of this. I recently argued that nobody is more or less real than anyone else. True, certain identities and experiences of oppression give people unique insights into the modes and methods of political exclusion. What’s less convincing is to proceed from that to the grand Hegelian step that these insights uniquely ground possibilities for overcoming the political status quo.

In my brief time with XR in London I saw a lot of people from many different social positionings interacting with each other around climate activism – a community of communities seeking common ground. In that sense, I think I saw briefly in outline a version of the populist civic politics that I advocate in my book A Small Farm Future. People who weren’t burying or superseding their positionings or differences but building out from them to other people and figuring out how to ground a new politics out of those interactions.

Doing so in the context of a short-lived street protest is one thing. Doing it in the slower-burning and under-emphasized context of ongoing local XR group activism is harder. Much, much harder still is to do it in the context of building resilient local farm communities in a world where our deepest assumptions about how societies work materially are melting from the ground up. The only thing that might make this easier is its increasing necessity.

The window of opportunity for people to drive that process rather than be unwittingly driven by it is closing fast. With AR6 just out, COP26 drawing global attention to the UK, the government’s next phase in criminalizing protest not yet on the statute book, and with oppressive policing in the UK currently less severe than in most countries in the world, at least for people like me, when I was in London I felt that the onus on me and others like me is high at this particular historical moment to raise our voices around climate change and climate justice as best we can.

There are any number of ways one might do that, of which arrestable action at XR protests is only one. But I’ve run out of sympathy with those who think it’s a good use of their own time to argue that arrestable action at XR protests isn’t one.

More than a few on the left like to dismiss XR by recourse to nothing more than an infamous tweet from the organization repudiating identification with socialism or any other given political creed. The tweet was naively phrased, though I think there may be a populist/civic politics implicit in it that’s eminently defensible. Anyway, I’m kinda tired of this notion that there’s a singular left politics with the only true structural grasp of the forces underlying climate change, an ability to mitigate it and a more plausible political route for implementation than the one that XR is trying. I don’t buy the theory, I don’t buy the empirical politics, in Britain or most other places, and I think it smells too much of sour grapes and self-righteousness. It’s time instead to use our small quanta of individual and collective political power with a bit more humility and uncertainty. But with a conviction to use it all the same.

45 thoughts on “Climate justice and a community of communities

  1. I think a reasonable way to estimate the desirability of any course of action is to weigh the daily energy and time required and multiply by the chance of success. If one devotes 100% of one’s time and energy to a project, yet the odds of success are less than 1%, it would probably be better to try another tack.

    My wild-assed guess is that non-violent protest has almost no chance of changing the status quo, with its emphasis on material prosperity and economic growth. “There are no mothers or fathers here, only warriors, and we will avenge those of us who are slain” is more descriptive of the level of violent struggle that might raise the odds from near zero into the single digits.

    Sabotage of the communications infrastructure underpinning the global market economy might be the only ‘non-violent’ action that could slow things down, but so far we don’t seem to have enough radical environmentalist computer programmers to do the job. Where’s an unstoppable WannaCry when we need it?

    And it’s important to remember that humanity is severely into population overshoot. Anything that causes a change in direction toward a sustainable economy and a stabilized climate will mean death for many people, especially in the big cities of the industrial world. It is now far to late to gradually deconstruct modernity and build a new world of non-industrial agriculture that grows enough food to keep everyone alive.

    For this reason, I expect the powers that be and the vast majority of the population will resist ending modernity with all their might. They will likely succeed but only until they are eventually defeated by resource depletion and climate change. My take is that modernity is more likely to fail from some internal failure, so far covered up by its complexity, than by concerted political activity.

    • I don’t think the point of non-violent protest is to make any kind of material difference at all. I think it’s primarily about communicating between and within communities that already agree that something must change, and secondarily about communicating the need for change to the wider world (but not necessarily those in power, who aren’t going to listen anyway). It reinforces the identity of the protesters as people who care enough to try to do something. This is immensely valuable, but it doesn’t necessarily achieve anything in terms of,say, changing legislation.

      Non-violent direct action is another matter, and takes many forms.

      I’m not a fan of the population overshoot argument. I also think widespread availability of relatively cheap and relatively safe contraception isn’t something we’ve seen the full effect of, yet: it’s been less than a century. And even if (or when) we lose many of the high tech pharmaceutical industry that gives the West easy access to hormonal contraception, we still know about germ theory, so something like a sterile metal speculum and a copper IUD is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

      Activists, too, rely on the trappings of modernity to coordinate their work, so I’m not surprised that many are reluctant to end it. I take some comfort from the idea that, while modernity as we know it is clearly unstable and unsustainable, what comes next doesn’t necessarily have to be a regression to what came before, even while I also try to avoid the romanticisation of progress.

  2. Seems like a good time to thank you for what you do Chris, hope the cuts, bruises and dignity are on the mend. I’m not inclined to disagree with any of this, and see it rather as a challenge to people like me happier squatting in armchairs.

    I think the uncertainty you emphasise is crucial here, and subverts both some of the left ‘strategising’ that assumes rather fixed social coordinates and also the sort of cost-benefit analysis that Joe advocates above. It may still be possible for our global population to transition to a better world, even if the possibility seems remote. That’s a hope worth nurturing.

  3. I can imagine exchanges along the lines of “You go and get arrested this time, my love. I’ll stay and look after the farm.”
    Camping in a house about 2,000km away from London I caught a news item on Classic FM that I’m fairly certain went out the day before the start of the current XR protest, to report that XR Rebellion protestors have cost the taxpayer more than 50 million pounds. The following day, the fact the protestors were hard at it again in London was mentioned by the same station’s news. That the first story even made the selection in particular got my back up. We can’t know beforehand the chances of success (however slight) in the things we do, so why not try a scattergun approach?

    • I hate this take of XR had cost the taxpayer X amount of pounds/euros etc. XR didn’t cost that. Authorities chose on behalf of the taxpayers to spend all of that money. They didn’t have to respond with excessive police force.

      • I’m not sure that government spending is ever “taxpayers money” but then that is a whole other debate!

  4. I can’t speak to any particular Twitter criticism. What I’ve seen mostly dismisses XR as an MI5 op—a ploy to get people arrested. Which seems paranoid. My sense is XR basically like any other charity or NGO: a mixed bag of lots of good work, but also excess attention to elite donors and so forth.

    Saying that…there are major contradictions I’m not sure we can wish away with calls for solidarity. In the US I think the fault lines are a bit clearer because we are a setter colony. Post war Europe has pushed down a lot to the global south and that way created a black box. So like Netherlands gets praised for its bike culture meanwhile oil and other extraction are a key part of the economy. The response to climate WRT the global north is primarily a willingness to give things up. If the pandemic (or antebellum) is any bellwether…

    I agree authenticity and identity politics aren’t they way—indeed are counterproductive—but based on some official Tweets of XR I don’t think accusations of parochialism are without merit. At the same time Twitter comms aren’t a necessarily a reflection of realities on the ground, and a certain amount of politicking/pandering is probably essential.

    As to what the right answer…I’m at a loss. As with the pandemic, I gather mostly we’ll just be reacting as the shit hits the fan. Twitter discourse a kind of background radiation.

  5. A quick follow up/correction. Having looked more into the Twitter feedback I see besides identity politics, cringe policing. This happened with last summer’s BLM protests. A “privileged” yt woman stripping naked became a focal point. Even if an illegitimate or clout chasing tactic, it was hardly typical. There was also an effort to cast protesters as primarily white/gentrifiers along classic authenticity concern trolling lines; but this only really worked with the right or certain media contrarians.

  6. Agree with your views Chris, thanks for protesting. I struggle a bit with the expression “climate justice”. For me, it is strange to separate “climate justice” from “justice” or “eqaulity” in general. Of course, as a way to highlight that the burden as well as the cause of climate change is not the same for all, it has some form of pedagogic value. I see calls for climate justice or for individual carbon budgets as modern versions of calls for land reform. Wouldn’t you agree that a large degree of equality is more or less inherent in the term climate justice?

  7. Thanks for the comments & appreciations. I’m aiming to say a bit more about the protest and its implications a way down the line. For now I’ll just say briefly that my personal cost-benefit analysis around XR involvement is strongly positive, although I suspect my bank statements may provide an alternative narrative. Whether political climate activism will bring about sufficient change is another matter, but then I feel that’s true of everything else that I and other people do. If things devolve to the kind of disastrous scenarios Joe anticipates, then I think I’d be happy to have done what I did on Monday as a small act of bearing witness.

    Much to agree with in Peter’s comments and I’m certainly not arguing that everything XR has done or that people have done in its name is beyond reproach. Still, a lot of online criticism of XR from radicals reads to me rather like people latching onto some perceived flaw as a means to dismiss it out of hand in ways that reflect more negatively on the critic than on the organisation.

    I understand Gunnar’s misgivings about ‘climate justice’. I guess I nonetheless appreciate the way the term emphasizes the social justice aspects of climate change and de-emphasizes overly technical narratives about atmospheric physics or energy technologies which fail to address the former. All the same, yes to ‘justice’ without the extraneous adjective.

    An uncannily accurate depiction of household conversations chez Vallis Veg from Simon there! As to taxpayers money, I’ll come back to that another time…

  8. I pray you recover well from your action! May God strengthen, console, and reward you.

    The socialist responses to that XR tweet are all too typical. It’s ironic to see socialists accusing XR of fascism or neoliberalism: it is absolutely impossible to imagine capitalism continuing if the goal of immediate net zero emissions were achieved, but it is abundantly easy to imagine capitalism (and all its concomitant repressive state apparatus) continuing after an ecomodernist Green New Deal were implemented.

    That said, while I see XR as a hopeful movement, I remain skeptical of the “beyond politics” descriptor. I understand it as a branding choice to reach out to more “normal” people, and I /certainly/ agree that we need to go “beyond [modernist-progressive] politics”, but I wonder if the movement, and especially the leadership, wouldn’t be greatly aided by adhering to the politics of the Small Farm Future (or distributism more broadly). Unfortunately, it’s very easy for protest movements to devolve into performative conscience-consoling rituals (our BLM protests turned definitively this way by August of last year), without really envisioning and simultaneously /building/ a “new society in the shell of the old”. Ideology/social doctrine/theory can be false, blinkered, and misleading (as I believe you are right in diagnosing Marxist/socialists), yet your own civic Republicanism (which aligns well with the citizen assemblies of XR) is, I would argue, a form of ideology (in the 1830s, it was as fringe and radical as ‘socialism’!). Political principles are inescapable.

    I look forward to talking more on the future of Luddite politics!

  9. Yes Chris, much appreciation for your demonstration service!

    I’m at least a pessimistic about our future as Joe, but when we are talking about something like XR demonstrations, I don’t think optimism or pessimism figures in. Just do the thing. Be seen. Get arrested if you feel like it, and more power to you, as Sean Domencic said.

    Because the cause is hopeless, we don’t know what will help. We only know that the unsustainable will not be sustained. Everything else is just putting a bit more (or less) spin on the ping-pong ball. And speaking for myself, I’d much prefer the spinning be done by people such as yourself that I respect and agree with.

    And I’m going to veer off from Joe with his cost-benefit analysis. That calculation of potential effectiveness (profit) is a good part of what got us in this fix in the first place. I’m much more in tune with Ed Abbey or Wendell Berry: go ahead and do that sub-rational stuff that everybody tells you won’t work. Nothing else has worked so far, so what’s to lose?

    • Hear, hear. On everything, but especially on the last paragraph. I can get so downcast from cynical and nihilistic responses to climate action, but that’s of course the perfect rebuttal. Thanks.

  10. A common enemy of sufficient danger can get us tribal, bickering humans to coalesce and unite for common cause, but unfortunately, climate change is slow, amorphous, and downplayed by the power structures. An event like the opening chapter of “The Ministry for the Future” by Kim Stanley Robinson might do the trick at great cost, but nothing short of that is likely to work.

    Regardless, carry on with protest, you never know. We are entering volatile times, and some nonlinear stuff just might happen. No snowflake knows if its will be the one to trip the avalanche, but eventually one does.

  11. I’m late to this, but thank you, Chris, for your activism. I’m too scared to join protests any more (I’m foreign, so could be deported; I have a joint condition that would make getting beaten up something that could take years to recover from, rather than weeks), and I am glad that there are people braver than I am.

    I think movements like XR can be picky and small, or diverse and large. I’ve certainly seen some Twitter commentary about XR being “too middle-class” but this seems to miss several points. (And many of the people I’ve seen complain of such are, not to put too fine a point on it, pretty middle-class themselves.) Twitter is definitely a context where I try to be conscious of how I might bring salt and light and leaven, rather than contributing to the toxicity endemic to the platform.

  12. Well after living in the UK I can say this , the government will put up with XR untill it doesn’t then it will crush it just like it always does , remember the miners ? Arthur Scargil ? , gas tanker drivers ? Ship yard workers ? No , that’s because the government removes all access to media and they write the history books , a D notice will work on Twitter / FB just like it works on the Times , cops will do what they are told , watch what’s happening in Australia .
    The labour party is now a bankrupt disaster , the tuc just defunded it . Start a new political party and then work for change , protests never work .

  13. Almost everyone likes “the trappings of modernity”, including me, but what comes next will not be a “regression”, it will be worse. Modernity won’t simply regress back down the course of increasing technological complexity that got us the trappings we enjoy today.

    We won’t go back from cell phones to land lines, from email to faxes, and then from diesel tractors to steam tractors and on to horses and oxen for motive power. I would be so wonderful if we could regress, but we can’t. Without getting into the details, it’s far easier to add a new technology to an existing base of older technologies than to abandon a new one and resurrect an older one.

    A population in overhoot is a population that is too big to be sustained. If we could very quickly redistribute all humans to small horticultural plots and inculcate the knowledge needed to grow food on them it might be theoretically possible to feed every human on the earth, but my view is that it will neither be attempted nor, if attempted, will it be physically possible. The human population cannot be sustained at anywhere near its current level, especially in modern countries. It’s in overshoot. Here’s a good explanation from William Rees: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9oVTHKzC7TM&t=3029s

    You are correct that one way to reduce the human population is to reduce births rather than wait to see premature deaths increase. Japan and China are examples of modern countries in the forefront of population reduction and there are many others. Japan’s population peaked in 2009 and is expected to be at about 80% of its peak in 2050. China’s population has just about peaked, but will still be well over 1 billion in 2050 if modernity continues. Due to immigration, the US population is expected to grow slightly.

    These rates of population reduction are far too slow in spite of ample birth control availability. Japan imports 60% of its food and the 40% produced internally uses a lot of modern materials and equipment. China does better, but it is ranked about like the UK in food sustainability even though it imports less food (China has suffered a lot of environmental degradation which affects its food prospects). The UK imports 45% of its food.

    I think the Edo period (1603-1867) was last time Japan was producing food sustainably. Its population then was maxed out at about 30 million, less than one fourth of its current population. A few years ago I took a train from Tokyo to Kyoto, a 500 km trip. The high ratio of urban landscape compared with rural landscape was shocking. I just can’t imagine how any transition from modern Japan to Edo Japan can be accomplished. The same goes for every modern country. If you think it can be done, please let me know how.

    So, modern cities just can’t be sustained long term, but I think people living in those cities will probably hang on by their fingernails until the last crop fails or just can’t be delivered. They probably won’t know what’s happening because modern communications will have already failed. They will just wait and wait in the hope that their next meal will appear.

    I think humanity’s modernity project is headed for self-destruction. This path has been obvious for decades, but virtually nothing has been done to avert it. This is the context in which I make my cost-benefit analysis for my family and friends. A single person without children and grandchildren might see an entirely different pattern of costs and benefits and arrive at a completely different course of action. Everyone has to prepare for the future they think they will see.

    But I think it’s important to know the difference between actions that are prudent preparation for the future we think we will see and those that provide mainly emotional gratification. For example, we all know we’re going to die sometime in the future. If one is old, like me, it’s the not-too-distant future. I’m the kind of person who prefers Swedish döstädning to “raging against the dying of the light” (I’m not as good “death cleaning” as I would like, but I’m trying). Others may have different emotional needs in this context, but in any context I think it’s always good for everyone to be aware of what those emotional needs are and the costs and benefits of satisfying them.

      • It’s relieving to hear that someone else is no great shakes at death cleaning, either. But to those who tell me “you can’t take it with you,”, I say please just throw it all in the coffin with my corpse.
        Anyway, strength to your elbow, Joe – I always find interest in reading your take on things.

      • Thanks for the link. Amazing! All that mechanization for tulips.

        The Dutch tulip industry has about $7 billion in annual sales, which is a little under half of the cut flower trade. The video shows the growing side, but after the stems are cut in the field they enter a huge cold-chain network that involves flying flowers all over the world.

        https://www.bbc.com/future/bespoke/made-on-earth/the-new-roots-of-the-flower-trade/

        This whole industry will simply stop at some point, to be replaced by flowers grown outside the front door of the farmhouse or in the village square. Like so much of modernity, the cut flower trade is pure extravagance.

    • Joe, thank you for introducing the concept of döstädning, of which I was unaware. It reminds me of the medieval ‘art of dying’, which has always struck me as a very good basis for making decisions in one’s autumn years.

      ‘Everyone has to prepare for the future they think they will see.’ Fair enough. You’ve also suggested that you’ve made your own decisions on this in the context of your family and friends. Again, fair enough. But I think the protest and alliance building that characterise things like XR are actions that aim at a context in which such decisions can be made by people collectively across the globe in the context of a global ‘family’.

      That this is currently not possible is, of course, the point of the protest. That it sometimes seems impossible is understandable despair, but is at root the product of pessimism about the capacity of any action to achieve it. There is a more optimistic alternative, and I don’t think this is raging against the dying of the light, at least, not from an optimistic perspective!

      The material basis for an optimistic perspective cannot be demonstrated, but neither can that for the pessimistic alternative. The current problems with food sustainability are a factor of the current economic system, and whether that system can be radically transformed is not really something that can be proved in advance. But it will only happen at all if people commit to it, and the generation of such commitment is an important aspect of protest movements.

      I’m sure you’re right that cities would not survive this process, at least in anything like their current form, but I don’t think that needs to stop us being optimistic about the prospects of the people living in them and their descendants – not because their prospects look rosy, but because there’s every reason to believe that people everywhere are capable of working towards a better future. The task is to build that workforce. We’re not there yet, nowhere near, but the basis of any collective action must surely be to aim for it.

    • My dislike of the population overshoot argument is the way it is used as justification for xenophobia, eugenics and the like. Currently there are people all in a tizzy about the UK accepting 20k Afghan refugees (over a period of 5 years), saying there are already too many people here, when we’ve also had in excess of 150k deaths from Covid-19 — also justified by some as being a good thing because there were “too many people”. The Brexit vote was mostly premised on similar racist ideas, and yet now due to a combination of Brexit, worker shortages that might have happened anyway, and Covid-19, even modernity, locally at least, finds itself in dire need of more workers: lorry drivers, shop staff, ICU nurses.

      I’m not saying that I expect the transition period we are in not to result in deaths; I am saying it is abhorrent to me that as a society we allow people to die (or indeed to kill them) when we could easily and trivially save their lives if we distributed resources differently. Whether or not there are too many people on the planet, it is morally wrong, evil even, for Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates or whoever to have piles on piles of riches, while some sicken and die for lack of food or clean water or shelter. Perhaps even if we organised society to distribute resources more equitably, many such deaths would occur. That doesn’t make it okay to write off deaths that result from *not* sharing resources as if they are inevitable, any more than it is okay to tell a parent that their child was going to die eventually anyway so it doesn’t matter that they died young when hit by a drink driver.

      I think in a small farm future we will need all the resilience we can get, and resilience comes partly from diversity and redundancy, and every needless death is a potential waste there. So, I do think the preservation of life is prudent preparation for whatever lies ahead. However, I don’t find rail against conversations about overshoot just because of such practicalities, but also because of my religious beliefs. I don’t personally fear my death all that much (I genuinely believe that death will not be the end), but I do regard every human life as precious. I don’t see much acknowledgement of that in conversations around population overshoot.

      Again, I’m not saying that overshoot isn’t a problem. But I think inequitable resource distribution is a much bigger cause of suffering and death now, and will be in future. I am not inclined toward talking about problems specific to overshoot when we’re nowhere near solving resource distribution problems (which will only get worse through the breakdown of modernity).

      • “locally at least, finds itself in dire need of more workers: lorry drivers,”
        Something here I do know about , it ain’t a shortage of drivers , it’s a shortage of goods to shift , running a 38 ton truck with 1 pallet of yogurt is becoming a loss leader , Lock down and it’s knock on is the root of the problem .

  14. So XR ‘Costs’ £50 million to Police.

    What about the cost of ‘Alcohol Related Public Disorder’ I see no political wish to tackle that or the boy racers who make our streets dangerous & unpleasant?

  15. I’m only going to comment briefly on a couple of things, but thanks everyone for an interesting and wide-ranging discussion. I’ll no doubt come back to some of these points again in the future.

    Since a growing uninterest on my part in engaging with arguments against the value of ground-up climate activism was one of the main thrusts of my original post, I’m not minded to respond at too much length to Joe’s comments in this regard. Eric, Andrew, Kathryn and others are closer to my position. What I would say is that I’m not persuaded that ‘prudent preparation for the future’ versus ‘emotional gratification’ is a useful dichotomy (the concept of döstädning itself surely bridges it), nor that more localized friend/family based practical work necessarily better mitigates against negative future outcomes. Also, while agreeing with Eric on the road to hell of cost-benefit accounting, any such accounting in the specific case above gets complicated since my trip was largely about spending time with friends and family.

    I guess I wonder a little Joe at how you figure the writing of your comments here into your cost-benefit analysis, but since you’re an old friend of this site and – like Simon – I generally find your take on things of interest, I’m not minded to pick more of a fight with you 🙂

    …well, except maybe for one thing. In my view, the existing proportionate food import reliance of a country, especially a wealthy country, conveys virtually no useful information about its capacities for renewable long-term food self-reliance. However, I agree that the deurbanization learning curve for many such countries will be steep and perhaps insurmountable.

    The only other thing I want to comment on right now is Sean’s point about XR’s ‘beyond politics’ stance. As I see it, this isn’t a claim to being non-political, but a claim that to properly address climate change it’s necessary to go beyond existing political institutions, and also beyond many existing alternative political ideologies such as the orthodox Marxist and socialist traditions I criticize in this post and elsewhere. Nevertheless, I concede that the messaging around this point from XR and affiliated people has sometimes been a bit naïve. I see it as a learning process.

    • First off, I am not picking a fight with anyone. I comment on this and other blogs mainly as recreation (the cost of all work and no play is too high), but I expect that once in a blue moon someone will get some value out of a comment and perhaps even do something. As I get older, I will probably comment less, reserving my energy for more practical things around the farm and neighborhood.

      My take on the general thrust of your main post was that some folks were bitching about the political and economic class/interests of the activist folk in XR and that you feel that “big tent” activism, welcoming anyone who wants to fight climate change, is perfectly fine, regardless of politics. I certainly agree. What is being advocated is far more important than who the advocates are, especially about something as important as climate change.

      But my first comment was directly related to the fact that I do believe “that more localized friend/family based practical work necessarily better mitigates against negative future outcomes”, which is obviously not something you agree with. I would add “community” to the “friend/family” nexus, since I think our worlds will be shrinking down to the local level sometime not too distant future, but I also see no benefit in continuing a discussion over the relative merits of national and global activism vs local activism and practical prepping. I’ve said my piece (probably far to often).

      I’m sure my outlook on this matter was unduly influenced by my being a conservationist teenager in the 60’s, a back-to-the-lander in the 70’s and an anti-nukes protester in the early 80’s, only to see the wider world brush off those interests as hopelessly naive. I still vote in every election, but the fact that the US could elect people like Reagan, Bush and Trump, is very dispiriting and demotivating when it comes to political participation at the national level. It’s hard not to be a cynic when, as H.L. Mencken so rightly observed, “On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron”.

      XR is perfectly correct in its warning of the danger we are in and its goal to avert extinction-level climate change. I wish you and your XR comrades all the luck in the world. You’ll need it.

  16. Hey Chris,
    Congratulations for having the courage to take some lumps for your beliefs. Writing a check to your favorite environmental organization is easy compared to getting arrested and spending night in jail.

    Unless someone is talking about a low energy, low consumption future, I’m not too interested in hearing what they have to say. Overpopulation or not, we can not continue to consume resources at our current rate. Period. The longer it takes for people to become aware of that fact the harder the future is going to be.

    Hope you are all healed up and back to doing chores.
    Greg

  17. Thanks Joe, Greg & other further commenters.

    I should probably just clarify that I’m not deeply involved in XR and haven’t devoted much of my time to the organisation – I don’t want to claim undue credit…

    In terms of where to put one’s energies, I don’t disagree that local practical work must be a high priority – but I doubt that it’s adequate to the task before us in itself either, and a few days a year away protesting are neither here nor there in subtracting from my farm’s resilience. A bigger question mark I’d have on that front is the time I spend writing.

    I do think there are certain historical junctures when grassroots protest commends itself, and right now is one of them here in the UK. In a few months’ time I’ll probably take a different view. I went to a talk some years ago by Tony Juniper (and Mark Lynas, just before he went rogue) who remarked that politicans always think they’re doing a good job unless people tell them loudly and often that they’re not – and now seems to me a good time to tell them that they’re not. Since most of my political life has likewise involved espousing causes brushed off by mainstream opinion I share some of Joe’s disillusion. Nevertheless, I don’t think your activism was necessarily wasted Joe, and I think XR’s current activism has been quite positively consequential – not least in helping building local communities. Whether it ultimately succeeds depends of course on how one defines ‘success’, but I’d concede that the chances of preventing further major climate distress are low.

    …and now back to the farm chores…

      • Thank you – it’s good to get a steer like this sometimes. I spend way more time writing than protesting, but some diversity of activity is probably good for me too!

  18. Hi Chris.
    Been meaning to post my thoughts on SFF but not sure which thread to add it to. So, I’ve decided on this particular thread, not that my comments relate to XR in particular.

    I really enjoyed reading Small Farm Future. (I’m not sure that “enjoyed” is quite the correct term as the implications of the book terrified me!!!!)

    I agree with your analysis of where humanity finds itself. The 10 problems we are facing are hard to argue against and the idea of “wicked problems” also rang true.

    The terrifying bit is where it leaves us all.

    On reflection, I have come to realise that there is one thing that has been at the core of my life. I have lived a life unimaginable to my not so distant ancestors. A life of good health, plentiful food, shelter, heating, clothing, globe trotting, leisure, personal mobility (cars, flying), time saving technology (washing machines are amazing!!!)

    The one thing that has made it all possible is………………..OIL.
    A world without oil is a scary place. Oil is there in every aspect of my life. I agree with you that there isn’t going to be a techno fix to replace it, which means that all those benefits will be gone.

    Healthcare is my biggest concern. In a Small Farm Future, are we looking at a sharp rise in infant mortality and death in childbirth? As well as premature deaths across the population. The prick from a rust nail could be fatal.

    Even if humanity can make the transition to a SFF, that future will be far harder than any of us privileged humans can imagine.

    We are most probably the luckiest humans that have ever lived.

    • Hi John!

      Healthcare is one of my biggest concerns, too. (And your example is apt: I asked about it in a GP appointment for another matter, and yes, I ought to get my tetanus jab sooner rather than later…)

      Some of the advances in terms of infant mortality and childbirth in the West are due to the rise of germ theory and sterile technique for medical procedures, which — as I understand it — doesn’t absolutely depend on oil. Some are due to better public sanitation, which also doesn’t absolutely rely on plastics. But both are definitely easier with plastic than without it, not to mention the development and manufacture of new antibiotics (which we will continue to need) and other medicines. My bigger worry with medicine is how to coordinate access to medical care, education and research in the context of a supersedure state. I’m no historian so I may well be wrong, but it seems to me that universal health care as we have it in the UK (for example) has only existed in the context of nation-states (and is not guaranteed to exist even then — the US healthcare system is pretty grim by comparison), and nation-states as we know them are resource and communication-intensive. I’ve seen arguments put forward that nation-states are on the way out anyway because of internet communications and the resulting changes, but I don’t know the shape of what’s next or how that relates to healthcare. The areas I would instinctively look at are public health, and the professionalisation and certification of medics. Overlaps with veterinary medicine are probably also important (and… quite topical at the moment.)

      • Hi Kathryn.

        Any manufacturing process has oil at its source. I look at all the modern medical equipment, from MRI scanners down to a glass bottle to hold a vaccine and everything in-between. They all have oil at their core. It would be hard (if not impossible) to practice modern medicine without the energy inputs that oil provides.

        If the “State” begins to fail, as SFF suggests it will, then I can’t see local small holding communities being able to provide comprehensive healthcare. It requires a State level of organisation and resource allocation.

        Regarding public sanitation. Without energy there would be no water especially in urban environments. The s**t would literally be piling high!!

        Infect, I think, without oil/cheap energy, cities would soon fail to function. Repair and maintenance of buildings alone, would be a major problem.

        On reflection, the more I think of the impact of oil on our lives the more I see it’s influence.

        I think ultimately, in a SFF, what is envisaged is essentially a world that existed before the harnessing of fossil fuels. I know that our knowledge base is far better now, but without the energy inputs, much of that knowledge will be useless.

        Maybe the people who will be best placed to adapt to an oilless world are the communities who presently rely on oil the least. In a European context, maybe reindeer herders in Lapland?

        • I mean, the Roman Empire had freshwater plumbing (…with lead pipes, that’s where we even get the word plumbing from), as well as a sewer system, and they sure weren’t burning coal or oil to get it. I’m sure that cities on the scale of 21st-century London won’t work, but “water without fossil fuels” is definitely do-able for, say, small-ish towns, as well as smaller households. There has been discussion in comments on other posts here about the need to retain human waste (i.e. household sewage) for the nutrient value. All of this is harder without oil, but it isn’t impossible.

          I don’t think medical care on the scale and in the form we currently have it will be possible. I do think medical care more advanced than was available before the Industrial Revolution is not just plausible, but likely. We understand very much more about things like pasteurisation than we used to. Is it harder to sterilise hands or tools with calcium hypochlorite when we don’t have handy coal-fired industrial processes to make it? Absolutely. Is it still going to be better for physicians to wash their hands with soap and water before assisting in childbirth? Absolutely, and it doesn’t require all that much more energy than not washing hands; we will still need soap and water anyway. We think of this as common sense today, but it really wasn’t common practice before the modern era, and many many people needlessly died as a result.

          Essentially, one of the things that has been enabled by the use of fossil fuels is absolutely enormous expansion of our knowledge base. A lot of this knowledge is still written down on paper, too — certainly far more of it than what the Romans had, because the Romans weren’t working with printing presses and making thousands of copies of textbooks and putting them in university libraries. So even in the event of a sudden and catastrophic collapse, we might still be in with a chance of not returning to an 18% death rate from puerperal fever. Will some medical procedures and techniques become impossible? Probably — but that’s not the same as reverting to, say, the 1500s.

          But it is certainly the case that in a high-labour, low-energy world, all of these things will cost much more. My concern is not that we will lose the ability to provide medical care beyond the point at which burning oil for energy became commonplace. Rather, I am concerned that medical care will only be available to the very rich, for some dystopian-feudal definition of rich.

          In any case I look forward to Chris’s post on the subject! And I agree that people who already live a low-oil existence now will probably be better adapted to the type of medical care likely to be available in future.

          • You’ve pretty much written it for me here, Kathryn!

            But I will try to step up to it soon…

    • Thanks for that John. I’m glad you found my book of interest. I’ll be coming on to health and social care shortly – although, as with most else, I don’t think there are easy answers.

  19. On other websites I read, there’s currently lots of conspiracy theory-type speculation of falling population in years to come. In 2019, we thought it would go on rising to about 11 billion in 2050 and then turn down.

    As regards medical treatment, in the USA the third most important cause of death is now medical errors. The first and second are cardiovascular disease and cancer. My hunch is that if you eat right and exercise you should rarely need doctors. See, e.g. the Weston Price Society. Maybe medics. are most useful to repair people’s bodies after accidents, or to deal with issues like tick bites or parasites caught from pets – some of these conditions seem to be serious or even fatal.

    I find the reference to veterinary medicine intriguing … whatever could it mean? Maybe the same as it does to me, i.e. the use of a common horse medicine against a human disease currently afflicting a few people. I got my supply, i.e. medical-grade, from India where people use it and the state healthcare system hasn’t banned it.

    • Hi Fred,

      You write: “The first and second are cardiovascular disease and cancer. My hunch is that if you eat right and exercise you should rarely need doctors.”

      That’s really not how the human body works. Take my mother, who has always eaten carefully and exercised, and had breast cancer twice (in her 40s). She survived because of advances in medical imaging which meant that both times, the cancer was caught before it had a chance to spread. Her mother was not so lucky and died at the age of 50. Or look at the way careful diet doesn’t, in fact, seem to do very much for heart disease compared to early detection and appropriate treatment (if it were *easy* to treat heart disease with diet and exercise we wouldn’t be using beta blockers and statins; we don’t even necessarily know why statins work, but they are basically a game changer). And cancer and heart disease are common killers now partly because we have so many other things under control with basic medical interventions: look at what would happen without tetanus vaccines, or antibiotics for various infections, or insulin for people with type 1 diabetes, or fillings for tooth cavities (which, yes, some people get despite a low-sugar diet).

      The idea that people who do all the right things won’t get sick is simply incorrect. Health is not a consequence of virtue, not even most of the time.

      Does this mean diet and exercise are unimportant? Certainly not. But it’s perfectly possible, common even, for people to do all the “right” things and still get sick. Life is precarious and fragile that way.

      I’m not going to comment further on Weston A Price Foundation or the use of ivermectin here, except to say that both the consumption of raw milk and the use of horse medication for a human respiratory disease pandemic seem to me to be evidence that veterinary medicine is indeed relevant to human health, both in terms of public health and more personally. I don’t keep livestock yet, but when I do, I want good access to veterinary medicine for my animals, good access to human medicine for myself and my family, and hopefully good discourse between the two to pick up on any potential cross-species problems. Meanwhile, I’m glad humans don’t catch tomato blight!

      • I agree Kathryn.

        People do just get ill. A healthy lifestyle is no guarantee of good health, though as you say, it helps.

    • Perhaps a population vs individual health framing might help. There will probably be a lower incidence rate of cancer and heart disease in a population with a better exercise and diet regimen. But at an individual level within that population, your good exercise and diet regimen offers little protection against you personally getting cancer and heart disease. So you’re both right!

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