If you read only one book this year, it should be Roger Hallam’s “Common Sense for the 21st Century: Only Nonviolent Rebellion Can Now Stop Climate Breakdown and Social Collapse.”
Hallam’s lucid and concise book, which echoes Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense,” says what many of us now know to be true but do not say: If we do not replace the ruling elites soon we are finished as a species. It is a cogent, well-argued case for global rebellion—the only form of resistance that can save us from ecosystem collapse and human-induced genocide. It correctly analyzes the failure of environmentalist activists in groups such as 350.org to understand and confront global corporate power and thus make a meaningful impact as we barrel toward ecocide. “Common Sense for the 21st Century” is a survival manual for the human species.
“The corrupt system is going to kill us all unless we rise up,” Hallam, a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, bluntly warns.
The activism, protests, lobbying, petitions, appeals to the United Nations and misguided trust in “liberal” politicians such as Barack Obama and Al Gore, along with the work of countless NGOs, have been accompanied by a 60% rise in global carbon dioxide emissions since 1990. The United Nations estimates this will be augmented by a 40% rise in CO2 emissions in the next 10 years. Hallam, who has long been a part of the environmental movement, says of his past activism: “I was wasting my time.”
We must reduce carbon emissions by 40% in the next 12 years to have a 50% chance of avoiding catastrophe, according to a report last year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But the ruling elites, as expected, ignored the warning or mouthed empty platitudes. CO2 emissions increased by 1.6% in 2017 and by 2.7% in 2018. Carbon dioxide levels went up by 3.5 parts per million (ppm) last year, reaching 415 ppm. We are only a decade away, Hallam warns, from 450 ppm, the level equivalent to a 2-degree Celsius average temperature rise.
“Let’s be frank about what ‘catastrophe’ actually means in this context,” Hallam writes. “We are looking here at the slow and agonizing suffering and death of billions of people. A moral analysis might go like this: one recent scientific opinion stated that at 5°C above the pre-industrial mean temperature, we are looking at an ecological system capable of sustaining just one billion people. That means 6-7 billion people will have died within the next generation or two. Even if this figure is wrong by 90%, that means 600 million people face starvation and death in the next 40 years. This is 12 times worse than the death toll (civilians and soldiers) of World War Two and many times the death toll of every genocide known to history. It is 12 times worse than the horror of Nazism and Fascism in the 20th century. This is what our genocidal governments around the world are willingly allowing to happen. The word ‘genocide’ might seem out of context here. The word is often associated with ethnic cleansing or major atrocities like the Holocaust. However, the Merriam-Webster dictionary definition reads ‘the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group.’ ”
“It is time to grow up and see the world as it is,” Hallam writes. “There are some things which are undeniably real, there are some things we cannot change, and one of those is the laws of physics. Ice melts when the temperature rises. Crops die in a drought. Trees burn in forest fires. Because these things are real, we can also be certain about what the future holds. We are now heading into a period of extreme ecological collapse. Whether or not this leads to the extinction of the human species largely depends upon whether revolutionary changes happen within our societies in the next decade. This is not a matter of ideology, but of simple math and physics.”
Hallam points out that most predictions by climate scientists have turned out to be wildly over-optimistic. “… Recent science shows permafrost melting 90 years earlier than forecast and Himalayan glaciers melting twice as fast as expected,” he writes. “Feedbacks and locked-in heating will take us over 2°C even before we factor in additional temperature rises from human-caused emissions over the next ten years.”
“In short, we are fucked—the only question is by how much and how soon?” Hallam continues, “Do we accept this fate? I suggest we do not. Many self-respecting people who can overcome the human failing to disbelieve what they don’t like, now accept what is obvious looking at the natural science. But they have yet to work through the political and social implications.”
Hallam understands that even with reformists in power—and the political mutations caused by neoliberalism have not favored the rise of reformers but instead right-wing demagogues including Donald Trump and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro who accelerate the ecocide—any change will be too incremental and too slow to save us from catastrophe.
Extinction Rebellion has the stated aim of bringing down the ruling elites. It organized last month’s coordinated series of demonstrations in 60 cities around the globe. Some 1,832 people were arrested in London alone. Additionally, more than 1,000 people were arrested during 11 days of civil disobedience in the streets of London in April. You can see interviews I did with Hallam here, here and here.
“This is not a matter of one’s political party preferences,” Hallam writes. “It is a matter of basic structural sociology. Institutions, like animal species, have limits to how fast they can change. To get rapid change they have to be replaced with new social systems of policy, practice and culture. It is a terrible and painful realization, but it is time to accept our reality.”
It is only by bringing tens of thousands of people onto the streets to disrupt and paralyze the functioning of the state and finance capitalism—in short, a rebellion—that we can save ourselves, he writes. He grasps the fact that the protests must be nonviolent and must focus on governments.
“After one or two weeks following this plan, historical records show that a regime is highly likely to collapse or is forced to enact major structural change,” he writes. “This is due to well-established dynamics of nonviolent political struggle. The authorities are presented with an impossible dilemma. On the one hand they can allow the daily occupation of city streets to continue. This will only encourage greater participation and undermine their authority. On the other hand, if they opt to repress the protestors, they risk a backfiring effect. This is where more people come onto the street in response to the sacrifices of those the authorities have taken off the street. In situations of intense political drama people forget their fear and decide to stand by those who are sacrificing themselves for the common good.”
“The only way out is for negotiations to happen,” he writes. “Only then will a structural opportunity open up for the emergency transformation of the economy that we need. Of course, this proposal is not certain to work but is substantially possible. What is certain, however, is that reformist campaigning and lobbying will totally fail as it has for decades. The structural change we now objectively need has to happen too fast for any conventional strategy.”
No rebellion succeeds, Hallam understands, unless it appeals to a segment within the ruling elite. Once there are divisions in the ruling class, paralysis ensues and ultimately larger and larger fragments of the elite defect to those who are rebelling or refuse to defend a discredited ruling class.
“Mass action cannot just be nonviolent in a physical sense but must also involve active respect towards the public and the opposition, regardless of their repressive responses,” Hallam notes.
He writes specifically of the police:
A proactive approach to the police is an effective way of enabling mass civil disobedience in the present context. This means meeting police as soon as they arrive on the scene and saying two things clearly: “This is a nonviolent peaceful action” and “We respect that you have to do your job here”. We have repeated evidence that this calms down police officers thus opening the way to subsequent civil interactions.
The Extinction Rebellion actions have consistently treated the police in a polite way when we are arrested and at the police stations, engaging in small talk and quite often in political discussions and other topics where activists might have affinity (inequality, unfair pay). If police initially stonewall activists, they can become more open by a willingness to engage with and listen to them.
This engagement can start before an action. Often a face-to-face meeting with police is effective as they are able to understand that the people they are dealing with are reasonable and communicative.
Rebellion will also require repeatedly breaking the law. This will mean time spent in jails and prisons.
“It would be beneficial to the Rebellion for people to be in prison before the major civil resistance event to create national publicity,” writes Hallam, who was jailed for six weeks this fall in London. “The best way of potentially doing this is for people to do repeated acts of peaceful civil disobedience and then read out statements as soon as they enter court, ignoring the judge and court staff. In a loud voice they might say ‘I am duty bound to inform this court that in bringing me here it is complicit in the “greatest crime of all” namely, the destruction of our planet and children due to the corrupt inaction of the governing regime whose will you have chosen to administer. I will not abide by this court’s rules and will now proceed to explain the existential threat facing all life, our families, communities and nation …’ and then start a long speech on the ecological crisis.
“This will likely result in the arrestee being in contempt of court and placed in remand or given a prison sentence. It will be a dilemma for the authorities (depending on the regime) as to how long the remand or sentence would be. If the period of imprisonment is short, then people will be out soon and can continue peaceful civil disobedience. If the sentence is long, it will create a national media drama which will feed into overall rebellion.”
Popular assemblies have to be formed to take power and oversee a dramatic and swift reduction in CO2 emissions.
The science is unequivocal. The temperature increase must be stabilized at between 1 degree C and 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels, and CO2 levels must be stabilized at about 350 ppm. We have to find ways to largely eliminate human-created greenhouse gas emissions of all types within a decade, two at the most, and put in place programs to cool the earth, including planting trillions of trees to absorb CO2. One of the easiest and most significant ways an individual can directly reduce his or her environmental impact on the planet is to eat a diet free of animal products. The animal agriculture industry rivals the fossil fuel industry as one of the largest, multi-factorial causes of climate catastrophe.
The danger, Hallam points out, is that if we do not act soon we will trigger runaway climate feedbacks or tipping points at which no effort to curb emissions will succeed. Fossil fuels must be swiftly eliminated from the economy, including through a ban on all new investments in fossil fuel exploration and development. Coal-fired and gas-fired power stations must be shut down within a decade. This process will require a massive reduction in energy use that may have to include rationing.
Hallam is acutely aware that we may fail. It may be too late already, he admits. But not to resist is to be complicit in this act of genocide. Hallam understands global corporate power. He knows how to fight it. The rest is up to us.