activism books climate change

Book review: Common Sense for the 21st Century, by Roger Hallam

Common Sense was a seditious pamphlet written by Thomas Paine in 1776, making the case for freedom from the British Empire. It set out the arguments for independence in plain and convincing language for the general public, and became an important document in the founding of the United States.

250 years later, Roger Hallam has drawn inspiration from Common Sense for the title of his own call to revolution, which argues that “only nonviolent rebellion can now stop climate breakdown and social collapse.”

Roger Hallam is one of the co-founders of Extinction Rebellion (XR) – though as a decentralised movement he is not its leader. His view is that the British government has been captured by the elites and is incapable of taking proportionate action to address the climate emergency. The incremental improvements offered in climate policy will not be enough to prevent runaway climate change. The only options left now are radical ones, and nonviolent rebellion has the best chance of success.

Hallam is unapologetic in suggesting that the aim of the rebellion should be the toppling of the British government.  (It’s a testament to modern liberalism that he can publish a book like this – Paine had to publish his Common Sense anonymously, and in many countries Hallam would be imprisoned.) The rebellion would throw the government into crisis, and it would hand over to a Citizen’s Assembly to organise the response to climate change.

There are some interesting and radical thoughts in this short book. Hallam makes a compelling argument that ignoring the social science on climate change is as serious as ignoring the climate science. Traditional environmental campaigning isn’t working, incremental change isn’t enough, and ultimately the consequences are just the same as ignoring the science. Both end up with the world slipping into the long emergency of unstoppable climate breakdown. I think he is right that “there are no easy options anymore”, and that the moment calls for something more from us. I agree with him that nonviolent direct action could provide the breakthrough that we need.

There are also a lot of dubious overstatements. “Climate and ecological breakdown will kill us all in the near term” simply isn’t true – at least not as most people would understand the words ‘all’ or ‘near term’. Or there’s the huge over-simplification that justifies revolution: “societies around the world did not allow the current ecological collapse. Goverments did.” Don’t governments reflect their societies? Blame is not so easily attributed in a democracy, even a limping and compromised one like Britain’s.

While he is clear that there is no guarantee of success, Hallam also makes bold claims for his strategy of mass disruption to the capital city. “After one or two weeks of following this plan, historical records show that a regime is highly likely to collapse or is forced to enact major structural change.” And again, you have to ask if that is the case in a democracy like ours. In an oppressive state where people have put up with years of tyranny, revolution can catalyse all that resentment. There are no historical case studies of an established modern democracy being overthrown because of its climate policy.

Towards the end of the book, Hallam describes how XR can still be successful without overthrowing the government, and that’s where I share more common ground with his ideas. As I see it, the opportunity for XR is to dramatically shift the terms of the debate, and create political space for more substantial solutions. I described this in a post last year, and while it’s shy of what it was asking for, the movement certainly made Britain’s net zero by 2050 commitment possible.

I can see it at work at the local level too. Luton council is voting tonight on a new climate action plan, climate emergency declaration and net zero target. That has all emerged since XR Luton began, and we have been involved in the discussions – but it would be wrong to claim the credit for it. We simply created political space for those in the council who have been nagging about this for years. They have been easy to ignore or vote down, and now they’re not. We have been able to legitimise their climate advocacy, and accelerate the political process.

For Hallam, this kind of progress would be a ‘glorious failure’, though “if failure enables previously unspoken possibilities and realities to be discussed, then we have not failed.” Indeed.

As things stand, Roger Hallam is more radical than the movement he helped to create. Since XR decisions are made democratically, that has been a source of considerable tension. I know people who like and respect Hallam, and others who think the movement should disassociate itself from him and his controversial statements as soon as possible. We’ll see how that shakes out.


  1. I was interested to read Nafeez Ahmed’s piece on XR strategy, which comments quite a lot on Roger Hallam’s philosophies:
    The title of this article initially struck me as a bit harsh, but I think he is generally constructive, and I found it helpful to consider his points. XR’s Oxford group discussed them in their December ‘reading group’; another interesting idea.

    1. Yes, it was after reading Ahmed’s essay that I thought I should read Hallam’s words for myself. Some good points, though I know a couple of people who have tied themselves into a bit of a politically correct knot over the issues Ahmed raises, and have ended up stepping back from the movement. That’s a shame, and we have to find ways to work together without demanding perfection. It’s an iterative thing, XR. Lots of making it up as we go along, and mid-course correction.

  2. I agree that the social and political aspects of reducing emissions are crucial, as important as the technical ones and much less well understood. More work needed. History can teach us much in that regard.
    XR has already been listed as an extremist terrorist organisation by the police. Not surprising when, in order to cut emissions sufficiently and fast enough, you have little option but to reject free market capitalism and hence most of the UK’s current political philosophy. XRs activity is really pretty restrained when you consider what will happen if we do not stop emissions.
    Environmental activism must be a broad church, with many different groups and philosophies working in tandem yet each in their own way, or it will be divided and not succeed. Tolerance, folks!

  3. Interesting review of this book making good points, especially around overthrowing governments and overstatements.

    However, I don’t think it’s true to say that “the movement certainly made Britain’s net zero by 2050 commitment possible”.

    Government decisions that led to this were announced before the first XR protests. The review by the Committee on Climate Change, that led to the Net Zero reports and target, was first requested in April 2018 (and had been raised before then) – see:

    1. Yes, I’m familiar with the timings, and we can’t know how things would have unfolded without XR. What we do know is that Britain had a government with little interest in climate change, and a Prime Minister who abolished the department of Energy and Climate Change on her first week in office. Lots of backbenchers wanted the climate targets reduced rather than increased. Climate Change Committee recommendations were regularly ignored.

      With the pressure of the climate strikes and XR, they bucked the trend and actually took the CCC’s advice – or some of it anyway.

      I don’t credit protestors with everything. That would downplay the role of civil servants and the CCC. What the protests do is make it okay to be more ambitious on the climate. Critics and sceptics sit on their hands and don’t oppose new measures. That’s what I mean by creating political possibilities.

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