Citizens: it's time for 'cringe-worthy' climate action

7 Sep 2019

 (Credit: RNZ, "Banksy possible artist of mural found at climate activists' London base").


With the critical need to raise awareness and cause meaningful change on important issues (like climate crisis), the discussion often arises about what constitutes effective and appropriate direct civic action.


As in all cases, context is everything.


Take a recent example of direct civic action,  which some have criticised as little more than vandalism (thereby risking alienating certain folks from the Extinction Rebellion movement and its objectives).  Others applauded that same action as proactive and necessary for provoking society to think about our climate emergency scenario: Who or what really is responsible for causing the climate threat?  Why would such good, well-meaning, otherwise law-abiding, caring citizens feel so compelled to even resort to such tactics to raise awareness about it?  How we must urgently respond?  Such insightful thinking would attract more empathy and support for the campaign and the well-meaning intentions of those taking part.


Personally, I have come to doubt the net value of conventional ways for citizens to voice our dissent (A.K.A. "protest").  These types of conduct (like making submissions on bills to parliamentary select committees and council resource consent hearings, and even simple rallies and hikoi/ marches out on the streets) have been ineffective (doubly so, I’d say, for vulnerable groups like women, children, indigenous peoples, the disabled and the growing poor who will tragically be hit earliest and hardest by our converging crises).


After witnessing decades of environmental and social decline, one can only conclude that to have reached this unprecedented state of emergency, conventional means and institutions have fundamentally failed us: elected officials, decision-makers, the private business sector, our economic and education systems, the media and journalism and others have progressively ignored citizens’ concerns. Otherwise, society would have taken the course-correcting steps necessary to align with Nature’s law (rather than violate it) and avert our current predicament. 


To be clear, I recognise that those ordinary ways of expressing discontent have some nominal value. I even still participate in them from time to time (for example, see my oral interventions to the Environmental Select Committee on the Zero Carbon Bill – fast forward to around -2:29:00 in this Facebook live-stream).  However, when compared with the horrifically fast pace at which the threat is growing, civil society is inarguably, on balance, losing ground. 


The problem is, such conventional action lies within the comfort zone of the sleeping (i.e. unaware and distracted) masses of citizens, elected officials and the private business and corporate sector.  Unfortunately, to change and evolve requires shifting out of the comfort zone altogether.


The oft-used analogy that quietly whispering to wake a person from deep slumber while their house is on fire is a ridiculous proposition.  Similarly, there comes a point when fear of upsetting the ignorant masses become less of a concern, when boldly raising the alarm to disrupt their ‘slumber’ – even in the face of their ‘protests’ at being inconveniently being agitated into consciousness – is precisely what is needed in the interests of their own welfare and safety.


There have always been differences of opinion as to the relative 'rightness'/ 'wrongness' of such citizen-powered actions, and that will remain.  One hopes that peaceful action will nonetheless continue to be a fundamental guiding principle (as violence only begets more violence).  


But as the extinction stakes for humanity grow ever higher, the compulsion to make our defiant voices heard in more bolder, radical ways will only increase.  


Indeed, experts are now acknowledging the truth that "we cannot be radical enough",

implying that what was once considered "radical" is flipped on its head: those who beat the drum of the conventional are now the 'new radicals' who pathologically hold the rest of the world to ransom.


A ‘new norm’ for justified styles of civil disobedience will also abruptly shift as more and more realise that continuing same behaviour is no longer fit for purpose.  If it's not causing people to squirm and cringe with discomfort, then it's probably not enough to get the attention we need.  And expecting different results using conventional means is worse than deluded - it will seal the fate of humanity’s extinction. 


(End note: support future action, like the School Strike 4 Climate general strike 27 September, and Extinction Rebellion's "Make History" action the week of 5-9 October in cities world-wide).


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