activism books climate change

Book review: This is Not a Drill, an Extinction Rebellion Handbook

It was due in September, but the publisher has taken an ’emergency’ approach to getting the Extinction Rebellion handbook ready. How much of that is a marketing opportunity I really couldn’t say, but it’s welcome and useful. (And I love the subversion of Penguin’s logo on the front cover.) I’m in the middle of helping to set up XR Luton at the moment. I have all sorts of questions about what we’re doing and who we contact. So I’ve taken an emergency approach to reading This is Not a Drill and read it on the day it arrived.

The book is a series of essays, some of them very short. The first section describes the climate emergency we find ourselves in and the consequences of inaction. It features a broad range of voices, including farmers in Chad and a california firefighter. They appear alongside Mohamed Nasheed, former president of the Maldives, or Douglas Rushkoff, whose book Team Human was reviewed here not long ago. Chapters are short, clear and to the point, reinforcing the movement’s message to tell the truth about our predicament.

The second half is a call to action. There’s a summary of the story of this “decentralised mass movement of concerned citizens”. There are insights into the strategy and the politics, the rationale behind civil disobedience. Jay Griffiths, one of my favourite writers, contributes a chapter on getting arrested. Kate Raworth provides an economics context, Caroline Lucas and Clive Lewis provide the politics. XR activists share tips on cooking for a protest camp, artwork, or the inside story of how they bought that boat on Ebay. Finally, the book rounds things off with a page saying ‘time to stop’ reading, and concludes with instructions for blocking a road.

It’s quite a tour. It’s great to see household names alongside majority world voices, activists, scientists and politicians. And while it’s consistently engaging and easy to read, it’s not always easy to take on board. The honesty is brutal. “My reading of the latest data is that climate change has gone too far, too fast, with too much momentum” says sustainability professor Jem Bendell. “Any talk of prevention is actually a form of denial of what is really happening.” Some chapters dig into the psychology of this, the grief and the sense of loss, the sorts of future that remain. Dougald Hine describes the challenge as “negotiating the surrender of our whole way of living.”

This sort of talk might strike some as extreme, but I read The Uninhabitable Earth a couple of months ago, and Facing up to Climate Reality this week. There seems to be a growing recognition that the time for optimistic ‘save the planet’ campaigns was ten years ago. It is too late for gradual change. The only meaningful actions left are radical. Everything else will be tinkering around the edges.

This is Not a Drill is not light reading and neither should it be, but it’s essential reading for anyone wanting to take part in the XR movement. If you’ve been confused or upset by XR and its methods, it explains itself.  If you have a passing interest in it, it may persuade you to get involved. “Maybe you feel ill equipped” writes co-founder Gail Bradbrook at the end. “Bring your uncertainty, together with a willingness to learn… You are so very welcome.”

28 comments

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  2. Jeremy: we haven’t been in touch for a long time, but I couldn’t resist a comment here as I bought “This Is Not A Drill” only a few days ago and, having read it in one afternoon (making notes on about 70 of its 184 pages), have quite a lot to say about it. But, to keep things simple, I’ll focus on XR’s three “demands”:

    1. Government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency, working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change.

    The most critical truth – by far – is that developing countries, the source of 65% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, are exempt, under the 1992 UN Convention on Climate Change and the 2015 Paris Agreement, from any obligation, legal, moral or political, to reduce those emissions. If GHG emissions are the problem, that surely is the emergency? And it’s an emergency exacerbated by the fact that several developed countries, notably Russia, Japan and Turkey, show little interest in emission reduction. Yet there’s no reference to it in the book. For example, on page 100 Roger Hallam notes that emissions “have increased by 60% since 1990 and are still going up, increasing by 2.7% in 2018 alone”. That’s true – but he doesn’t say that developing countries are the overwhelming source of that increase.

    2. Government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025.

    Surely that’s unachievable? US and EU negotiators’ painstaking attempts, at over 20 years of UN climate conferences, to persuade major emerging countries, such as India, China and South Korea, and OPEC countries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, to accept a share of responsibility for emission reduction have been met with adamant refusal. So is it really likely that the UK Government could succeed in persuading them to become carbon neutral within the next 6 years?

    3. Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.

    It’s hard to see how a Citizens’ Assembly could decide anything that might change the above.

    XR’s founders must know all this – so they cannot believe that XR is at all likely to solve the “climate emergency”. I suggest therefore that their more serious purpose is exemplified by the 31 October 2018 declaration of “open rebellion against the UK government”, by Roger Hallam’s reference to a “vision of radical system change” and by the book’s various references to “the problem of capitalism”. Yet the book clams that XR “thinks beyond politics”. That’s not really accurate.

  3. Hi Robin,

    I see you’re still playing the developing countries card, but the truth of it is that nobody is bound by legal emissions cuts, developed or developing. It’s not that kind of an agreement, because the US wouldn’t sign anything that was seen to impinge on their sovereignty. But we’ve been over that before. As for XR, that’s a largely British book and I didn’t read it as a global manifesto for change.

    Yes, I think 2025 is unachievable and that is a point of contention in the movement. I don’t have a particular problem with it if it’s I understood it as a negotiating tactic – coming in low like you would when bartering. We can see this at work in the many council level declarations, where councils have looked at it and gone for 2030 or 2035. Luton is looking at this at the moment, and I won’t be objecting if they go for 2030.

    That would be a national target, incidentally. Britain would be setting its own target. Other XR movements can pressure other countries separately. The UK government persuading everyone else to go zero carbon isn’t a measure of success.

    As for politics, an emergency shouldn’t be politicised, that’s the central point of the ‘beyond politics’ line. At the moment there’s no sign of our ‘system’ – whatever that might be – responding. But if it does, it won’t need to be changed. It had better get on with it.

    1. “… nobody is bound by legal emissions cuts, developed or developing”

      That’s true. But the UNFCCC and Paris impose a clear moral and political obligation on developed countries to make absolute cuts. Just look at Article 4.4 of the latter. But no such obligation is imposed on developing countries. And that’s what US and EU negotiators have been trying to change for many years – to be met with adamant refusal.

      “I didn’t read it as a global manifesto for change.”

      Perhaps you didn’t. But it’s muddled: at one point, reading as global and at another as domestic. But essentially, by citing example after example, implying that a ghastly and potentially catastrophic global problem can be resolved domestically. Which it can’t. In my view, it’s irresponsible for your campaign to suggest otherwise to impressionable young people.

      “… I think 2025 is unachievable… I won’t be objecting if they go for 2030 … a national target…”

      But 2030 for the UK is wholly unachievable. Put all our energy eggs in the unreliable renewable basket? Get rid of all ICE vehicles? Replace most domestic and industrial heating systems? Abandon aviation? Build and install all those wind turbines? And all in just 11 years? Come on Jeremy, you know that’s absurd.

      “Other XR movements can pressure other countries separately.”

      And do so in China, India, Russia, Japan, Iran, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa, Turkey…etc.? Good luck with that. Yet those 12 countries are the source of 60% of global emissions. If they continue on their present course (and they show every sign of so doing), there isn’t the remotest hope of solving the “climate emergency”. Why pretend otherwise?

      “… an emergency shouldn’t be politicised”

      Maybe not. But a calls for “open rebellion”, “radical system change”, “a revolution to end the era of capitalism”, etc. could hardly be more political.

      1. I grew up in Madagascar, where the average per capita carbon footprint is 0.16 tonnes per year. So saying ‘developing countries’ need to pull their weight isn’t specific enough. Developed countries absolutely need to ‘take the lead’ as the Paris Agreement says. How we define developed and developing is another matter, and in my mind the world cannot be split neatly into two categories, but I have no problem with the idea of those most responsible taking the lead.

        I appreciate that we need change across the world, but as British citizens and activists our primary influence is with our own government. XR in Britain cannot make demands of the Chinese or Turkish government. But we can get our own house in order, and then we can advocate change in those places. Until Britain sorts itself out, with its long legacy of historical emissions, other countries will tell us where to get off when we suggest they reduce their emissions.

        But I’m well aware of the shortcomings of current political efforts and activist movements. I don’t need any convincing that XR is asking for the impossible, and that the Paris Agreement is shoddily constructed and inadequate. If you have better ideas, let’s hear them, because time is short.

        1. Jeremy – you say:

          “… saying ‘developing countries’ need to pull their weight isn’t specific enough.”

          You’re right. And that’s why I haven’t say that. Instead I’ve referred to “major emerging countries, such as India, China and South Korea, and OPEC countries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia”, suggesting they should “accept a share of responsibility for emission reduction”.

          “How we define developed and developing is another matter, and in my mind the world cannot be split neatly into two categories…”

          Again, you’re right. And US and EU negotiators have been attempting for years to change the UN’s increasingly absurd bifurcation in an attempt to persuade major emerging and OPEC countries to accept a share of responsibility for emission reduction. Yet – as I’ve pointed out twice above – such attempts have been met with adamant refusal.

          “XR in Britain cannot make demands of the Chinese or Turkish government.”

          Why not? In the 1960s and 1970s, anti-Vietnam war protestors didn’t hesitate to make demands outside the US embassy.

          “Until Britain sorts itself out, with its long legacy of historical emissions, other countries will tell us where to get off…”

          Oh no – you’re playing the “Britain must set a good example” card. I would have expected you of all people to know that, after over 200 years of years of condescending and often arrogant exploitation, China, India, Iran (etc.) have little interest in following a British lead.

          “I don’t need any convincing that XR is asking for the impossible…”

          Not “asking” – “demanding”. And what point is there in demanding something you know is impossible? As I’ve said, by encouraging people and particularly young people onto the street in pursuit of what you know is an impossible demand, XR is acting irresponsibly.

          1. XR does protest outside embassies. That doesn’t make able to demand things of other countries, and neither should it if I understand democracy correctly.

            Sure, OPEC countries will do whatever they want. ‘Emerging’ countries is also a mixed picture. In many places renewable energy is cheaper than fossil fuels, and there’s absolutely no reason why anyone would continue to support fossil fuels. It’s really not possible to say that ‘they’ won’t give up fossil fuels.

            I don’t expect countries to look at Britain for leadership. We change so that we take responsibility for our own emissions, especially the historial ones. That sets up the kind of ‘I will if you will’ that international diplomacy demands. And it’s perfectly reasonable that those countries with the highest historical emissions and highest per capita emissions go first.

            per capita emissions not considered in your reasoning, I presume?

          2. You say:

            “XR does protest outside embassies.”

            A few examples?

            “‘Emerging’ countries is also a mixed picture.”

            I daresay it is. That’s why I referred to major emerging economies. And they show no serious interest in moving from reliable fossil fuels to unreliable renewable alternatives.

            “it’s perfectly reasonable that those countries with the highest historical emissions … go first.”

            Three points: (1) the West has been going first for over 25 years with no indication that developing countries are interested in following our lead (e.g. the EU’s 20% reduction since 1990 compared with China’s 350% increase: https://edgar.jrc.ec.europa.eu/overview.php?v=booklet2018); (2) as you keep saying, time is very short and, even if they were likely to do so (they’re not), there isn’t time to wait for the big developing countries to change course; and (3) in any case, your understanding of responsibility for historical emissions is faulty. Go here: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg3/technical-summary/ and download Figure TS.2. You’ll see that the OECD (the West) emitted less than 50% of cumulative CO2 emissions from all sources from 1750 to 2010 – and of course the gap has become even wider since then.

            “per capita emissions not considered in your reasoning, I presume?”

            A false presumption. For example over 25 developing countries have per capita emissions greater than the UK’s – China, despite its huge population, has per capita emissions 35% greater than the UK’s (the same as they were in 1858): https://edgar.jrc.ec.europa.eu/overview.php?v=booklet2018&dst=CO2pc.

    2. My main criticism of the book is its clear suggestion that a catastrophic problem facing the world (mentioned on 73 of its 186 pages – often in harrowing detail) can be resolved in the UK (and by implication the West). For the reasons I’ve stated above, that’s just not possible. I believe that, by pretending otherwise to people, and particularly to young people, and thus encouraging them to take to the streets in pursuit of an impossible demand, XR is acting irresponsibly.

      Roger Hallam is XR’s co-founder. So I thought it might be useful to read his booklet “Common Sense for the 21st Century” (subtitled “Only nonviolent rebellion can now stop climate breakdown and social collapse”), to see if it takes a similar line. It does.

      It’s certainly replete with scary stuff. For example, Roger’s observation that “We are looking here at the slow and agonising suffering and death of billions of people”. As he puts it, “we are fucked” – although he adds that we don’t have to “accept this fate” if we accept that “a revolution of society and the state … can save us now”. Essentially the reason why that revolution is needed is, he says, because the culture of “neoliberal society is now not fit for purpose”.

      And it’s that reference to “neoliberal society” that exposes the weakness of his argument. It’s a reference to a political philosophy prevalent in Western Europe and North America. But that’s not where the problem – the huge and continuing increase in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – arises. It’s an error that “This is not a drill” makes with its suggestion that the problem can be resolved domestically.

      Just as it is in the book, his analysis of the history of GHG growth (60% since 1990 with an increase of 1.6% in 2017 and 2.7% in 2018 – with CO2 levels rising from 350 parts per million in 1990 to 415 today) is accurate. But, just like the book, his booklet – despite its insistence, like XR’s, on the need to “tell the truth” – doesn’t anywhere even mention the harsh truth that developing countries (and especially the big “emerging” economies and OPEC countries) are essentially the sole source of these increased and increasing emissions. And these countries are not neoliberal societies. Moreover, they’re countries where attempts at “radical political action … mass scale disruptive actions” and calls for “major transition of the economy” would almost certainly be firmly, quickly and unpleasantly suppressed – remember Tiananmen Square?

      And, in any case, they’re largely countries where GHG growth has brought immense human benefits – lifting about one billion people out of desperate poverty and creating burgeoning middle classes enjoying previously undreamt-of health and opportunity. Are these people anxious to bring down their governments? I don’t think so.

      Roger concludes by listing what “we” need to do. But the “we” that needs to do these things is not resident in the West but in the newly industrialised economies, OPEC countries, etc. And there’s is simply no prospect of their, for example, having the remotest interest in “eliminating fossil fuel use and closing that industry down” – and doing so largely within 10 years.

      Like the book, Roger Hallam’s booklet is, in practice, a call for action in the Western Democracies (focused on the UK). Yet that’s not where the problem of increased GHG emissions arises. And in my view, it’s irresponsible to suggest otherwise – implying that disruptive action in London is key to the solution. It’s not.

      1. As someone who is actively involved in XR and has met dozens of other XR activists in the process, I’m not aware of anyone who thinks that domestic actions in the UK will stop a global problem. I don’t recognise this ‘pretending’ for a second.

        What we can do, as I’ve said before, is take responsibility for our emissions – both current and historical. When we do that as a country, we can enourage other countries to act from a position of integrity. Jair Bolsonaro would be perfectly entitled to say to the UK, ‘who are you to lecture us about deforestation, with your 13% tree cover?’

        You’re annoyed at Hallam’s use of ‘we’, but you’re using ‘they’ to say that developing countries won’t cut out fossil fuels, when dozens of them are actively doing exactly that. There are plans for 100% renewable energy in Bangladesh, Tanzania, Ethiopia, the Philippines, Colombia and Tunisia, and all 48 countries of the Climate Vulnerable Forum. And China is of course the biggest investor in clean technology in the world.

        Pointing the finger at developing countries is an old argument that has got us nowhere for thirty years. It’s a big reason why international agreement hasn’t been possible, and it’s totally out of date. Leadership is coming from those developing countries.

        1. You say:

          “I’m not aware of anyone who thinks that domestic actions in the UK will stop a global problem.”

          So why, while describing and referring to a catastrophic problem facing the world (in 73 of its 186 pages) and setting out what it says must happen globally to avoid it, does the book confine itself to demanding action that must be taken in Britain? Why does it call for “radical system change” and assert that “bold emissions cuts and carbon drawdown measures are necessary” when its authors believe these must happen globally? Why does it accurately define the massive increases in GHG emissions that have happened since 1990, yet say nothing at all about where they are sourced – implying that Britain contributed?

          “What we can do … is take responsibility for our emissions… When we do that as a country, we can encourage other countries to act from a position of integrity.”

          Groan – the “Britain must set a good example” card again.

          “… you’re using ‘they’ to say that developing countries won’t cut out fossil fuels”

          Except that I’m not. My references in this thread have been very specifically to “major emerging countries, such as India, China and South Korea, and OPEC countries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia”.

          “… China is of course the biggest investor in clean technology in the world.”

          True – but it’s also the biggest investor in fossil fuels (mainly coal) – not just in China but throughout the world, including in Bangladesh, Tanzania, the Philippines and other countries in the Climate Vulnerable Forum. In any case, have a look at this: https://chinaenergyportal.org/en/2018-electricity-other-energy-statistics/. Scroll down to the (“Electricity Mix”) pie chart and you’ll see that, in 2018, wind and solar power contributed only 8% of China’s electricity generation. Hardly impressive: they contribute a far greater percentage (over 20%) in the UK. Then scroll up to the first chart (“year-on-year growth”) and you’ll see that, despite impressive percentage increases for wind and solar, they’re being outpaced by thermal energy (again, mainly coal).

          “Pointing the finger at developing countries is an old argument that has got us nowhere for thirty years.”

          No – as I’ve said repeatedly, what’s got us nowhere is major emerging and OPEC countries’ adamant refusal to accept a share of responsibility for emission reduction.

          “Leadership is coming from those developing countries”.

          Developing countries (and especially the big “emerging” economies and OPEC countries) are essentially the sole source of the massive and continuing growth in GHG emissions since 1990. A strange sort of leadership.

      1. Your first question, after 30 years of discussion, is to go back and ask “Is mankind responsible for recent increases in atmospheric temperatures?” That’s no solution whatsoever.

        Also, that document is riddled with the generalisations about ‘developing countries’ that I’m talking about.

        I’m not going to argue about this here for your benefit alone. I’ll put a answer in a post.

        1. “That’s no solution whatsoever.”

          No? It’s become increasingly obvious – from their words and especially their actions – that the big emerging economies don’t share the West’s view about the seriousness of anthropogenic global warming. Challenging that (with the follow-up questions I propose) could be a first step towards the comprehensive renegotiation of the Paris Agreement that’s so badly needed. It may well fail. But it’s a far more positive and practical approach than XR’s telling us that humanity faces an unprecedented catastrophe that must be “immediately addressed” and then encouraging people to take to the streets to make what it accepts are impossible demands.

          “riddled with the generalisations about ‘developing countries’”

          Quote just two.

          I look forward to your post.

          1. developing countries “show little serious interest in the issue and seem unconcerned” and “insisting that developing countries change course?”

            But as you say in the essay, you’re not convinced about the science and on that basis, you are dragging the debate backwards.

            The post is written and will go up on thursday, but I won’t be dragged into a big debate over it. You’re plugging your line. It’s not one that gets us anywhere and I’m not going to waste time on it.

          2. In any case, here’s a simple exercise for you. There are about 150 developing countries – all listed here: https://edgar.jrc.ec.europa.eu/overview.php?v=booklet2018. Run your finger down the list and note how nearly all of them have increased their emissions over the years – several massively. You’ll notice for example by how much the six countries you cited above have increased them since 1990: Bangladesh 500% / Tanzania 650% / Ethiopia 650% / the Philippines 210% / Colombia 40% / Tunisia 110%. Perhaps generalisations about ‘developing countries’ might be in order after all.

          3. “You’re plugging your line.”

            My line, as you put it, is that the developing countries (now the source of 65% of global emissions) have been overwhelmingly the source of the increase in global emissions since 1990 and, unlike the West, are continuing to increase them today. Anyone anxious to reduce emissions (substantially and urgently) has to find a way of dealing with this. So far I haven’t seen one.

            XR in particular clearly doesn’t understand this fundamental truth. Far from “dragging the debate backwards”, drawing this inconvenient truth to their attention might (just possibly) get them to face up to what needs to be done if emissions are to be cut.

        1. “You may well do in time.”

          But your Declaration of Rebellion states that the issue must be “immediately addressed”.

        2. “I suggest you join your local XR branch…”

          Er, no Jeremy – I’m not interested in making impossible demands.

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