How hard should you try to prevent global catastrophe? The question sounds grotesque — immoral, even — when you say it out loud. Why would you not try your hardest? When billions of lives hang in the balance, how dare you look away. How dare you hesitate. How dare you think of anything else. Yet how many of us can say, hand on heart, that we are doing everything we can to forestall the various crises of the twenty-first century? None of us, surely?
We are living through a time of exponentially intensifying harm. Spiralling inequality. Rising authoritarianism. The climate and ecological emergency. One of the most distressing things about these crises is the sheer scale of the suffering — the billions of people who are at risk of dying, of being displaced, of having their livelihoods destroyed — and, by contrast, how miniscule and pathetic our response is. But what are we expected to do? We cannot survive in a permanent state of insurrection, of unspoiled revolutionary fervour. We cannot act alone; movements need to be built, revolutions need to be cultivated. Social change does not happen in the blink of an eye. The revolution is not going to happen tomorrow, and it would be absurd — dangerous, even — to pretend that it might.
It is frustrating, then, that so many of us talk about political strategy in terms of what “should” or “must” happen. As if politics — indeed, our entire social and political lives — can be reduced to a game of toy soldiers. We cannot, individually, solve the various crises of capitalism. More often, the question of political strategy is a deeply personal one. Our decision is not usually part of some infallible greater plan, some theoretical intellectual exercise to which, seemingly, there are correct and incorrect answers. It is a decision about time, and energy, and — frankly — what sounds like the most fun. Of course, everyone should be prepared to do the gruelling work of activism. Write minutes. Send emails. Paint banners. Nobody is above such things. But activism is not work in the conventional sense of the word, either; at its best, activism is about love. About the opening up of new possibilities. It should enliven, enrich, and excite you.
So why are we all so upset? Depressed? Burnt out? Why does trying not feel like trying? Why, no matter what I do, does it never feel enough? “I want to escape”, one of my friends told me recently, “I want to forget about the fires, and the famines, and this stupid fucking government. I want to enjoy my life. Is that really so bad?” This is what the billionaires think, too. Build yourself a bunker and hunker down. Build yourself a rocket and go to Mars. Build yourself a superyacht and try to survive the coming flood. Or, if you are an activist, you can always join a commune? But escape is not a long-term solution. Your countryside utopia will be flooded too, and then what? Your little idyll will be subject to the same big problems that you face in the city. Smear mud on your face and howl at the moon, sure. Live the millennial dream. But don’t pretend it’s going to solve anything.
When people say “I want to give up”, they usually mean: “I don’t know what to do”. After all, why should they? Why should any of us? This is a whole systems crisis; a deep-rooted catastrophe entrenched in global capitalism. The climate crisis may be subject to the laws of science — temperature rises can be projected long into the future, but activism is different. You cannot organise a protest and say, with any real certainty, what will be the result. You cannot input one thing and expect another. Although we might feel the pain like any other pain — we might get depressed, or anxious, or overwhelmed — we cannot repair the harm. Not on the level of the individual. We can only make a guess, an approximation. We can only try, as best we can, to play our own part in the struggle. “What should I do?”, people always ask me. I want to reply: “I don’t know”. Nobody does.
My sister says that I have a Kantian view of ethics. She studied philosophy at university and enjoys making this sort of pronouncement. “Fine”, I say, “then you must be right”. Apparently, I like to judge actions based on whether the intention in the moment is pure. My sister thinks that this is what fuels my activism; “I believe the motive to be just, therefore the action must be just”. She is probably correct. I do like to think that things are right in and of themselves, rather than make some arbitrary judgment based on the consequence. The climate crisis, however, is challenging that belief. It forces us to think more strategically, to situate ourselves within a wider theory of change. Morality has now become a question of expediency, of outcome. “It is forcing you to reject deontology and to become a consequentialist”, says my sister, “and that must feel like your morality is being altered, like your mind is at war with your heart”. It is obviously distressing when you put it like that.
Despite what many commentators would have you believe, climate change is not happening because ordinary people refuse to care. People do care. They care a lot. The problem is that they don’t yet believe in the alternative. They aren’t convinced it is practically possible — and even if they are, they don’t know what to do about it. Dismantling capitalism will, of course, require a confrontation with wealth and power on a global scale. Persuading people that such a confrontation is possible, not just necessary, is the most important challenge of our age. The climate crisis is, and always has been, a question of strategy. How do we build our movements? How do we take state power? How do we defend ourselves from the threat of sanctions, embargoes, capital flight? These questions are important, so why aren’t we talking about them? We have the policies, we have the ideas. We need to talk about strategy.
This crisis demands a moral response, and an intellectual one. Strategy is important. We need to talk about it more. But there will always be things we do not understand, possibilities we have not yet encountered; there will always be tactics that work one day and fail another. You cannot micromanage the revolution — and neither should you aspire to. Sometimes, you have to be impulsive. Surprising. Say: “fuck it, let’s see what happens”.
I think often about Greta Thunberg. When she decided to skip school and sit outside the Swedish parliament, it was an act of individual moral power. A strategist would never have said that such a thing was useful. “A one person protest, what will that ever achieve?” Yet this small, seemingly insignificant act led to the arrival of an entire movement. The birth of a new age of climate activism. We often forget how powerful we are, whilst theorising about the vast complexity of systems and of movements. We like to pretend that we know what will happen; we like to imagine that our actions have a clear, demonstrable effect on the world. But the truth is, they rarely do. There is a tendency to let this dishearten you — to think “I clearly have no impact on the world whatsoever!” — but there is also a strange comfort to be found here. Social tipping points are usually unexpected; they seem inevitable only in retrospect. You never know what might happen, or what has become possible. What set of circumstances have clicked, magically, into place. Act with purpose and you never know — you might get lucky.
It would be tempting, now, to draw some neat conclusion. “You should attempt to reconcile the emotional and the intellectual, to listen to both parts of you: the head and the heart.” But I suspect that some tensions are irreconcilable; some problems will never be resolved. And, anyway, perhaps we are right to obsess over these questions. To sit with these uncomfortable thoughts. To worry constantly about what we are doing, and how we are doing it, and whether it will ever, ever be enough… “What can I do?”, “How hard should I try?”, “Why aren’t we all on the streets, night after night, fighting for change?”… Perhaps, all we can say at the end of it all is that asking these questions is an important part of the process. A sign that you’re still fighting, still human. You have not given up.
Teaser photo credit: By Anders Hellberg – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77270098