Resilience through rebellion

Sabine Topf reviews This is not a drill: An Extinction Rebellion handbook by Extinction Rebellion (Penguin, £7.99).

Act Now. This is the second of Extinction Rebellion’s demands. But who’s to act and on what? Most effort on climate communication has focused on changing individuals’ behaviour, asking: How should scientists, journalists and the government present the facts of the climate crisis in order for you to recycle more, drive less and finally switch to low energy light bulbs? Unfortunately, tackling the climate crisis is a conundrum on many levels: For one, there’s the uncertainty of how bad it will get and when. Also, none of us have ever seen anything even closely resembling the current threat. Last but not least, no action will make a significant difference if not taken collectively, making it a prime example of a social dilemma. The Extinction Rebellion (XR) Handbook may not be the most poetic book you read this year, but with regards to action on climate change, it gets several things very right.

Engaging with the climate crisis elicits strong emotions: fear, grief, despair, rage. Try watching Sir David Attenborough’s ‘Climate Change – The Facts’ without deep sorrow or a pang of guilt for the species lost in our lifetime alone. XR embraces these feelings as an appropriate reaction to an unimaginable threat. And it absolves them with this principle: ‘We avoid blaming and shaming. We live in a toxic system, but no individual is to blame’. Fittingly, ‘Love and Rage’ is one of the phrases XR members use to sign off emails. XR thus manages to avoid allowing people to slide into denial because the emotions are too much to deal with. Instead, those feelings are channelled into action. Much of the first part of the book is dedicated to the situation we find ourselves in and how to come to terms with it, including a chapter from psychoanalyst Susie Orbach on Climate Sorrow. 

Another aspect is how XR harnesses the Single Action Bias — faced with an overwhelming situation, we tend to rely on one and only one response. When presented with the facts of climate change, many of us settle for a reusable shopping bag. Instead, the message of This Is Not A Drill is: If you take only one action, it should be the one with the highest impact. This also reduces the social dilemma of climate change: Any action that aims at changing the current system to one that forgoes the use of fossil fuels has a disproportionately larger impact than any individual action could have. 

The fact that this single action is non-violent direct action with the risk of arrest aids the cause. We know from the charitable donations literature that someone who undergoes a painful experience elicits higher donations compared with someone who does nothing or something pleasurable. Stronger support comes from social rights movements and their tactics of civil disobedience: Being ready to face arrest with all the possible legal and social consequences sends a strong signal, to bystanders as well as to those in positions of power. For those being taken to a police cell, this truly isn’t a drill. 

Finally, the Handbook inspires readers to think beyond the rebellion. XR is not just against something – a society reliant on fossil fuel and infinite growth – but for a fair transition for everyone, civic values of trust, ‘chivalry and honour’. It is not prescriptive about how to go about it though. In the spirit of creating resilient and adaptive complex systemsThis Is Not A Drill delivers how-to guides to create art, feed rebels and block roads and bridges. These are the building blocks from which new ways to create a liveable future are yet to emerge. Perhaps this is the most promising aspect of XR – even if the rebellion fails, the systems of psychological and organisational resilience it creates through new ways of being and working together will hopefully stay. We will very likely need them.

Reviewed by Sabine Topf
PhD student at UCL

See a collection of our recent articles around the role of psychology and psychologists in tackling climate change here.

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