An Extinction Rebellion demonstration in London this week / James Poulter / flickr
There has been a brisk debate in Australia recently over whether or not religious institutions deserve exemptions from anti-discrimination law or whether sincerely held faith views should be exempted from employment law.
This week Australia and 80 countries around the world are effectively facing demands for exemptions from criminal law by Extinction Rebellion, the global movement for action on climate change. Thousands of activists of all ages will be frustrating commuters by blocking traffic and other stunts.
Idealism is XR’s most powerful marketing tool. It’s a treacly appeal to connection and love that political parties cannot possibly deliver. Here is what organisers are promising in Britain, where the movement began. It sounds more like the “mawwiage” speech in The Princess Bride than a political manifesto.
We hear history calling to us from the future. We catch glimpses of a new world of love, respect and regeneration, where we have restored the intricate web of all life.
It’s a future that’s inside us all, and so we rise in the name of truth and withdraw our consent for ecocide, oppression and patriarchy. We rise up for a world where power is shared for regeneration, repair and reconciliation. We rise for love in its ultimate wisdom.
But it’s worthwhile asking how much of the social and moral ecosystem the demonstrators are willing to destroy in order to protect the climate ecosystem. Because XR is not just a climate change protest group; it is also a radical political movement which springs from the Occupy movement.
Its political principles are sketched out on its website. Governments must declare a “climate emergency”; greenhouse gas emissions must be net zero by 2025; and citizens’ assemblies should be created to tackle the crisis.
Leave aside for the moment the fear-mongering about a climate apocalypse. As a social and political policy these “demands” are daft.
First. The movement’s “Declaration of Rebellion”, a pastiche of America’s “Declaration of Independence”, states: “We hereby declare the bonds of the social contract to be null and void, which the government has rendered invalid by its continuing failure to act appropriately. We call upon every principled and peaceful citizen to rise with us.”
Declaring the “social contract” null and void is a radical step – so radical that either the author did not understand it (unlikely) or he thought that no one else would (likely). Stopping traffic? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. This is a declaration of war on civilization. Outside the social contract, man lapses back into the “state of nature”. Men will live in an endless “war of all against all” in which lives will be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (according to Thomas Hobbes).
The “Declaration of Rebellion” is meant to support the case for civil disobedience. But it could also be interpreted as a justification of the tactics used occasionally by radical animal liberationists –harassment, destruction of property and even bombs. If the social contract has been broken, anything can be justified.
Second. There is but one rational, ethical, and spiritual position on climate change. None other is possible. “The ecological crises that are impacting upon this nation, and indeed this planet and its wildlife can no longer be ignored, denied nor go unanswered by any beings of sound rational thought, ethical conscience, moral concern, or spiritual belief,” the declaration says.
In a democracy, questioning an opponent’s sincerity about his convictions is the ultimate offence. Convictions are tested by rational debate, not by smearing people as venal, wicked or stupid. But this is just what XR is doing.
Third. XR demands that countries go “beyond politics”. “Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.” Why? Because “Political power in the UK is in the hands of a few elected politicians” says the “Our Demands” page on the XR website. This, of course, is true. Putting power in the hands of elected politicians is called representative democracy and it has a long and successful history of defending political and personal freedom.
Replacing Parliament or Congress on environmental issues will be Citizens’ Assemblies. XR describes these as “innovative processes that can empower people, communities and entire countries to make important decisions in a way that is fair and deeply democratic”.
Hmmmm. We’ve heard that before, somewhere, haven’t we? Guided democracy? Organic democracy? People’s democracy? To be fair, XR has something different in mind.
Citizen Assemblies replace elected politicians with randomly-selected representatives. It’s not completely untested. It was used in Ireland, for instance, to break deadlocks on same-sex marriage and abortion. Members are chosen by “sortition” – basically by drawing straws. Fans of sortition point out that Athens chose its leaders this way and it was regarded as pure democracy until the American and French Revolutions.
However, citizens’ Assemblies and sortition are radical political reform, the likes of which the United Kingdom has not seen since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Is anyone so naïve as to believe that they would not be subject to manipulation and skulduggery, especially in the era of social media and foreign electoral interference?
By coincidence, both US President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson are being criticised for trashing their country’s constitutional principles. But their shenanigans merely push the envelope; Extinction Rebellion’s consign it to the flames.
Coping rationally with climate change is important for our children’s future. But the way to do it is at the ballot box, not by abandoning constitutional principles overnight and embracing a half-baked, easily manipulated, untested, entirely novel form of government. Those traffic jams could quickly turn into something altogether nastier.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.