Deep Transformation, or What London’s Climate Change Protests Teach Us About the Future
umair haqueApr 22 – from Medium.com
It was a perfect spring day. I was trying to get home to Camden Lock from Oxford Circus, after meeting a few friends for coffee downtown. A siren’s blare cut through the noisy crowds. Soon enough, police had shut down Regent Street — and massed protesters, cheering, shouting, rebelling, thronged London’s busiest intersection, shutting it down.
I don’t know if you’ve heard elsewhere, but London’s seen protests day after day now — of a new kind. Organized by a group called Extinction Rebellion, the subject of these protests isn’t authoritarianism, fascism, extremism, Wall Street — it’s climate change.
Extinction Rebellion is, by my reckoning, the world’s first significant series of global protests about climate change. The first one to shut down a major city, to galvanize a people, to cut through the noise of capitalist mass media — and do what protests should do: make some noise.
Thus, if you ask me, these protests matter — and they matter a very great deal. Even if I myself am the one inconvenienced by them. What matters more, after all — me getting the bus on time, or having a planet? And yet they matter in a way so deep that I think we scarcely know it. After all, these days — as things seem to fall apart by the day…who has time to process much?
So there we were, watching Extinction Rebellion roll by. And one of my American friends remarked to me, “it’s not a surprise these — the first real climate change protests — are happening in London. They’d never happen back home.” She rolled her eyes. Was she right? I thought so. It’s hardly a surprise that Extinction Rebellion was made in England. London is still the world’s most progressive city — with competition, perhaps from Barcelona and Paris — by a very long way. It would never happen in America. Americans don’t protest like Europeans do. The Parisians protest, the old joke goes, at the drop of a hat. The Brits, a little more staid, do it more rarely. But Americans protest the least and last of all.
Protests like Extinction Rebellion matter intensely, in many ways. You see, the world this century has four Big Problems — inequality, fascism, stagnation, and climate change. So far, the world isn’t just making little progress on all these problems. The grim truth is that it’s making regress. Why is that? Have you ever wondered?
2018 saw the highest emissions, ever. But it also saw the highest inequality. It saw the hardest stagnation — middle incomes in Europe flatlined, in the beleaguered Anglo world, Britain and America, they fell, and in places like China and India, they failed to keep pace with the cost of living. And as a result of all that, fascism swept the globe like wildfire. Sure, we can be polite about it, and call it “Trumpism” or “Orbanism” or “Bolsonarism.” But the future isn’t going to care about how polite we were — it will just be astounded that while fascism rose, we were too foolish and weak to even call it that.
So protests like these tell us which countries are taking which of the Big Four Problems seriously. So far, I have to tell you, nearly no country is taking any of them seriously. How else would they continue to mount to epic proportions? Yet Extinction Rebellion, for example, tells us Britain is beginning to take climate change seriously.
When I say “take the Big Problems seriously”, I don’t mean it like not just at the level of drab policy that nobody really cares about except Ezra Klein and Nate Silver. That’s yesteryear’s approach — technocracy — and its failed dismally. The technocratic approach to all these problems imagines that we can solve them without any active involvement from people — simply engineer them away with enough wonkery. The result is bizarre schemes like America’s “healthcare marketplace”, or a global system of emissions caps that’s just not working fast or well enough. Technocracy isn’t going to fix the great problems of the 21st century — in the same way that technology isn’t — because they can’t be solved from the top down.
Taking the Big Problems seriously means that societies begin a project of social, cultural, and psychological transformation. That people begin to change from inside — as we’d say in Econo-speak, that their preferences and expectations and risk tolerances begin to shift. People themselves must begin to say, “the risks of a burned out planet, of an economy left stagnant by predators, of democracies raped by fascists, of societies torn apart by inequality — all these are risks too great to bear.”
It’s a good sign, therefore, that Extinction Rebellion shut London down. I suspect I’m one of many, many Londoners who thinks to themselves, seeing the buses and tubes shut and bridges shut down — “Christ, what a pain. Jesus, what a great and wonderful pain to have to have.” I’d bet far more people are sympathetic — even if, like me, they’re hardly die-hard activists or protestors. And that, my friends, is the idea of cultural transformation in a nutshell.
My feeling is that deep transformation is going to be the great difference between societies that can adapt in the 21st century, and those that can’t. But deep transformation is painful. And some societies, it seems, just can’t manage it. Take America, for example. We’d never see, as my friend aptly observed, Extinction Rebellion there. But Americans don’t seem to care very much about any of the Big Four. There are no protests about inequality, fascism, climate change, stagnation — except occasionally. There are no Gilet Jaunes shutting Washington DC down. And who can blame Americans? Capitalism has them in a perfect trap — working so hard just to make ends meet, they never have time or energy left to change the system. And yet I can’t help but feel that if in any European country, people were dying without insulin, protests would shut it down overnight,.
Perhaps you see my point. Some societies are more capable of deep transformation than others. Take Germany. It couldn’t be more different now than a century ago. It’s a true social democracy, where people treat one another with respect, granting one another basic rights to healthcare, education, retirement, and so on. But America’s never really changed — it was built on capitalism, patriarchy, and supremacy — and those things, those cancers, grew to the point that they debilitated it, then left it a zombie state. And that comparison — between America, and everyone else, really — teaches us a great lesson, too. In what “deep transformation” really means.
If there are four Big Problems in the 21st century — climate change, inequality, stagnation, and fascism — then those four problems also have three handmaidens: capitalism, supremacy, and patriarchy.
Take the example of climate change. We call it “anthropgenic climate change”, but its more accurate to call it CCCC, or capitalism-caused climate change — social democracies are the ones reducing their emissions, and capitalist countries are the ones unable to. But climate change wouldn’t exist, also, without supremacy — the idea that some people are superior to others, which implies, necessarily, that they must be superior to plants, trees, rivers, and minerals, too — all those things are just there for the supreme to exploit, abuse, and pillage, just like slaves were once. And just as patriarchy was a key mechanism in the survival of slavery — you inherited your father’s slaves — so too climate change wouldn’t exist without patriarchy. It’s the values of toxic masculinity, after all — dominance, control, power, abusiveness, acquisitiveness, possessiveness — that leads us to literally rape the earth, like a female body without a will, without the ability to consent.
You could do the same analysis for any of the Four Big Problems — they all trace back to the same three root causes. Inequality is obvious caused by capitalism. But it’s also the result of supremacy, which embeds it in social structures — which is why black wealth in America is in fact less today than during the dawn of desegregation. And it’s also the result of patriarchy — which is how wealth is passed down and inherited in thoroughly unreasonable ways, now resulting in neo-dynasties of billionaire families. The point is that the world’s Four Big Problems in the 21st century all share the same three root causes — capitalism, supremacy, patriarchy. They are the bitter fruit of the same twisted tree of violence, greed, and ruin.
These three ideologies — capitalism, supremacy, patriarchy — aren’t simple things, or new things. They’re the toxic waste of millennia. The residue of all the mistakes we’ve ever made as a species, really. They are the ghosts that still haunt humankind — the phantasms of war, greed, plunder, empire, the clowns of folly, the banshees of hate. The Big Four won’t go away without tackling the Deep Three.
So when I say that those societies who can make a psychological, cultural, social transformation are going to be the ones that prosper this century, I mean it in a precise way. Those societies which can transcend the old ways of capitalism, supremacy, and patriarchy are going to rise and rise and rise. They already are, in fact. The happiest and wealthiest societies in the world — from Scandinavia to Barcelona — are all pioneers in exactly this way: they are much (much) further the road of deep transformation than others, having done more to transcend capitalism, supremacy, and patriarchy.
Conversely, those societies which can’t kick the habits of capitalism, supremacy, and patriarchy, are already going down the tubes. Witness America, for example. Britain’s not far behind — which is why it’s a refreshing surprise to see Extinction Rebellion happen in the land of Brexit.
If you need to understand all that in a visceral way, just think of it like this.
Who can you think of that’s the personification of capitalism, supremacy, and patriarchy? Trump, of course. Do you think Trump cares about the Four Big Problems of inequality, climate change, stagnation, and fascism? LOL, of course not. He embodies them. He hopes to profit off them. Donald Trump is where centuries of capitalism, supremacy, and patriarchy led squarely to: the most corrupt, idiotic, selfish, abusive, imbecile…for the most important job in the world.
Do you see the point? The ages of capitalism, supremacy, and patriarchy are over — the harder we cling to them, the more regress we will make. Their die-hard adherents — like America’s bizarre ultraconservatives, and Britain’s imbecilic Brexiteers — won’t let them go. But the rest of us have work to do. The work of understanding how and why these ideologies failed, led to dead ends, are badly obsolete, how to leave them behind. Capitalism, supremacy, and patriarchy don’t add up to freedom, equality, and justice..they just add up to Donald Trump.
So if you remember one thing this year, one thought, I think it should be this: centuries of capitalism, supremacy, and patriarchy led us to a dead end in human progress — a dystopian hellscape made of inequality, stagnation, fascism, and climate change. America exemplifies it. To make progress this century, we are going to have to transcend those old ways, those old ideologies, those tired, weary, and failed mindsets. You can sum that thought up this way: C,P,S → predatory, exploitative collapse — of ecologies, economies, democracies, societies. C,P,S → collapse of any system they govern.
We are going to have to win our freedom from those old, failed, dead, stupid ways, my friends. It won’t be an easy fight. Let us then take a little inspiration from Extinction Rebellion — and begin in whatever tiny ways that we can.