October 23, 2022, 9:50 Oct

Civil disobedience for academics

Tomorrow (Monday 24th of October 2022) I will give a presentation to my research group on civil disobedience for academics. I wrote out what I wanted to say as well, since I worry that I will digress, and so here it is below. You can find the pdf here.

Presentation storyline

Total speaking time is ideally 10 minutes to leave plenty of time for questions. You should read the titles below before the paragraph, e.g. "So why civil disobedience? I will focus on ..."

Slide 1 - First off, it is really bloody bad.

I wanted to start off by putting you in the right mindset, that is by giving you a healthy shedload of climate anxiety and rage.

This graph shows the emissions reductions we would require if wanted a 50/50 chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. I'll give you a minute just to let that graph sink in. If we peak emissions in 2025, then GLOABLLY we need to reduce emissions by 15%!!! and reach net zero by 2035. Not 2050, 2035. For a 50/50 chance.

And that's globally. Richer countries obviously need to do more. If we take equity or fairness into account, had started reducing emissions in 2020 and wanted a two in three chance of limiting warming to 1.5, then the UK and other high income countries should reach net zero in 2025.

(The below could be omitted, assuming the audience is already on board.)

Of course, that's for 1.5. I've read some articles which claim that 1.5 was always unrealistic. Well, thank you, that's very helpful. Let's keep lying to ourselves and moving the goal posts shall we?

In any case, our current levels of warming are already causing death and destruction around the world (reference: every attribution study ever). Carbon tracker puts us on course for 2.4 currently. I won't comment on how bad that will be, because it's such a mind boggling task. But I hope we can agree that it will profoundly change the world as we know it today and it is frightening.

Like I said at the start, I'm just trying to give you an impression of how much of a clusterfuck we find ourselves in. I hope you all trust me when I say that you could spend months "documenting the apocalypse" as it were, but let's leave it at that for now.

Slide 2 - And that's just climate change.

Picture of planetary boundaries.

Slide 3 - The truth is, we live in an insane world.

(Possibly skip)

That quote about being sane living in an insane world.

I can sort of understand that we don't give a shit about suffering and injustices in the rest of the world, as we've done for a good half millenium now. With climate change however, we're talking about an existential threat TO OURSELVES. This should be different. Yet we seem to be largely indifferent to this. Our reaction should be to scream, to shout, to weep, to do everything in our power to stop this. But most of us don't, for a variety of reasons which could also fill an entire textbook.

We live in an absolutely insane world, and we blithely pretend that we don't.

Slide 4 - This is about much more than technological solutions.

Picture of layers of ecology model.

If we've gotten into this situation, it's in large part due to the fact that we've viewed the climate crisis as a technical problem with a technical solution, but that's only superficially true. Climate change is but one symptom of a society built upon the extraction of resources in the name of "progress" at the expense of the natural world, which includes ourselves.

I find the layers of ecology model by Charlotte Luyckx to be very helpful in this regard. This conceptual model gives a description of what an "integral theory of ecology" would look like, "integral" meaning complete. The technical layer is the physical world, which describes what as possible and prescribes what is necessary. The economics layer questions our current economic models, such as our unquestioned (and relatively recent) addiction to "growth".

Then it gets more interesting. The political layer questions how our systems of governance have failed so spectacularly to deal with the ecological predicament. Going even further, we should question how our (lack of) relationship to nature, our values, our narrow view of what constitutes progress, led us to where we are now. Finally, and closely related to the philosophical layer, we should adress the spiritual crisis that has emerged in modern Western societies, where market fundamentalism and consumerism have replaced the role of religions, and they have failed miserably.

Again, I could go on about this for ages, but the point is that we shouldn't kid ourselves that our engineering solutions are solutions at all. If they are, they have to be developed, argued and presented within the broader scope of the massive transformations required to address the climate, environmental and social crises we face today. That or we should admit that we're just entertaining ourselves with puzzles with no real hope of change.

Slide 5 - So why civil disobedience?

Picture from the paper by Aaron Thierry.

I will focus for now only on the more personal, less concrete aspects of why, since I suspect that you will have a lot of questions about the efficacy of civil disobedience.

First of all, activist circles (at least the ones that I have encountered) are a space to release your emotions. I'm happy to admit that I have cried on numerous occasions since joining Extinction Rebellion last year, sometimes out of despair but sometimes also out of happiness such as when I met other academic activists in Rotterdam in May. It's incredibly liberating, and I wish I had been able to do this 5, 10 even 15 years ago.

Second, when you don't believe in the solutions you're proposing (which I don't), and when you're lost otherwise feeling lost in a spiral of pessimism, environmental activism provides a way of restoring coherency to your life. It is action as a remedy against despair, which, by the way, is incredibly insulting and damaging to the people who are currently suffering from the effects of climate change and are fighting for their lives. It is a way of addressing the "real" issues in our modern world, and it is, or at least should be, open and welcome to absolutely everyone.

Thirdly and related, you're being "the change you want to see in the world." As I said before, the changes we need to see in our society are awesome (in the original meaning of the word). Environmental acivism is an opportunity to change the way you relate to other people, to how we organise with each other and most importantly, to your values. Fundamentally, it is a way of regaining our humanity by caring about and for each other.

Finally, by wearing your heart on your sleeve, you are able to have conversations you never would have otherwise. I felt quite alone in how I thought and felt, but since starting activism I've met so many like minded people as well as discovering that many of them I knew already. We're not idiots after all, we're able to read the news and realise what's happening, but many of us decide to close in on ourselves as a way of dealing with this. Not only does this make things worse for humanity and the planet, but repressing these thoughts makes things shitty for you as well.

Other talking points
  • Congruence in message and in actions in order to convince people - Aaron Thierry article.
  • "It works"
    • Quote from IPCC from the Aaron Thierry article: The IPCC concludes with ‘high confidence’ that collective action connected to social movements has played a substantial role in pressuring governments to create new laws and policy, noting that the more confrontational tactics of civil disobedience and direct action have become increasingly common in recent years. Meta-analysis of social movements worldwide contesting fossil fuel projects finds that civil disobedience makes a demonstrable difference to their chances of success, over and above the use of other tactics."
  • The 3.5% rule
  • Why don't solution oriented professions speak up? Do some of us believe our own bullshit while the others stay quiet? (Reference to doomism of many of the people I've talked to.)
  • Technical solutions and decolonisation (the example of the hydrogen strategy and Germany's partnership with Morocco, Debt for Climate movement). Would love to have more references for this...

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