The green doomsday cult

Extinction Rebellion and its offshoots hark back to an age-old Millenarian crankery.

Simon Evans

Simon Evans
Columnist

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Topics Politics UK

At the weekend, a video went viral of 21-year-old climate protester Maddie Budd pouring lighter fluid over her arm and, ill-advisedly though I suppose logically, setting light to it. She is then immediately – almost comically – shocked into consciousness by the subsequent pain. The self-immolation video emerged just after Budd had been filmed befouling a memorial to the late NHS fundraiser, Captain Sir Tom Moore, with liquid human excrement.

Maddie is precisely half, it seems, of ‘End UK Private Jets’, the latest mutant variant to sprout from Extinction Rebellion (XR). She and someone called Kai Bartlett have started setting themselves on fire in various locations to prove that they are either serious about climate change, or mentally ill. Maddie is now in custody, awaiting sentencing for the defacement of the monument to the nation’s best-loved centenarian pedestrian.

As with similarly madcap eco-protests by Extinction Rebellion and its splinter groups (Bartlett has also self-immolated on behalf of XR-offshoot Just Stop Oil), it hardly needs to be said that these measures are likely to prove alienating to the vast majority of people. That includes even those who are worried about climate change, and especially anyone who relies on any form of transport more power-assisted than that favoured by Sir Tom. These protests seem actively designed to provoke an angry reaction, a recoil, from anyone not already persuaded that we are going over the eco-precipice as we speak.

Of course, the prognosis of the ‘scientific consensus’ has for some time now been that catastrophe is baked into our future ever harder with every passing day of inaction. Our government says it believes this claim. And so, for those with the conviction of Maddie and Kai, the milquetoast ambivalence of our attempts to mitigate that catastrophe undoubtedly appears absurd.

The anguish of the XR activists reminds me of the Philip Larkin poem, ‘The Old Fools’, in which he expresses his comically bleak bewilderment at the supine indifference shown by pensioners in a care home to their diminished capacity and imminent fate. ‘Why aren’t they screaming?’, he wants to know. It’s a fair question.

And yet, I share with the great majority a familiar mix of weariness, irritation and bemusement at XR’s actions. So, what is going on? Why are our stated convictions and our actions so at odds? As TS Eliot, put it in ‘The Hollow Men’:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

Or, as I prefer to call it, the Fudge. I have always taken it to be essential to the proper functioning of humanity that we have the capacity for a certain degree of fudge. To be able to blur the edges between clearly stated, irreducible axioms of political sense and moral imperative, and what we actually do. This is almost the very definition of sanity.

Most of us claim to be people of principle. We proudly share those principles, not just on a platform at a conference, but also in heated debate at the pub and across the dinner table. And we congratulate ourselves on adhering to them. But anyone following them through to their logical conclusion is seen – or recognised – as a crank.

The cranks are on both sides, of course. We should probably recognise that climate-change sceptic Piers Corbyn has a lot more in common with Maddie than either has with anyone likely to actually help the situation. But these cranks have always been the particular bane of the left.

George Orwell reserved the premier cru of his scorn not for top-hatted capitalists, nor even for murderous Stalinists, but for damp, sandal-wearing vegetarians. Their musty odour of crankery undermined every cherished hope he had of ushering in a socialist democracy (or democratic socialism, I always forget which).

Even now, when veganism is a high-status belief that is well catered for in every banquet and corner café, millions like me who decry factory farming still cannot quite suppress a tightening of the mouth when we hear people actively espouse a totally animal-free diet.

Of course, it is just possible the maniacs will prove to be right. But if they are, it will be sheer luck. These ever-weirder protests have nothing to do with climate change, really. Except insofar as that climate change is the flame that happened to be burning when these particular moths hatched into existence. This is good old-fashioned eschatology, adapted from Millenarianism – 20 years past its sell-by date, but otherwise alive and well since the very first disciples of Christ.

Those convinced that the world is about to end have had plenty of appealing toeholds in the postwar era. But the idea, the conviction, is nothing new. The various existential threats – Y2K, famine, floods, drought, swine flu, ‘The Magic Porridge Pot’ and nuclear armageddon – haven’t created this mania. They are just the oak for this ivy to coil around.

These are the same wonky carrots of humanity that would have been up on a hillside a thousand years ago, waiting for the final midnight to be delivered by divine fiat, rather than by man-made apocalypse. ‘Will this wind be so mighty, as to lay low the mountains of the Earth?’, asked Rowan Atkinson of cult leader Peter Cook, some 40 years ago. ‘No’, replied Cook. ‘It will not be quite so mighty as all that. This is why we have come up on the mountain to be safe. You stupid git.’

That level of cheerful optimism is long gone, sadly. But the appropriate response to such apocalypticism remains exactly the same – a healthy, disrespectful snort of laughter, before we put another log on the fire.

Simon Evans is a spiked columnist and stand-up comedian. He is currently on tour with his show, Work of the Devil. You can buy tickets here.

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