First, Rebel Against Yourself.

Nature & the Environment, Politics & Public Debate

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.

A.C. Stark

This article was recently posted on the Extinction Rebellion blog, XRblog.

The Greatest Gift that I Possess

Philosophy & Ethics, Politics & Public Debate

Everywhere I look I see countless miniature empires. This makes sense when one considers the many necrophilous sectarians ostensibly populating Britain, as their morals seem to be founded (if Brexit is anything to go by) in the delusional glory of this little island’s historically imperial sovereignty. Small-man syndrome is a natural phenomenon, even at the state level. However, worryingly, even members of today’s ‘hipster’, left-wing subculture – cultural decedents of a cleaner living, hitchhiking, happy-go-lucky, hippy era – revel in the excesses of their individual realms. Today everyone is an emperor. Myopic, capitalistic narcissism is pervasive. It’s killing humanism and the planet with it.

Taken from his recent book, Happy (his recent and a fascinating serious prose on welfare philosophy), Derren Brown hits the nail on the head, when he says, “‘Get what you want’ remains a mantra of modern living, as if we each had the birthright to accumulate whatever we think will make us happy.” We’re programmed to desire, indoctrinated even. Society is set up to consume. Without our desires being quenched by consumption, we’re destined to be miserable. This is the message we’re sold.

As a result, we’re constantly seeking to expand our empires in the pursuit of something more addictive, more socially corrosive than crystal meth. Purchasing is the tool by which we seek our little hits of serotonin and dopamine, each dose a sparrows-step toward securing a peculiarly phantom mental state: happiness. Obsessively, most of us seek it, but in vain. The era of achieving happiness collaterally is long over. Now, we seek it as an end in itself. More fool us.

We’re so addicted to these minute hits of gratification that we don’t let anything or anyone get in the way of our attaining them. This is not a clean drug, its cut with numerous toxins. It kills. Collateral damages, in the form of physical (1, 2), mental, environmental (1, 2, 3, 4) and cultural sickness (1, 3, 2), have been normalised. It’s an unfortunate necessity but a necessity all the same; a small price to pay for “happiness”. Crucially, we reject that our pursuit of happiness is damningly self-defeating (perhaps through fear of self-loathing). Moreover, those that indiscriminately pursue happiness are often considered virtuous. This is despite their holding a complete disregard for traditional virtues such as moderation, wisdom, morality, or empathy and a sense of community.

Regretfully, and rather non-virtuously, Conspicuous and invidious consumption (purchasing goods to flaunt economic power and incite envy), the bread and butter of capitalism, affect us greatly (the recent #OOTD appeal is a hideous example). Products are designed and marketed specifically to create and then cure anxietynot to promote happiness – which stimulates us to indulge in further self-destructive retail therapy. Possessions are seen and brandished as symbols of identity, wealth and “happiness”. This is no conspiracy theory; it is advertising theory (1, 2). It’s business. As a result, western society has entered a mental health crisis (1, 2) as its free markets mass produce depression and narcissism, as we are all miss-sold happiness.

Social media compounds the issue, providing “short term, dopamine-driven feedback loops” (1, 2) which manipulate us into to further embellishing and flaunting our lively possessions – the flags of our empires – in the virtual world, as we unwittingly encourage one another to consume more still.

What is deeply disconcerting is that the means by which we might relearn the value of empathy, community and virtue, and consequently rediscover happiness as contentedness, is being dismantled. With central government stripping powers of discretionary spending from local councils and redirecting the cash to Whitehall, our communal infrastructure is rapidly disintegrating. With it go the remnants of a once humanistic, community-based Great British culture. Youth centres, libraries, care homes, parks and public gardens are being left to ruin, so that the state can financially compete on a global scale in order to recreate the illusion of a “Great British Empire”.

It’s difficult to decide which of Britain’s politico-economic ideologies are causing all this: sectarianism, capitalism or neo-liberalism? It could be any or all of them. However, all of them scream the same battle-cry, wealth and empire are all.


A.C. Stark

Recommended Reading
Happy; Out of the Wreckage; Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered;
The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World