activism books

Book review: Why Rebel? by Jay Griffiths

“I wish that everyone who said they believed in angels would actually believe in insects” is the first line of Jay Griffiths’ book Why Rebel? It’s a good indicator of what is to come. What we believe or aspire to can lead us away from the natural world, and overlooking the small things – insects, soil – can lead to ruin.

Griffiths has been very involved in Extinction Rebellion, and so the title of the book suggests an argument for the movement. And it is indeed a call to arms, though not in the way you might expect. Rather than present scientific conclusions and political failings, the book starts in the natural world. Coral reefs. Soil formation. Children’s natural affinity with animals. Indigenous concepts of belonging to the land. The starting point is wonder and the celebration of life.

The author then describes how the processes of life are undermined by modern patterns of thought. Unkind politics that scorns the weak and pushes them aside without shame. Consumerism that makes each of us the centre of our own worlds. Left-brain literalism that leaves no room for metaphor, for that which can’t be counted and calculated. “Modernity is wounded by its own aesthetic failure to see beauty if it can grasp profit, its ethical failure to register the value of life itself if it can register economic advantage.”

If you’ve ever read Jay Griffiths before, you’ll be familiar with the way that she blends anthropology, psychology and mysticism, in a meandering, meditative style. At one point she describes the technical language of sustainability as “words of tarmac and traffic, not the lovely writhy ivy words of the woods”, and that’s the nature of Griffith’s writing too. Diverse and detailed and interwoven, with a poetic beauty to it and a love of language and literature.

There are also times to drop that literary flair and speak plainly: “I don’t want to be lyrical now” she writes at one point. “I just want to swear.” There’s anger and sadness here too, rage and what is being done to the natural world and the suicidal blindness of consumer culture.

The book’s back cover blurb neglects to mention this, but the book is a collection of essays, most of which have been published as standalone pieces elsewhere. That means it doesn’t necessarily flow as one central argument, and it felt a little disjointed at the end, where it segues into personal experiences of protest and arrest. Nevertheless, this is a rich and moving book, and a nice counterpoint to the ‘just listen to the science’ approach of some activists. “Here, then, the causes for rebellion: survival and awe, beauty and necessity, grace and grief.”

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