The stereotype of a college professor is typically that of a bookish person, spectacles sliding down the bridge of their nose as they look down from a quiet ivory tower onto the chaos below. In reality, some academics actually find themselves in the fray, leading important research or even important rallies for social change.
The ongoing destruction of our global ecosystem is riling them up even more, pushing almost 100 senior academics actually backing a call for rebellion against the U.K. government. Explaining in a letter published in The Guardian that we are experiencing the Sixth Mass Extinction, they write: “When a government wilfully abrogates its responsibility to protect its citizens from harm and to secure the future for generations to come, it has failed in its most essential duty of stewardship. The ‘social contract’ has been broken, and it is therefore not only our right, but our moral duty to bypass the government’s inaction and flagrant dereliction of duty, and to rebel to defend life itself.”
The letter’s 94 signatories are made up of about half college and university professors and include members of British Parliament, such as the shadow minister of environment, food and rural affairs, David Drew, and the former archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.
Specifically, the academics are announcing their official support for a decentralized group of climate activists called Extinction Rebellion and its planned Declaration of Rebellion on October 31. The organization is calling for widespread civil disobedience to pressure the British government to act in the face of climate change and ecological collapse.
Dr. Alison Green, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Academic) at Arden University and the UK National Director of Scientists Warning, is one of the lead signatories of the letter. We reached out to Dr. Green to ask about the significance of having such an esteemed group of academics back acts of disobedience.
“Academics in the UK are, by and large, a cautious community of people not particularly given to disruptive behaviour on a large scale,” Dr. Green said. “It takes a lot to persuade academics to strike, for instance, because we are always aware of the detrimental effect that striking has on students. Massive efforts are always made to avoid strikes. We take our responsibilities very seriously, particularly to students. So when around 100 academics came forward to sign the letter, about half of them eminent professors, we were able to see that academics care passionately about the desperate ecological crisis.”
Green says that an important tipping point for her own entry into climate activism came when she attended a conference for policy related to higher education and climate change was only discussed once without a question and answer portion. She realized that petitions and Facebook activism weren’t good enough, which led her to Scientists Warning and ultimately Extinction Rebellion.
What concrete proposals are the academics and Extinction Rebellion putting forth? The Guardian letter concludes: “We therefore declare our support for Extinction Rebellion, launching on 31 October 2018. We fully stand behind the demands for the government to tell the hard truth to its citizens. We call for a Citizens’ Assembly to work with scientists on the basis of the extant evidence and in accordance with the precautionary principle, to urgently develop a credible plan for rapid total decarbonization of the economy.”
Specifically, the plan is to cut the country’s net carbon emissions down to zero by 2025. When asked what a Citizens’ Assembly might look like, Gail Bradbrook of Extinction Rebellion said, “You can compare the concept to that of jury service here in the UK. You get called up completely at random. The idea is that the group forming the jury represents a cross-section of society. The same goes for a citizens assembly. A process called ‘sortition‘ is used, where random people will get selected to be on the citizens assembly. Using a citizens assembly rather than getting our current politicians [to] try and resolve the issues of climate change will mean more transparency and real commitment to come to a true solution rather than one that will only work for the few.”
If you’ve ever been to a conference that features breakout groups and drawing on big pieces of papers with sharpies, you might have an idea of what a sortition could look like. Randomly selected members of every community in the country might sit around tables discussing a particular proposal as a facilitator ensures every member is able to speak with equal time and a stenographer takes notes. The proposal is then presented to the entire assembly, who are able to rank results using a keypad.
Bradbrook pointed out that there are already examples of such assemblies around the world including G1000 in Belgium, the Irish Citizens Assembly, the Grandview-Woodland Citizens’ Assembly in Vancouver, Canada, and the Democracy in Europe Movement by 2025.
In addition to the Citizens’ Assembly proposal, Extinction Rebellion seems to promote greater democratic participation in other ways. For instance, anyone who follows the principles of the organization can perform actions under the umbrella of Extinction Rebellion, making the group something akin to a Pussy Riot to fight the Sixth Mass Extinction. Members have so far held meetings across the U.K. to educate locals about the devastating effects of climate change.
They’ve even gone so far as to occupy the offices of Greenpeace UK, handing out funeral flowers and cake to staff members. Ben Stewart, Head of Media for Greenpeace, explained to us in an email: “They felt we at Greenpeace aren’t doing enough to face down those threats so they did absolutely the right thing, which was to [organize] a peaceful protest and make demands of us. From our point of view we feel we’re following the most effective strategies we have available to us, and that our staff and volunteers are dedicated to making as big an impact as possible.”
The organization agreed to meet with the protestors in its boardroom, where Greenpeace members agreed to listen to Extinction Rebellion. Among the suggestions from Extinction Rebellion was that Greenpeace uses the phrase “climate emergency”, which the non-profit has used in the past, particularly when it unfurled a banner from the top of a British Airways jetliner at Heathrow in protest of plans for a third runway.
Though Greenpeace told Extinction Rebellion in a letter on Friday, October 19 that it would speak with the decentralized activist group again, the non-profit also said that it would not meet one of Extinction Rebellion’s key demands: to invite Greenpeace members to participate in civil disobedience in association with the Declaration of Rebellion event and a “Rebellion Day” event on November 17.
“[W]e told [Extinction Rebellion] we aren’t going to do that,” Stewart explained. “We said we’re not at all adverse to urging our supporters to join civil disobedience actions we haven’t organized ourselves, and gave the Climate Camps as an example. But we don’t have the deep and long-standing relationship with ER that we had with the Climate Campers, which allowed us to feel confident urging supporters to take potentially illegal direct action with them.”
Though Greenpeace has not yet come around, the letter in the Guardian makes it clear that others have and will. “We plan further engagement with academics and more have come forward since the letter was published,” Dr. Green said.
The Declaration of Rebellion will kick off on October 31 at 10 am in Parliament Square, where Extinction Rebellion will perform an “extinction ceremony” in honor of those whose lives have been or will be lost due to government inaction. The ceremony will include a sit-in and nonviolent action, as well as speakers like Guardian writer George Monbiot, 15-year-old Swedish protestor Greta Thunberg and Green MEP Molly Scott Cato.