The Uncertain Activist: more thoughts on uncertainty
At the end of 2020, I wrote a short essay on living with uncertainty. I took as my starting point some thoughts on what covid and lockdown had done to us here in Europe since the beginning of that momentous year. My tentative conclusion was that it was freaking us out, but that maybe we needed, in the spirit of the poet John Keats’s ‘negative capability,’ to consider ways to embrace rather than fight it. At the end of 2021, I began thinking about what that year in turn had brought, especially as we embarked on our so-called covid recovery and the welcome but problematic notion of ‘back to normal’.
These two years have seen us all deal with continuous and continually shifting disruption to the frameworks, the schemata and the spiritual and psychological charts by which we have previously found our ways. There seems now – in the wake of ‘back to normal’ – to be a widespread if unarticulated sense that our maps don’t seem to relate to the terrain we are now facing. There are voices telling us it’s the same place but we feel it has changed in profound ways. What was solid and dependable now feels shaky, loosened, fragile. Like a workplace emptied out by working-from-home, or a bus on which half the people are wearing masks, the world looks familiar but isn’t.
I write as someone who devoted much of the previous three years to activism with Extinction Rebellion (XR), who heeded the call to rebel against the policies and practices and even habits of mind which are driving a sixth great extinction. In 2018, hearing Gail Bradbrook talk about heading for extinction and reading Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation paper, I had been overwhelmed by the evidence of climate and ecological breakdown and the threat of imminent societal collapse. My grief and shock – above all my disorientation – found solace in like-minded people, and relief in planning and participating in action. I was ready and eager to put much of my old life aside, to march, to camp on the streets, to disrupt and upset ordinary people, to allow myself to be confronted, to be arrested, and even to go to prison (the latter didn’t happen). The message was that the times were urgent and demanded urgent action – if not now, when; if not you, who?
I should acknowledge that my visceral readiness to act was due at least in part to my personal circumstances and privilege. I was approaching sixty, I had no mortgage, my children had grown up and left home, and I had the support of a loving partner. I can also identify as a source of that readiness, the erosion of the hopes represented by Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader; and also the pressure of long-term, frustrated anger with ‘business as usual’. Being white, middle-class and middle-aged, I could afford both the time and the risks in a way that many people could not.
XR’s ethos was unique. One of its early slogans, dropped later, was ‘Hope Dies: Action Begins’. This was not the old message of environmental activism. This was not, yes we can: it’s still five to midnight. This was not about heroic eco-warriorship, scaling oil rigs or darting in speedboats around the bows of whaling ships. This was about being, in the words of an XR banner on Westminster Bridge in 2018, ‘Beyond Fucked;’ about grief and love as much as rage; community and humility as much as ‘going after the bad guys’. This was about owning our own complicity, recognising that everyone was both guilty and a victim; it was about opening up and being vulnerable to the grief, and about trying to model new modes of being.
Three years on, I am not joining the protests on the streets. I respect them and share the emotions being expressed by people of all ages; and it does feel as though we are accelerating towards collapse and extinction – CO2 emissions rising again after the lockdown, the failure of COP and the Ukraine war now encouraging the oil majors and their lobbyists to seek further exploration and extraction licences across the globe.
I have taken to heart the insight that possibly, the way we respond to the crisis is part of the crisis; that we see this thing we call ‘the climate’ through a window whose frame is itself the product of our toxic culture. It is not the only window through which to look; there are other frames with wider views: frames from the global south and from indigenous cultures. I have begun to grasp that maybe activism and its certainties have become part of the dominant paradigm and may even be reinforcing the structures of power we oppose; may have become part of the rituals by which power reinforces itself.
I recognise that in 2018-19, the disobedience, the theory and the organisation offered me certainties when I needed them. But by the end of 2019, when the landslide Conservative victory here in the UK replaced the colours of springtime rebellion with the darkness of December, and XR’s Theory of Change was starting to look more questionable, many of those certainties had been shaken.
Power was clearly far wilier, far more adept, than protesters. In April 2019, when XR took it by surprise, it bent with the wind, agreed to meet and to talk and spoke with apparent understanding. My recollection is that by July public opinion was turning against XR’s tactics of blocking roads, and by October the mood had definitely shifted: many members of the public were still willing to engage but many others felt able to rebut XR aggressively. And then, as XR turned from its original tactics of disrupting and engaging with the public, to confronting the villains (the oil companies, the banks, the City), it became just another part of the binary, oppositional culture which is one of the most successful tropes of modernity. It became just another tribe which you identified with or against; another side in the so-called culture wars.
Of course, both protesters and the public, who protest about the protesters, are dealing with the same essential shock. As the structures of our modern culture start to buckle, our confidence in it also begins to crack and that is alarming. Whether the cause is climate, war or disease does not really matter. Those structures are breaking down, and with them the certainties of the post-war liberal consensus – economic growth, democracy, human rights, the welfare state, social mobility. For many in the west, these promises held good between the end of the Second World War until the financial crash of 2008; now they are dissolving and the dissolution is accelerating.
Vanessa Machado de Oliveira, in her recent book, Hospicing Modernity, links western culture especially to expectations of certainty, suggesting that the dislocations of lockdown are echoes or anticipations of deeper shocks resulting from the breaking up of this culture’s structures. She writes that,
‘modernity has socialized us to find security in certainty, stability, and predictability, and as things start to fall apart we will seek out ways to fulfil these desires. …We will binge on certainties that can take the bitterness away, give us comfort, lift our hearts, and keep us numbed to the pain for a little longer.’
Our culture means we will continue to seek certainties because, even if they are about acting in response to climate catastrophe, they are soothing for minds ‘socialized’ to rely on them. Of course not all certainties are bad – certainties about what and whom we love are good – but until we wean ourselves from those certainties which reinforce the structures of power, they will simply bind us closer to power.
I am also being taught to see the limitations to any kind of agency in responding to that unravelling. #YesWeCan is a privileged viewpoint, one born of centuries of domination and colonisation. It says, we can – more or less – hold on to what we have; what we have amassed, accrued, extracted. But what if we say, #NoWeCan’t? Which is kind of where XR was when it said we are Beyond Fucked. Does that help us to imagine instead, other ways of being? Marc Lopatin and Rupert Read have recently explored this alternative to the ‘There’s Still Time’ narrative. It’s a lonely furrow to plough; the pull of #YesWeCan is enormously powerful within us as well as outside us.
The late Mark Fisher, in his 2009 book Capitalist Realism, wrote of how neoliberal capitalism’s masterstroke has been TINA – the widespread acceptance that There is No Alternative – or, more specifically, how it has rendered us unable to imagine an alternative. This idea has been further explored by Samantha Earle in her 2020 PhD thesis on the Social Imaginary, which she defines as ‘the complex of meanings that supervene on the phenomena of everyday life in a given society.’ What her thesis explores is how the social imaginary is also a cage – it literally prevents us from thinking outside the box – and then how we might begin to find ways to escape it.
Earle takes heart from Keats’s ‘negative capability’ and goes so far as to suggest it may offer a way out of TINA. She puts rockets under Keats’s original idea, redefining it as ‘the capacity to withstand the discomfort of hermeneutic uncertainty before alternative interpretations present themselves.’ She adds: ‘negative capability is effortful and uncomfortable. It will involve actively seeking to learn, both formally and informally through exposing ourselves to the perspectives of others.’
Joanna Macy’s work on active hope helps here because it distinguishes between hopefulness for a desired outcome, and hope as a practice of intention regardless of outcome. To recognise, and to internalise, that we are beyond fucked, or that ‘hope’ (of holding on to what we have) needs to die for meaningful action to begin, is very challenging. Many people respond to a digest of the climate science by saying, this is too terrible; you have to give an audience hope. And I can see how that has happened with XR. But facing the worst is also liberating: in 2018 that slogan was – counter-intuitively – inspiring rather than debilitating. Now, I would add: to relinquish attachment to outcomes as they are perceived from where we are, may even be a prerequisite to discovering possible other outcomes, not yet visible but which will rise into view as we move onward.
Earle suggests withstanding uncertainty until ‘alternative interpretations’ present themselves; maybe that can be extended to alternative paradigms and to new capacities we cannot yet imagine. Bayo Akomolafe suggests that the cracks appearing in our modern structures, are themselves a potential source of new life and resilience. In one recent seminar he defined these cracks as, ‘sites of continuity, progress, imagination…where certainty is lost….places where what holds the world together weakens, and something messianic flashes up.… that’s how transformation happens; not as a result of human agency or ingenuity.’
In a line which could have served as a comment on XR’s ‘success’ in forcing the government into negotiations in April 2019, Akomolafe said, ‘We seek a seat at the table, but there are other tables, other rooms…. I don’t want to clamour for a front row seat on the Titanic in these times.’ Instead, he advises, ‘listen to the favela or the Indian slum, the places of cracks and rupture. Where continuity is impossible; [where there is] an invitation to departure and exile to other places of power.’ It is as our societal structures and our social imaginaries break down, including our old certainties, that modes of being we cannot yet conceive may – miraculously – start to emerge.
And maybe it was just such a miracle I witnessed in Southwark Crown Court in April 2021, when six of us charged with criminal damage were found not guilty by a jury of our peers. We had broken windows and painted messages on the walls of the Shell building in London as part of the XR actions in 2019. One of us, Ian Bray, described the spirit in which he entered the trial as a kind of surrender to the process, a kind of letting go. We would tell our truth, share with the jury not just our grief and anger about Shell, but also our uncertainty. We admitted we did not know whether what we did was the right thing to do; we believed it was but we were offering it to the jury to decide. Is it possible that that courtroom was one of those places where just such a crack was opened, just such an invitation was offered and accepted?
 The essay was published in Self & Society, Magazine no.6, Association for Humanistic Psychology in Britain, Winter 2021 (http://www.parksagency.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/nl-2021-t6-07-dave-lambert-uncertainty.pdf). Keats defined negative capability as being ‘when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after Fact and reason.’
 Bayo Akomolafe, ‘Is there a solution to climate change?’, 8 Nov 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xIr2hOMVhIc
 Vanessa Machado de Oliveira, Hospicing Modernity, Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2021, p.234.
 Much of this paragraph stems from conversations with Marc Lopatin, who over the past three or four years has ploughed that furrow and continues to explore the ambiguities and implications of the #YesWeCan trope, e.g. https://medium.com/@marclopatin/the-dark-side-of-yeswecan-64dc6ef2bb16; https://medium.com/@marclopatin/cruel-optimism-and-climate-change-is-a-deadly-combo-time-to-let-go-of-1-5-c-a698c18cb0f4
 Samantha Earle, “The Social Imaginary in the Context of Social Discontents: A Conceptual Model of the Social Imaginary, and its Application to the Amelioration of Civilizational Crises,” submission for the degree of PhD submission, University of East Anglia, 2020, p.16.
 I described my experience of the trial in ‘Environmental activism: in defence of criminal damage’, Self & Society, 49(1), Spring 2021 https://ahpb.org/index.php/lambert-and-clifford-article/.
Teaser photo credit: By Julia Hawkins – https://www.flickr.com/photos/8716204@N06/45009830075/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74617063