Overview:

The Scientist Rebellion calls for more people "on the inside" to take up the struggle against government inaction. But where does the movement fit into broader climate change activism, and is its degrowth message enough?

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In April 2019, members of a direct action movement called the Extinction Rebellion (XR) made themselves as inconvenient as possible in the heart of London. Some glued themselves to buildings and bridges. Others dropped a large pink boat into a major intersection and glued themselves to that. Others obstructed trains and waterways, or damaged Shell Oil Company headquarters.

Many were teenagers carrying signs asking, “ARE WE THE LAST GENERATION?”

Extinction Rebellion protesters block traffic in London. Editorial credit: Ben Gingell / Shutterstock.com

Over 10 days, 1,130 people were arrested.

XR is a nonviolent direct action movement to compel governments to combat the effects of climate change. It’s also just one “chapter in an age-old … rebellion against a destructive and dominat[ing] system.”

But that sense of rebellion is usually associated with people outside of the system.

In 2021, another chapter joined the activist fray, one that hopes to change the optics of environmental struggle by working from the inside.

The Scientist Rebellion (SR) is an international movement that shares many goals, including radical degrowth, and even some tactics with Extinction Rebellion. Scientist Rebellion made news for its own direct actions in the past year, leading to the arrest of many involved.

The difference? SR is made up primarily of scientists, most with active academic roles and industry obligations, who are fed up with the fact that an overwhelming scientific consensus is not enough to override the control that corporations have over our democratic process. As a recent Nature Climate Change editorial noted, “Some scientists conclude that the discordance between the evidence and lack of response constitutes a broken contract between science and society”—a statement that attests to rising climate action even in mainstream scientific journals. In April 2022, over a thousand SR activists occupied government and private sector spaces, or took to the streets across Europe, the Americas, and Africa, to call attention to this problem.

But does SR go far enough? And what is far enough, when confronting our climate crisis? A range of activist movements and socioeconomic histories suggest that, while this latest scientist rebellion is a good start, researchers and related academics are still playing catch-up in the world of direct action. Amid devastating floods, heat waves, and other extreme climate events straining both social and environmental resilience to new breaking points, it’s long past time for everyone to do much more.

The Scientist Rebellion as a degrowth movement

Scientist Rebellion has a narrower set of objectives than its sister-rebellion in XR. SR advocates for economic degrowth, a policy strategy that calls on countries to reduce economic activity (and with it, GDP) to mitigate the effects of climate change. This approach runs contrary to green growth, a decades-long approach to industry reform built on the idea that new technology will make it easy to decouple economic growth from ruinous consumption practices in time to prevent ecological disaster. While green growth assures citizens that no major lifestyle changes are necessary, the degrowth movement is explicit about the need to transform our way of life.

SR calls for degrowth’s costs to be paid by the wealthiest, “who have benefited enormously from the current destructive world order,” through a “just transition to a sustainable system…to be used for the common benefit.” This has historically been where degrowth meets with political criticism, and not just from the affluent West, but also from those who want “their turn” at the indulgent lifestyles made possible by destructive practices. Degrowth movements are even seen by some as a form of Western white-knighting that allows the current upper classes to sustain power in a new world order, by setting that new world order for everyone else. As Geoff Mann noted in a recent analysis of the optics challenges of both green growth and degrowth politics,

The problem is that rescue missions of this sort are almost always elite-driven, precisely because one of the things that defines the elite is its unquestioned assumption that it is responsible for civilisation.

Geoff Mann, “Reversing the Freight Train”, LRB, August 18, 2022

And yet, Mann also reminds us that what degrowth resists is itself a recent government narrative, a prioritization of exponential domestic growth that emerged in the post-WWII era, where it found shelter in Cold War politics. Specifically,

According to what is now called the ‘Rostovian’ account, growth wasn’t just the solution to domestic instability in advanced industrial economies and the remedy for the backwardness of ‘traditional’ (non-industrial) societies; it was also the antidote to socialism. There was no need for revolution: the managed markets of postwar capitalism would eventually, peacefully, deliver the fruits of modernisation—a non-violent, self-reinforcing alternative to expropriation and collectivisation.

Over 60 years after Walt Rostow’s Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, produced by 278 authors from 65 countries and published earlier this year, noted the negative role of growth-oriented economies in developing societal resilience to climate change.

Demand-side mitigation involves individuals (e.g. consumption choices), culture (e.g. social norms, values), corporate (e.g. investments), institutions (e.g. political agency), and infrastructure change (high evidence, high agreement). These five drivers of human behaviour either contribute to the status-quo of a global high-carbon, consumption, and GDP growth oriented economy or help generate the desired change to a low-carbon energy-services, well-being, and equity oriented economy…Each driver has novel implications for the design and implementation of demand-side mitigation policies. … Transformative change will require coordinated use of all five drivers … using novel insights about behaviour change for policy design and implementation (high evidence, high agreement). In particular, socio-economic factors, such as equity, public service quality, electricity access and democracy are found to be highly significant in enabling need satisfaction at low energy use, whereas economic growth beyond moderate incomes and extractive economic activities are observed to be prohibiting factors.

Chapter 5, page 17, of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, 2022

Still, no matter how strong the case for degrowth, just scratch the surface and you’ll see what SR is up against: they need to educate and convince a relatively wealthy and comfortable elite, one for whom the status quo is working quite nicely thank you, about the importance of civil disobedience. It does this through promotional materials reassuring fellow professionals of the validity of peaceful protest, even and especially when nonviolent direct action involves breaking the law and risking arrest.

The ongoing success of its movement depends on being able to convince an even larger groundswell of professionals to take to the streets—and soon.

An Inconvenient Truth (about long-term change)

Every recent era has had movements sounding the alarm on climate change, which since the 1970s has accelerated due to human intervention especially from a few oil and gas giants. In its moment, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006) was wildly influential, and for a while the documentary increased public interest in responding to global warming and environmental peril. But then direct action dropped off, if it ever resulted from heightened awareness in the first place. This was never an issue that could simply be raised once, and considered resolved.

In 2018, Greta Thunberg sparked the latest youth movement against a toxic global status quo, when she started a weekly school strike to call attention to climate change, and brought other youth activists into the international spotlight. Gen Z in general is considered one of the most activism-inclined, socially conscious generations yet, and not just because of its digital platforms, but also its overall sharing-as-activism ethos. However, the trend cycle built around coveting a 15-year-old driven to direct action by adult inefficacy has ebbed as of late. Who or what will rise up next?

Andreas Malm has offered an extreme alternative for years, in no small part by criticizing groups like the Extinction Rebellion for not going far enough with their nonviolent demonstrations. He’s also skeptical of their belief that if we get enough people involved in peaceful protest, then our governments will have no choice but to respond with meaningful reforms. As James Butler summarized the views of this author of White Skin, Black Fuel and How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Malm believes that “even committed pacifists understood the advantage of having more troublesome comrades in the wings”.

Such “troublesome comrades”, taking more extreme risks and incurring steep penalties, come from many outsider positions. Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya, affiliates of the Catholic Workers’ social justice movement, claimed responsibility for sabotage to the Dakota Access pipeline in 2017. Last year, Reznicek was sentenced to eight years in prison, and prosecutors are pursuing the same for Montoya.

The Standing Rock Sioux tribe inspired many such individuals to join its resistance efforts against the Dakota Access pipeline. Along with direct blockades and encampments, members of this and other tribes repeatedly took their struggle to the UN, and rallied formal declarations of support from a wealth of North American tribal councils. While movements like SR are trying to convince scientists and other industry professionals of the importance of breaking laws to protect our ecosystem, settler states have so long refused to honor Indigenous communities and land rights that the moral dilemma hardly registers.

Why is green democracy so difficult?

Earlier this year, Latin American and Caribbean countries saw gains in a push to green democracy that focuses on empowering average citizens within the political process. Colombia advanced ratification of the Escazú Accord, with the aim of entrenching Indigenous and other civilian participation in every part of ecologically impactful state and corporate projects, after electing its greenest president yet. And although ultimately unsuccessful in a recent referendum, a constituent assembly presented Chile’s government with the world’s greenest constitution since Ecuador’s famed “rights of nature” initiative in 2008. Even just this year, that Ecuadorean constitution has also yielded ground-breaking changes in how courts rule on native wildlife.

But the global South’s approach to green democracy is built on an entirely different legal conceptualization of nature, a qualitative notion of “buen vivir” that treats living well with our environment as intuitively important. Conversely, Western economics gave us the term “natural capital”, which E.F. Schumacher originally defined in Small Is Beautiful (1973), while simultaneously critiquing any effort to quantify the value of nature. Sure enough, though, the Natural Capital Coalition later defined natural capital as “another term for the stock of renewable and non-renewable resources (e.g. plants, animals, air, water, soils, minerals) that combine to yield a flow of benefits to people.”

Economists are currently trying to calculate the exact market value of having clean water and air and other discrete elements of our environment.

If this sounds like forcing nature into economics instead of reforming the economics that created the problem to begin with, you’re not wrong. But can Western systems of thought do otherwise right now? You can just feel the anxiety as SR tries to reassure academics about breaking the law and risking their professional careers—and that anxiety says so much about the hold our current system has on us, and the obstacle it presents.

Butler offers his own insight into the problem, including this potent observation:

It was once possible to believe that climate change might produce rational, … collectively-minded solutions. The last thirty years, and the past decade chronicled in White Skin, Black Fuel, should have disabused us of that notion. … If only we knew, we would act in the right way. But there is no obvious point at which knowledge tips into action; in an increasingly mediatised political sphere, spreading awareness ends up as a substitute for action itself.

The overwhelming challenge for climate change activism like the kind advanced by XR and SR is that it emerges within Western discourse. Degrowth advocates are compelled to shape their arguments less around how to implement their proposals on a mass scale, and more on how to placate people who don’t want to lose their growth-mentality lifestyles. They also have to address colonialism’s long shadow of inequality, with respect to affluent countries yet again setting the terms for global economic participation among developing and still-exploited nation-states.

And yet, while anarchist, socialist, solarpunk, general youth, social justice, and Indigenous movements have been risking themselves on the frontlines of climate change protests for decades, the more recently radicalized involvement of mainstream professionals is important for meaningful reform. Simply put, for all the egos attached, we need everyone, at every level of society, working to stem the environmental collapse now underway. We need as many movements as possible creating tipping points into direct action for everyone not already on board.

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GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.