Hallam, R. (2019) Common Sense for the 21st Century: only nonviolent rebellion can now stop climate breakdown and social collapse. Common Sense for the 21st Century: Carmarthenshire.
This booklet is about the need for radical activist led change in the 21st century as the result of rapid climate change. It is a short booklet, at 80 pages, and in this space makes a case for a particular form of revolution to secure the societal change needed to meet the acute and rapidly deteriorating situation created by accelerating climate change.
The case for rebellion is made by contrasting it with reformism. Hallam (a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion) argues that mainstream politics has failed due to its overreliance on the use of gradual policy shift, where politicians try to make frequent small adjustments to bring about change over time, reliant on ensuring they remain popular, so never suggest anything too radical. He contrasts this gradual, and ultimately minimal approach with the rate at which the climate is shifting, and concludes, quite rightly in my opinion, that the trajectory in policy change will never meet the ever more acute problems caused by climate change. Hence, if reformism does not work, and can be seen not to have worked over the past thirty years, what to do to put in place the required intensity of reaction to minimise and even reverse the impact of human induced climate change.
Having set out a very reasonable case for the predicament we currently find ourselves in, where politics lags behind the needed activity, Hallam goes on to outline how he sees us producing the rapid and revolutionary change we need to overcome the climate emergency we have created. This is where I begin to struggle with this booklet, as his plan seems to hang on a form of utopian activism which appears to leave out of its argument the complexities and differences inherent in human nature and human populations.
Hallam begins by advocating rebellion, with thousands to hundreds of thousands of people taking to the street in non-violent acts of protest and disruption very similar to what we have seen in previous Extinction Rebellion (ER) protests. This will grow naturally over several days and lead to the capitulation of the government. There are several big assumptions being made here; firstly, that this many people would wish to protest in this way. ER has mobilised people successfully but never in the required numbers. And vague mention is made of this being a global rebellion. Some of the largest polluters in the world would not meet such protest the same way as the UK police force would, and possible reprisals on families etc would make such protests hard to envisage. Hence, the immediate problem is mobilising enough people. Secondly, governments are likely to use the mainstream media to argue that such activity is wholly unacceptable, and begin to turn sections of the population against the rebels making their case even more difficult to sustain.
If we accept however, that despite these huge problems, the government somehow lays down its power, what then? Here, the big hope for what comes next is the creation of a National Citizens’ Assembly which takes over from the function of parliament. This is to be created through sortition (random selection of people from across the population) of 1000 people. There then comes an assumption that this assembly will naturally and drastically shift the policy narratives, bringing in socio-economic and environmental policy to solve the climate crisis and at the same time introduce a fairer, more equitable society. To me this ignores that if the 1000 people are chosen randomly, they will have a spectrum of beliefs and issues which mean a lot to them, and this may stall many of the desired policy shifts. In addition, in a group of 1000 people, many may assume an identity aligned with their previous political allegiances, seeing themselves as Lib Dem, Labour, Green, Tory or SNP for example. Therefore, rather than the simple shift to a natural preference for radical change, the National Citizens’ Assembly may decide on a different course of action, or may stall altogether until informal coalitions emerge – hence replicating the system it is meant to replace.
This is a very interesting booklet which sets out the acute nature of the problems we face extremely well but I can’t help but feel that there has been no engagement with the ever-expanding literature on the psychology of climate change which would present a much more complex image of the choices, perceptions and motivations of people in the wider population. As a result, the suggested rebellion and subsequent solution to the climate emergency we are in feel to come from a naïve-utopian perspective. I think something which engages with the huge complexity of the changes needed and how these might be met, something multifaceted and more tentative might seem less revolutionary, but might well serve as a better blueprint for bringing meaningful change.
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Some reflections on things I'm reading