Our climate is in crisis, and so are we, and the alternative to our current consumerist lifestyles is not – as Mr. Johnson seems to think – about eating biscuits made of hemp whilst knitting soya yoghurt in unclean bivouacs. (Although personally, I’d love to live in a bivouac. At least for a bit). It’s about reconnecting with our essential humanness, finding ways of living on the earth with taking only what we need, not what we fancy because neon, well-placed adverts got to us when our guard was down. It’s about learning to live more fully, with more happiness.
When I watch blue planet or any nature documentary, I get this longing to be outside, somewhere where buildings don’t interrupt the horizon. This urge to be out, to breathe full and free fresh non-city air. In those moments it’s me that feels domesticated, not the livestock that make my cheese or the pets my neighbours own. Cleaning up after my neighbours cats though doesn’t quite reconnect me to mother earth, and I feel oftentimes disconnected. It seems I’m not alone.
An increasing number of articles are being written about a new disorder: NDD, or Nature Deficit Disorder. It tells of how our rapid urbanisation has alienated us from the environment we have evolved to dwell in: the rich sounds of nature, the scents of moss and mulched leaves on earth underfoot, the textures of unprocessed wood and the flavours and nutrients of organic foods. As well as this, the rhythms of nature are far from our 9-5 schedules, which roll on regardless of season or daylight. Our insatiable demand for summer fruits and exotic vegetables defy the diets our bodies evolved to draw sustenance from. It seems that, on a fundamental level, the unsustainable way that we harvest food, farm animals, heat and light our homes, travel all over the world, and process raw materials is reflected in our own well-being. And our collective being, it seems, is not well.
Don’t get me wrong. Capitalism has boosted the quality of life of the western world to hitherto unknown levels of material wealth. We live longer, we have less diseases, infant mortality is tiny compared to societies which have no medical intervention. We have emergency services and voting and light at the flick of a switch. There are some pretty cool YouTube videos that show this trend. These things are amazing, amazing steps forward that this economic system has facilitated, and it would be naïve to say otherwise. The fact you are reading this is testament to that. But this progress for a relatively small group of human beings has come at a great cost. Countries whose natural resources facilitate you reading this, like Coltan from the Congo, still remain as poor as they did 200 years ago.
There are many places you can read on this website and others about ecological collapse, which is an at least as more pressing and dire an issue as climate change. There are also many places you can read about how neo-liberal economics have devastated communities, ecologies and democracies, like the CIA facilitated coup in Chile that put Pinochet in power. The ‘majority world’ has experienced the ‘developed’ nations exporting exploitation as they have found that they are no longer willing to exploit their own. Children who make clothes for discount clothes stores themselves get paid less than the cost of a single t-shirt in a day, though they make multiple pieces of clothing every hour (more about that in the brilliant documentary below). The fact that wealth for the few has costed the majority world a huge amount of suffering is, however, not the point of this article.
Here I’m going to focus on who it has worked for the most: those of us in the UK who have ‘made it’ and aren’t living in the increasing number of people who work but can’t afford to eat, in ‘rich’ nations, who have computers and running drinking water, electric lights and them premium Netflix accounts, toastie makers and electric bed blankets in winter. For those of us privileged to have access to these things – not just warm homes and safe beds but holidays and an extra car – are we really any happier?
Human beings have studied many things systematically for hundreds of years: the natural sciences, sociology, theology, philosophy, politics, economics, engineering, and technology. These studies have yielded great boons. But we have not been studying systematically – at least not in the west – the things that most people want: happiness, peace and (wait for it) love. Ultimately, I would argue, that’s all anyone wants. It is the hidden motivation behind new shoes or cars, bigger houses, more holidays, retiring early. These things provide social status, a feeling of safety, freedom to pursue what we actually want to and connect meaningfully with ourselves and those we love. To live in peace, happiness and love.
Despite its material gains, our current system seems to be totally counterproductive on the measure of happiness. Young people are experiencing a mental health crisis of epidemic proportions. Depression is the leading cause of disability, and suicide is the leading cause of death in men aged 20-49 in the UK. 1 in 4 adults in the UK experience mental health problems each year. Our social system is in crisis: we bailed out the banks but cut back our social services and imprisoned people who stole water in the london riots, whilst not a single banker was jailed. Our schools are literally falling apart. We pay those who look after our most vulnerable people minimum wage, and those who entertain us enough to buy islands. We are not well. These realities point to a deeper problem, a dis-ease with the way we work, live and relate. The social contract between government and governed looks a little shaky, to say the least. It should come as no surprise then that this social system which is totally unsustainable for the natural world is also taking a heavy toll on human beings.
In acknowledgement and response to our cultural malaise, Extinction Rebellion is promoting, proposing and experimenting with a regenerative culture. A culture which focuses on low carbon ways of living where people relish a connection with their natural environment, and the simple and consumption-free enjoyment of singing or talking together. Regenerative culture means experiencing deeply liberating, meaningful methods of grieving together. It means dancing, meditating, growing food and cooking together. It means hosting new, interfaith ceremonies which welcome all faiths and cultures. It’s about finding ways to feel nourished and regenerating the sense of meaning, purpose and happiness without costing the earth and our well-being.
Some commentators have suggested that Extinction Rebellion wants us to revert to pre-industrialised lifestyles. That’s simply not true. Some rebels may want that, but XR doesn’t promote a regressive, nostalgic view of ages past. XR’s demands are simple, and are a beautiful trio. XR is about moving forward, keeping the treasures of what we’ve learnt from the age of industrialisation and shedding the toxic aspects of it, many though they are. It is about reclaiming and redeeming our own organic, symbiotic natures that nourish and are nourished by the planet, and re-completing a broken circle.
It is about celebrating life, and creating a culture which holds life more sacredly than anything else.
It is about returning to what it is to be human, and alive, and cherishing that before our careers or our houses or our new shoes.
It is about smiling and weeping freely.
It is about freedom.
And we have everything to gain.