I have long been somewhat interested in birds. Who isn’t? However, I think it is fair to say that in 2018 I finally evolved into a fully-fledged birder. Here is a small collection of what I spotted throughout the year. All of these images are my own and were captured on my phone (albeit attached to a spotting scope). Double tap for a close-up and please feel free to leave any comments.
For me, going out and exploring is absolutely essential. Getting lost provides me with an escapism incomparable to anything else. It enables me to pause, mull and re-calibrate, helps me to reflect and re-connect with myself and permits me occasionally to witness the natural world as independent of humanity. When I get lost enough, sometimes I forget about the Anthropocene. I am able to stand in awe, to ramble, revel and enjoy the natural world on its own terms. In a nutshell, that is the joy of birding. Like most things worthwhile, it is the journey that matters rather than the destination.
This year that journey took me to Norfolk, Cornwall, Somerset, Kent, Essex, Gloucestershire, Surrey and Sussex. All in all I recorded 178 species, not including the famous ringed teal of Welney WWT (a suspected escapee) and one or two muscovy ducks. Here are just a few snapshots from the year, taken on my phone through the lens of my spotting scope.
“To be a contented atheist you cannot believe in the truth absolutely, but must sometimes believe in lies.”
In an age when ideological divides are so clearly and ceaselessly widening, Ernest & Noble aspires to elicit the importance of human understanding and tolerance by obliging the reader to reflect upon the fragility of their own ideologies. It shines a light on the gratuitous hubris of absolutist belief-systems, specifically militant atheism, and admits of the probable reality of moral nihilism. However, unlike the existentialists of old, it seeks to reveal a possible solution to these issues by evoking the significance and versatility of faith, resilience and compromise.
“Look, just as in order to live we tend to deny the reality of our impending and inevitable death, in order to live well we have to deny the meaninglessness of the universe.”
The idea that our lives are inherently meaningless terrifies us all. So much so that for decades the public consciousness has, possibly to its own detriment, repressed the very concept of moral nihilism. Yet, in our pursuits for meaning, we attach ourselves to opinions, projects and political ideals which, if moral nihilism is true, provide our lives with little more than illusory veils of meaning. These attachments of ours become obsessions, for which many of us argue dogmatically and some will even physically fight. In doing so, we stoke anxieties and inflict suffering for the sake of literally nothing. Others of us attempt to peek beyond the veil and when we do so we become philosophers. Albeit, this can equally be fraught with difficulties, especially when we discover our own redundancy; that our lives are inherently meaningless.
In an attempt to break this damning dichotomy, Ernest & Noble is devised to both liberate philosophical atheists from nihilism’s labyrinth and to coax militant atheists in. Whoever you are, whatever your creed, faith, resilience and compromise will undoubtedly be necessary.
When it comes to climate change the Government lies to us, but we also lie to ourselves.
Again and again we are told by the honourable conservative political elite that the UK is a world leader in the fight against climate change. Many of us clearly realise that this neat slogan is often furtively utilised to dodge the question as to whether the UK Government is doing enough to avert a global climate catastrophe. Nonetheless, credit should be given where credit is due. In some respects it is certainly true, “the UK is leading action to tackle climate change”.
After all, the UK was the first nation to underwrite a legally-binding target to reduce CO2 emissions and has since improved upon that target, claiming that it intends to hit net-zero emissions by 2050 – a short 42 years after the initial target was passed by the UK Parliament. Furthermore, in an impressive display of executive vigour, the UK Government has greatly reduced its subsidising of coal mining for electricity generation, which proved especially difficult to achieve since the coal economy collapsed decades ago (1, 2, 3). Additionally, DEFRA (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) appear to be deeply invested in the noble concept of carbon offsetting to make the expansion of Europe’s busiest airport ethical.
However world-leading this record may (or may not) be, it is not nearly a sufficient response to humanity’s existential crisis. Such a response requires nothing less than for us to establish a war footing against climate change; to divert all resources towards one goal: averting the extinction of humankind. Yet, the UK Government rejects this motion as rash and economically unviable. In other words, the Government gives precedence to the capitalist project of economic growth over any sufficient attempts to avert anthropogenic human extinction. What’s more, when the Government’s record on climate change is scrutinised it’s plain to see how pitiful it really is, and their slogan is exposed for what it is: pretentious trickery.
Unfortunately, the UK Government’s apparent leadership on climate change is eclipsed by its unwavering inclination to surreptitiously pass the buck. Whilst its emissions are falling nationally, the UK Government subsidises the fossil fuel industry more than any other EU nation and, what’s maybe worse, it refuses to subsidise renewables until 2025. On top of that, it provides billions of pounds in financial support to overseas fossil fuel industries. Again, there is merit in the UK’s achievements concerning its divestment from coal and its reduction in emissions. Yet, its mission to reach net-zero emissions nationally by 2050 is fundamentally negated if it continues to inconspicuously fund international fossil fuel industries and altogether fails to subsidise renewables. Indeed, it becomes clear that the UK Government is not being entirely truthful to its citizens. According to a study published by the Overseas Development Institute in 2018, the UK ranked 1st amongst all G7 nations for its fossil fuel subsidy commitments but last for its transparency. So, if the UK Government continues to insist that it is a world leader, it is so only in prevarication and dirty populist politics. Alternatively, perhaps the Government is simply incapable of recognising its own contradiction.
This isn’t altogether an impossible idea. A similar praxis of compartmentalisation is reflected in the growing popular culture around sustainability. Even though the growth of this culture signals a long-awaited, welcome increase in public awareness concerning the climate and ecological emergency, it also actively encourages us to greenwash our lives. Take carbon offsetting as a case in point. If, like Elton John, you believe that throwing money into carbon offsetting schemes will miraculously make your air miles eco-friendly, you are woefully mistaken. Sure, carbon offsetting constitutes doing something. In theory it’s a respectable way of funding carbon capture and storage projects or other similarly green initiatives. However, offsetting our carbon-heavy lifestyles definitely does not constitute doing enough – it is far from a sufficient response to the emergency at hand. Fundamentally, it prevents us from doing what is necessary: it prevents us from having to face up to the harsh reality of the climate emergency; it dissuades us from rebelling against ourselves; from rebelling against our own destructive habits and desires; and coerces us into continuing with business as usual. Convinced we are saintly, we thus allow ourselves to conscientiously wreck the planet rather than impetuously so.
Sure, it’s better than denying the existence of climate change. It is also better than ignoring it. Yet, the emissions we offset – say by flying, eating meat or travelling in SUVs – still involve pumping copious amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. When we invest in carbon offsetting, we are simply passing the buck; quickly and conveniently we relieve ourselves of our environmental responsibilities and in the process we inhibit any meaningful cultural change. In an era when what we do today will undoubtedly determine whether or not civilised societies will exist in a hundred years, merely offsetting these emissions is not enough. The concentration of CO2 currently in the atmosphere is greater than it’s been for millions of years and it takes centuries for atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to reduce naturally. So, to do anything other than to actively attempt to reduce its concentration as much as possible is insane. To do anything other than to establish a war footing against climate change is insane. Compartmentalisation is practiced by the insane.
Further still, a recent study by the European Commission found that 85% of carbon offsets are unlikely to produce any real reduction in carbon emissions. So, we are kidding ourselves if we think that carbon offsetting lets us off the hook. It is rarely even helpful, let alone sufficient.
Given the circumstances, a sufficient response to climate change entails doing the best we can possibly do to reduce our emissions, not merely offsetting them or shipping them off to distant lands and pretending we have nothing to do with them. Ultimately, the UK Government needs to go fully fossil fuel free. That’s what a leader would do. On top of that, we the citizens ought to go flight free. Anything else would constitute insanity.
The promotion of British values in schools is a rather contentious issue, not least because teachers are legally obligated to promote and protect ‘fundamental British values’ (FBVs) (DfE,2014,p.5). I witnessed this in practice, whilst working as a Learning Support Assistant, where a Year 7 English class was explicitly taught about Britishness as an independent scheme of work (SOW). Deeply traditional British imagery was ubiquitously employed throughout these lessons (such as the Union Jack, Big Ben and Churchill) and students were directed to reflect upon and discuss the meaning of Britishness – which ultimately led to stereotypical conversations about the importance of tea, football, the monarchy and empire. This narrow conception of Britishness was unchallenged by the teacher which greatly disconcerted me.
As an indigenous British national, I saw this as an unbalanced conception of Britishness since the SOW failed to highlight values representative of my own views on Britishness (including multiculturalism, tolerance, freedom of speech and democracy). If the objective of the SOW was to enable people to better understand what Britishness means or to help them identify with the British community, then for me it had failed. What concerned me more was that over a quarter of the class were not of British heritage. I wondered: if I had found it difficult to relate to the narrow conception of Britishness prevalent in those lessons, some students had probably found it difficult too. Surely, I thought, teachers should attempt to challenge narrow conceptions of Britishness in order to make such lessons relatable and accessible to all students.
This is what sparked my interest in FBVs. I began asking myself questions, such as:
What truly is ‘Britishness’?
What are British values?
Do the British people share a homogenous set of values?
Are British values not just universal values?
Why and how was this legal obligation to promote and protect FBVs introduced?
Is the project to promote and protect FBVs self-defeating?
This essay is concerned with these final two questions. Specifically, by understanding the pretext for the introduction of FBVs and teachers’ legal obligation to promote and protect them, I aim to understand in what ways the policy surrounding FBVs might be – or at least appear to be – self-defeating. Furthermore, if they are self-defeating, I wish to examine whether teachers are necessarily hindered in their practices as a result.
There is a plethora of ways to explore the question of whether the project of FBVs is self-defeating. Nevertheless, here we will address just two. The first concerns whether FBVs are intended to be inclusive. As will be revealed, there are strong reasons to believe that they are. Yet, I will argue that there is a risk that FBVs can appear to merely feign rather than embody inclusion. Secondly, I wish to highlight how the broad advice on how to promote and protect FBVs may conflict with the specific duty to promote and protect democracy – for, democracy is one of the FBVs (Ofsted,2018,pp.42). We begin, however, by looking at why and how FBVs and teachers’ legal obligation to promote and protect them were introduced.
The Pretext for the Introduction
It appears that a change in the British political landscape was instrumental to the introduction of FBVs. Britain’s involvement in the USA’s ‘War on Terror’ in the early 2000s arguably helped to institutionalise a politics of anti-terrorism and securitisation (Kapoor,2013,p.1029) which can be seen to have catalysed a notable shift in UK public policy concerns away from what was called ‘state multiculturalism’ (Holmwood & O’Toole,2018,pp.6-7). Later, in 2011, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, claimed that “state multiculturalism […] encouraged different cultures to live separate lives […] apart from the mainstream” and in order to “belong” in Britain one must believe in “certain values”, values which Cameron believed were not shared by some ethnic minority groups (Cameron,2011). These values were subsequently defined in Britain’s anti-extremism Prevent Strategy as “fundamental British values” (FBVs) within its definition of ‘extremism’, which itself was defined as “vocal or active opposition” to FBVs (Crown,2011,p.107).
Fundamental British Values (FBVs):
- The rule of law;
- Individual liberty; and
- Mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith.
Shortly after, from September of 2012 the new Teachers Standards required teachers to protect FBVs (DfE,2011,p.14). Subsequently, the politics of anti-terrorism and securitisation was further proliferated by national and international incidents of terrorism, the growth of notorious terrorist organisations and the so-called Trojan Horse Affair in 2014 (Lander,2016,p.275). Consequently, the DfE published non-statutory advice relating to the promotion of FBVs as a part of social, moral, spiritual and cultural (SMSC) development in schools (DfE,2014).
 A multicultural state or society, or a state that advocates being multicultural.
 Here is an excerpt which shows this: “What I am about to say is drawn from the British experience, but I believe there are general lessons for us all. In the UK, some young men find it hard to identify with the traditional Islam practised at home by their parents, whose customs can seem staid when transplanted to modern Western countries. But these young men also find it hard to identify with Britain too, because we have allowed the weakening of our collective identity. Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream. We’ve failed to provide a vision of society to which they feel they want to belong. We’ve even tolerated these segregated communities behaving in ways that run completely counter to our values.” (Cameron,2011).
 “Teachers uphold public trust in the profession and maintain high standards of ethics and behaviour, within and outside school, by: … not undermining fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs” (DfE,2011,p.14).
As we shall see, there are elements of the pretext of FBVs which could cause us to believe that they might be self-defeating. By drawing upon some of those elements my central claim within this section is that if FBVs are intended to be inclusive, then they risk appearing to feign inclusion rather than embodying it. This is because some of the history surrounding education policies concerning Britain’s minority groups, as well as some aspects of the pretext for the introduction of teachers’ obligation to promote and protect FBVs, can appear to be racist. I will focus on the government’s treatment of the Swan Report of 1985 and then on the Trojan Horse Affair of 2014 as two illustrative cases.
According to Robin Richardson, in the late-1980s central government sought to “de-emphasize and marginalize the conclusions and recommendations of the Swann Report” (Richardson,2015,p.38) which identified a distinct need in schools for “change where attitudes to the ethnic minorities are concerned” and that a “[m]ulticultural understanding… [ought] to permeate all aspects of a school’s work” (Swann,1985,pp.767-769). In support of its marginalisation, Beverley Shaw argued that an education founded on “universal tolerance and understanding” would fail to respect its students’ social, ethnic or religious identities “for such an education cannot of its nature reinforce home and family values” without creating the social divisions it is intended to repair (Shaw,1988,p.258). However, one might contend that Shaw’s reasoning is flawed because (A) it is mistaken about the role that schools have with respect to reinforcing home and family values (or, as I will term them, ‘cultural values’); and, more importantly, (B) the rationale by which that mistaken role is assumed can appear to be (and may even be) racist.
With respect to (A), Shaw’s argument could be invalidated if one believed that schools have no role in necessarily reinforcing (viz. instructing on) cultural values but rather have a role in educating on (viz. informing on, revealing, or modelling) them. The process of reinforcing certain cultural values may, indeed, involve excluding other cultural values since it would necessitate being selective when deciding which to reinforce. Hence, as Shaw remarks, in a culturally plural school setting, reinforcing cultural values might almost necessarily fail to respect some students’ identities. Conversely, the process of educating on cultural values has the potential to succeed in respecting all students’ identities because it is not as restricted by ideas concerning prescriptivity. Accordingly, Shaw is mistaken in repudiating the Swann Report on the belief that the kind of education it recommended fails to respect its students’ identities, for that need not be the case if one believes schools have a role in educating on cultural values rather than reinforcing them.
 For reinforcing all of the world’s cultural values would be impossible.
 I say ‘potential’ because, despite it being logically possible that all cultural values are respected, some cultural values may still be perceived as unworthy of respecting.
Importantly, concerning (B), some people might view the kind of rationale employed by Shaw as racist. The assumption that education ought to reinforce certain cultural values arguably entails the implicit premise that there exists a specific set of cultural values – rather than ‘universal’ values – which is inherently superior to others, including those of resident ethnic minorities, and is thus more deserving of being reinforced. It is these kinds of attitudes and “inherited myths” with which the Swann Report was concerned (Swann,1985,p.769) – attitudes purporting that ethnic minority cultures and their respective values are inherently inferior to those of the mainstream culture. Furthermore, it is beyond mere speculation to suggest that many people would qualify such attitudes as racist. Hence, if the central government’s move in the late-1980s to de-emphasise and marginalise the recommendations of the Swann Report was seen to be decided upon reasoning equivalent or similar to that of Shaw’s, it could quite conceivably be considered by some as a racist move.
The government’s marginalisation of the Swann Report is just one example of how racism might be seen to be present in the history surrounding education policies. For those concerned with the possibility that its marginalisation was racist, the question for today is: is it possible that FBVs were conceived on the back of similar attitudes to those which ostensibly denounced the Swann Report?
At first glance, the answer is potentially yes. For, FBVs are identified by their title as being distinctly ‘British’ values, suggesting that they are cultural values unique to Britain. Thus, it could be claimed that FBVs are racist, in a way similar to the allegation made against Shaw in (B), by “implying that Britain is somehow better and more civilised than other countries” (NASUWT,2016,p.6). This would explain why teachers are duty-bound to promote and protect FBVs and why the government defined ‘extremism’ as “vocal or active opposition” to FBVs (Crown,2011,p.107).
However, it would be unfair to cry ‘racism!’ too quickly. For, upon looking at the individual values which constitute FBVs it becomes clear that they are “certainly not unique to Britain” (NASUWT,2016,p.6). For, democracy (FBV1); the rule of law (FBV2); individual liberty (FBV3); and mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith (FBV4) are all values held in multiple countries and cultures worldwide. Therefore, to prevent people from mistaking FBVs as uniquely British values, moreover to prevent “alienation and division”, it would be prudent to understand FBVs as ‘Universal Values’ (NASUWT,2016,p.6). So, perhaps despite their name, FBVs were not devised from racist attitudes since they appear to embody Universal Values – values which are not exclusive to Britain.
Further evidencing that FBVs were not devised from racist attitudes, in the Department for Education’s advice for promoting FBVs in practice they state, “[i]t is not necessary for schools or individuals to ‘promote’ teachings, beliefs or opinions that conflict with their own, but nor is it acceptable for schools to promote discrimination against people or groups on the basis of their belief, opinion or background” (DfE,2014,p.6). This embodies FBV4 and it is an example of how the promotion of FBVs is intended to be inclusive, qua respectful for and tolerant of those with different faiths and beliefs, in practice.
The problem with this is that there is a risk that those who might view the kind of rationale employed by Shaw as racist may thus see FBV4 as an ad-hoc attempt at making FBVs seem more inclusive when in reality they are not. This contention could be inspired or compounded by the pretext for the introduction of FBVs and teachers’ obligation to promote and protect them, since it appears to encourage differential treatment of minority groups (Strathers,2017,p.100), contradicting FBV4. This, according to Richardson, is because “the discourse of politicians […] implies that a central purpose of teaching British values is to control and regulate young Muslims” (Richardson,2015,p.45). The Trojan Horse Affair exemplifies this allegation: In March 2014 the Sunday Times reported on a Muslim plot to take over the governing bodies of a collection of Birmingham schools (Richardson,2015,p.39). Soon after, the national press was fuelled by headlines warning of Islamic extremists, fundamentalism and a “Jihadist plot to take over schools” (Richardson,2015,p.40; quoting the Birmingham Mail on 7th March 2014), now referred to as the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair. The document alleged as proof of this plot was a forgery (Richardson,2015,p.40). Yet, well before any state-led investigations were able to make this official conclusion – moreover, before hearings from teachers of the implicated schools were conducted – the government cited the Trojan Horse Affair as justification for its new plans to counter extremism (Holmwood & O’Toole,2018,p.16). The introduction of the aforementioned obligation conferred upon teachers to promote FBVs as a part of SMSC development in schools constituted an element of these plans. Hence, the treatment of Muslims in this case (and the potential perception that they were scapegoated for political ends) could be considered by some as amounting to “a betrayal of the very values that the teachers in the Birmingham [Trojan Horse Affair] case are held to have disavowed” (Holmewood & O’Toole,2018,p.20), those being the fundamental British values – especially FBV4.
So, it is possible that FBVs were conceived on the back of similar attitudes to those which possibly inspired the marginalisation of the Swann Report. It is because of this that FBVs risk appearing to feign inclusion rather than embodying it. Teachers are encouraged to be inclusive in their practice, to embody and model FBV4 (DfE,2014,p.6), yet at times, both in the past and with respect to pertinent recent events, the central British government appear to have actively contradicted FBV4.
Be that as it may, I would argue that the practice of promoting and protecting FBV4 is not necessarily undermined by these events. For, even if FBVs were devised with racist intent, this need not have any impact upon the practices of a teacher when promoting and protecting them. The teacher can, regardless of recent history, protect and promote “mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith”, by educating on FBVs. Furthermore, rethinking FBVs as Universal Values could help to prevent any conflation between narrow stereotypical conceptions of Britishness with values education and help teachers consider their obligation to promote and protect FBVs in a more inclusive fashion (NASUWT,2016,p.6), in line with FBV4.
However, an element of teaching practices relating to the promotion and protection of democracy (FBV1) which could be seen as self-defeating concerns the non-statutory advice relating to the promotion of FBVs as a part of SMSC. This advice instructs teachers to “enable students” to “respect the civil and criminal law of England”, “to acquire a […] respect for public institutions and services in England” and to “encourage respect for the basis on which the law is made and applied in England” (DfE,2014,p.5). However, practitioners may have reservations “concerning the appropriateness of teaching students to respect public institutions and the Laws of […] England when a key element of critical and empowering education should arguably be that they are equipped with the capacities to challenge the state and its actions” (Struthers,2016,pp.98-99; referencing Goodwin,2014). This could be argued on the basis that a state’s citizens must have the capacity to take properly informed democratic action to safeguard themselves against the state and other powerful entities, such as when those entities threaten Human Rights or contradict FBVs, which requires that its citizens hold a degree of scepticism with respect to the state. In short, democracy necessitates having a degree of freedom not to respect the state. Arguably, therefore, by instructing teachers to encourage students to respect the state, the DfE’s guidance regarding the promotion and protection of democracy (FBV1) is potentially self-defeating.
That being said, teachers could reinterpret the DfE’s advice to avoid this. Teachers may, for instance, reinterpret ‘enabling students to respect’ the civil and criminal law of England as meaning that they ought to enable and encourage their students to abide by the civil and criminal law of England. For, abiding by laws need not necessitate respecting them. Hence, through reinterpreting the DfE’s instructions, it is possible that democracy can be promoted and protected by teachers in practice in a way that is not self-defeating.
Yet, another way in which the practice of promoting FBVs could be seen to contradict democracy relates to how FBVs are promoted. If promoting FBVs equates to reinforcing them, just as Shaw assumed teachers should do, then there is a danger that an allegation could be made stating that the promotion of FBVs is merely a political tool to nationalistically indoctrinate students. Having said that, if it is believed that the process by which FBVs are promoted equates to educating on them, then this allegation might be quashed. Fortunately, it is possible to infer from the DfE’s advice that the latter method is preferred. This is because the language within their description of “the understanding and knowledge expected of pupils as a result of schools promoting fundamental British values” appears to connote an educating on approach when it states that students should have “an understanding” of democracy or “an appreciation” for the rule of law and other such things which characterise FBVs (DfE,2014,pp.5-6). Conversely, if it had stated rather more obstinately that students “must believe” in democracy and the rule of law, then we could potentially infer that it connotes a reinforcing approach to promoting FBVs.
So, whilst the guidance on how to promote FBVs could be seen to be self-defeating by potentially (perhaps unwittingly) encouraging practices which could arguably subvert democracy, teachers are able to interpret the guidance such that democracy is nonetheless promoted and protected in their practice. Furthermore, we can infer from the language of the guidance that teachers can achieve this by educating on FBVs rather than reinforcing them.
Similarly, whilst some history concerning education policies and elements of the pretext for the introduction of FBVs and teachers’ obligation to promote and protect them might be seen to be racist and thus undermine FBV4, the FBVs, through being in essence Universal Values, are not themselves racist. Therefore, teachers are able to promote and protect FBVs without undermining them, again by educating on them.
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Just because Thanos erased half of all life in order to bring balance to the universe it doesn’t mean that everyone who is concerned about overpopulation is also an eco-fascist beset on subjugation and murder. It is quite probable that they’re simply anxious about the climate and ecological breakdown and see overpopulation as a legitimate cause. We needn’t assume to know any more than that; whom they blame, if they blame anyone, and what solutions they endorse we cannot assume to know. Sure, there is a distinct risk that arguments about overpopulation and their purported solutions can, and have been, subverted by fascist reasoning. However, concerns about overpopulation are not intrinsically fascist. On the contrary, in many cases such concerns are typically apolitical, much like “iceberg ahead!” implies “politics aside, we need to avert disaster!”. Such proclamations deserve our attention.
After all, the Malthusian premise that exponential human population growth will one day inevitably exceed Earth’s finite stock of resources is a compelling one. Just watch a few episodes of David Attenborough’s Our Planet and one will discover that we are already “totally out of balance with nature”.
In today’s prevailing global capitalist context, overpopulation is already in effect, for the logic of capitalism implies that we prosper today in lieu of living tomorrow.
Despite this present imbalance, however, there is an increasingly fashionable argument permeating amongst social thinkers contending that global society is maturing to a point where overpopulation needn’t be an issue of concern. Call this the Sub-Replacement Argument. This argument is made on the assumption that the ‘third-world’ societies predominantly responsible for global population growth, due to their (delayed) industrialisation and socio-economic development will soon have greater access to education and contraception (importantly, education and contraception are proven to be essential in reducing reproduction rates in developed countries). Couple this with current statistics showing that developed countries have a collective ‘sub-replacement fertility rate’ – meaning new generations are less populous than preceding generations – and there is a strong argument to suggest that: Once capitalism pulls Africa and Asia out of the third-world, they too will have sub-replacement fertility rates! Thus, their populations, just like those of the world’s better, more advanced nations, will begin to diminish and those cries of ‘global overpopulation!’ will all be in vain.
Nonetheless, this covertly neocolonial argument fails on two accounts. Firstly, the fact that now, during the human epoch – the Anthropocene – Earth is experiencing its 6th Great Extinction, at a rate 100 times faster than normal, we can be certain that the issue of overpopulation is already pressing. Even if the third-world does attain sub-replacement fertility rates in the not-too-distant future, it’s already too late; innumerable irreversible tragedies have already come to pass.
I implore you to rebel against yourself.
That being said, maybe what counts as ‘overpopulation’ differs depending upon what politico-economic system the term is applied. Indeed, one may argue that in the context of the currently prevailing system overpopulation is already underway because capitalism’s tautological requirement for growth guarantees exponential ecological degradation. This inevitable degradation inexorably leads to agricultural collapse and thus the Malthusian premise is a priori fulfilled. In accounting terms, we are already overpopulated; theoretically speaking, humans exceeded Earth’s finite stock of resources long ago, it’s just that the effects are yet to be properly experienced on a global scale.
Perhaps, therefore, in order to prevent that from happening, moreover to prevent it from getting worse, we should transform the system into one that doesn’t necessitate the decimation of ecosystems. It’s already blindingly obvious that this is what’s required in order to sufficiently mitigate the climate breakdown, so this makes sense, right?
YES! Yet, this is unfortunately where the Sub-Replacement Argument fails again. We cannot possibly assume that a post-capitalist world is necessarily capable of enabling third-world countries to meaningfully develop. It may be, but we cannot assume it will be. For it is quite possible that in such a world standards of living in third-world countries would stagnate, whilst standards of living would by necessity have to decrease in ‘developed’ countries. This could arguably lead to increasingly limited access to education and contraception worldwide. So, it is possible that even if we manage to overcome the climate breakdown, there could well be another existential crisis lurking in the shadows of the future: overpopulation.
This is the overpopulation myth, the myth that overpopulation isn’t a legitimate cause for concern, when of course it is. In today’s prevailing global capitalist context, overpopulation is already in effect, for the logic of capitalism implies that we prosper today in lieu of living tomorrow. And we cannot be sure how overpopulation might feature if our dreams for systematic change become a reality.
So, we are left with two options. We can choose either certain death-by-capitalism, whereby the climate breakdown and overpopulation will kill us; or we can choose a transition out of capitalism into the ominous unknown, the shadows, wherein overpopulation might kill us. I know which I’d choose. My question is what one would you choose? In any case, I implore you to rebel against yourself.
In Owen Jones’ recent interview video with Extinction Rebellion, Roger Hallam criticises the political ‘left’ as having been perpetually dishonest about what economic action is required to mitigate the climate breakdown and what cultural changes this will necessitate. He contends that the ‘left’ have become so embroiled, so entrenched in the (conceptually politically right-wing) neoliberal ideal they are unable to conceive of human life “in anything other than cost-benefit, materialistic terms”. Their proposed resolutions have therefore assumed that market forces are enough to tackle climate change: business as usual WILL work, it just needs tweaking! They were wrong, whilst Roger is correct: The ‘left’ – the supposed political guardians of justice and equality – have fundamentally failed to realise that at the very heart of any suitable action to mitigating the climate breakdown requires a redefinition and restructuring of our society and economy. Just like all life on this planet, justice and equality depend upon this for their survival.
It can feel as though we need to go through our very own personal extinction in order to prevent a global one.
So, the political ‘left’ need to become Left again. For many of us, this has long been clear to see. Thankfully, it appears that they’re (just) starting to see the light. But we, and they, need to be clear about what the necessary changes in our society will require of us culturally and personally. Roger was unequivocal about this. It requires us to accept, moreover embrace, lower standards of living. For freeing ourselves from our capitalist indoctrination involves repudiating everything tied up in capitalism’s tautological relationship with growth. So we must retract from our supposed inter-generational contract with every consecutive generation to give them a better standard of living than the previous (I say ‘supposed’ because I’ve never seen nor signed this thing). It’s a faulty contract, the objectives of which cannot be sustained by virtue of its very design. We pursue its fulfilment in vain, and at what price? At best, the end of civil society, justice and equality; at worst, the end of human existence altogether.
Therefore, we need to redefine ourselves, every one of us; we need to change our expectations of what life entails. Reducing our standard of living involves changing a whole host of our own personal life-defining ideas. We need to be willing to fully extend the service life of everything we own, instead of repeatedly repurchasing unnecessary replacements. We need to re-skill ourselves so as not to be reliant on corporate manufacturers. We need to be canny, creative and imaginative. And we can be! We must reuse, recycle, repair and adapt our clothes again and again and again, until they are literally unusable as objects of clothing; and then up-cycle them into rags and quilts. We must re-green and re-wild our concreted areas, reconnect with the wilderness, walk upon, re-learn, appreciate and cultivate our privately owned microcosmic lands. We must localise ourselves (without vulgarising ourselves into xenophobes), so that we can walk, push or cycle ourselves to work, the grocer, to our friends and families. Concede that animal husbandry is one of the greatest causes of environmental degradation, and thus accept that meat ought to be reserved for special occasions, or better yet not be consumed at all. Accept that we needn’t pollute our drains with noxious chemicals when we wash ourselves and our possessions; realise that we needn’t shower every single day in order to be sanitary.
And this needn’t amount to austerity as we currently understand it – as a degrading, unrelenting existence at the margins of civilisation, wherein nothing possesses beauty or meaning. Kings and queens of empires old had austere lives compared to many of us. Ingenuity in practical utility can be appreciated in aesthetic terms. Yes, the story, the history and destiny, and the scars of our possessions can cause us to marvel over them, giving them aesthetic merit. Further still, in the process of changing ourselves, our conceptions of objective perfection will entirely evaporate, but the ‘civil’ part our civilisation will not. THAT is what we are doing this for. There is meaning in all this. So, don’t mistake reduced ‘living standards’ for reduced ‘quality of life.’ They are very different things. Happiness and contentment are in this imagined society, and can wholly be found in the process of transitioning to it.
I’ve said it before: the changes required will not be easy. We will all experience some strife in the process of challenging and changing ourselves. I’ve experienced it myself, and last week I met many people at the Extinction Rebellion protests in London that had, are or were beginning to experience their own internal mental rebellions: I am not you anymore, I am someone else; I wish there was another way but there isn’t, so leave me be! This internal, somewhat subconscious self-rejection is relentlessly tiring because redefining ourselves, re-finding ourselves is a tortuous task. There is no physicality to this kind of lost-ness; we are truly alone in an ethereally grievous mental-state. Those who’ve experienced it may now know very little about who they are, but they have realised that our self-image is inextricably bound up in our culture, and that culture has been hogtied by a now rotting politico-economic system. For us, denouncing this system is like pronouncing in the 19th century that “God is dead”. It can feel as though we are left in possession of nothing, yet still have everything to lose. It can feel as though we need to go through our very own personal extinction in order to prevent a global one.
Yet there is something that keeps us going. There is hope. There is solidarity and love. More importantly, there is a new social contract to draw up, and quickly. Its objectives may just about be attainable, if we really try; if we continue to rebel. This contract won’t catalyse injustice, inequality and global extinction. No, neither will this contract aspire to give our future generations a better standard of living. Instead, it will aspire to give them life. No luxuries. Just food to eat and air to breathe. In essence, that’s all Extinction Rebellion are asking for: that we allow our children to live.
We rebel for life. Viva la Rebellion.
This article was recently posted on the Extinction Rebellion blog, XRblog.
Extinction Rebellion is a breath of fresh air, you might say literally. I could almost taste the oxygen in the London air this week as I paraded around Parliament Square, stood in solidarity with my sisters and brothers at Waterloo Bridge, and received abuse whilst heading the Edgeware Road blockade at Marble Arch.
Extinction Rebellion continue to display a form of activism that has been remiss in the UK for an extremely long time. Finally, a small collection of people (Gale Bradbrook,Roger Hallam and Jamie Kelsey Fry being key players) have managed to consolidate the world’s many grassroots activist organisations and convinced them to re-brand under as single banner. And, surprisingly, their objectives are not muddled. They’re clear and easy to remember and regurgitate, which is especially useful when a naive and myopic passer-by aggressively asks and asserts, “Oi, you prick! Tell me – just tell me! – what do you want out of this?! It’s a F###ing joke!”
Well, kind Sir, we would like the following:
- Tell the truth
The government must tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency working with other institutions to communicate the urgency for change.
2. Act now
The government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025 (as advised by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Climate Change Report).
3. Beyond Politics
The government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.
This is not vague. Neither is it unreasonable.
The most up-to-date scientific projections of climate change tell us that at best we are facing the end of civil society as we know it: A world partially submerged by water, ravaged by extreme weather events, wherein humankind struggles to subsist because of food and water shortages and where masses of people are displaced and/or die because of conflicts waged over basic resources. At worst, on the other hand, the projections tell us that the Earth will no longer remain inhabitable: No human life.
I agree! Neither possible world is one I want my children growing up in. It’s a case of picking the best of a bad bunch of options. Yet, to do that, we need to start telling the truth.
Scientists began speculating about the possibility of climate change back in the 19th century. In the 1970’s the evidence really started to shine bright, and since the late 80’s there has been a concerted effort by scientists and activists alike to better know and share the truth about climate change. Due to the structures of power pervading our societies, these truths still fail to permeate through our shared consciousness and popular culture. The only way to at least try to improve those projections is to speak truth to each other and collectively speak truth to power.
I really am sorry about the inconvenience, Mr Commuter – we all are. Yet, dare I say, your personal inconvenience is a small price to pay in order to prevent the collapse of civilisation.
Great arrestive Goldfinch,
What are we to wonder?
Where did you retrieve
That gold which you plundered?
By flap or by flutter,
You endure the unfolding
Of a heavenly dream.
Past dreams made trial
Of that appreciable feat.
What wonder engendered
Your life-given tweet?
That power in the sky;
That’s how you were done.
Neatly worn upon the face
You wear a mask of the sun.
Speared through by that beak,
If from heaven It spied,
God would reach for that sun
But place it back in the sky.
Darkness betwixt light,
That power now faded;
God brings to the earth
A goldfinch which is jaded.
Great arrestive Goldfinch,
What are we to wonder?
Where did you retrieve
That gold which you plundered?
By flap or by flutter,
You endure the unfolding
Of a heavenless dream.
© Copyright of A.C. Stark
Those grandest of all arrangements promote
The tyrants of incessant legacies.
Inspiring an appetite for war to tote
For aeons with devious efficacies.
Complex, seem those ignoble noblemen
With their prerogatives to forge order,
Thought their aloof livestock, their heinous-men,
Whilst, privileged, they’d broadly marauder.
Cunningly went that ‘noble’ politic,
Conceiving an epic for brighter minds
To receive upon their scrambled schematic
Of thought; it in thought to cull what logic finds.
© Copyright of A.C. Stark