In two flatshares five hundred kilometers apart, two groups of people discuss the impacts of climate change. In places all over the world, people are talking about our changing climate and, in some cities, blocking streets.
“I am a mixture of sad and scared and sometimes I can’t even imagine having children”, I sat in silence, anticipating an answer.
“We just had a very similar conversation”, he said.
“And sometimes”, I continued, “when I try to distract myself from reality, when I read or shut my eyes and try to sleep, I see an apocalyptic scene. It’s not one in which the Amazon is burnt to a crisp but in which we’ll be long gone and society will have crumbled”.
I close my eyes before finishing that thought and sat perched on the edge of my chair feeling the burn of the phone on my ear and hearing the whirring of my computer. “Have you seen Children of Men? The film? That’s what I’m picturing. And it looks like flaming panic –”.
“I don’t see it like that”, he said abruptly. “Why is it so negative for you?”, he asked with less judgment than concern. I’m glad he cut me off there because I’m whirling down this spiral of thought and it doesn’t seem to be decelerating.
“The world, population, economy, it can’t keep growing. To stop climate change or at least halt it, to shut down coal mines and stop flying and driving, wouldn’t that cause the economic crash that Extinction Rebellion are essentially calling for with their Change the system, not the climate? Our society will change and I’m terrified of what that collapse will look like and that XR will bring the collapse forward. They are not just campaigning for the environment but are challenging our entire social system and the struggle for the environment is just another chained up limb”.
“Why don’t you want to a collapse when you know that it’s inevitable? Why shouldn’t it happen now?” I couldn’t answer him. “I hope there’s a collapse”, he said with brightness. “I want it sooner rather later. Then we could profit from it too. You’re scared of an economic crash. I see a world of permaculture and sustainability and everyone would receive basic income and they could do exactly what they want to do, exactly what their hearts tell them, whether that means continuing to work or starting a farm.” We both laughed at our contrasting images of his utopia and my dystopia. “It will be so beautiful”, he said as a kind of daydream afterthought that hung in the space spanning the kilometers between us. “It will be”, I thought to myself, looking for solace in the absolute belief of “will”.
“Last night I couldn’t go to sleep. I stayed up late reading articles and watching videos of the blockades in Berlin. I dreamt I was there. Do you lose sleep?”, I asked.
“It does depress me”, came a response half a minute later. “But I force myself to be positive. I read about inspiring projects and examples of nature’s rejuvenation”. I remember the stories he’s told me of desolate land recovering with time and felt his positivity radiate. “You need to ask yourself how you can get involved with the topic. How can you engage yourself?”, he added moments later in an attempt to help me work through my thoughts.
“Twice today, I’ve reached mountain heights of happiness”, I said, wanting to lighten my outpour. “The first time was whilst running in the hills in Ockerhausen above Marburg. The second time was when I got my library card and took out my first books from the library”. He laughed with a sound of relief.
“What did you get?”, he asked and I felt myself being gently pulled with a rope of words out of that spiral that moments ago had me plummeting.
The next morning I left my flat in pursuit of perspective, fresh air and a mug of coffee. I walked towards the weekly market and toyed with the question in my head: what can I do? How can I go about my daily life whilst the climate is breaking down? Last week I worked at the organic vineyard in Kanzem with a dynamic team and I felt the happiest and most relaxed I’ve felt in the uncertainty of the past weeks. I’m realising that activism doesn’t come in one form and doesn’t just have one face. It is in the production of organic wine, in the student protests of Fridays for Future, in the thousands who have taken to the streets to put pressure on governments who are not acting. As I crossed the road, a man in a lime green jacket holding a clipboard tried to borrow my attention.
“Have you signed our petition to protect the Amazon?”, he asked me.
“I think I’ve already signed that one”, I said smiling and with no intention of breaking my stroll.
“Are you sure?”, he said beamingly. “It doesn’t hurt to sign twice. It won’t count as two signatures but at least you’ll know you’ve signed it”. I turned around and engaged with him in an experience that left me like a sodden autumn leaf sat in the gutter between me and him. As I was signing the form, I asked him what he thought of the protests in Berlin. I find speaking to others or asking around adds to the discourse that my mind tends to squash into a repetitive monologue. He smiled before saying, “well I’ve just got back from Berlin. I was there the last few days”.
“How was it?”, I asked eagerly.
“Amazing. I really didn’t want to leave but I have responsibilities here and wanted to be with my kids and girlfriend”. He stopped there and I had to share my thoughts with him, hoping for some enlightenment.
“I’m asking because I’ve spent the last few days reading about it and have been glued to my phone and laptop, watching videos and somehow I couldn’t sleep. I don’t condone vandalism but I wholeheartedly support people who, like me, are facing an existential crisis. People who can’t carry on, who can’t ignore it. I support those who are occupying forests to stop them being torn down and you. I support you for gathering petitions and for a long time I feel like I’ve been doing my bit, you know, living an eco lifestyle and acting on what’s going on”. I stopped for a second, dead in my tracks, warm in my face and tight in my throat. “But I’m realising that it’s not enough. I’m not doing enough”. By the last four words I was in tears.
“If you don’t feel like you’re engaged enough then look around at all the organisations who’d be happy to have you”, he said with a great big smile. His kindness and advice eased my midmorning blubber and I pulled myself together to ask another question before turning to leave.
“What do you thinks of the Greens?” I asked.
“Which Greens?” he laughed empathetically, looking at my teal green jumper and then turning his gaze down to his lime green rain jacket.
I walked away from him with a mind and heart full of wondering. I carried on my way into the city and chose a café looking out onto Marburg’s main square. I can’t always concentrate in my room. Maybe the peace is a little bit too quiet. I need the hum of others. I take a seat and the comfort of others is real. It’s as if I can hear their hearts beating and see their bodies breathing. Out the window are leaf-strewn cobbles and I think that Marburg suits drizzle before I become distracted by groups of students, each equipped with a sound system and a crate of beer. Freshers playing drinking games, their faces are painted and some are pushing a trolley full of beer. I blink and can see Berlin and images of people singing, laughing and chanting by the Siegessäule. Some are tied together to create a human chain. It’s raining, their faces are painted with hourglass symbols and they’ve chained themselves to trolleys.
I turned my gaze away from the students and carried on reading Hannah Arendt’s Between Past and Future. I was inspired to take this book as my first loan from the library after my parents recent visit to Marburg. We passed by Arendt’s house where she lived for one year in 1924 during her Philosophy studies. In the preface she quotes René Char: “He who joined the Resistance found himself … he ceased to be “in quest of himself” (and) no longer suspected himself of insincerity, of being a carping, suspicious actor of life”.
Although Char was dealing with existential thought during the Second World War, his words are applicable today and I feel like I’m reading an explanation for why people are joining Extinction Rebellion in all the engaged cities over the world. Existentialist thought grips us and we are questioning our existence. It came about from desperate situations and desperate indeed is the situation we now find ourselves in. “What are we doing?”, we ask ourselves. “What are you doing?”, we ask our governments. Don’t we want to preserve Earth and life so that future generations can live here too and have their taste of existential worry? In both cases, Resisters or Rebels, people are acting against “tyranny” as “challengers” who have “taken the initiative upon themselves and therefore, without knowing or even noticing it, ha(ve) begun to create that public space between themselves where freedom could appear.” These “challengers” have created a space where “at every meal that we eat together, freedom is invited to sit down. The chair remains vacant, but the place is set.”
For Arendt, “each new generation, indeed every new human being as he inserts himself between an infinite past and an infinite future, must discover and ploddingly pave it anew”. These “challengers” are the ones, as Kafka says, “stand(ing) between the clashing waves of past and future”. This is the change in the system for which XR is calling. They are the volta in our society’s poem. In the first verse we hear of traditions of growth and expansion and in the last verse of sustainability and equality.
Marx wrote of the “conscious rebellion” in which people can no longer carry on living their normality. For him, the crash would be a bloody revolution in which “violence is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one”. Maybe that’s why my future-view is so dark but Arendt’s criticism lightens that view. She describes his “glorification of violence” as something that denies speech which is “the diametrically opposite and traditionally most human form of intercourse”. This is communication and this is what we need: conversation, listening, understanding and lots of it. Extinction Rebellion is a rebellion against capitalist traditions and against the silence towards its consequences but it is peaceful and patient.
The existentialism in Extinction Rebellion is overwhelming and when it becomes too much, we realise that “we seem to be neither equipped nor prepared for this activity of thinking”. However, reading and exchanging on the matter is helping me understand civil disobedience in the fight against climate change and the fight for life. Let it not become a fight against states and each other.
I close this piece with a quote from Hannah Arendt: “The thunder of the eventual explosion has also drowned the preceding ominous silence that still answers us whenever we dare to ask, not “what are we fighting against” but “what are we fighting for”?”.