The XR Backlash. A new breed of post-denialists reveal their on-off relationship with reality.

You know you are winning an argument when your opponents go after your background. When they start going after your tone, you know you’ve won. This is one reason why the supposed sneering bourgeois hypocrites of Extinction Rebellion should be congratulating themselves: not only has their campaign won broad support, it has managed to ruffle feathers in just the right places.

In the past few months, two grass-roots movements for action on climate change have had a remarkable degree of success in capturing hearts and minds, not to mention column inches. Youth Strike 4 Climate, begun by Greta Thunberg, and Extinction Rebellion’s succession of mass acts of civil disobedience have done a great deal to start conversations about the failure of governments to take meaningful action to forestall the environmental crisis already causing mass upheaval across the world.

The backlash against this energetic and inspirational new wave of dissent has been led by a familiar gallery of supertrolls, who have mocked Thunberg as both a bourgeois elitist and a ‘cultish’ doom-monger, and cast Extinction Rebellion as the reaction of the privileged few, punching down at the emerging beneficiaries of mass consumer culture by promulgating ‘hair-shirted Leftyism’ instead of their preferred ‘technological optimism’ (paywall – Telegraph).

The obvious reality is that Thunberg, far from being the agent of a lofty globalist cabal, is just a concerned schoolgirl, and Extinction Rebellion is fundamentally constituted to focus pressure on governments while avoiding criticism of individual citizens. That right wing commentators have chosen to return to these off-the-peg tropes – despite their fitting so poorly – speaks volumes about the bankruptcy of their position.

A critique has also been levelled against the movement’s whiteness: a take that has been embraced with uncharacteristic eagerness by commentators who usually declare themselves enemies of identity politics. When two young black women interviewed by the Guardian observe, ‘if this was anything but Caucasian people, there would have been armed police officers and a big problem’, this should give us cause for concern.

These movements are the imperfect product of an imperfect society, and the acknowledgement by some members that they are attempting to use their privilege for the greater good does not absolve them from the responsibility to keep doing better. But we should not lose sight of the fact this is, at worst, a critique of the movement’s organisational structure and tactical choices. It does nothing to undermine its objectives.

Extinction Rebellion is among several campaign groups that have made the decision to paint climate change as the great unifier, rather than the great divider. This is not inaccurate: climate change will touch people in all regions of the globe, and all sections of society. The wildfires that swept through California last year, destroying the homes of Hollywood celebrities (among many others), and causing $24 billion of damage according to reinsurance industry estimates, were a prominent reminder of this.

The harmful effects of climate change will, however, also be determined by the pre-existing pattern of vulnerability across societies, meaning they will reflect power relations both geopolitically and within particular countries.

The important thing to recognise is that these framings are not inconsistent with one another. By all means, we should be open to careful debate about which is likely to be most effective in motivating the appropriate form of action in different contexts. But we have no right to conclude from the fact an organisation chooses to characterise the fight against climate change in universalistic terms that it is blind to the politics of difference.

To unmask the cynical opportunism of jabs from the right against the green movement’s social credentials, we need only look to the reaction the Green New Deal bill has faced in the USA. This platform is championed Congresswoman and alleged bourgeois elitist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the daughter of a Puerto Rican housekeeper, whose last job before running for Congress was serving in a Mexican restaurant.

The key insight behind the project lies precisely in its recognition that the transition to a zero-carbon economy, if it is to be successful, cannot be conducted in a way that asks the worse-off to make sacrifices to protect the interests of the rich. The programme’s proposal to guarantee jobs and provide universal healthcare while transforming the US economy is therefore a fundamental plank of its evidence-based project.

The accusation that the green movement is a bourgeois reaction against the improving condition of the ‘masses’ clearly holds no traction here: exactly the reserve is true. The plan is inseparable from the demand to ensure that the burden of transition is not distributed in a way that puts social emancipation in jeopardy.

Predictably, however, the project has been accused both of utopianism, and of being a Trojan horse for a socialist conspiracy that has nothing to do with climate change. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the right’s critique of the green movement is purely reactive: it will demonise greens whatever framing they give the crisis, and whatever means they propose to pursue necessary changes.

There is a libertarian variant of the right wing critique that is in one sense more sophisticated than generic denialism: it at least flirts with a kind of intellectual honesty about the trade-offs we face. There is a strand of thought that, deep down, is prepared to accept that the potential destruction of the earth’s life support system is a fair price to pay for a few glorious years of consumer-capitalist luxury.

The prophets of progress find it difficult barefacedly to deny the results of mainstream science, given they take them to be the foundation of human advancement. They therefore choose to bite this rather awkward bullet.

 

It is only a kind of honesty, however, because they neither openly state the view, nor systematically defend it – recognising, presumably, its potential to appal the sensibilities of decent people. They prefer rather to employ the techniques of negative campaigning, sardonically redescribing their opponents as dour, patrician and misanthropic enemies of progress and humanism. It is this retreat into the territory of superficial mockery that exposes them: it reveals that what they lack is a good argument.

The monster of denialism has almost been decapitated. As David Wallace-Wells argues, outright denialism is now predominantly US-based phenomenon, which has rightly come to be viewed as a form of ideological extremism in both the developed and the developing world. But new heads are growing: those of misdirection, cynicism and devil-may-care anti-moralism.

When we have understood what science tells us, the libertarian doctrine of the individual’s unlimited right to acquisition is simply incompatible with our common concern for human welfare (to say nothing of our concern for non-human nature). Those who put ‘progress’ before people would have us preserve consumer capitalism, just so that its ruins can stand as a monument to its own arrogance in the desert it has wrought. They are no humanists worthy of the name.

Bennet Francis is a Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar in Climate Justice at the University of Reading.

Image credit, “Maximus”, XR.