‘The science is clear: It is understood that we are facing an unprecedented global emergency. We are in a life or death situation of our own making. We must act now.’
This is how Extinction Rebellion (XR), the movement that occupied the streets of London over the Easter weekend to force politicians’ hands on climate change, introduces a section called ‘The Truth’ on its website. The need for declaring a ‘climate emergency’ by the UK government is one of its three main demands. Likewise, the figurehead of Youth Strike 4 Climate, Greta Thunberg, bluntly asked EU leaders on 16 April why three emergency summits are held on Brexit, but none on ‘the breakdown of the climate and the environment’. Looking at the reality of climate change as reported by climate scientists, this sense of urgency is justified. XR’s call for a reduction of UK carbon emissions to zero by 2025 has emerged from the warning that we only have around a dozen years to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5C. Even half a degree more would ‘significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people’.
XR has managed to create an incredible momentum, which can lead to much-needed political action on climate change. Mass protest and direct action are important means for this, and I fully support them. But XR’s call for urgency which is coupled to an almost exclusive reliance on science, a rejection of ‘politics’ (which implicitly includes the rejection of the need for a multidimensional analysis of political relations of domination), and an intentional commitment to be broad and sparse when it comes to actual policies leads to the reinforcement of white and middle-class privilege that in the end will reproduce rather than challenge oppression.
Is it really all about science?
My book on the colonial underpinnings of Western environmentalism ends with a call for the opposite of what XR demands: the need to ‘slow down’, ‘to resist the temptation of urgency’ because only ‘slow deliberation’ can avoid the reinforcing of (colonial) domination in the name of an environmental cause. As I show based on the example of Western anti-genetically modified organisms (GMO) activism, the attempt to deduce political objectives and strategies straight from what are taken to be scientific facts closes down rather than opens up much-needed discussions. It draws on a narrow Western epistemology of how to determine ‘truth’ that, it could be argued, has led us to the disastrous situation that the world faces today in the first place. This is because it reinforces rather than challenges the traditional modern distinction that is made between humans as subjects and nature as object. Nature is depicted as an external reality the laws of which are objective and knowable, at least to those who have the right expertise to make nature ‘speak’: the scientists. The move from nature as an ‘object’ to the idea that it can be possessed and exploited is an easy one. Indeed, science has traditionally played into this idea rather than challenged it, through advocating the idea that the ‘object’ of nature cannot only be perfectly understood, but also manipulated, which continues to be the case when it comes to the issue of genetic modification. This is why environmentalists in this case battle against the presumed scientific consensus that GMOs are safe.
Other non-Western cosmologies have different understandings of the relationship between nature and humanity, and indeed add other layers (such as the spiritual) to the mix. These understandings might lead to an altogether different take on ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’. As Emilie Cameron explains, Inuktut, which is an umbrella term for the Inuit languages that are spoken in Canada, has a particular expression for ‘not knowing’ that does not conflate it with the absence of knowledge. The expression ‘naulnaruirumaaqtuq’ roughly translates as ‘things come clear eventually’, but ‘by way of a rich and complex articulation of knowing and not knowing, certainty and confusion, present and future’. As Cameron emphasises, Western science-based knowledge about climate change, including the consequences of the latter for the Arctic, are significant and valuable; and indeed rejecting such knowledge would imply rejecting Western responsibility for the destructive implications. At the same time, affirming not to know means to acknowledge ‘that general trends serve as poor indicators of what the Arctic will actually do’; which is a lesson the Inuit have learned through centuries of intense observation of and living with the Arctic.
How is all of this related to my call for the need to ‘slow down’ rather than declaring an emergency? Could it not be argued that regardless of what XR draws upon, what it actually demands would protect ‘nature’ no matter how it is understood, and thereby also protect those Indigenous worlds that will be hit worst by climate change? Such an argument ignores the deep interconnection between Western ways to know and its imperial and colonial politics, past and present. Indeed, XR’s official demands and political strategies precisely show a lack of reflection on this interconnection.
‘Ordinary’ citizens and the politics of empire
On its website XR explicitly sets out to move ‘beyond politics’ and instead ‘tell the truth’. It even calls itself an ‘apolitical network’. XR’s demands and principles are intentionally broad and vague so that the movement gets maximum reach and support. But this vagueness leads to much guesswork as to who or what the ‘toxic system’ that needs to be fought is about. Implicitly there is the notion that it is ordinary ‘citizens’ versus ‘the government’ and ‘powerful corporations’ – hence the third XR demand for the UK government to be ‘led’ by a ‘Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice’. But this appeal to the notion of citizenship as something that is shared across the UK population at large testifies to XR’s ignorance of the deep lines of inequality and division within the UK and the way they are linked to past imperial politics.
Because who is granted the privilege of citizenship in the first place? As Gurminder K. Bhambra has so forcefully argued, the history of citizenship in the UK has always been grounded in racist politics. As an imperial power, Britain had conferred citizenship to the population of Empire at large, which it could not revoke when its non-white ‘citizens’ started to migrate into the ‘imperial centre’. Hence, immigration control became a way of establishing who was and was not a ‘true’ British citizen, through restricting the possibility of entry for people of colour. The Windrush scandal has been the latest manifestation of the implications of this part of British history.
It is hard to imagine how a Citizens’ Assembly could take this history into account, given that it is by definition grounded in a conventional, unproblematised understanding of the ‘citizen’ that is grounded, at least implicitly, in its opposition to the notion of the ‘migrant’. And even if the Assembly were to adequately represent the voices of, say, refugees without settled status, ‘illegal’ immigrants, and BME minorities in the UK more broadly: what should then be discussed is not just the right governmental response to climate change, but maybe also XR’s political strategies themselves.
Indeed, what might those ‘citizens’ have to say about XR’s call for mass arrest and for pulling the Metropolitan Police as ‘one of the most civilized police forces in the world’ on your side by ‘charming’ them, as XR co-founder Roger Hallam argues? Does the ‘toxic system’ not include the problem of institutional racism? Are the implications of Hallam’s argument that the police would be nice to the black youngster in a hoody if he were just nice to them? Drawing yet again on Bhambra, it can be argued that XR suffers from ‘methodological whiteness’, insofar that it views whiteness (including the privileges it entails) as ‘the standard state of affairs’, and that it transforms its own (white) experience of the world into a universal perspective. And unfortunately, methodological whiteness also lies at the core of XR’s endorsement of the transformative potential of a Citizens’ Assembly.
Where to go from here?
In my book I argue that environmental activists need to encounter and listen to the voices of those who have suffered most from what XR calls the ‘toxic system’, and that the colonial past and present of this ‘system’, both in relation to knowledge and to actual relations of domination and inequality, need to be extricated and addressed. What XR most urgently needs to do is to listen: not just to scientists, but also to grassroot movements in the Global South, climate justice movements around the world, Indigenous people such as the Inuit referred to before – all of whom have already been involved in climate-related activism and advocacy for decades. Such listening and encountering is, unfortunately, a slow and complex process. But it might be the only way to avoid the constant reproduction of oppression and domination.
Bhambra, Gurminder K. (2017) Brexit, Trump, and ‘methodological whiteness’: on the misrecognition of race and class. The British Journal of Sociology 68(S1): S214-S232.
Bhambra, Gurminder K. (2017) The current crisis of Europe: Refugees, colonialism, and the limits of cosmopolitanism. European Law Journal 23(5): 395-405.
Cameron, Emilie (2016) Far Off Metal River: Inuit Lands, Settler Stories, and the Making of the Contemporary Arctic. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Rosenow, Doerthe (2018) Un-making Environmental Activism: Beyond Modern/Colonial Binaries in the GMO Controversy. London and New York: Routledge.
Doerthe Rosenow is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Oxford Brookes University and author of Un-making Environmental Activism: Beyond Modern/Colonial Binaries in the GMO Controversy (London and New York: Routledge, 2018). Twitter handle: @DoertheRosenow