“You could attach prices to ideas. Some cost a lot, some little … And how do you pay for ideas? I believe: with courage.”— Ludwig Wittgenstein.
I take it as self-evident that the key reason for the extraordinary and unpredicted success of Extinction Rebellion (XR), of Greta Thunberg, and of similar trends around the world — such as the Sunrise Movement and Ende Gelände — over the last few years has been their (our) authenticity. The willingness to state the uncomfortable truth and draw and act upon the requisite conclusions, congruently. Thus, it is imperative that any fallings away from this truthfulness and authenticity be gently but firmly named and changed.
Clearly, there are a number of powerful barriers that prevent the truth about climate breakdown from being properly told and heard — I touch on some of them below. Major institutional and political barriers include the power of fossil money, depressingly undemocratic partly-corporate-captured political systems, sheer inertia in the system, the corporate and super-rich ownership of most of the media (including of social media), and the monetisation of attention-deficit.
This last point brings us to the further salience of psychological barriers, which include the fear of being socially unusual and how difficult it is, psychologically, for humans to be properly long-sighted or long-termist. Moreover, some of these psychological barriers go beyond untruthfulness. For instance, learned helplessness — which I take to be widespread in our current culture — is not quite the same kind of thing as untruthfulness.
So, there is a whole set of obstacles to the truth landing, some of which don’t have to do directly with unwillingness to tell or hear the truth. What I attempt to do here is focus principally on one barrier to the truth on the climate that I think both important and insufficiently acknowledged. That barrier is our own lack of adequate faith in humanity, and of our consequent temptation toward insufficient truthfulness. We think that this obstacle is, in fact, present virtually everywhere: among well-intentioned people in business, the academic world, religion, politics — and activism itself.
There is a great temptation facing those who seek to act sanely on climate and ecology in all these zones — namely, the temptation to refrain from telling the whole truth on how dire the situation is, because we are afraid that if the whole truth is told, and people are not given the “hopium” they allegedly crave, then activism in this most vital of arenas will stall. They — and we — are therefore tempted not to tell the whole truth.
Giving up the “below 1.5°C” mantra
Let me give an example. Most of us know that there is a concerted international effort to try to keep global temperature increase to below 1.5 degrees Celsius. This is both understandable and, in a certain sense, highly commendable. After all, the consequences of breaching the 1.5°C threshold are going to be horrendous. However, most people who are well-informed believe that the chances of us keeping the rise in global temperature to within 1.5°C are negligible: according to an anonymous poll of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) climate scientists conducted by the journal Nature, just 4 per cent expect the temperature increase to stay below 1.5°C.In other words: give climate scientists the veil of anonymity, and they will resile from the optimism that most of them profess publicly.
I suspect — in fact, in some cases I know — that there are a significant number of environmentally committed politicians, leaders, and activists who are well-aware that staying below the 1.5°C threshold is utterly improbable.
Now, I will readily concede that just because something is utterly improbable does not mean we should never aspire to it. Environmental movements arguably exist precisely because we seek to make the seemingly “politically impossible” possible. But when it comes to physics, and when it comes to the inertia and path-dependency that governs infrastructure and governance systems, a cold dose of realism is also necessary.
It is already impossible, in terms of the physics of climate-systems, to guarantee anything like keeping global temperatures below 1.5°C. It will soon be impossible to stop the 1.5°C threshold being breached. The only way in which such an ambition would be possible would be if the world united, right now, in a full-spectrum emergency mobilisation. Such a mobilisation would need to have taken shape around the emerging “post-COVID” revision of our economies, reaching its climax, perhaps, around the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow (COP26). But this hasn’t happened, and it is now effectively impossible to stay within the 1.5°C target. This has to be acknowledged. We cannot go on pretending that there is an endless series of “last-chance saloons”. By the time global temperatures have reached 1.49°C above pre-industrial levels, everyone will agree that we have left it too late. But, in fact, the “point of no return” will have come much earlier. We will have “committed” to breaching the 1.5°C barrier long before the threshold is reached.
We ought to be horrified by the fact that breaching 1.5°C is now almost certain. This egregious failure will pose a death-sentence for many — especially in the global South. It will form the basis of charges of criminal negligence and more in future courts. It is heart-breaking. It is unacceptable. But it is our reality. When a line has been drawn in the sand, and the facts point to us having become committed, by our inaction to date, to crossing it, it isn’t wise to move straight into denial. We must tell ourselves the truth.
By continuing to project a future in which we allegedly stay “safely” below 1.5°C, we make ourselves complicit with the rapacity and carelessness of the very elites who have steered us into this disaster. Whereas, relinquishing the “below 1.5°C” mantra brings us in touch with an awful and great power — the power of anger, grief, betrayal. Some of that anger is already audible, if one has ears to hear, on the climate frontlines — primarily in the global South — who have long since acknowledged that we are already in unsafe territory. Once the rest of the world accepts that the 1.5°C threshold will soon be behind us, there is a chance that the collective shock and outrage will ramify, and mobilisation will be possible.
If we, in this way, we able to pass through the feelings of anger, grief, and betrayal, and reckon fully with the emerging reality of a post-1.5°C world, it could be that our resolve would prove stronger — certainly if the experience of the last few years, and the unexpected rise of the youth climate strikers and of XR, is anything to go by.
The fear of losing one’s audience
But the greatest obstacle to the truth about climate breakdown being fully told and heard is not denial — it is the fear on the part of many activists that, if we were to tell the whole truth, we lose our audience. That fear is understandable, but erroneous. In fact, I would argue it is the opposite. The more we tell the whole truth, the more it will be heard, and the more people will build the psychological resilience needed to handle it; the more we face the climate-reality, the more action there will be, and the less bad the planet will get. It is at that stage that we will finally enter a virtuous circle of truthfulness and effective action, rather than the current vicious circle in which we are trapped — a circle of insufficient action and lingering self-censorship, of soft-denial, of everyone tip-toeing around and away from the unvarnished truth.
This virtuous circle is what XR and similar movements have begun to initiate — and their success comes in the face of the barrage of pre-emptive strikes aimed at XR by psychologists, spin-doctors, and established NGOs who warned that no organisation with the word “Extinction” in its name could be successful.
I’m an academic, a philosopher, trained to seek and contemplate truths. And I’m an activist, with a criminal record, because of the actions I’ve undertaken to seek to live in truth — actions that the state will not countenance. I am a criminal, while the leaders of my country — with whom I went to university, as it happens — are amply rewarded and heralded as normal. But our time is one of paradox. In spiritual terms: the last shall be first, and the first last.
Together, our great power rests not in manipulating others to keep the show of “activism-as-usual” on the road, to keep one’s NGO or movement afloat with a production-line of new recruits. Our great power rests, rather, in telling the uncomfortable truth that we have, all of us, failed — yes, including XR and Greta. XR’s magnificent success in 2019 in changing the conversation around climate has not resulted in its demands being met, and there is no chance now of those demands being met by 2025. The longer we shy away from facing up to our failure, the more shattering the blow will be when it comes. It is only by facing this shared crisis together that we have any chance of rising to meet the great test of our time.
Telling the truth — and allowing oneself to hear it — can take real courage. Truth-telling is often inconvenient for speaker, hearers, all. But it is too late now to do anything less. Let’s relinquish half-truths. Let’s have faith in each other — faith that, when we hear the whole truth, authentically spoken, from more and more sectors of society, then at last deeds will start to follow.