There’s been some ‘Where are you from?’ discourse on Twitter the last few days, so I’m posting an essay I wrote on the topic for the sociolinguistics module on an Applied Linguistics course a few years ago for general consumption.
Some sociolinguists (eg Cogo, 2012) argue that the question ‘Where are you from?’ is increasingly of little use in predicting people’s linguistic norms of behaviour. In what ways is this the case and what consequences does it have, particularly in relation to language teaching?
“I find questions like ‘Where you are from?’ really difficult to answer”. That statement comes from an article about the annoying ubiquity of the question ‘Where are you really from?’ in the context of nationality and ethnicity talk (NET) and ‘perpetual foreigner syndrome’ (Hua, 2016). This is relevant to the issue we are addressing here, in that the question ‘Where are you from?’ similarly attempts to position people within a given frame of reference, to place them on the linguistic map. To use Althusser’s notion of ‘interpellation’, in addition to telling the questioner what linguistic behaviour to expect, it also interpellates the questionee, placing a constraint on the linguistic resources they might draw upon and thus serving to ‘put them in their place’ (Montag, 2003). This essay will look at how Sociolinguistics theory and research have problematised the relationship between people, birthplace and language in the context of changes in patterns of migration and new means of communication.
The relationship between place of birth and language is an inherently complex one, and sociolinguistics has sought to problematise common sense ways of thinking about national and linguistic identity, particularly the ideological notion that monolingualism is the ‘norm’ and the assumption that a nation state is and/or should be linguistically homogeneous. Sociolinguists have long challenged the notion of individual ‘languages’ (see, for example, Haugen (1966)). Horner and Weber (2012) point out that boundaries between them are ‘unclear and fuzzy’ (p29) and call the attempts to define the confines of a single language a ‘vain endeavour’ (p31); Canagarajah (2013) states that mixing of languages is the norm rather than the exception, while Pennycook (2012, p98) argues that ‘None of us speaks a language as if this were an undifferentiated whole’. Following Halliday’s work, linguists increasingly see language as a social practice rather than a definable object, something people do together rather than a series of artefacts to be stored away in a mental library or museum.
In addition to challenging the notion of language, we might also question the notion of linguistic or speech community inherent in the question ‘Where are you from?’. Pratt (1987) views the notion of a linguistic community as akin to Anderson’s imagined community, characterising the concept as a ‘linguistic utopia’ (p50) which fails to acknowledge ‘the fractured reality of linguistic experience in modern stratified societies’ (Pratt, 1987, p51). Her work by far predated, but pointed the way towards, interest in ‘superdiversity’. Both Cogo (2012) and Blommaert and Backus (2012) specify the same 20-year time frame for the explosive growth in this phenomenon, which was first identified by Vertovec (2007) in relation to the UK. He described it as the ‘diversification of diversity’, huge changes in demographic trends which are related to new patterns of migration connected to globalisation and which mean that ‘it is not enough to see diversity only in terms of ethnicity’. Thus superdiversity has profound consequences for how language is used and how ‘languages’ should be thought of. Blommaert and Backus (2012) write that it ‘forces us to see the new social environments in which we live as characterized by an extremely low degree of presupposability in terms of identities, patterns of social and cultural behavior, social and cultural structure, norms and expectations’. In their essay on Metrolingualism, Pennycook and Otsuji write that people ‘can no longer be straightforwardly associated with particular (national, ethnic, sociocultural) groups and identities’ (2012). Not only have new and increased migration flows taken place and shaken up the map, but new layers of migrants now combine in unpredictable ways with resident and diaspora populations (Blommaert and Backus 2012), meaning that the notion of a monolithic migrant community all speaking the same standard variety of a single national language is no longer valid, if indeed it ever was. We see this, for example, in the UK, where new waves of Chinese migrants bring with them not just Mandarin but also new combinations of varieties and mix with more settled diaspora populations, for example the generation of migrants from Hong Kong depicted in Timothy Mo’s novel ‘Sour Sweet’ (1982).
Blommaert and Rampton (2010) write that superdiversity has had a significant impact on how sociolinguists conceive of and study language use: whereas previously there was a ‘strong tendency to treat people’s actions as a mere reflection of their belonging to ‘big’ communities that pre-existed them…now there is much more emphasis on the part that here-and-now social action plays in the production of ‘small’ but new communities’, all of which necessitates a focus on what Rampton and Harris (2010) call ‘fleeting contingencies of interaction’. Global migration flows and their specific demographic, social and cultural dynamics have thus changed ‘the ways in which people of different and mixed backgrounds use, play with and negotiate identities through language’ and focussed attention on how language is ‘emergent from contexts of interaction’ rather than how ‘individual languages’ function as discrete systems (2010 p246).
Not just intensified geographic mobility but also mew modes of communication have complicated the picture. Blommaert and Rampton (2011) write that ‘migration movements from the 1990s onwards have coincided with the development of the Internet and mobile phones, and these have affected the cultural life of diaspora communities of all kinds’. Affordances provided by the internet and mobile communication technology involve entirely new channels of communication, generating new linguistic and cultural forms, new ways of forming and maintaining contacts, networks and groups, and new opportunities for identity-making. Varis and Xuan (2011) call the internet a ‘superdiverse space par excellence’, one which makes it possible to transcend one’s immediate social environment, to switch instantaneously (although, as they also point out, not without constraints) between activities on local and global scales, indeed to merge the two. Such ubiquitous multimodal practices inevitably have a translinguistic component and this is an element of communication that is missing from Pennycook and Otsuji’s ‘spatial repertoires’ thesis – a full account of linguistic behaviour in any given setting would be exponentially more complex if we were to include digital interactions.
Diego Marani’s ‘Europanto’ (BBC News, 1998), which declares itself a language but is actually more of a game, is a knowingly ludicrous but still instructive example of how globalisation and online modes of being have influenced language use:
“Que would happen if, wenn Du open your computero, finde eine message in esta lingua?(…) Habe your computero eine virus catched? Habe Du sudden BSE gedeveloped? No, Du esse lezendo la neue europese lingua: de Europanto! Europanto ist uno melangio van de meer importantes Europese linguas mit also eine poquito van andere europese linguas, sommige Latinus, sommige old grec.” (Taalbox, 2015)
The extent to which such representations reflect new forms of communication and how much they represent something that had been previously underacknowledged is unquantifiable. The fact that Marani’s original conception of Europanto coincided with the first widespread use of the internet (MED Magazine 2004) is unlikely to be a coincidence; indeed, it would be practically impossible to ‘speak’ Europanto offline. Of course, Marani’s point is not that it should be spoken, but that it is, making it, I would argue, a phenomenon of superdiversity. It demonstrates that one element which complicates the relationship between country of origin and language in late modernity relates to how people actually use language and ‘languages’. In the context of intensified modes of travel and communication, there is much more widespread use of practices such as ‘languaging’, defined by Gynne (2013), as “the dynamic and social use of different linguistic features for creating and negotiating meanings”, ‘language crossing’ (Rampton, 1997) and (most significantly for our purposes) ‘translanguaging’. Although Garcia’s original notion of translanguaging related to bilingualism (2014), the following definition can be said to apply to all language users on the basis that, in the words of Weber and Horner (2012, p3), ’since we all use different linguistic varieties, registers, styles, genres and accents, we are all to a greater or lesser degree multilingual’:
‘The deployment of a speaker’s full linguistic repertoire without regard for watchful adherence to the socially and politically defined boundaries of named (and usually national and state) languages’ (Otheguy, Garcia and Tried 2015 p281).
Gynne (2013) calls translanguaging “a core concept for understanding how human beings co-construct their social realities and participate in meaning-making”, and it implies an increasing problemization of the notion of ‘a language’ in its traditional sense as something ‘shared, bounded, (and) characterized by deep stable structures’ (Blommaert and Backus, 2013, p14) – shared, that is, by a linguistic community fixed within geographically-defined borders.
All of this makes for a complex relationship between ethnicity, nationality, education, identity and language varieties. Weber and Horner (2012) make the point that neither the concepts of diglossia nor multilingualism provide an adequate framework for the complex ways in which language operates nowadays (p28). Basing their conclusions on case studies from Hong Kong, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Singapore and South Africa, they document a number of contexts in which official policies, whether in the context of de facto or de juro languages, don’t do justice to a complex and shifting reality in which non-standard varieties and underacknowledged minority languages complicate often crudely-drawn official linguistic maps, with particular implications for education policy.
However, Stephen May (2016) raised an important caveat in a presentation given at a conference organised as part of the TLang programme: hasn’t language use always been like this? Linguistic Superdiversity may be a new paradigm, but it may not be an entirely new phenomenon. Silverstein (2015) argues that ‘for many centuries communicative repertoires have been contingent on the mobility and mixing of populations’ (p5). One researcher who has taken on this challenge of using an understanding of Superdiversity to research the past is De Bock (2015), who used a ’superdiversity lens’ to investigate migration to Ghent between 1960 to 1980, while Freitag (2014) looked at the history of linguistic heterogeneity in relation to port cities in the Ottoman Empire. It may also be instructive to use a superdiversity lens to study the role that maritime language varieties played in the development of lingua francas. The superdiversity framework is thus similar to post-colonial or feminist theory, in that its insights both oblige and enable us to revise our prior understandings of the specific relationships between people, places and language varieties.
The superdiversity paradigm is also an instrument for studying the complex realities of language use at different geographic and social scales, including in individual encounters using a microethnographic approach. Blackledge and Creese (2010) write that “a superdiversity orientation pushes understandings of difference to move away from ethnic, racial and national groupism” and to deal with (for example) gatherings of particular individuals with their own specific repertoires. Of course, it is essential that such a shift encompass not just the Western cities in relation to which the notion was originally developed. Linguistic superdiversity may be seen as a relatively recent development in London or Amsterdam, but cities throughout Asia, Africa and India have long been immensely linguistically complex. As Blackledge and Creese (ibid) go on to argue, it is also important that it go beyond a romantic liberal notion of multiculturalism and heed Stuart Hall’s invocation to avoid ‘over-celebratory accounts of cultural diversity that are inattentive to manifestations of power and racism’ (quoted at Goldsmiths, 2016) and also steer clear of what Emily Johansen called ‘the banal conviviality of neoliberal cosmopolitanism’ (ibid). Blackledge and Creese (2010) endorse a normative aspect to the superdiversity perspective, one that is critical of neoliberalism and inequality. In contrast to the agenda of Richard Florida (2011), which sees diversity as little more than a means of boosting economic growth, they acknowledge that ‘while interactions in public spaces may be pleasant, positive and amiable’, they ‘may also be marked by bigotry, unfairness and hostility’. Such an approach can have a genuinely democratising effect on policy in a range of areas including, most significantly, housing, given that it ‘highlights the need for policymakers and public service practitioners to recognise new conditions created by global migration and population change’ (p6). We can see here in London that the marketing of areas as ‘diverse’ can have the perverse effect of making them less so, in that new private housing developments displace settled populations composed of more established and more variegated migrants. As Doreen Massey detailed in ‘World City’ (2007) and Anna Minton explores in her work (2011, 2017), ‘successful’ (parts of) cities such as London can become ‘socially cleaned’, becoming homogenised and witnessing the disappearance of the kinds of ‘enchanted’ spaces of random encounter that Sophie Watson (2006) so eloquently elegised.
Another potential challenge for superdiversity is the linguistic protectionism we see embodied in the victories of the pro-Brexit campaign and Donald Trump. Nigel Farage’s complaints about hearing other languages on the train (Evening Standard, 2014) and his false claims about streets full of non-English-speaking immigrants in Oldham (Pidd, 2019) is a direct echo of aspects of government policy, as Rampton et al make clear in their brief survey of the recent history of language policy (Rampton, Cooke and Holmes, 2018). They recall that in the 1990s Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett even spoke of the ‘schizophrenia’ of bilingual families, while David Cameron later talked of ‘discomfort’ caused by those who don’t speak English. Such wilfully misinformed and misinforming discourse shows that language is an always-to-hand weapon which allows its bearer to make impossible demands that migrants learn the language while (in the form of cuts to publicly-funded language-learning provision) simultaneously taking away their means of doing so.
Genuine insights into the reality of how people actually use language carry clear implications for how linguistic diversity can be used to help people improve their lives, overcome obstacles that society places in their path, and realise their individual and collective potential. Standard conceptualisations such as ‘native language’, ‘mother tongue’ or even the more recently coined ‘heritage language’ are, after all, not particularly useful terms in representing the complex and dynamic relationships between people and language. As Rampton (1990) argued, the concept of ‘native speaker’ conflates three separate elements: expertise, affiliation, and inheritance (p101); similarly, a child’s ‘mother tongue’ may not be the same language they use at school, or even their strongest language.
Taking a non-essentialist perspective means revising one’s view of the role of languages in education to take in a far more complex picture than such concepts and categorisations allow for. What the State considers someone’s ‘heritage language’ may even be one that they don’t understand. Weber and Horner (2012) present a case study of the education system in Singapore, where pupils are educated first in English and then in their purported ‘mother tongue’ (Malay, Mandarin or Tamil), ignoring the fact that most Singaporeans’ linguistic repertoires are far more diverse. Weber and Horner make a set of specific recommendations for alternatives to approaches based on the concept of ‘mother tongue’, principally the use of a ‘literacy bridge’, which involves using a variety which is a common denominator between the pupils as the medium of instruction. Taking an example from Luxembourg, they argue that given the variety of students in a particular class includes speakers of Portuguese, Cape Verdian Creole, French, Italian and Spanish, a French-language literacy option rather than just German-medium education would allow the school to build upon rather than ignore the students’ actual linguistic repertoires (p130).
Such arrangements already operate informally in many work contexts. In many cases, across a range of geographical locations, the ‘literacy bridge’ language will be English rather than a local language variety. For example, for a class of refugees from a variety of language backgrounds living in Finland, or newcomers to Turkey from European backgrounds, the common denominator language may well be English. However, it should not be assumed that English is always the best lingua franca. Cogo’s (2012) case study of how English is used as a lingua franca in a London IT company finds that it is one resource among others in the staff’s multilingual repertoire; however, she also mentions that 90% of the email communication inside the company is in Spanish, which the staff, which includes several non-Spanish-speaking Italian and Portuguese speakers, are able to deal with without major problems. Pennycook & Otsuji (2012), in their ethnographic research into the interplay of a multiplicity of language varieties used in a French restaurant in Tokyo and a Greek-run Italian restaurant in Sydney, provide further convincing evidence that places as well as people have linguistic repertoires, which they call ‘spatial repertoires’, and that the ‘local’, ‘national’ or indeed ‘international’ language may not be the most important element in that mix.
This notion has profound ramifications for how languages should be learnt and taught. Traditional EFL classrooms all too often resemble colonial outposts in which correct forms of the standard language are imprinted onto tabula rasa. An approach informed by the superdiversity paradigm and by recognition of both the value and ubiquity of practices such as translanguaging challenges this ‘tradition of language separation’ (Vogel and Garcia 2017). However, a pedagogy which reflects the insights of Pratt with regard to a linguistics of contact rather than one of fixed speech communities calls for the use of revised practices, resources and models. Scott Thornbury (2013) recommends ‘a kind of creative DIY approach – semiotic bricolage, perhaps – by means of which learners would become resourceful language users, cutting and pasting from the heteroglossic landscape to meet both their short-term and their long-term goals’. In the context of ESOL in the UK, Simpson and Cooke advocate explicitly allowing into the class a full variety of students’ linguistic repertoires: ‘languages, varieties, styles and registers, which are used to support them as they engage with difficult or complex topics and content’ (2008, p7). They see this as a means of ‘opening up’ interaction rather than closing it down…validating [the students’] multilingual identities and increasing their confidence’. Such approaches rightly challenge the supremacy of the UK and US in ELT pedagogy – those who have no language in common with the students other than that being studied are inevitably at a distinct disadvantage if a (now) traditional Communicative Language Teaching method is employed. A more heteroglossic approach also necessitates an explicit focus on how identities are negotiated and an ongoing valorisation of the existent and emergent norms of language use in the classroom. Guy Cook (2010) advocates more use of translation in the language classroom, which validates the students as users of as well as learners of language. Also of relevance here is Garcia’s notion of the classroom as a community of practice (2014), developing its own particular linguistic norms or, as Pennycook and Otsuji (2012) would doubtlessly put it, its own ‘spatial repertoire’.
There are initiatives that have taken up the challenge, for example the Diasporic Adult Language Socialisation (DALS) project, which aimed to develop a pedagogy more relevant to students’ multilingual realities (Cooke, Bryers and Winstanley, 2018). The notion of ‘Participatory ESOL’ also enables practices which draw on the constructivist approaches advocated by Vygotsky, in which knowledge is co-constructed by the learners (Bryers, 2015). This recalls Rampton’s emphasis on the part that here-and-now social action plays in the production of ‘small’ but new communities; it also calls attention to what Li Wei (2011) called ‘moments’, ‘spur-of-the-moment actions that are semiotically highly significant to the actors and their subsequent actions’, a construct which viewed through a pedagogic lens can be seen as teaching and learning affordances.
This essay has looked at a number of ways in which linguistic practices are rarely the best indicator of other aspects of a language user’s identity. It has shown that demographic changes driven by globalisation have combined with changes in technology to oblige sociolinguists to overturn certain ideological assumptions about language, languages and language use and to develop new theoretical understandings. It has also looked at how such paradigmatic shifts enable us to rethink how language(s) can and should be taught. A more detailed study could expand on the work of (for example) Cogo and Dewey (2006, 2012) and look at how (in relation to the teaching and learning of English) these new understandings can develop pedagogical practices in the direction of a post-normative approach which recognises that the so-called ‘native speaker’ should not serve as an authoritative model for language use.
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This is mydissertation for my MA in Applied Linguistics and ELT, completed at KCL in 2019. Although it did get a sufficiently high grade for publication, chopping it up in an appropriate format is beyond my capabilities at present, so before it gets too out-of-date, and partly inspired by this, I am posting it here (with all its flaws) instead. (There is a properly published article of mine here.)
This dissertation looks at four founding texts from the climate change campaigning group Extinction Rebellion through the lens of Norman Fairclough’s 2003 Critical Discourse Analysis framework. It seeks to investigate which (and how) genres, discourses, styles operate in the texts in the light of shifting discourses around climate change: on the one hand, the well established discourses of climate justice, which see climate change in terms of the legacy of global inequalities, particularly in terms of race, and on the other, emergent right-wing discourses which present the issue in terms of securitisation and national belonging. In an attempt to achieve a more fully-rounded view of the texts, it seeks to triangulate its own findings via the use of a focus group and an interview with the author of one of the texts. It concludes that Extinction Rebellion represents an innovative and powerful hybrid of diverse genres, discourses and styles, but its lack of a firm commitment to the principles of climate justice potentially leave it vulnerable to cooption by reactionary forces seeking to turn climate change from an issue of the left to one of the right.
Early 2019 saw a sudden resurgence in climate change activism, most notably in the form of Extinction Rebellion (‘XR’), a UK-based mass movement based on using civil disobedience and non-violent direct action to urge governments to act on three specific demands. XR seems to represent a new form of environmental activism, one which seeks to avoid some of the limitations of ‘traditional’ climate campaigning. Some aspects of its approach challenge previous assumptions, for example the notion of a climate emergency, its emphases on mass mobilisation and arrest as a form of protest, the role of the citizens’ assembly, and also the importance of visual design, for instance its increasingly ubiquitous hourglass symbol. As we shall see, XR is explicit about trying something new. However, as the discourse of right-wing populists begins to shift away from outright climate denialism and embraces the need for policies to adapt to (and exploit the political potential of) environmental breakdown, the fact that some founding texts from XR fail to respect key principles of climate justice and in one case appear to mobilise nationalist rhetoric should give us pause to evaluate its approach.
Norman Fairlough’s 2003 Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) framework seems particularly well-suited to interpreting and evaluating what new forms of campaigning organisation stand for. He makes a compelling case that all new genres represent hybrids of pre-existing genres, styles and discourses and that meanings can be understood within this framework. The dissertation will therefore explore the wider discursive contexts for four founding statements by Extinction Rebellion (XR’s list of demands, its set of principles/values, its ‘Declaration of Rebellion’, and a campaign video called ‘Welcome to the rebellion’) and then submit them to a detailed textual analysis. It will begin by presenting the texts within the context of distinct discourses around environmental crisis: on the one hand, the well-established discourses of international climate justice, and on the other emergent right-wing populist environmentalist discourses. In doing so it also seeks to understand how those discourses are present or absent in the texts. It will make the case that Extinction Rebellion is a hybrid organisation made of an innovative but potentially risky mix of pre-existing genres, styles and discourses.
The dissertation was partly inspired by my sense that in one of the texts to be analysed (the Declaration) the absence of any explicit focus on the principles of climate justice and the presence of discourses centred on the nation and its ‘people’ as both agent and object of change might indicate that XR is in a vulnerable position vis-à-vis possible infiltration of or co-optation by reactionary environmentalist discourses. The terms ‘reactionary’ and ‘progressive’ are of course broad rather than precise ones, but for reasons we shall explore ‘conservative’ is often an inadequate label when it comes to right-wing discourses around climate change. One limitation of this study is that Extinction Rebellion is a brand-new phenomenon and little academic work has been published on it. It would be too soon to assess its potential impact or the relationship between what it represents in theory and the role it performs in reality. However, I believe that its founding texts are ripe for useful analysis.
Some have argued (eg Stubbs, 1997 and Widdowson, 1995) that CDA fails to take proper account of the circumstances of a text’s production and of interpretations other than the analyst’s own. I will attempt to overcome these limitations by engaging with the author of one of the main texts under discussion and with potential consumers of the texts in order to ‘triangulate’ my own findings. Thus I will attempt to avoid the circularity that CDA has been accused of (see eg Billig, 2008) and to produce a more fully-rounded interdiscursive analysis. I am not aware of any other work that specifically addresses climate change discourse using this Fairclough 2003 framework, but in the following literature review will endeavour to provide a broad overview of the discursive terrain.
What is Extinction Rebellion?
Extinction Rebellion is a UK-based socio-political movement focussed on climate change and ecological emergency. It emerged out of a smaller group called Rising Up! (BBC News, 2019a), whose leading personnel and principles and values it has inherited. The organisation uses mass mobilisation in the form of non-violent direct action to force the Government to act on three demands (see Appendix A). It launched on 31 October 2018 with the reading of its ‘Declaration of Rebellion’ in Parliament Square, London, followed by a series of road blockages in London (The Guardian, 2018). In April 2019 it held a ‘month of rebellion’. Part of its strategy involves activists putting themselves forward for arrest in order to incapacitate the police and pressurise the government (Gregory 2018), while another element of its success is its aesthetic design: its hourglass symbol has become ubiquitous in sticker and poster form on the streets of London, and its design approach has been the object of several admiring articles (eg Dawood 2019). Over the last year it has gained a great deal of attention and it is noteworthy that the term ‘climate emergency’ has been adopted by The Guardian newspaper and by the former Prime Minister Theresa May (BBC News, 2019b). Much of its activism and social media activity emphasises the importance of international solidarity with the victims of climate change. However, it has also been criticised by some for disruption and for more established elements of the climate movement for omitting to observe certain precepts of the climate justice movement, particularly with regard to issues of racial inequality (Rahman, 2019).
There is a huge amount of institutional infrastructure around climate change, and the field of environmental discourse is immensely complex. Transnational apparatus such as the IPCC and COP are not the focus of this study. Here I will instead give a critical overview of several aspects which seem salient to my aims in relation to the texts I am studying. The fact that the dissertation conflates theoretical and social analyses means that it has not one but several backgrounds. This Backgrounds section will therefore provide a brief summary and critique of research, both academic and journalistic, which covers both the historical background to both progressive and reactionary discourses around climate change, along with a summary of the recent political context for shifting discourses around climate change on the right of the political spectrum. It will then provide a brief overview of the historical context for environmental activism in the UK, and an assessment of the application of CDA to analysing environmental discourse.
Progressive discourses around Climate Change
Chatterton et al (2013) define climate justice as ‘principles of democratic accountability and participation, ecological sustainability and social justice’, adding that climate justice seeks to address ‘the root causes of social injustice, ecological destruction and economic domination perpetrated by the underlying logics of pro‐growth capitalism’ (p606). Central themes include a rejection of market-based solutions such as carbon markets and an emphasis on the roots of climate change in the history of Western imperialism; therefore the notions of historical debt and international reparations are central. The term ‘climate justice’ first appeared in 1999 and was further elaborated in the Bali Principles of Climate Justice 2002, which led to a series of subsequent international gatherings. The Bali Principles have been described as the first major international statement of the idea of climate justice (Schlosberg & Collins, 2014). According to Chatterton (2013), one of the principal logics of Climate Justice is ‘antagonism’, which involves framing climate politics in a way that ‘breaks with attempts to construct climate change as a “post‐political” issue’ (p613).
The recognition of geographic, historical and socioeconomic inequalities, particularly in relation to the legacy of colonialism, is therefore central to the The Bali Principles, which were the product of a huge amount of detailed negotiation between different groups from the Global North and South, with fourteen international organisations endorsing the final document (Corpwatch, 2002). The document consists of a lengthy preamble followed by a definition of the ‘We’ who produced it: ‘representatives of people’s movements together with activist organizations working for social and environmental justice’ (ibid). The preamble and the 27 principles that follow also name names, both those of the victims (’the impacts will be most devastating to the vast majority of the people in the South’) and the culprits (‘climate change is being caused primarily by industrialized nations and transnational corporations’) (ibid). It identifies communities as loci of struggle. A central theme is that of rights, and it also introduces the notion of a ‘principle of ecological debt’, including the right to reparation.
Climate change as an issue of racism
The principles of environmental and climate justice are based on a recognition that the histories of colonialism and imperialism lie at the root of its disproportionate causes and impacts. In a UK context, one organisation that has highlighted the link between climate, inequality and race is Black Lives Matter. Their campaigns, which centre around the slogan ‘Climate change is a racist crisis’ and which have included blocking access to Heathrow Airport in 2016 (Weaver and Grierson, 2016), draw attention to three things: ‘Britain’s historical responsibility for global temperature changes; the fact that black people and poor people globally suffer the most from environmental impacts; and that ‘safe freedom of movement is a reality only for the privileged, wealthy and mostly white’’ (Cullors and Nguvu, 2016). That notion of privilege is also evoked in their response to the XR approach, as they criticise XR for its approach to arrest as a form of protest on the basis that black people in the criminal justice system get treated much worse than white people (Cowan 2019).
As Giroux (2006) argued eloquently, one of the most spectacular manifestations of the relationship between climate change and racial inequality was 2005’s Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, an event which led Mike Davis to remark:
‘Global warming is not H. G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, where invading Martians democratically annihilate humanity without class or ethnic distinction. Climate change, instead, will produce dramatically unequal impacts across regions and social classes.’
This is relevant to the case of Extinction Rebellion because, as we shall see, some of their founding texts have been criticised for failing to respect climate justice principles and omitting to consider the centrality of race. XR has in relation to one of the texts been accused of adopting a nationalist approach to the issue: ‘[XR] doesn’t talk about how vulnerabilities to climate change are manufactured by race and Empire. Extinction is framed as a moral problem that affects us all equally. Even the use of the term extinction calls to mind survival-of-the-fittest narratives’ (Trafford, 2019). Thus, in contrast to Black Lives Matter, the discourse of ‘We are all equally at threat of extinction’ might even be said to ignore the unequal causes and consequences of climate change and suggest an ‘All lives matter’ approach to the problem. There is an echo here of Teun Van Dijk’s seminal arguments (2010), particularly in relation to the role of public institutions such as the police, that denial or willful ignorance of structural or institutional racism can itself be a form of racism.
With regard to denial of climate change per se, the election of Donald Trump and the coming to power of similarly-minded leaders elsewhere suggests that there is indeed an ideological nexus uniting denial of climate change and denial of racism. According to the principles of climate justice and a historically-informed analysis of climate change, the two appear inseparable.
Reactionary discourses around climate change
Environmentalist discourse is extremely complex, with many different ideological facets, and we will now switch to the other end of the political spectrum. As we shall see, XR claims to be apolitical (‘beyond politics’), so a familiarity with reactionary as well as progressive discourses will allow us to get a more rounded view of the ideological positioning of the organisation. There will, however, only be space for a brief overview of a vast area.
The ideological roots of climate denial
The dominant climate change discourses on the right of the political spectrum over the last decades have been denialist ones, which have largely operated by ‘manufactur[ing] uncertainty’ over climate change (Oreskes & Conway, 2010). It is no exaggeration to talk of a ‘denial industry’ (Dunlap, 2013).
Although some have argued that the growth in right-wing populism, of which climate denial is a central element, is due to the economic interests of those ‘left behind’ by globalisation (see for example Ford and Goodwin, 2014), Forchtner and Kølvraa (2015) argue persuasively that the roots of climate denial should be seen as ideological rather than structural. On the right, ‘nature is considered in relation to the historical continuity of the community, or in relation to the liberty and sovereignty of the community, as opposed to domination by foreign powers, corrupt elites or non-indigenous groups’ (Forchtner and Kølvraa, 2015 p205-206). Climate change occupies a particular role within this, as the issue of the fate of the national countryside can be regarded as counterposed to climate change as a transnational issue: ‘Earlier environmental risks, such as destruction of the countryside or the pollution of local rivers, could be handled within a national frame. New environmental risks, however, recognize no borders’ (ibid, p200). Forchtner and Kølvraa call climate change one of today’s paradigmatic transnational issues in that it requires a transfer of agency to national bodies ‘thus undermining the nationalist fantasy of sovereignty’ (ibid, p202).
History of right-wing environmentalist discourse
However, beyond denialism there is also a deeper history of right-wing environmentalism. In ‘Darker Shades of Green’ (2000), Derek Wall provides an overview of its history, going back to the 1930s; he points out that fascists including Oswald Mosely and Heinrich Himmler argued for national self-sufficiency, in particular with regard to food supplies. Although he has been rightly criticised for his environmental determinism, Jarred Diamond’s (2005) attribution of an environmental dimension to Hitler’s quest for Lebensraum is also relevant in that regard. Wall also warns that the fact that Greens often define their politics as beyond left and right can facilitate appropriation by both the State and the far-right.
Although some of the material Wall presents is now outdated in that the political strands are no longer significant, certain themes remain relevant, such as an awareness of the historical and ideological precedents for the notion of the continuity of national community, and the idea that the blood of a people nurtures its soil and vice versa. Forchtner and Kølvraa (2015) and Wall (2000) both reference the national landscape as one of the foundations of green nationalism in that it is presented as a symbol of belonging, one to be preserved against invasion. Ancestry is another strand of right-wing environmentalism. Marine Le Pen defines an environmentalist as ‘someone who wants to live on their land and to pass it on to their children’ (Mazoue, 2019), while the British National Party stated in 2009 that ‘As nationalists we know that we all hold our land in trust for future generations (BNP 2009, p8)’. Such rhetoric is often combined with a nostalgia for a time of environmental and racial purity, often of a pre-christian and pagan nature (Caterall, 2017).
There is also a tradition of mainstream conservative environmentalism, going back to the father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, who wrote that ‘the earth…ought not to be monopolised to foster the pride and luxury of any men’ (Burke, 1993). Margaret Thatcher herself accepted climate science, saying of the earth ‘we are its guardians and trustees for generations to come’ (Thatcher, 1988). The conservative philosopher Roger Scruton writes of ‘oikophilia’, the love of home and family, in arguing that ‘the propensity for settlement and stewardship is at the heart of conservative philosophy’ (Scruton, 2012). In this we can identify an echo of Forchtner and Kølvraa’s (2015) theory, in that Scruton argues that global projects such as the UN and Greenpeace damage local practices and communities, and thereby degrade the networks of relationships that sustain ‘real environments’ (Scruton, ibid). In a contemporary political context, some conservative parties such as the Swiss Democrats have long eschewed denialism and combined nationalist, anti-immigration politics with ecological concerns, while in the US, writes Zoya Teirstein (2018), ‘there’s a small but growing alliance of concerned conservatives who want to reclaim climate change’. Recently the label ‘eco-xenophobia’, named after the movement led by the anti-immigrant activist John Tanton, has also caught media attention (Cagle, 2019). The fact that the same term has been used by academics for several years to describe negative perceptions of ‘foreign’ species also speaks to the relationship between conservatism and conservationism (see for example Rotheram, 2009, Dinaat et al, 2019).
Concurrent with the rise of Extinction Rebellion has been the emergence to media prominence of ‘eco-fascism’, cited in the manifestos of two recent mass shooters (Darby, 2019). There have been several articles identifying its premises as a political philosophy, including Manavis in the New Statesman, who reports that ‘underneath the pictures of idyllic country scapes and environmentally-friendly rhetoric, eco-fascists are pushing a murderous, racist ideology in the name of protecting the planet’ (Manavis, 2019). A key proponent of eco-fascism is Finnish ecologist Pentti Linkola, who blames ecological degradation on overpopulation (ibid). Such discourses represent environmental problems in terms of a ferocious racialised zero-sum Malthusian battle for survival, a form of social darwinism.
Another influential figure, Garrett Hardin, is the originator of the notion of ‘lifeboat environmentalism’, which has become important as a symbol of a nationalist approach to ecology which presents every nation as a lifeboat which immigrants want to scramble onto and outbreed the inhabitants (Hardin, 1974). His references to breeding are significant in the current context, as self-proclaimed eco-fascists often promote a conspiracy theory (‘the great replacement’) which holds that immigration is part of a plan to eradicate the white race (Lawton 2019). In the light of the Christchurch and El Paso terrorist attacks, a number of articles (eg Manavis 2019) sought to identify eco-fascist tropes, such as symbols of norse mythology. Some eco-fascist ideas are a direct continuation of their blood and soil predecessors with a contemporary twist, presenting overpopulation and multiculturalism as key problems (ibid). The terrorist who murdered 51 worshippers in a mosque in New Zealand proclaimed in his ‘manifesto’ ‘green nationalism is the only true nationalism’ (quoted in Trafford 2019).
The shift in right-wing discourse
Clearly these are not just theoretical debates. This is the context in which XR is intervening, therefore it is the discursive context for the four texts I will be analysing. Zappavigna (2019, p48) suggests that the public may be becoming more tolerant about politicians who lie about issues including climate change. The current debate is taking place in conditions some have called ‘post-truth politics’ (Roberts 2010), part of what Peter Pomerantasev (2019) calls ‘a war against reality’, a sociocultural phenomenon which I would argue is strongly influenced by the habit of climate denial.
Therefore, the right is not clinging as tightly as it once did to climate denial. Ann Coulter, a far-right commentator from the US, remarked recently ‘I’m fine with pretending to believe in global warming if we can save our language, culture & borders’ and called for a ‘green America not a brown America’ (Coulter 2019). As we shall explore, this shift in attitude seems to be of a piece with the recent move by Marine Le Pen to accept climate science and embrace environmentalism (Mazoue 2019). Several recent thinkpieces argue that this will represent a growing trend. In an article entitled ‘While Far-Right Climate Denial Is Scary. Far-Right Climate Acceptance Might Be Scarier’, Eric Levitz (2019) argues that climate change will increasingly be seen not in liberal but in nationalist terms.
The focus on migration is reflected elsewhere. Hungarian president János Áder, an ally of far-right prime minister Viktor Orbán, ‘recently called for more aggressive efforts to combat climate change becauseworsening ecological conditions will ‘trigger migration’’ (Levitz, ibid). The political scientist Richard Sandbrook (2019) follows Levitz in predicting that ‘although the far right today comprises climate-change deniers, its leaders will see in the unfolding of climate change an unparalleled opportunity’. He adds that ‘Mass migrations, panic and economic crisis will spur a xenophobic and authoritarian populist movement in the industrial countries [and] growing streams of refugees from the global south, will play into the hands of fascists.’
The role of populism
Most recently, a growing trend in European politics is right-wing populism (RWP). With regard to climate change, denial is not inherent in right-wing populist circles. Some RWP parties have long had environmentalist groups within them (for example the former Front National’s New Ecology movement, set up in 2014), although as we saw earlier these tend to be focused on local and national conservation and landscape issues. In a UK context, the populist party UKIP (which has now transmuted into the Brexit Party) appears to be strictly denialist, arguing for repeal of the 2008 Climate Change Act in the UKIP 2015 general election manifesto (Wilkinson, 2015), but its leader Nigel Farage has gradually shifted to climate agnosticism (O’Neill 2015. Although Tong, Tong and Zuo’s (2018) scrutiny of Twitter posts during the period of the Brexit Referendum reveals that climate change was not a significant issue on the right, research from the website Desmog revealed that several of the key figures involved in funding the Leave campaigns are also involved in climate denial (Farand, Hope and Collett-White 2019). There are, however, long-running conflicts within the German far-right movement. For example Mudde (2016) noted that ‘agreement on climate policies could not be reached at the AfD party’s 2016 congress due to conflict between factions’, with the youth wing particularly keen on abandoning climate denial (Aronoff 2019). Schaller and Carius (2019) provided a useful survey of the climate agendas of right-wing populist parties and discovered that (again echoing Forchtner and ) they were ‘relatively positive about environmental topics but hostile towards policies supporting multilateralism and international cooperation (p7)‘.
An instructive case as far as XR is concerned is the Italian populist party 5 Star Movement, which as recently as April 2019 was calling itself ‘the first in Europe in defence of the environment’ (Movimento 5 Stelle 2019a) despite being part of a coalition government with the Lega, an aggressively denialist party (Schaller and Carius 2019). Over 50 pages are dedicated to the environment in the M5S electoral manifesto (Movimento 5 Stelle 2019b). Although it focuses mainly on pollution at a national level and the Movement proclaims itself ‘Beyond left and right’, there is some progressive talk of climate refugees and the text does treat the situation as an emergency. It has a clear focus on climate justice, recognising that those who will pay for climate change are not those who created it, and no traces whatsoever of the identitarian rhetoric of Le Pen.
Finally, there is the case of the French National Rally (NR), which seems to combine environmentalist discourse with the racist ideology that has become known as ‘identitarianism’ (Aronoff 2019). NR’s aim is a ‘European ecological civilisation’ achieved mostly by closing borders: in the words of the head of the NR’s European election candidates list, ‘Borders are the environment’s greatest ally; it is through them that we will save the planet’ (Mazoue 2019). Le Pen bases her vision on the principle that the individual is ‘not simply a consumer or producer’ but ‘someone rooted, someone who wants to live on their land and to pass it on to their children’. This mobilises anti-capitalist discourse in language familiar from ecologist critiques of growth-based economics, but within a strictly nationalist context. Le Pen also argues, echoing Roger Scruton, that someone ‘who is rooted in their home is an ecologist’, whereas those who are ‘nomadic […] do not care about the environment; they have no homeland’ (Mazoue, ibid). Thus she puts deep-seated anti-semitic tropes at the service of her particular take on environmentalism.
Jeffries (2017) wrote that unlike right-wing populists in the United States, most European RWP parties ‘do not reject [climate] science outright’, but instead seek to marginalise the climate agenda ‘in order to concentrate on border control and immigration’. On the one hand, some right-wing populists still engage in denialist gaslighting, but there is also significant movement taking place. Some right-wing populists have realised that rather than distracting from more important issues, climate change offers an opportunity to promote discourses which treat climate change as an issue of securitisation and belonging.
Climate activism in the UK
Another part of the picture is climate activism. A study by Peter North (2011) attempted to explain apparently low levels of public engagement on the issue in a UK context, and also serves as an overview of the history of such movements. Among other initiatives (Climate Camp, the Campaign against Climate Change) he identifies anarchist-inspired direct action movements (such as Plane Stupid), who over the last few years have staged spectacular and daring actions carried out by a small number of dedicated activists who take their legitimacy not from a wider political programme but from the imperatives of science, and whose activism is informed by an understanding of the masses as essentially passive. Their actions therefore constitute an attempt to communicate with the public via the media and thereby to galvanise wider action. The article concludes that such groups ‘have been unable to mobilise large numbers of people in visible ways’ (p1590).
Civil disobedience and non-violent change
Another influence on social and environmental justice campaigns over the last decade has been the Occupy movement of 2011, which emphasised horizontal organising and non-violent direct action and through slogans including ‘We are the 99%’ gave such tactics further prominence (Rogers, 2011). It had a huge initial impact around the world, partly concurrent with the Arab Spring and the Spanish indignados movement (Ancelovici, Dufour and Nez 2016). Although some have argued that it did have a lasting influence, with one of its key figures David Graeber arguing ‘that it made a permanent change to people’s political horizons’ (Ehrenreich 2013), it failed to achieve the hoped-for impact within a year or so had largely ceased to exist. Some have argued that its lack of a visible leader restricted the success of the movement, while Gladwell and Franzen’s (2010) argument that the weak ties social media generate don’t make for the sustainable engagement which successful political movements require is a compelling one. It is also true that the movement’s lack of a specific programme led to it collapsing into a loose rich-vs-poor populism, and may have contributed to the subsequent emergence of populist political forces.
Chenoweth and Stephan (2011) might argue that Occupy simply failed to mobilise enough of the population. They were the originators of the much-cited principle that no regime can withstand a challenge of 3.5% of its population without either taking on board its demands or collapsing. They based this on their analysis of 323 violent and non-violent resistance campaigns between 1900 and 2006. However, their thesis has been rightly criticised by Lehouq (2016) for taking a monolithic view of power, one which assumes that regimes will react rationally to threats and that the regime itself reacts rather than determines the nature of the struggle; Lehouq concludes that while Gandhi was indeed an influential figure, so was Che Guevara.
Chenoweth and Stephan’s work was nonetheless very influential on the key figures behind Extinction Rebellion. In the booklet Common Sense for the 21st Century (2019) XR founder Roger Hallam argues that ‘the reformist political culture of both left and right in neoliberal society is now not fit for purpose’ and the only alternative is ‘radical collective action against the political regime which is planning our collective suicide’ (p6). The form this needs to take is ‘tens and hundreds of thousands of people blocking the centres of cities to demand change’, which should be followed by ‘national Citizens’ Assembly taking over the sovereign role from a corrupted parliamentary system’ (p7). Hallam rejects the notion of individual causes and consequences of environmental collapse, and sees governments as the ‘only institutions with the power, and the responsibility, to protect us from harm’ (p10). The booklet therefore provides a deeper provides a rationale for XR’s three demands.
Although Hallam calls for an attempt to ‘question conservatism’ and for activists to look at new strategies and tactics, it is not always clear what he is referring to. Are the precepts of the climate justice movement ‘conservative’? He also rejects the direct action campaigns described by North for an unwillingness to engage with the public directly. He addresses one of the more controversial left-wing criticisms of XR’s approach, its attitude of trust towards the police, who he argues ‘can be cooperative in a particular set of circumstances’, and also lays out a ‘blood of our children’ approach which could also be criticised for emphasising an attitude of self-protection rather than solidarity with current victims. Hallam also provides a brief description of historical precedents such as the People’s Movement in Nepal, but it is not clear where the scant information comes from and how truly analogous such situations are.
The text also evinces a populist faith in the people vs the elites, embodied in the confident prediction that ‘This total opposition of world views between the elites and the people is going to explode’ (p47). There is nonetheless an element of trust in the potential for the right-wing press to come on board: Hallam suggests that they can be appealed to on the basis of ‘order, security and legacy’ but seems not to consider that those words have ideological connotations which contradict the more progressive aims and values which underpin the document. He also displays what might be seen as a relaxed attitude towards right-wing ideology and how easily it can be co-opted: there are dangers inherent in ‘reclaim[ing] the framings of national pride’ (p6) and his reference to ‘the British political tradition of avoiding mass bloodshed at such moments of structural change’ (p64) may display a lack of concern for the history of the British Empire. In the text there is only one mention of race (in the context of the need for XR to be seen an inclusive), no reference to inequality in relation to climate responsibility and impacts, and, surprisingly for a text written in the UK in 2019 on the subject of British politics, no mention of Brexit.
The relevance of CDA to climate change discourse
Several studies have demonstrated the applicability of CDA to evaluating environmentalist discourse. One much-cited article was Nerlich, Brown and Kotyeko (2009), which focuses on how language (in the form of metaphors, frames and narratives) can either contribute to effective communication or lock us into particular ways of thinking. It assesses the various emerging theories of how to communicate existential risk, emphasising the need to plan and evaluate such communications, suggesting there is no single ‘magic bullet’ solution to the problem of climate change communication, and questioning the tendency to present the public as ignorant. It makes a laudable call for attention to be paid to the specific historical and political circumstances in which communication is taking place, and highlights the need to think of public opinion as not simply a product of mass media discourses.
The principle that climate communication should not be seen in monolithic terms was the focus of an earlier study by Weingart, Engels, and Pansegrau (2000) which looked at how global warming discourses developed over the course of twenty years in media, political and scientific discourse in Germany. It provides some useful insights into how particular ‘discourse dynamics’ operate in different spheres of communication, identifying a ‘naive’ view of the ways in which information circulates, one which assumes a tendency for the media to misrepresent and for politicians to ignore findings with radical implications. Such a view assumes that more and better information will solve the problem, and thus fails to account for how ‘disturbances of communication [are] the rule rather than the exception’. They point out that ‘given the complexity and magnitude of the climate problem, scientific uncertainties are exacerbated’. The emergence of social media over the subsequent few years complicates the relationship between scientists, the media and politicians considerably, especially (and not coincidentally) in an age of political populism.
Flottum (2010) studies ‘the transfer of knowledge from science to politics, a transfer realised through language’ and presents a convincing case for ‘a substantial need for linguistic analyses’ (p2). She argues that ‘scientific reporting is becoming continuously more rhetorical and thus more similar to political discourse’ (p3), in that it moves from describing and explaining to convincing and persuading. She presents an analysis of the IPCC summary, which is an emblematically ‘knowledge asymmetry’ (p4) in that it is based on the work of hundreds of scientists and (at least in theory) designed to be read by policymakers. Among her findings is that the IPCC summary text lacks a collective authorial voice in that there are no occurrences of the pronoun ‘we’, and also identifies an excessive use of hedging devices (particularly epistemic modifiers such as ‘may’ and ‘could’) which are common in scientific discourse but do not translate adequately into policy discourse. She closes by highlighting how the text emphasises climate change as a complicated problem rather than in terms of a need for action. Her work thus provides an exemplary instance of how linguistic analysis can help further the cause of effective climate communication.
Eco-linguistics and CDA
Although I have not encountered any studies employing Fairclough’s 2003 to analyse the discourse of climate activism, there is a substantial overlap between Critical Discourse Analysis/Studies and Ecolinguistics. Aaron Stibbe (2015) calls Ecolinguistics a form of CDS, one which can help us understand ‘semantic engineering’. The remit of Ecolinguistics is to ‘question the stories that underpin our current unsustainable civilization’, and also to find new stories. However, it has a particular emphasis which differentiates it from some central concerns of CDA. For example, there is debate over the role of transitive clauses, with some ecolinguists ‘disagreeing with Halliday that the problem lies in features such as nominalisation and instead critiquing the way clauses divide the world into agents and affected participants’. I would argue that identifying agency is essential, in that it is central to understanding and critiquing how people and institutions conceived of and treat each other and their environment. Such an approach risks ‘naturalising’ social and economic systems founded in and fuelled by inequality. However, Ecolinguistics also offers a great deal to a critical discourse approach, particularly in its identification of how linguistic clusters form worldviews and the ways in which particular interests seek to discursively structure the world to exclude the environment from policy considerations, for example how nature is structured linguistically as a resource, or animals as objects. Thus itaddresses ‘the complex linguistic ways that nature is erased from mainstream discourses’.
Activism as therapy
Also highly relevant to the discourses of Extinction Rebellion is Stewart’s (1999) analysis of self/other-directed social movements, which can be usefully extended to look critically of the discourse used by movements which fight not for their own rights but for those of future generations. He studies animal rights, apartheid, and anti-abortion movements and finds that ‘some social movement members have fragile self-esteems, suffer from despair, feel insecure, and have a sense of inferiority’ and that their activism on behalf of a moral cause can have an ‘ego function’, in that participation can help overcoming isolation and boost self-esteem, providing a sense of identity. For this to be successful, stories of victories and success and a clear rhetorical emphasis on the moral legitimacy of the campaign are central.
The research question this dissertation will address can be articulated as follows:
In the light of opposing and shifting discourses around climate change, what can a truly interdiscursive critical discourse analysis tell us about the combination of intertextuality, genres, discourses and styles in four of Extinction Rebellion’s founding texts?
Choice of texts
There has been a huge amount published and posted recently about XR and their social media feeds have also been extremely active, so my choice of texts to analyse was potentially unlimited. I chose four: XR’s Demands, Principles/Values, Declaration of Rebellion, and a video introducing people to the organisation (see Appendices A-D). Each text is prominently featured on the XR website. I selected the texts in question as they present key founding statements and as such are emblematic decalrations of identity and intent. They are also short enough to facilitate a detailed analysis. The Demands are designed to be transportable and scalable, and so have featured prominently on banners and placards at XR events. I have decided not to subject the text about a Citizens’ Assembly to linguistic analysis, as although it appears below the demands on the website it does not constitute an integral part of the text. The ‘Welcome to the Rebellion’ video is also prominent on the ‘About us’ page and signalled as a necessary tool to get to know the organisation.
Rationale for study
My own attitude upon first encountering Extinction Rebellion was of great enthusiasm, but after looking closely at some of their texts I felt a little disconcerted, particularly by the apparently nationalist attitudes in one of their texts. I also noticed certain absences in terms of a firm commitment to the precepts of Climate Justice. I was aware that XR had been criticised, and felt some affinity with some of the points that had been made. XR is nonetheless a new genre of organisation unlike others I was familiar with, such as Climate Camp or the Campaign Against Climate Change, and as such it has been uniquely effective at galvanising people into not just discussing but also taking action on climate change to an extent that no other organisation has achieved. I was interested in investigating what ideologies and discourses underpin its approach, and also in challenging my own superficial assumptions about what it appeared to stand for.
Critical Discourse Analysis
In order to access the meanings within a text at anything other than a surface level we need a theoretical framework, and I have chosen a Critical Discourse Analysis approach to investigate my texts. I have always found CDA a powerful tool for illuminating problematic discourse, but my knowledge of its analytical instruments had been limited to relatively accessible linguistic features such as passivisation, nominalisation and the choice of inclusive or exclusive pronouns. I was also aware that CDA (nowadays more often referred to as CDS) is not one single theory or approach, but rather a school. However, although during my research I have gained some familiarity with the work of Teun Van Dijk and Ruth Wodak, I have chosen to use the work of Norman Fairclough. When using an early framework of his in a previous project (Fairclough, 2001), I became aware of how his version of discourse analysis relates changes in discourse practices to changes in social practices, for example informalisation and personalisation, and thought it would be a useful tool for finding out just what sort of organisation XR is. However, I found that the approach I had used (that set out in Language and Power (1989)) frustrating, particularly in that I found that I did not learn much more about the meaning the texts than I had initially assumed.
I also wanted to engage with some of the critiques that I’d read of Faircloughian CDA per se. His work has also been criticised for taking a ‘fragmentary’ and less than systematic approach to analysing discourse (eg Stubbs 1997, Fowler 1996), with analysts typically focussing on choice morsels of discourse, and conducting a superficial analysis based on an ‘eclectic’ (O’Halloran 2005) and thus haphazard approach which sometimes reveals little that the analyst had not already supposed, based on a vague precept that power is manipulative and operates through language. However, I subsequently discovered that there were a number of things which I found compelling about his 2003 framework, in particular how it looks not just at discourses but also at genres and styles.
As part of his ‘social theory of discourse’ (1992, p5), Fairclough stresses that analysts should try to understand both the process of production and the process of interpretation of the text, yet I could not find anywhere in his own work in which he followed his own advice. I therefore decided to endeavour to conduct a more fully rounded three dimensional approach in which I would test the limits of my own subjectivity by (where possible) talking both to the producers and to consumers of the text(s). Therefore among the resources that this dissertation will draw upon is an interview with the producer of one of the main texts under discussion and a focus group with consumers of all of the texts. The approach chosen thus represents an attempt at a comprehensive analysis which seeks to anticipate and respond to at least some common criticisms of a Faircloughian approach.
Fairclough (2003) argues that the meanings in a given text can be understood in terms of intertextuality, discourses, genres and styles. Fairclough defines ‘discourse’ as ‘language as an element of social life’, different representations of aspects of reality. He defines genres as ways of acting discursively, for example job interviews or newspaper articles (Fairclough 2003 p216). Styles are ‘ways of being’ in a language, which is to say how identities are enacted in discourse (ibid p223). These are not entirely discrete categories, and his inclusion of intertextuality fits uncomfortably into what is ostensibly a three-part framework; however, he does stress that they exist in a dialectical relationship (ibid p28-29), as in complex ways discourses help determine genres and styles and so forth.
It is not just texts that can be analysed in these terms, but also social practices, which in their discursive manifestation constitute an ‘order of discourse’ (ibid p24). Thus particular configurations of genres, discourses and styles may be more or less stable, but the ways in which they do change can tell us a great deal about changes in social structures. While genre analysis is concerned with the examination of discourse involves analysing such features the purpose of the text, discourse analysis looks at what and whom is included and excluded and the various levels of abstract or concrete representation present, while analysis of styles entails an investigation of modality and evaluation.
I will first set out an outline of Fairclough’s 2003 framework in terms of the linguistic features under the headings of Intertextuality, Genres, Discourses and Styles. which will then serve as a reference guide as I go on to address the separate aspects of each text. (Appendix E contains an adapted list of linguistic features for each category.) This will be followed by a discussion chapter in which I relate significant findings to what I learnt in my literature review and also to the data I gathered in the interview and in the Whatsapp focus group. I anticipate that following these steps will enable me to obtain a more fully-rounded view of and into the texts and gain a more detailed picture of their ideological positionings underpinning them.
Intertextuality is concerned with ‘how texts draw upon, incorporate, recontextualise and dialogue with other texts’ (Fairclough, 2003, p17), by quoting, incorporating or excluding other voices. Paying attention to the ways in which the text ‘orientates to difference’ (ibid, p41-44) reveals the extent to which a given text has ‘dialogicality’, i.e. includes or excludes other representations, identities and interests. An intertextual analysis also asks how the voices which are present are framed and recontextualised by the author (ibid, p17). At the other end of the scale from dialogicality lie assumptions and presuppositions, where meanings are taken for granted and other voices are absent.
Genres are recognisable modes of doing, or ways of acting socially (ibid, p65). Faircough argues that some genres are more or less stable and predictable than others (compare for example a doctor-patient interaction with an informal chat with a friend), and not all have names. He particularly emphasises the ways in which changes in social practices are reflected in new combinations of genres (and vice versa), arguing that no text is ‘in’ a genre but rather and that new genres are always hybrids of previously existing ones.
Discourses are ways of representing the world, different perspectives based on particular social relations (ibid, p124). They contend with one another much as social groups do – complementing one another, competing, seeking to dominate, combining not just across texts, but also within them. They do not exist in isolation but are rather dialectical with the non-discoursal dimensions of social life (p134). Fairclough investigates how what ‘orders of discourse’ (discursive aspects of a social order) are present in a text. Looking at texts through the lens of discourse means investigating what main themes are represented, and from what perspectives, and also how they lexically structure the world, for example using hyponyms, antonyms and schemes of classification.
The concept of ‘styles’ refers to the ‘discoursal aspect of being’ (p223) and allows an analyst to investigate how identities are realised, asserted or negated in a text through language of deontic and epistemic modality and evaluation. It asks who is speaking and what degrees of commitment there are to their statements and representations. This entails an analysis of the force of commitment to predictions and speculative statements, for example in the presence or absence of hedging language.
Interview and focus group
The purpose of the interview and focus group was to inform my findings from my analysis of my data, therefore it was not my intention to subject the data obtained to linguistic analysis. The interview was conducted in the form of a series of emails after first obtaining access via a mutual contact. I conducted the interview in two parts, as Dornyei (2007, p135) recommends expending on prepared questions by using probing questions to obtain richer data The interviewee was the sole author of one of the texts (the Declaration of Rebellion) and had also been involved in producing the Demands and the Principles/Values, and the Focus Group was carried out with six personal acquaintances who volunteered. I identified people who had not been involved with Extinction Rebellion and who were unfamiliar with the four texts, and opened up the discussion by asking them if there was anything they had found incongruous about the texts. Conducting the discussion via WhatsApp meant that I avoided some of the potential complications that Dornyei outlines (ibid, p146).
I was granted ethical approval for my research on 27th September 2019 (see Appendix J). I provided all seven participants with an information sheet (see Appendix H) regarding the aims of my study and how to contact me or my supervisor in case of doubts. They were also emailed an informed consent form for research studies (see Appendix I), which assured them of the confidentiality and anonymity of the research and which they signed and returned. All data collected was stored under password protection on my own pc, which no one else has access to.
I will base my analysis on Fairclogh’s analytical framework, but for reasons of space will only comment on salient features and not provide examples of every linguistic feature I identify.
Analysis of demands
Other ‘voices’ are absent from the text, so dialogicality is limited. The text features a number of presuppositions, starting in the preamble. For example, in the phrase ‘tell the truth’ the nature of ‘the truth’ is assumed. One can presume it refers to the scientific facts about climate change, for example the IPCC report, and perhaps to also to Roger Hallam’s booklet (2019), in which he asks and seeks to answer the question ‘What is the truth?’. The text also presumes a familiarity with the concept of ‘non-violent direct action’. It is assumed that the reader will understand why ‘apolitical’ is important and necessary, and that the term ‘emergency’ is warranted. The ‘Climate and Ecological Emergency’ is taken as a given, as it is capitalised. The term Citizens’ Assembly is capitalised, and (on the XR website) a detailed explanation is provided in a separate text below the demands.
In relation to genre, the demands seem to constitute a relatively stable and fixed genre in the form of a numbered list, each item with the same structure. It is clearly titled ‘Our Demands’ and the three items are titled in capital letters: TELL THE TRUTH, ACT NOW, BEYOND POLITICS. A list of demands can be considered a relatively disembedded, mobile genre in that it is typical of political movements. It relates directly to the Principles and Values and is thus interconnected with other components of the website, literally so in that it is hyperlinked.
The list appears to be unusually short for the genre. It is likely that three was chosen for a reason in line with the ‘rule of three’, which in the field of copywriting is held to be ideal to ‘communicate complicated concepts or ideas in a memorable and meaningful way’ (Harris 2019). It thus evokes rhetorical techniques of a marketing order of discourse in which the persuasive effect on the audience is paramount.
All the demands focus on the same actor: ‘the Government’. It is assumed that we know which government is being addressed, and the UK context is stated clearly. Other social actors are mentioned (‘other institutions’) but not specified.
The text is clearly purposive. Demands are starting positions, usually for negotiation, which implies a goal. It thus constitutes an activity exchange, a demand for action which can be considered a ‘performative’ speech function. The appeal to the government involves persuasion and is thus rhetorical, so therefore constituting what Fairclough would call a ‘hortatory’ text (2003, p96). The text does not address the government directly, i.e. in the second person: there is no ‘you’. The fact that the Demands are made available online makes clear that they are in part rhetorical, in that although they are formally addressed to the government, they also serve as a tool to attract supporters and activists. The express intention is to scale them up, to take them to government, backed up with non-violent direct action.
Other institutions or agents of change are not specified. Unlike in the Bali Principles, there is no mention of who is responsible for the production of the document. One aspect of intertextuality is the way this is therefore dependent on a reading of the principles and values and to an extent the declaration. This text doesn’t present grounds, only claims. It also consists of declarative statements, with no explicit attempt at legitimation apart from the preamble.
The following distinct discourses can be identified:
That the situation constitutes an emergency. The demands include a specific time reference: by 2025. The phrase ‘Act now’ also contributes to the theme of urgency, as does the choice of the deontic modal verb ‘must’.
That knowledge is what is necessary and honest communication will lead to action. There is a predominance of verbs of telling: tell the truth, declare, communicate. Value is thus placed on communication, knowledge and awareness.
That this issue is ‘beyond politics’; however, although the preamble announces itself as such, the demands are addressed to government, which appears incongruous.
That Government is a single actor, not a committee of different and opposing interests, that government is the proper agent to take the necessary measures, and that it can be compelled to do so. The Government is represented as an actor in clauses, implying that it is able to act to end biodiversity loss and that it has the power to make appropriate changes.
That it is feasible and sufficient ‘to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025’
That conventional democracy has failed and is insufficient for directing the process, and that a Citizen’s Assembly would be an effective and just means of effecting change.
That non-violent direct action is desirable and effective.
The text makes no mention of justice, debt or democracy and there are no references or links to other sets of demands or principles.
We can note the presence of deontic modality in the form of ‘must’, showing a strong commitment to the assertions, which are presented in a declarative and categorical form. They therefore assume an authority, but the text doesn’t specify who or what this authority consists of. Although the text is written in the first person plural, there is no indication of who ‘we’ refers to as the text is not signed, and there are no details of how it was put together. Unlike both the Bali Declaration and the IPCC, there is no presentation of credentials.
Analysis of principles/values
There is no reference to other sets of principles which provide grounds for the principles and values, as in the Bali Principles preamble. Similarly, and in common with the demands, there is no indication of how they were arrived at, with no signatories or endorsers and no reference to (for example) a conference or other site of discussions.
The text contains a number of implicit assumptions, concepts whose meaning in this context is taken as a given: fit, change, necessary, healthy, toxic system, take action, emergency. In terms of orientation to difference it very much fits 3): (D): ‘a bracketing of difference, a focus on commonality, and solidarity’. The term ‘toxic system’ doesn’t seem to refer to any particular social theory or analysis.
The reference to 3.5% is intertextual, referring to the purported ‘3.5% rule’ discussed above. in that it refers to “Momentum-driven organising”, which refers to a grassroots technique for building social movements, as is “non violent strategy and tactics”, a well established principle of movements such as Occupy.
The genre is by definition a mix, in that it is a statement of both principles and values and it is not clear which is which. It is not merely a knowledge exchange, insofar as it employs marketing syntax – each item uses hypotactic elaboration typical of advertising, using non-finite relative clauses which suggests a promotional, advertising order of discourse. There is also an element of a mission statement, statements of corporate philosophy and ethos which ‘are rhetorically designed in order to ensure maximum employee ‘buy-in’’ (Swales and Rogers 1995). The text is ostensibly a set of assertions but also an appeal to potential sympathisers to become activists – it appears directly under links that reads ACT NOW and JOIN US. The sequence seems ad-hoc, with a series of discrete items which don’t appear to be connected in that they don’t reference one another and are not cohesively linked. They appear to operate as part of a chain or network of interconnected texts – part of the ‘format’ – particularly in relation to the Demands.
There is only one reference to challenging power, and references to the ‘toxic system’, but in terms of its orientation to difference it is not an antagonistic text. Significantly, there are no specific time or space references, for example to historical events or geographic locations.
There is an absence of other social actors – only ‘we’ (XR) is an agent, although this is complicated by the fact that the plural pronoun also seeks to ‘include’ potential activists. In terms of purpose, the text has a strategic function – not just to inform but to create and promote a collective identity, to recruit.
The text doesn’t seek to ground statements in facts. Were these principles and values automatically shared by all the original participants or arrived at by negotiation? Some versions of the principles end with the line ‘Anyone who follows these core principles and values can take action in the name of RISING UP!’, which was a smaller precursor to XR, suggesting they have been inherited.
The opening and closing statements, combined with several aspects of the discourses (see below), seem to evoke the genre of a 12-step recovery programme such as Alcoholics Anonymous. The sentence ‘anyone who…’ resembles AA’s ‘The only requirement for membership of AA is a desire to stop drinking’ (AA undated).
A number of distinct discourses can be identified:
That the ‘system’ is toxic.
That it is desirable for effective social movements to be anti-hierarchical, based on autonomy and decentralisation.
That struggle is a collective endeavour.
That inclusivity is important: ‘Anyone who follows these core principles and values can take action in the name of Extinction Rebellion!’; the phrase ‘every part of everyone’ and the use of the adjective ‘accessible‘ and the inclusive ‘we’ all suggest an emphasis on solidarity, unity and collectivity. All the statements begin with ‘we’.
That learning is a key element of effective activism: ‘We value reflecting and learning’
That climate change is not primarily an issue of individual responsibility. This addresses a discourse of personal responsibility. This what the terms ‘blaming and shaming’ seems to refer to. This makes clear that it is not a question of individual actions, but what about collective agency in the form of corporations and governments?
That mutual support is an essential element, and that ‘healthy’ behaviours are necessary for success. Further traces of what might be considered a ‘recovery’ order of discourse include the schemes of classification, in that there is an opposition between ‘regenerative’, ‘healthy’, ‘adaptable’ on one hand and ‘toxic system’, ‘hierarchies’ and ‘avoid’[ing] blaming and shaming on the other. In terms of evaluative language, ‘non-violent’, ‘healthy’, ‘adaptable’, ‘sharing’, ‘resilient’, ‘adaptable’, ‘reflecting’, ‘learning’, ‘action’, ‘planning’, ‘safer’, and ‘accessible’ are all evaluated positively. These, along with the mention of safe spaces, invokes a discourse of inclusivity, self-care, mutual support, healthy behaviour, well-being and honest self-reflection.
With regard to the representation of social actors, there are no references to any specific events, people or places, and no reference to a space-time context. Thus we do not learn how, where and when the list was formulated. Thus a certain level of abstraction or even vagueness prevails. For example, there is a vagueness around the nouns ‘vision’, ‘change’, ‘action’, and ‘power’, none of which are defined or described in the text.
The Mood of the statements is declarative, consisting of a series of categorical statements with no hedging and mostly expressed in active, material verbs: welcome, set, mobilising create, achieve, bring about, take action, act – which create a positive, affirmative sense to the text.
There is a series of normative statements, using words such as ‘need’, ‘avoid’, ‘necessary’, and ‘value’. It is also a highly evaluative text, which explicitly and implicitly categorises behaviours and attitudes in terms of their desirability and undesirability. It is not a dialogic text, but rather a statement of identity which seeks to build up an image and to ‘position’ the organisation the organisation.
This involves an ambiguity around agency. There is an emphasis on collectivity but the meaning of ‘We’ shifts around. Mostly it is inclusive, in that it aims to include the reader in the network.
The text thus presents a corporate identity on the basis of shared values. The text is not a set of commitments potential supporters have to individually and formally sign up to, but rather a set of collective aspirations.
Analysis of declaration
The text prominently features other voices in the form of quotes, both acknowledged and unacknowledged. The preamble consists of a quotation from John Locke, the opening line is from the US Declaration of Independence, and there is a prominent use of a famous phrase from Winston Churchill. This is the most antagonistic text in that it seeks to set up an opposition between the failings of Government and in terms of orientation to difference can be classified as (B): ‘an accentuation of difference, conflict, polemic, a struggle over meaning, norms and power’.
As in the other texts, the fact that the text is on a website means that it is not bounded in the way that a printed text would be. Although this particular text contains no links, it is easy for readers to search for any information that they need to interpret it, for example more details about biodiversity loss.
Unlike both the Bali Principles and the US Declaration of Independence, XR’s Declaration of rebellion is unsigned and undated. Unlike both documents, it does not appear to be the result of a process of negotiation. Its tone is not just rhetorical but oratorical, in the sense of having been written to be read out loud, as was the case with both the Churchill speech it evokes (‘This is our darkest hour’) and the US Declaration of Independence which its opening line is taken from.
Overall the structure is that of a problem-solution text. There is a shift in tone and emphasis as the text progresses from the extended description of the problem (‘humanity faces an event unprecedented in its history’) to the final sentences, where the word ‘solutions’ appears three times. It is structured in short paragraphs with a mixture of short declarative sentences and more complex elaborations. In this way the grammatical relations are partly dictated by the oratorical genre.
The following distinct discourses can be identified:
That the system is ‘corrupted, inept’ and that ‘meaningful democracy [has been] shattered’. There is an element of populist discourse in its references to the ‘system’, ‘governments’, and ‘elites’. The climate crisis is represented as a problem of a failure of democratic institutions, which recalls the demands of the Spanish ‘indignados’ movement and Occupy for a ‘real democracy’. Although the phrase ‘we, the people’ is absent from the text the number of incidences of inclusive ‘we’ suggest it is not all that distant. There is also an understanding that the government and the law have a duty to protect and secure ‘its people’s well-being and the nation’s future’, and that the Government has failed to perform its duty to protect its citizens.
There is a conflict between private vs public interests, with the latter sacrificing ‘the common interest in favour of short-term gain and private profits’.
That humanity as a whole is at risk of extinction. The apocalypse it presages is one of ourselves and our own children. Significantly, this is not framed in terms of inequality as in a climate justice framework.
The text is framed by the assumption that patriotism is and therefore should be a norm. ‘All we hold dear’ is defined as ‘this nation, its peoples, our ecosystems and the future of generations to come’, and first on the list of that which is impacted by ecological crises are ‘this nation, this planet and its wildlife’ – not other countries or peoples. The choice of ‘nation’ rather than ‘country’ is significant, as it has more grandiose connotations and an association with culture rather than politics, and the archaic connotations of the term ‘land’ are presumably chosen for their added emotional resonance and culminate in the phrase ‘our ferocious love of these lands’. The pronoun ‘we’ appears twelve times, mostly identified with this nation/the United Kingdom/these lands, and the pronoun ‘our/ourselves’ occur eighteen times, ‘this nation’ twice. The demonstrative and possessive pronouns ‘this’ and ‘our’ are used instead of ‘the’ on several occasions in order to add emphasis.
That we have a ‘sacred duty’ to ‘our children’.
That truth has a virtue, constituting a moral imperative for action. This is signalled in the preamble: ‘Truth for truth’s sake’
In terms of legitimation, the text is an example of moral evaluation – ‘our’ legitimacy to speak comes because ‘we’ are the holders of ‘the truth’. Another form of legitimation that the text draws upon is that of the quotes from Churchill, the Declaration of Independence and Locke.
There are a number of significant absences. Like the Principles, the text contains no reference to specific events, and there are no dates or names. There is also no mention of global or historical justice, reparation, debt, responsibility, equality, patriarchy or imperialism. While the Bali Declaration used the word ‘justice’ 32 times, here it does not appear.
In terms of evaluation, it is a very judgmental text with an abundance of extreme adjectives and dysphemistic synonyms used instead of more neutral alternatives There are several uses of performative statements, such as ‘we declare’ and ‘we refuse’. There is a presence of unusually direct predictions, with very little hedging and a great of intensifying language. This is partly thanks to the use of categorical statements: ‘will’ and ‘is/are’.
It is in this context that the agency of ‘we’ seems ambiguous. Clearly it is an inclusive ‘we’ in that it seeks to include the audience, albeit within a national framing. However, it is also antagonistic, in that there is also the presence of ‘they’: ‘Government and the law’, ‘our Government’, ‘the corrupted, inept institutions that threaten our future’.
Analysis of video
Although there is a range of voices and faces present in the video, dialogicality is limited in that we don’t hear of other views. The video sets up an antagonism between the people outside Parliament and the institution itself, but there is still an emphasis on commonality as all the voices are within the organisation.
The video is positioned prominently on website for newcomers. There is no narrator’s voice, and although there are interviews we do not hear the questions, as the filmmaker is anonymous
The title – ‘Welcome to the rebellion’ – suggests a guide for newcomers, an introduction to an actual site of the physical Rebellion, but the purpose is also promotional, encouraging people to get involved, thus it is also a recruitment video. Thus it embodies more than one genre and its purpose is both strategic and communicative. It is identified as ‘Commissioned by XR’.
That Parliament/the elites have let us down. There is therefore an element of populism, in that the setting of the rebellion makes it clear who it is directed against: political power. ‘The people’ is evoked as an alternative source of leadership against a ‘corrupt’ elite. Explicit populist discourses are exemplified in statements such as ‘conventional politics is fucked…it’s finished’, there is an echo of the discourse of ‘toxic’ from the Principles, and the phrase ‘It shouldn’t be left to politicians…and to experts’ echoes pro-Brexit discourse. The people are also evoked in ‘It needs the voice of the people’; There is also the use of a demotic register, in the use of taboo language and the phrase ‘We’ll be fighting over cans of beans’.
A Citizens’ Assembly is desirable and would be fair and effective.
That ‘the crisis’ is not just about just the climate, but also the economy and society: there are references to making ends meet, and social class is highlighted. It seems to respond to criticisms of environmentalism and XR in particular as ‘middle class’, and also evokes political alienation in statements such as ‘current democracy no longer works’ and evokes an anti-neoliberal globalisation discourse in its assertion that ‘we can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet’.
Civil disobedience. The video poses the question ‘how do things change?’, and frames the answer in terms of history of civil disobedience in the UK (hippies dancing, Glastonbury) – not, for example, the civil rights movement or previous climate campaigns. The mention of the sufragettes evokes a feminist discourse.
The video displays a certain reflexivity: ‘As privileged white, western people we’ve been largely ignoring this issue’. It evokes intersectionality, in that Bradbrook emphasises her identity as a female working class mother. We see and hear a woman from Sierra Leone talking about plastic pollution and an interview with someone introduced as a Panafrican community activist for global justice. However, these voices are bracketed by Gail Bradbrook’s.
There is an invocation of other cultures, honouring ancestors, seven generations, and thus a discourse of duty towards future generations: climate justice is presented as intergenerational justice.
Sacrifice is necessary: “it will be difficult, but we’re willing to do it’. It also relates to a discourse of duty – We have a moral duty to rebel, whatever our politics’.
A discourse of ‘This civilisation’s finished’
A faith in acceptance of the ‘reality’ of the situation, which may evoke
The climate crisis supercedes all others – ‘Brexit is an irrelevance when you think about the climate and the ecological crisis we are experiencing.’
Democracy must be central to the solution – ‘take democracy further’
There is note of therapy discourse in the some of the closing comments: ‘life is short, we must do something wild and amazing with that time’. Activism is presented in terms of individual feelings: ‘That’s when you say “I’ve had enough of this” and you get on the streets’.
There are also significant absences: the future is presented as a choice of life or death, with no sense of the inequalities which condition the impacts of climate change according to a climate justice approach. There is for example no mention of international justice, reparations, or indeed any specific demands.
The logo is prominent in a way that recalls the ubiquity of the CND symbol. The movement is presented in a way that draws on punk: the main interviewee wears a nosering and there is use of taboo language. In the opening shots the cheering crowd establishes it as popular, and the voice of the diegetic speaker emphasises its international (33 countries) dynamic character.
There is a strong sense of the ethos of the organisation and the credentials of its representatives. The coorganiser Dr Gail Bradbrook places emphasis both on her academic credentials but also her identity as local, mentioning Yorkshire, Gloucestershire, being a mother of young children, and her working class family background. It starts at a personal level, presenting the speaker as relatable, a lay person, presenting a personal narrative in talking about feelings of not fitting in. Although she identifies herself as a scientist, she distinguishes herself from ‘scientists’: ‘I know what it feels like to be an outsider’. The makeshift stylings of the banners evoke the tradition of road protests and Climate Camp. There is also a stress on rootedness, in that all the voices we hear emphasise where they are from.
In the video there is reference made to the economic struggles of ‘working people’. Visually and discursively it positions XR as outside Parliament, on the side of ordinary people contrasted with the role of lobbyists in government. The text uses demotic forms, for example ‘97% of life is gonna go’, ‘that’s the point, right?’ rather than the more formal syntax of scientific authority or conventional politics.
This chapter brings together my findings from the data analysis, the material in the Backgrounds chapter and the content of both the focus group and the interview.
XR’s Demands: politics without politics?
One of the most salient features of the demands is that they focus on government as an agent of change while declaring Extinction Rebellion itself ‘apolitical’ and ‘beyond politics’. This is reminiscent of a number of organisations and movements which can be considered loosely populist, such as Occupy, the Spanish Indignados and the Italian Five Star Movement. It also conflicts with the Bali Principles’ attempts to ‘break with attempts to construct climate change as a “post‐political” issue’ (Chatterton 2013 p10). This was highlighted in the focus group:
John: use of “apolitical” I guess is pragmatic, to avoid alienating anyone unnecessarily, even if it’s not accurate.
Andrew: ‘apolitical’, which it is actually not
Also noticeable in the Demands is the absence of a climate justice discourse of justice and rights. It is also significant that the demands are not signed or endorsed and not accompanied by details of the process of negotiation, in contrast to the Bali Principles.
There is also a prominent discourse that information about climate emergency (‘tell the truth’) will be sufficient to change the minds of the public and the Government with regard to the need for urgent action. Nerlich, Brown and Kotyeko (2009) questioned the tendency to present the public as lacking in information, and Weingart, Engels, and Pansegrau (2000) called the idea that ‘more and better information will solve the problem’ ‘naive’. It ignores the argument that nowadays politics is less a question of not so much information as identity. The text does not attempt to address issues of identity or belonging. Nerlich, Brown and Kotyeko also argued that ‘attention should be paid to the specific historical and political circumstances in which communication is taking place’. I would argue that in the context of Britain in 2019, this means attention should be paid to Brexit and its advocates’ pursuit of environmental deregulation (Farand, Hope and Collett-White 2019).
The discursive classification of climate change as an ‘emergency’ and a ‘crisis’ is also a significant feature of the Demands. The work of Fairclough and Fairclough (2013) on the repercussions of the financial crisis of 2007-8 strongly suggests that invocation of such terms should automatically mobilise one’s critical discourse faculties. Krzyżanowski, Triandafyllidou and Wodak (2018) reject the term ‘crisis’ in relation to the 2015 ‘refugee crisis’ because it makes the causes of the problem and thus possible solutions unclear. I would argue the term ‘emergency’ is in the same category. As Fairclough and Fairclough (2013) argue, explanations of the nature of a crisis inevitably involve discussion of actions and seek to legitimise policy responses. This relates to the Demands in that they omit to explain what the causes of the problem are yet prescribe what the responses should be. Having looked at indications that radically reactionary forces are waking up to the ways in which the climate crisis offers an opportunity for them to push their own solutions, we can note that this introduces a problematic ambiguity. Even Theresa May now talks about a ‘climate emergency’, adopting the discourse of Extinction Rebellion in doing so (BBC News 2019b), but her understanding of the nature of the problem and thus her prescription of possible solutions are unlikely to match the principles of climate justice. Labelling these issues ‘beyond politics’ may serve to muddy the waters with regard to the power relations that lie behind climate change and leave the door open to reactionary solutions.
XR’s Principles/Values: a 10-step fellowship?
Unlike the Bali Climate Justice Principles, which were explicitly developed in negotiation over a long period of time, XR’s list of principles and values feature no names or specific references to time or place, and can thus be described as abstract rather than concrete. No other social actors are mentioned. The principle of avoiding naming and shaming might also be taken as a failure to address the issue of accountability, whereas a climate justice approach suggests it is necessary to name both the victims of climate change and the culprits. It serves to obfuscate agency, which is to say responsibility for the problem. There is a vagueness throughout the text, and it is worth noting that no one mentioned them in the focus group. It partly resides in a lack of specificity around the meanings of change, system, action and power. As a result the text appears to be somewhat superficial.
In terms of genre, there is a presence of hortatory rhetoric in the use of advertising syntax and elements of a corporate mission statement. One significant feature of the suggestions of a recovery order of discourse in which toxic behaviour is counterposed to healthier habits. This therapeutic element is not entirely new in general activism – Stewart (1999) wrote of ego enhancement from inclusion in the other-directed activist community – or climate activism: Alistair McIntosh (2008) also argued for a 12-step approach to accepting climate change and the therapeutic aspects of activism. Such an approach starts from acceptance of the intractability of the problem and involves mobilising not only anger but also grief. The text also makes clear that XR is not a direct action movement of the type described by North (2011). Its intention is rather to recruit and mobilise large numbers of ordinary people rather than ‘professional’ activists.
XR’s Declaration of Rebellion: Flirting with green nationalism?
This text sets up a deeper antagonism with the ‘toxic system’. There are some elements of Climate Justice discourse, for example the references to ‘duty’ and ‘communities’. However, these references inhabit a nationalist framing. The borders of the ‘community’ are those of the ‘nation’ and the ‘duty’ is to ‘our’ children. Such invocations of family and home recall Roger Scruton much more than the Bali principles (‘Surprisingly similar to Roger Scruton’s environmentalism’ (Andrew)) and the presentation of climate change within a nationalist framing recalls Le Pen. This approach was deliberate and seemingly provocative: in the interview the author of the text stated that ‘The framing should be to ditch environmentalist language and adopt the language of traditional liberal universalism…this was done to great effect with [the] Declaration’ (interview). It was immediately noticed by participants in the focus group:
John: There was something a little incongruous for me in the declaration- the reference to “this nation” when clearly they’re talking about a global problem.
Thomas: I noticed these lands… It sounded a bit nationalistic.
Although participants also felt that approach may be justifiable:
Mary: I assume this was to try and help people ground it in their real lives, rather than to consider it someone else’s problem somewhere far away
John: Yeah could be
Gemma: That’s what I thought
Thomas: I guess although the problem is global they are actually only trying to take action here…
The author also criticised more established approaches as ‘predominately driven by White, Middle class mindsets’ (interview). To challenge such assumptions, the text was designed to ‘coopt narratives that drive the right’ (interview), partly by focussing on appealing to identity (or in the words of the author ‘decency and emotion’ (interview) rather than to reason. This text was the product of ‘huge debate…Months of ongoing conversation, analysis and inquiry’ (interview). Thus, unlike with the principles and values, we should not assume that not all potential XR supporters will subscribe to the values expressed in this text, as the focus group confirmed.
Of course, public rhetoric and mass movements are not the same thing. There are several statements about fascism from XR, for example Roger Hallam’s comments on the danger of fascism (Notelovitz, Rinvolucri and Jones, 2019). Nonetheless the fact is a ‘bordered’ text is problematic with regard to climate justice, and the author’s provocative notion of an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ approach (interview) is also problematic from a climate justice standpoint, as is the reference to ‘radical/anarchist pagan undercurrents‘ (interview); as Caterall (2017) wrote, ‘Myths of a pagan past in harmony with nature have been a feature of green nationalism’.
There have been several criticisms of XR for not presenting climate change in terms of racial inequalities. Some have questioned the notion of ‘extinction’ itself for failing to account for the ways in which the climate crisis is framed by inequality and for bringing to mind ‘survival-of-the-fittest narratives’ (Trafford 2019). This relates to a bigger problem: the use of the concept of extinction to frame climate change as a problem that affects us all equally. With regard to race, this is problematic. There is also a noticeable absence of any discourse regarding inequality.
The author writes that ‘Much western leftist discourse seems to conclude that to love your own land is bordering on crypto fascism, yet simultaneously lauds the fight for the lands of dispossessed elsewhere’ (interview). However, it is noteworthy that the declaration makes no reference to the ‘dispossessed elsewhere’. Thus there is in operation textual silence around the legacies of colonialism and imperialism. In contrast with this absence, the protectionist sentiment of ‘we declare it our duty to act on behalf of the security and well-being of our children’ echoes Le Pen and other exponents of right-wing xenophobic responses to climate change.
What is more, at a time when there is an emphasis in the academy on ‘decolonising the curriculum’ the choice of dead white males to lend authority to the text appears to be a wilfully incongruous choice. Although it was soon pointed out that John Locke was, among other things, a slaveowner (Brewer 2018), it is noteworthy that upon learning of this XR did not remove or amend the text. Moreover, the employment of‘we’ in an exclusively national setting could be said to evoke lifeboat-style environmentalism. The discursive construction of the ‘nation’ is, after all, generally a discursive construction of the right.
There are also particular issues in a contemporary UK context with regard to the evocation of the war. The focus group picked up on the ‘Churchillian tone’ (Claire); significantly, the quote in question quote actually referred to France but was repurposed for a recent film which the writer Afua Hirsch dismissed as ‘propaganda’ (Hirsch 2018), so its context is not Britain during the war but rather the UK after Brexit. It is particularly problematic in a UK context to evoke national sacrifice in relation to the Second World War, especially in the light of a political transformation in which economic interests of fossil fuel companies have joined forces with political advocates of scapegoating as a means of governance. Brexit has contested and, I would argue, occupied that discursive space. Suggesting otherwise may even be pandering to the notion that Brexit represents an opportunity in terms of climate change action, which the breadth of connections between leading Brexit campaigners and the world of climate denial (Farand, Hope and Collett-White 2019) suggests strongly is not the case.
Thus in terms of the text’s orientation to difference, what seems to be (B): (‘an accentuation of difference, conflict, polemic, a struggle over meaning, norms and power’) can also be interpreted as (D): ‘a bracketing of difference, a focus on commonality, solidarity’ in relation to the national ‘community’. What matters in the Declaration is ‘our children’, and ‘our lands’. The reference to mass migration is not balanced by any mention of the need to defend the right to migrate or to seek protection from the effects of climate change. As for ‘ferocious love of these lands’, in the light of eco-fascist terrorism this evocation of violent patriotic sentiment deserves it be taken seriously, and this was indeed one of the features higlighted in the focus group. It is ripe to be quoted and misused elsewhere, to form the basis of versions of XR – ones which may not go by that name – which are decidedly reactionary in their intentions. There are also significant traces of the connection between environment and ancestry which are central to Le Pen’s take on ecological politics.
The notion of building a broader coalition which involves ‘coopting narratives that drive the right’ is not new. There is an existing discourse of seeking to reach beyond the ‘traditional’ audiences for environmentalist discourses, which involves relating to that conservative strain of environmentalism identified earlier and resembles XR’s wish to ‘maximise engagement across the political spectrum’ (John). In a video interview with the journalist Owen Jones (Notelovitz, Rinvolucri and Jones, 2019), Roger Hallam says the following: ‘To the right-wing people you know you’re supposed to believe in legacy, family, tradition, duty…you know like you’re destroying the nation’. Someone else who has tried to engage with conservatives is George Marshall, particularly in ‘Talking climate change with conservatives’ (YouTube 2015), but it is notable that he did not attempt to frame the issue in nationalist terms. XR’s approach can be criticised for not taking into account the dynamics identified by eg Forchtner and Kølvraa (2015) in terms of deeper ideological values, and it is noteworthy that the nationalist framing of the Declaration struck some in the focus group as uncomfortable.
‘Welcome to the rebellion’ – populism and punk
One of the most salient aspects of both the discourse and styles of the video is populism, in that being situated outside parliament it broadens out the toxicity discourse to stress the antagonism between the people and their representatives. There is an explicit discourse of political alienation and disillusionment with conventional politics and it also introduces an economic dimension in that ‘ordinary people can’t make ends meet’. Their interests are contrasted with those of lobbyists representing powerful economic interests. The visual stylings evoke the street protest culture of Occupy and the indignados, but the populist rhetoric evokes the 5 Star Movement, the recent history of which suggests that at least in terms of populist political movements, an apparently sincere commitment to addressing climate change on the basis of solid progressive principles is no guarantee that those principles will be adhered to. The video therefore evinces some of the theoretical weaknesses of Hallam’s arguments in ‘Common Sense for the 21st Century’ (2019).
In terms of the style or identity of the movement, intersectionality is very much on view. The main face and voice in the video is a woman who explicitly stresses her gender and class background as part of her credentials. People representing the Global South are seen and heard and solidarity is stressed; however, the key issues of climate justice are still absent. There is, for example, no mention of power, or inequality or reparations, and although there is a discourse of intergenerational justice there is no mention of international or historical justice.
The discourse of climate change affecting us all equally is very much present. Although there are mentions of political struggles in a UK context, there is no reference to the inequalities occasioned by Empire. There is, however, a reference to Brexit, which is dismissed as ‘irrelevant’. This discourse drew criticism from several members of the focus group: ‘Which they could have said without sweeping brexit – bonfire of environmental protection! – under the carpet’ (Andrew); ‘Yeah that annoyed me’ while another felt that ‘Brexit is too polarising so they are trying to side-step it’ (Mary).
Unlike in the written texts, in the video we can see who XR are, and female faces and voices predominate. This and what people in the focus group described as ‘cleverly chosen’ speakers (‘female, working class and a POC’, (Mary) gave it a ‘much more warm, fuzzy and caring reflection of the movement’ (Thomas). Another notable feature was the use of profanity (both the food system and conventional politics are described as ‘fucked’), which two focus group participants argued was inappropriate and another thought was justified by the appeal the video is making (‘I actually took that as an attempt to ‘make it real’ and give the video and informal, ‘of the people’ edge in the way a social media approach might do’, Mary). The nosering and the safety pins attaching the logos and slogans to clothing also suggested an element of punk culture.
The video also evokes a discourse of sacrifice (‘it will be difficult, but we’re willing to do it’), which was also suggested in the Principles/Values text and also referred to by Roger Hallam in the interview with Owen Jones: ‘People are mobilised by sacrifice’ (Notelovitz, Rinvolucri and Jones, 2019). However I would argue that in the context of rhetoric around a no-deal Brexit, to which a performative discourse of sacrifice is central (O’Toole, 2018), it is debatable how resonant such a discourse can be.
This dissertation suffers from a number of limitations, and my analysis retains something of the circularity and fragmentary nature that CDA is often accused of. Firstly, analysing more and longer texts would have given me more insight into XR’s discourses. In terms of my intention for the focus group, including participants of a right-wing persuasion and making sure I included people of colour may have produced a broader range of responses. Inevitably, the interview and therefore my analysis does focus largely on what seemed most salient to me. It is also the case that interviewing the producer of the text has limitations, in that what’s in the author’s head will not represent the full range of meanings the text makes available.
With regard to the question of what can a truly interdiscursive critical discourse analysis can, in the light of opposing and shifting discourses around climate change, tell us about the combination of intertextuality, genres, discourses and styles in the four texts, I have discovered that Extinction Rebellion, as a new campaigning movement, seems to consist of a hybrid of genres, discourses and styles. My analysis and the input I received from the focus group and interview showed that it breaks in several ways from what one might expect from an organisation focussed on climate change, in that: it appears to eschew some of the more well-established principles of the Climate Justice approach; it experiments with using right-wing, nationalist framings of climate change focussed on the nation and the family; it styles itself as a populist movement in opposition to the political establishment and on the side of the ‘people’; it contains an element of recovery discourse; it shies away from naming the culprits and victims of climate change; it styles itself as an apolitical movement campaigning on a political issue using the ambiguous slogan and vague concepts of ‘emergency’ and ‘crisis’. Thus it contains significant ambiguities, contradictions and risks. In the words of its founder Roger Hallam (2019, p17), it seeks to ‘roll the dice’ on the basis that: ‘We have to take the chance even if the odds are stacked against us’. Its key figures seem conscious of the contradiction and ambiguities and place a great deal of value in ‘try(ing) something new’ (interview) in order to engage a broader spectrum of the public with the issue.
However, at a time when public discourse is increasingly centred on the ideological constructs of the nation and the people, such a movement needs to be principled and carefully managed. It is certainly the case that until this point little has succeeded in terms of achieving the necessary levels of awareness and mobilisation, but the sands of climate change as a political issue are shifting, as the right of the political spectrum abandons its attachment to climate denial and seeks to frame the issue as one that must be addressed by protectionist measures and closed borders. XR has shifted the territory so now talk of a climate ‘emergency’ is common; however, as we have seen, the vagueness of terms like ‘emergency’ and ‘crisis’ can serve to obfuscate who is responsible and who suffers. Climate change is not, as the invocation of human extinction suggests, a problem that affects everyone equally. An appreciation of the central insight of climate justice, that the history and realities of inequality, race and imperialism are intimately bound up with the problem and must not be addressed separately, has to be key. Hence it is essential that XR foreground international solidarity and justice in its discourse. My analysis of these texts has demonstrated that XR has created innovative and powerful instruments in the form of hybrids of styles, genres and discourses. But without a firmer commitment to the principles of climate justice, the tools they have created may end up in the wrong hands.
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Forchtner, B. and Kølvraa, C., 2015. The nature of nationalism: Populist radical right parties on countryside and climate. Nature and Culture, 10(2), pp.199-224.
Gemenis, K., Katsanidou, A. and Vasilopoulou, S., 2012, April. The politics of anti-environmentalism: positional issue framing by the European radical right. In MPSA Annual Conference, Chicago, IL, USA (pp. 12-15).
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Government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2025.
Government must create, and be led by the decisions of, a citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice.
Appendix B: Principles/Values
Our Principles and Values
All are welcome who want to adhere to our principles and values
we have a shared vision of change Creating a world that is fit for generations to come.
we set our mission on what is necessary Mobilising 3.5% of the population to achieve system change – using ideas such as “Momentum-driven organising” to achieve this.
we need a regenerative culture Creating a culture which is healthy, resilient and adaptable.
we openly challenge ourselves and our toxic system Leaving our comfort zones to take action for change.
we value reflecting and learning Following a cycle of action, reflection, learning, and planning for more action. Learning from other movements and contexts as well as our own experiences.
we welcome everyone and every part of everyone Working actively to create safer and more accessible spaces.
we actively mitigate for power Breaking down hierarchies of power for more equitable participation.
we avoid blaming and shaming We live in a toxic system, but no one individual is to blame.
we are a non-violent network Using non-violent strategy and tactics as the most effective way to bring about change.
we are based on autonomy and decentralisation We collectively create the structures we need to challenge power. Anyone who follows these core principles and values can take action in the name of Extinction Rebellion.
Appendix C: ‘Declaration of Rebellion
“To love truth for truth’s sake is the principal part of human perfection in this world, and the seed-plot of all other virtues”- John Locke
We hold the following to be true:
This is our darkest hour.
Humanity finds itself embroiled in an event unprecedented in its history. One which, unless immediately addressed, will catapult us further into the destruction of all we hold dear: this nation, its peoples, our ecosystems and the future of generations to come.
The science is clear:- we are in the sixth mass extinction event and we will face catastrophe if we do not act swiftly and robustly.
Biodiversity is being annihilated around the world. Our seas are poisoned, acidic and rising. Flooding and desertification will render vast tracts of land uninhabitable and lead to mass migration.
Our air is so toxic that the United Kingdom is breaking the law. It harms the unborn whilst causing tens of thousands to die. The breakdown of our climate has begun. There will be more wildfires, unpredictable super storms, increasing famine and untold drought as food supplies and fresh water disappear.
The ecological crises that are impacting upon this nation, and indeed this planet and its wildlife can no longer be ignored, denied nor go unanswered by any beings of sound rational thought, ethical conscience, moral concern, or spiritual belief.
In accordance with these values, the virtues of truth and the weight of scientific evidence, we declare it our duty to act on behalf of the security and well-being of our children, our communities and the future of the planet itself.
We, in alignment with our consciences and our reasoning, declare ourselves in rebellion against our Government and the corrupted, inept institutions that threaten our future.
The wilful complicity displayed by our government has shattered meaningful democracy and cast aside the common interest in favour of short-term gain and private profits.
When Government and the law fail to provide any assurance of adequate protection, as well as security for its people’s well-being and the nation’s future, it becomes the right of its citizens to seek redress in order to restore dutiful democracy and to secure the solutions needed to avert catastrophe and protect the future. It becomes not only our right, it becomes our sacred duty to rebel.
We hereby declare the bonds of the social contract to be null and void, which the government has rendered invalid by its continuing failure to act appropriately. We call upon every principled and peaceful citizen to rise with us.
We demand to be heard, to apply informed solutions to these ecological crises and to create a national assembly by which to initiate those solutions needed to change our present cataclysmic course.
We refuse to bequeath a dying planet to future generations by failing to act now.
We act in peace, with ferocious love of these lands in our hearts. We act on behalf of life.
Appendix D: ‘Welcome to the rebellion’ transcript (from automatically-generated YouTube transcript, lightly edited for accuracy)
You have no idea what a pleasure it is to say
WELCOME TO THE REBELLION!
We are taking five places in London today,
we are present in 33 countries today
and the movement was born only 6 months ago!
I am Dr.Gail Bradbrook, I come from Yorkshire, I live in Gloucestershire, and I am a co-organizer and member of Extinction Rebellion.
I am a mother of two boys, my father was a minor.
I spent my life feeling a bit like I was not really in the right place
trying to be a scientist as a woman of the working class,
I know what it feels like, to feel like someone else knows what’s happening
Working people have trouble making ends meet.
and they don’t have a choice in conventional politics.
The current democracy no longer works,
it’s deeply flawed
It’s totally normal for lobbyists, who have billions to spend on solving certain problems,
to be constantly with governments to lobby
to preserve their own interests and make more money,
but not to defend the interests and needs of ordinary people.
I think it’s a deeply toxic system! it’s got this machinary based on
The idea that we have to have constant economic growth.
But you can not have constant economic growth on a finite planet.
Brexit is an irrelevance when you think about the climate and the ecological crisis we are experiencing.
The “Mother”” of al crisis means, it is possible that all life on Earth, 97% of life, will disappear.
and probably, in my childrens’ life time.
Conventional politics is fucked! It’s finish !
The question is not, “What needs to happen? What are the problems?”
but: How to change things?
We have a long tradition of civil disobedience in the UK.
When the Suffragettes smashed windows, which is what they did… they weren’t directly
affecting democracy, they said “we are angry!” and asked for their votes to be heard.
All other more or less reformist strategies
for women to vote had not succeeded.
remaining silent and separated from each other, we are accomplices,
and so, what we do at XR is to really bring people together so they can express their power.
Political power should not be left to politicians and it shouldn be left simply to experts
We need the voice of the people and people need to understand
what the implication of any policy is
everyone should be able to say “yes, it’s going to be difficult, but we are willing to do it because the situation is so desperate.”
To create a new political model we have to do it all together, that’s the point, right? Do it together.
There are ways to give people a voice. We want a Citizens’ Assembly,
and, I think it’s really an exciting innovation for a campaign to be calling for that
We would take about a thousand people by sortition
a selection as we would for jurors,
they would look at the reality, of the situation and if they do not know, they will be shocked and frightened.
They will be presented with potential solutions
and then they will need to come up with a set of laws, measures, and so on. for the United Kingdom.
As Privileged White, Western People
we have largely ignored the problem.
I come from Sierra Leone, and I hear people complaining about plastic waste,
but if you go to countries that are less fortunate than in the West, it’s 10 times worse than here.
We all need to make a conscious effort to and work together. It’s our Earth, our planet.
We must save her!
My name is Kofi Mawuli Klu, I am from Ghana, West Africa.
I describe myself as a Pan-African community advocate for global justice.
In school, we learned a lot about Greece, the Athenians, democracy, and all that
But for me, what existed before Athens?
The fact that we do not say anything about it is hugely problematic
If we could make the connections to the past, we would see, actually,
the challenge to take democracy further could enable humanity to peacefully resolve
a lot of the challenges that today seem so huge and totally insurmountable.
So each generation has the challenge of advancing the frontiers of what previous generations have done.
I think that’s what Extinction Rebellion is trying to do
its going to lift all of the present generations to accomplish the task of our time
In other cultures, in some indigenous cultures,
the ancestors are honored, the ones who went before they stood out for life they did things for life
and you know that you have 7 generations in front of you,
I think that climate injustice is coming home to an intergenerational injustice.
it’s like for our today we are fucking up your tomorrow, we are stealing your tomorrow. It’s deeply unjust.
Sometimes I try to talk to other parents about this. “Oouuh, do not tell me about that!”
This civilization is finished! It’s finished, whether you like it or not.
If we have three years of really bad el niño weather, the food system are fucked.
We will be fighting over cans of beans. We really are at a crossroads.
What we choose to do today is the difference between life or death on Earth.
We must create something more beautiful,
and more connected, and more local.
Life is so short. It has a start and an end. We must do something wild and amazing with that time.
Grief is the price we pay for love, and from love comes courage.
And that’s when you say, “I’ve had enough of this!” and that’s when you get on the streets.
Appendix E: Lists of linguistic features (adapted from Fairclough 2003)
The type of ‘orientation to difference’ in the text:
(A): an openness to, acceptance of, recognition of difference; and exploration of difference, as in ‘dialogue’ in the richest sense of the term
(B): an accentuation of difference, conflict, polemic, a struggle over meaning, norms and power
(C): an attempt to resolve or overcome difference
(D): a bracketing of difference, a focus on commonality, solidarity
(E): a consensus, a normalization and acceptance of differences of power which brackets or suppresses differences of meanings and norms.
Presence of other texts in the form of reported and direct speech; are quotations attributed or non-attributed; which voices are included and excluded; how they are framed and recontextualised
Implicit assumptions/presuppositions: these may be ideologically hegemonic; may have existential, propositional or value assumptions
Range of voices present in text
Are there mixes or chain of genres? Genres change as they are combined together and these new genres can alert us to changes in social practices. New genre hybrids are particularly prevalent online – websites are typically assemblages of different texts representing different (combinations of) genres, or what Fairclough class ‘formats’. Analysis can reveal whether such texts are in an intertextual series or hierarchy.
How ‘portable’ are the genres in the text: are they pre-genres, disembedded, or situated?
Purpose – strategic or communicative. Elsewhere Fairclough argues that communication is becoming more strategic, in the sense that texts which appear to be informational also have a promotional function.
Social relations vary along axes of power and solidarity – Fairclough’s work has also explored the tendencies towards ‘synthetic personalisation’, and ‘conversationalisation’ of public discourse.
Tenor: is the discourse two- or one way, is it mediated, for example by communications technology. In an era of rapid change which Fairclogh only partially addresses, Whatsapp conversations or blogs are all obviously interactive to some degree, but even more established genres such as newspaper articles may have a comment box.
Through grounds, warrants and claims, arguments ‘do the work of making contentious, positioned and interested representations a matter of general common sense’, This can for example be related to implicit assumptions as embedded in the structure of a narrative – whose point of view is represented in the text?
Grammatical relations: how deep does a text go? Does it mostly use paratactic or hypotactic relations: Is it explanatory, eg does it use subordinate clauses to express address relations such as causal, conditional, temporal, additive, elaborative, contrastive or does it mostly use coordinate clauses and only address appearances through eg addition? Might it have a ‘hortatory’, ie promotional function?
Higher level generic structure of the text. Is the overall structure predictable? For example certain kinds of texts may foreground legitimation, or newspaper reports generally seek to narrative the subject.
Legitimation: does it use authorisation, rationalisation, moral evaluation, or mythopoesis, to legitimise actions, procedures or structures
Semantic relations: In the use of hyponyms, synonyms, and antonyms, are relations of equivalence and difference foregrounded or backgrounded?
Are utterances oriented towards activity or knowledge? This is specifically related to dialogue, but as Bakhtin argued and Faircough reminds us, all texts, including written ones are, albeit to a lesser or greater degree, part of ongoing dialogues. Thus a number of the distinctions he draws are also relevant to analysing written texts.
What speech functions are present? Fairclough lists demands, offers, questions and statements, but acknowledges this is limited as the range of existing speech functions is much wider. Written texts generally contain statements, but are they statements of fact or evaluations? Different speech functions may be realised by grammatical metaphor as Halliday pointed out.
Grammatical mood. Are the clauses declarative, imperative or interrogative? Are there minor clauses, ie phrases without a verb?
Do they represent phenomena ie events, processes and social actors in abstract or concrete terms?
How are they textured together or hybridised? Are there signs of new discourses emerging?
What main themes are represented, and from what perspectives?
Do they set up relations of protagonist and antagonist?
What separate Orders of discourse’ are present?
How do they lexicalise the world in terms of relationships – eg using hyponyms and antonyms, schemes of classification
How does the use of collocations and metaphor reveal underlying structures of ideas and values?
Are there many nominalisations, process nouns and ‘personified’ nouns? A lexicogrammatical analysis might reveal how, for example, nominalisation can be used to obfuscate agency, and thus expose how semantic and grammatical relations within a text serve to sustain or challenge ideological assumptions, and thus forms of power. This may involve what O’Halloran (2005) calls ‘the mystification of social agents and events being described’. Thus it has the potential to demystify ideological assumptions.
What ideational process types predominate? How does the choice of process eg Material, Behavioural, Mental, Verbal, Relational, Existential set up participants and circumstances? Are there any non-congruent representations of process? What does that show us about the representation of social events?
Transitivity eg Do the clauses identify something that someone did, that happened or something that was done?
How are social actors represented in terms of inclusion/exclusion, pronoun/noun active/passive personal/impersonal named/classified specific/generic. for example passivisation can lay a similar role to nominalisation in obfuscating agency.
How are pronouns used to represent social actors eg ‘we’ ‘The communities constructed as ‘we’ are often elusive, shifting and vague’
Representations of time and place -are ‘space-times’ specified or absent?
Presence or absence of modality – the nature and degree of commitments the speaker or writer makes to representations and statements, which is important in the texturing of personal and social identities. Modality exists as probabilities (epistemic) or obligations (deontic) . Degrees of certainty, doubt, necessity, permission, obligation express the stance of the speaker or writer
Assertion and denial
Evaluative statements and their realisations. Scale of intensity, hedging. May be more deeply embedded as assumptions. See above.
Authoritative modality, status of experts, achieved through discourse. Predictions,. Stylings as experts or citizens Categorical statements Degrees of commitments to truth, judgements and necessity
Shifting identities – what ‘characters’? Who is speaking on behalf of whom?
Appendix F: Interview with producer of text
Interviewer: I’m particularly interested in finding out how the Declaration was produced, ie was it written by one individual or via a process of negotiation, and was it a conscious decision to give it a different focus and tone from other key XR documents such as the demands and principles, given its references to Churchill and the way it frames the issue in terms of the nation and its people.
Interviewee: The declaration was largely written by one individual, being me, with some editing inputs from 2 others. It was written in accordance with the stated XR language requirements to use less technocratic, “leftist” language and more of an Anglo saxon vibe, I attempted capturing the” life during wartime ” atmosphere in order to appeal to a wider spectrum of the public, hence the churchillian referencing, I also referenced locke as that speaks to the very essence of national identity and its relationship to obedience to authority which needs to be challenged by “us”.
Interviewer: 1) When you mention leftist discourse, would you include the precepts and language of the climate justice movement within that category?
2) In terms of the intended audience for the text, did you have a particular ‘ideal reader’ in mind?
3) Was there any internal debate with regard to the way that the document positions XR, ie outside the mainstream of the existing climate movement? More specifically, did the line about ‘ferocious love of these lands’ provoke any discussion?
4) Was there (in a similar spirit to George Marshall’s work on how to talk to talk to conservatives about climate change) an intention to tap into and co-opt more radical right-wing and nationalist sentiment?
5) Finally, are you familiar with Paul Kingsnorth and the Dark Mountain movement and if so did that set of ideas influence the text?
1) yes, the climate justice movement and the broad left are interwoven and predominately driven by White, Middle class mindsets ( colonial, euclidean etc) and dialog, IMHO the majority of which are urbanised and rarely spend much time actually in nature.
2) No, no ideal reader at all, we weren’t looking for just an audience within our own bubble, aimed for a broad appeal to decency and emotion primarily.
3) huge debate yes.
Months of ongoing conversation, analysis and inquiry.
A lot of questions were asked around how the environmental “movement” has gained such little ground over decades despite the scientic analysis, why the left becomes so toxic to itself at times of criticality, why the positivist media messaging is redundant, why the public largely don’t give a fuck beyond their own privilege and so on.
We thought widely around the contradictions and risks involved in trying a different approach that wasn’t afraid to alienate elements of the left, right and so on. We realised that in doing what we sought to do we’d have to become unpopular ( job done) and also that we’d have to reactivate a wider conversation around grief, land connection and so on.
Much western leftist discourse seems to conclude that to love your own land is bordering on crypto fascism yet simultaneously lauds the fight for the lands of dispossessed elsewhere, it’s tricky territory and regaining that territory from capitalist/right/scarcity mindsets without reinforcing intellectual binaries seemed a priority.
Of course there’s risk there, on boarding less politically aware folk means that the layers of the onion need peeling back in regards to ongoing awareness building of the wider issues involved.
4) yes, there is/was intention to blur the binary political positions that are hampering forward progress in a range of climate justice issues and there’s more work to br done IMHO in Co opting narratives that drive the right, expose the flaws in our system and more work to be done in finding commonality.
5)yes, well aware of Kingsnorth/the DM project.
They’ve not great influenced the declaration text no but there’s a current of DM and DM Related attitude/perspective within XR, it owes more to radical/anarchist pagan undercurrents Imo.
The language requirements have been ignored largely and it seems somewhat discarded by the media teams and outreach which is a shame as I think there’s way more potential there, at present the language used us in danger of becoming way too middle class and “woo woo” and without context it can lead to folk activating only to protect their immediate privilege.
Appendix G: Focus group transcript
Facilitator: Good morning! Thanks very much to all of you for agreeing to participate and also for turning up. The objective here is to contribute towards a sort of 3D perspective on the texts I’m analysing by finding out what the writer of the texts had in mind (done) and then investigating the responses of the sort of people who the texts are designed to appeal to ie people concerned about climate change who are not formally part of XR. It is not any means an exact science but I’m keen to find out what people think.
Facilitator: My role here is to observe the discussion so I won’t be asking questions apart
from reiterating my interest in what if anything people may find incongruous
about the texts. The idea is to have a discussion rather than a series of
detailed response but let’s see how it goes. I’d hope that ten or fifteen
minutes is sufficient to gather enough useful ‘data’.
Thomas: Hi 🙋🏻
John: There was something a little incongruous for me in the declaration- the reference to
“this nation” when clearly they’re talking about a global problem
Andrew: I agree, strongly echoed in the video
John: Although I guess it makes some sense given that XR is rooted in the UK and
relies on local action
Thomas: I noticed these lands… It sounded a bit nationalistic
Andrew: A great deal there about people being rooted in the UK and loving this particular
Andrew: Surprisingly similar to Roger scrutons environmetalism
John: Maybe you need to appeal to people’s love of their own “lands”, whatever
that word might mean for them
Andrew: To me, incongruous and alienating when the global message otherwise appears primary
Mary: I assume this was to try and help people ground it in their real lives, rather
than to consider it someone else’s problem somewhere far away
John: Yeah could be
Gemma: That’s what I thought
Thomas: I guess although the problem is global they are actually only trying to take
Claire: This. I’d say the general tone of the declaration was Churchillian. I found it
much more apparent than the other two sources.
Andrew: Yes that makes sense, but doesn’t taking action here point to another incongruity?
‘apolitical’, which it is actually not
Andrew: In video, ‘brexit is irrelevant’ struck me as greatest incongruity – just wrong
rather than incongruous perhaps
John: Again, use of “apolitical” I guess is pragmatic, to avoid alienating
anyone unnecessarily, even if it’s not accurate
Claire: That jumped out at me as well. I think they mean ‘party political’?
John: Nothing is strictly apolitical
Andrew: Yes should be ‘pparty political’
John: Yes, see what you mean
Mary: The speakers in the video were cleverly chosen – female, working class and a POC,
both of whom were sympathetic in character and tone – but it still came across
as very White Middle class didn’t it, especially from the video shots of the
Andrew: Which they could have said without sweeping brexit – boonfiire of environmental
protection! – under the carpet
Mary: Yeah that annoyed me
John: It would have been more accurate to say it goes behind Brexit although obv made
worse by it
John: *Beyond, not behind
John: But yeah. They want to maximise engagement across the political spectrum
Andrew: Demands 3 has ‘beyonf politics’ – but immediately followed by ‘govrrnment must
create’ – incongruous?!
John: Means sacrificing some accuracy
Mary: Whilst I agree that you can’t have economic progress all of the time, Brexit is
not stalled progress, it is massively damaging – and surely will lead to
further dependency on factors that will worsen climate change. Ignoring that
undermines the argument in my opinion
Andrew: (sorry for my typos)
Mary: Yeah good point. Brexit is too polarising so they are trying to side-step it
John: I’m trying to see the reasoning by XR, not necessarily agreeing with jut
Thomas: I thought the written texts sounded a lot more political than the video which was
a much more warm, fuzzy and caring reflection of the movement
Thomas: More personalised, the Mum whose Dad was a coal miner and became a scientist…
It was to appeal to ordinary people Which
source do you mean?
Thomas: Signal probs in library
Thomas: I wondered what the agenda was behind this
Claire: Referring to the declaration text as opposed to the video and the other text
that the facilitator asked us to look at.
Andrew: Also a certain lack of nuance in describing the system as simply fucked –
albeit understandable and not actually incongruous
Andrew: In video I mean
Thomas: I was shocked by the lack of articulation on the video. I thought she shouldn’t
have said fucked (twice)… To me, not because I am a prude, showed lack of
appropriacy in a spokesperson advocating an active participation in government,
and being able to shape legislation
Andrew: Quite – wrong context
Mary: I actually took that as an attempt to ‘make it real’ and give the video and
informal, ‘of the people’ edge in the way a social media approach might do
Thomas: Quite probably. But it shocked my ear.
Mary: And to show the strength of feeling. It is an impassioned plea to act
Facilitator: This conversation could obviously continue but I don’t want to impose too much
on your time. Thank you all very much for your contributions, it’s been
genuinely extremely useful. You’ve certainly identified things about the texts
that I’d missed. I will send you a copy of the dissertation when it’s done plus
a bottle of delicious XR Cola when it’s finally on the shelves 😄
Appendix H: Information sheet for participants
INFORMATION SHEET FOR PARTICIPANTS
REC Reference Number: MRS-18/19-14155
We would like to invite you to participate in this postgraduate research project. You should only participate if you want to; choosing not to take part will not disadvantage you in any way. Before you decide whether you want to take part, it is important for you to understand why the research is being done and what your participation will involve. Please take time to read the following information carefully and discuss it with others if you wish. Please ask if there is anything that is not clear or if you would like more information.
What is the purpose of the study?
The aim of the project is to conduct an interdiscursive critical discourse analysis of four founding documents by Extinction Rebellion. Part of the interdiscursive element involves talking to both producers and potential consumers of the text in order to ‘triangulate’ (Tashakkori and Teddlie, 2003) my own analyses.
The question I would like to focus on in the interview is:
Is there anything that appears politically incongruous about these texts?
I would like to investigate these questions by conducting an interview with the producer of the text, ___________________, who is one of the founders of Extinction Rebellion.
As an MA postgraduate student, I would like to invite you to take part in my research. The final report will be submitted as a dissertation on a self-funded Masters in Applied Linguistics and ELT on 03/09/2019.
Will my taking part be kept confidential?
All recordings will be transcribed and data used for the final report. Recordings of interviews will be deleted upon transcription and names of participants will be changed in the report. To ensure compliance with the UK Data Protection Act 1998, participants will be informed of what information will be held about them and only the researcher will have access to the information. No outside agent will be employed to help transcribe data.
Who should I contact for further information?
If you have any questions or require more information about this study, please contact me using the following contact details: firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 07783552332. You may also contact my supervisor at King’s College London, Dr Clyde Ancarno, at email@example.com.
It is up to you to decide whether to take part or not. If you do decide to take part, you will be given this information sheet to keep and will be asked to sign a consent form. If you decide to take part, you are still free to withdraw from the study at any time and without giving a reason. You may also withdraw any data / information you have already provided up until my analysis of the data commences on 30/07/2019.
If this study has harmed you in any way, or if you wish to make a complaint about the conduct of the study, you can contact Dr Clyde Ancarno at firstname.lastname@example.org. for further advice and information.
Thank you for reading this information sheet and for considering taking part in this research.
Appendix I: Ethical consent form for participants
CONSENT FORM FOR PARTICIPANTS IN RESEARCH STUDIES
Please complete this form after you have read the Information Sheet about the research.
Title of Study: An interdiscursive critical discourse analysis of genres, discourses and styles in four founding texts from Extinction Rebellion
King’s College Research Ethics Committee Ref: MRS-18/19-14155
Thank you for considering taking part in this research. The person organising the research must explain the project to you before you agree to take part. If you have any questions arising from the Information Sheet or explanation already given to you, please ask the researcher before you decide whether to join in. You will be given a copy of this Consent Form to keep and refer to at any time.
Please tick or initial
I confirm that I understand that by ticking/initialling each box I am consenting to this element of the study. I understand that it will be assumed that unticked/initialled boxes mean that I DO NOT consent to that part of the study. I understand that by not giving consent for any one element I may be deemed ineligible for the study.
Please tick or initial
1. I confirm that I have read and understood the information sheet dated 30/07/2019 for the above study. I have had the opportunity to consider the information and asked questions which have been answered satisfactorily.
2. I understand that I will be able to withdraw my data up to 01/08/2019
3. I consent to the processing of my personal information for the purposes explained to me. I understand that such information will be handled in accordance with the terms of the UK Data Protection Act 1998.
4. I understand that my information may be subject to review by responsible individuals from the College for monitoring and audit purposes.
5. I understand that confidentiality and anonymity will be maintained and it will not be possible to identify me in any publications
6. I agree that the researcher may use my data for future research and understand that any such use of identifiable data would be reviewed and approved by a research ethics committee. (In such cases, as with this project, data would/would not be identifiable in any report).
7. I understand that the information I have submitted will be published as a report and I wish to receive a copy of it.
8. I have informed the researcher of any other research in which I am currently involved or have been involved in during the past 12 months
I wrote here two days ago that the cutting edge fashion in global fascism is to abandon climate denial and seek to co-opt concern for the environment rather than disdain it; Marine Le Pen, for example, no longer sees climate change as a Jew-led conspiracy but as a golden opportunity to push her agenda of global genocide. It’s since transpired that Italy is behind the French on this score. Although de facto Italian leader Matteo Salvini would no doubt approve of the means Brenton Tarrant used to put his beliefs into practice – the Australian fascist had the name of Salvini’s ally and ex-Lega candidate Luca Traini written on one of his guns – the terrorist’s self-description as an “eco-fascist” would seemingly cause Salvini some puzzlement, judging by the reaction of his supporters to the worldwide Climate Strike on Friday.
This article (in Italian) details the comments made by several pro-Salvini personaggi, some of them prominent in the Italian media, over the last few days. The writer and TV personality Maria Giovanna Maglie called for the Swedish teenage activist to be “mown down by a car”, while the former pop star Rita Pavone called her “a character from a horror movie”. Diego Fusaro, a political philosopher whose self-definition as a “Marxist” should be taken with un grandissimo pezzo disale, accused the 16-year-old of being part of a plot by the “cosmopolitan elite” (hem hem). The well-known climate liar and founder of the daily newspaper ‘Il Foglio’, Giuliano Ferrara, tweeted “I don’t want to be accused of pedophobia, but I detest this idolatrous figure Greta and her disgusting braids, and the false world of lies she weaves round herself”. The hashtag #nogreta was trending among supporters of Salvini’s neofascist Lega party and its fellow travellers/coalition partners in the Five Star Movement, some of whom still, bizarrely, style themselves as environmentalists and even, in some outlandish cases, anti-racists. Salvini himself joined in with a typically puerile Trump-style tweet welcoming global warming as it will mean more “herbs”, a comment which will delight those among the Five Star Movement who aren’t in outright denial about Salvini’s being in power. A Five Star supporter I spoke to on Friday confirmed what I’d heard elsewhere, in that he felt that Salvini and the Lega “weren’t really” in control of the Government and that the self-confessed fan of Mussolini should be given “more time” to implement his agenda, which includes forcibly evicting and deporting hundreds of thousands of neri,protecting the Mafia by removing police protection from journalists who investigate them and building a European far-right alliance with Kaczynski, Orbán, Le Pen, and all those other names far too depressing to mention.
I’ve read* that those who voted for the electorally larger but politically junior element in his coalition (one of whom (although few people can remember whom) is nominally Prime Minister) pay little to no attention to ‘MSM’ accounts of what the Lega gets up to, putting their faith instead in the blog of their guru Beppe Grillo, a Pied Piper demagogue with a…colourful personal history**. Grillo has in the past blustered about climate change but in case anyone had their hopes up that his movement represents a progressive form of populism, also once proclaimed that “Anti-fascism is outside my purview” and tweeted that Rome is full of “swamped by rats, rubbish and illegal immigrants”. In a devastating article detailing Italy’s ‘descent into barbarism’, the universally respected journalist Roberto Saviano writes:
When people speak in general terms of populism in relation to this government they risk obscuring truly alarming facts on the ground with abstract political labels. There is no doubt that the blind eye this administration turns to racist attitudes has had serious consequences. Cynically the government gives a nod and a wink to extremist groups whose votes they do not want to lose.
*The Lega/M5S Fascist/Moron coalition is a Rorschach blot, albeit with merda rather than ink. From that link: “The alliance between the Five Star party (the post-crisis ‘populists’) and the League (the xenophobic ‘populists’) is arguably functioning because of the borders around their electorates’ news sources. Occasionally I come across people who actively support both Five Star and the League. Far more common, however, are supporters of one party who are effectively ignorant of the policies of the other. For example, a Salvini supporter might rail on about how the closure of the ports will save Italian women from predatory Africans, but will have nothing to say about Five Star’s economic policies. On the other hand, a gloating Di Maio worshipper will happily praise the wonders of Five Star’s citizens’ income proposal or their anti-corruption stance, but will actively disassociate themselves from the League’s racism. And this is exactly the tactic of the separation of Ministerial powers: Di Maio, minister for jobs and welfare, makes no pronouncements about migration. But neither does his party. Search Five Star’s Facebook page, and you’ll find no mention of the Salvini law, as if it simply hasn’t happened. The same is true vice versa (with the exception of pension reforms, which the League takes as one of its central policies).”
**The M5S Party Line is that it was “ice on the road” that caused Grillo to crash his car and kill three people. That wasn’t the verdict of the court.
(Ps Although Farage’s photo op was absolutely pitiful and much of the ridicule it was greeted with hilarious, we may be falling into a bit of a trap, in that images of hardy, mud-soaked and rain-sodden ordinary British volk, battling not just the elements but universal opprobrium in their vain pursuit of national destiny, is an emblematic instance of the mythology that Fintan O’Toole pinpoints as the inspiration for Brexit in ‘Heroic Failures’. I’m sure both the Jarrow marchers and Farage’s true political ancestors in 1920s Italy were treated with disdain in their day, so the negative coverage is unlikely to daunt those who, having no idea of or concern for the risks involved, still support a no deal Brexit. So let’s hope the cameras and hashtags move on and the whole thing is swiftly forgotten. As Trump has shown, for the modern far-right movement ridicule is nothing to be scared of, and images of vainglorious victimhood can actually rally people to the cause. It’s quite probable that the organisers knew it would provoke this reaction, and that’s why they decided to do it. #youutterhypocrite #yesIknow)
It’s been a central tenet of this website that the global rise in far-right sentiment is partly a displaced expression of repressed anger and fear about climate change. The context for Friday’s atrocity in New Zealand confirm that if that was ever true, it’s now becoming less so. I’d seen odd reports that some elements of the global far-right were abandoning climate denial in favour of what one might call genocidal eco-misanthropy, and had noticed that (for example) Marine Le Pen is no longer a climate denier. She’s ahead of the pack, given the influence of Bolsonaro and Trump in persisting in outright denial. There are a lot of pre-existing ideas that can easily be coopted by far-right newborn environmentalists, as Paul Caterell details here. I’ve long felt that initiatives such as the Dark Mountain project were so misanthropically Malthussian in their response to accelerating environmental meltdown as to share common ground with those inclined to see climate change not as a threat but an opportunity, and I’m not talking about the superficial TED Talks utopianism of so much that passes for ‘environmentalist’ discourse but something much more sinister.
The self-definition of the Christchurch terrorist as an “eco-fascist” led me to this article from the New Statesmen. It should alert everyone connected to environmental activism and climate campaigning to be extremely wary of discourses which unite deep ecology, geographical boundedness, animal rights, veganism, a return to the soil, and forefathers. Names to look out for include Pentti Linkola, Danielle Savoy and Savitri Devi, and images popular with eco-fascists include Norse runes (particulary the ‘life rune’ – see above), forests and what has been jokingly called ‘cabin porn’. The article has many more details about the linguistic and semiotic clues that may indicate the presence of eco-fascist ideology. It partly involves turning on its head the standard right-wing trope that Hitler was a vegetarian and an environmentalist. The most cutting edge fascists celebrate those aspects of Nazism, recognising that ‘Lebensraum’ was partly about creating an ecological utopia by cleaning up the toxic elements that were polluting it with their very existence*.
The core of eco-fascist discourse, and by far the most dangerous one, is overpopulation. On a recent Extinction Rebellion protest I was handed a glossy leaflet by David Attenborough’s charity outfit, the headline of which highlighted overpopulation as the core problem we face. Leaving aside the fact that had Attenborough not persisted in his climate denial for so long we probably wouldn’t have got to this point so early, his focus on overpopulation seems to be hugely problematic. If you claim that the problem with the world is the existence of too many people but are not willing to take the logical step of either killing yourself or not making any more, then the issue immediately gets reformulated into: there are too many other people. Which leads to the question: Who gets selected for eradication and/or sterilisation? Now, while we may be naïve enough to go on blithely claiming that it’s other people’s apathy and overconsumption that have caused the problem, we can’t pretend we don’t know what solutions those forces occupying or angling for power across the world, from the US to the UK to Brazil to Italy and elsewhere, are going to propose when things get really bad.
Of course, it’s natural and good that many people seek to change their own lives before telling everyone else to do so. The sudden plethora of vegan restaurants where I live in East London is remarkable. Am I suggesting that anyone who turns vegan is a potential fascist? Absolutely not. But at a time when lots of young people are educating themselves online and demanding that climate change be treated as an political emergency rather than being left as an awkward social taboo which most adults would rather suffer than combat, it’s incumbent upon us to identify, expose and exclude anyone linking land, nature and race.
There are very few eco-fascists who dare to take their principles offline and put them into practice; we just saw how destructive it can be when they set out to advertise their beliefs, to create mass rather than mere social media memes and to impress Rupert Murdoch as well as their fellow 4chan trolls. Most will do so at a somewhat more subtle level than Brenton Tarrant. What appear to be innocuous memes promoting sound environmentalist values may have hidden resonances, so we have to learn how to spot and call out all instances of language which seems to hint at a connection between blood and soil. For example, at that same XR demonstration someone got up and repeatedly used the phrase ‘our lands’. Was that person an eco-fascist? Almost certainly not. But as Foucault pointed out, there is a sense in which our words speak us rather than we them, in which ideas circulating in society have more power than the people who voice them. We can’t allow genocidal nihilism to infect the enthusiasm of this new generation of climate activists, most of whom get much of their information and ideas in the same forums where identitarian and eco-fascist memes circulate, pushing the notion that the main culprits for climate change are not corporate power and unfettered capitalism but mass migration and multiculturalism. Hence we need to be extremely vigilant about which words and images we use both on and offline and be particularly careful when addressing the thorny issue of overpopulation. Maybe it will come down to a battle of symbols: not the so-called “life” rune, symbolising life for our particular ethnic group and death to everyone else, but this symbol, representing the protection of the life chances of every single one of the true, universal Us.
*It’s worth reading up on what Jared Diamond has to say about the link between environmental pressures and genocide in Rwanda; this presentation gives a brief account of it.
Bonus points for spotting those who you might not have been inclined to think of as on the far-right but, you know, by their (fascist) friends shall ye know them. The winner gets a signed (by me) copy of this.
Hi! Sorry to bother you. I’m sure you’ve heard there’s a general election coming up. I’m here to encourage you to vote for the Labour candidate. Which is me! Daniel Dongle, aspiring member of Parliament. Nice to meet you! Is that your dog??
Ah! Ok. It looks a bit like…but we mustn’t essentialise! Now, I see you voted for us in 2017, much appreciated! Have you thought about how you might vote this time?
Well, it depends. What’s your position on Brexit?
We think austerity is completely unnec…
But where do you stand on Brexit?
I’m sure you’ll agree that the rise in homelessness is an absolute abom…
But do you still think the UK would be better off outside the EU?
Climate Change is the biggest emergency we have ever faced as a sp…
Should we remain in the Customs Union?
We wholeheartedly oppose the rise in xenophobia around the world in the l…
What alternative do you have to the Withdrawal Agreement?
Like AOC says, we need a Green N…
Is Labour prepared to whip its MPs to support a second referendum?
Trident is a total waste of m…
Isn’t it now pretty much incumbent on whoever’s in government to revoke Article 50?
Er…we believe in a Global Br…
My girlfriend’s from Poland. Will she be able to stay here after Brexit?
Rebuilding the NHS is…
What’s your position on the Irish border situation?
As Jeremy says, valuing the contribution immigrants make to British soc…
What’s Labour’s reaction to all the revelations about illegal practices by both leave campaigns?
Secure homes for..
Are you still in favour of Britain leaving the EU, even with no withdrawal agreement in place?
It’s not only left-wingers who point out that much written about Corbyn is untrue. But there’s certainly at least one sense in which Corbyn himself is insufficiently left-wing: his inability to think dialectically, as shown by his insistence last week that poverty and the climate are “more important than Brexit”. Actually those three phenomenon are inherently and intimately interlinked. In Marxist terms, there is a section of the ruling class that wants the UK out of the EU so it can escape all forms of regulation, particularly with regard to taxation and the climate. The fact that involves making most people immediately much poorer and, in the medium term, making everybody dead, is a mere and not particularly regrettable side-effect. They know that climate change is real and that austerity and Brexit are economic suicide – their mission is to take advantage of the mounting chaos in order to stamp out democracy and human rights and loot what’s left of the State. Corbyn’s role should have involved exposing and challenging the machinations that underpin this agenda, but tragically, given that in any age the dominant ideas are those that reflect ruling class interests, what dominates in many nominally left-wing fora is a disguised form of extreme conservatism which presents itself as radical, mostly taking the form of conspiracy theorising and railing against whatever scapegoats are made available by any passing troll or bot – witness the ease with which far-right ideas you to and including anti-Semitic tropes are insinuated into Corbyn-supporting Facebook groups, or drop by the Labour List website to see the extent to which arrant nonsense about a “WTO Deal” Brexit has taken hold of those who, like Italian M5S supporters cheering on Salvini, think of themselves as on the left while doing a job for the far-right. (Ecco a shining example of someone doing just that.) Partly due to the loose populism in such slogans as “For the many, not the few” and talk of “elites” and “the Establishment”, Corbyn’s supporters include many who have fallen into the same puerile ideological mentality as much of the Italian (former) left – lazy, easily manipulable populism – and he and his leadership haven’t known how (or have been insufficiently motivated) to challenge that.
That Corbyn himself is unable to recognise that austerity, climate denial and Brexit all form part of a concerted neoneoconservative assault on democracy, social provision and basic human rights, one which is – shock! Horror! – even worse than the braindead neoliberalism of the neo-Blairites suggests that neither does he have the intellectual wherewithal to respond to the myriad challenges that face him and us; while his acknowledgement that climate destruction is a class issue is welcome, his dismissal of Brexit as a mere “constitutional question” displays an idiocy which it’s hard not to conclude is wilful. What Britain needs is a local version of AOC, someone talented at articulating a modern (as in green, intersectional and digitally savvy) left-wing agenda in the face of the opprobrium such a project will inevitably face. Of course, no one can click their fingers and make such a figure magically appear, and Corbyn’s agenda has much to recommend it despite the resistance it faces and despite his apparent inability to communicate it effectively. But some on the left need to stop pretending that he’s doing a great job or that his leadership is our best and only hope.
There’s a thread on Reddit called “Why aren’t the Brits panicking?”. It was presumably started by someone from the States, given their choice of epithet. It’s certainly not a word I’d use to describe myself, what with its uncomfortable evocation of tabloids and expattery. I saw some right-wing troll (or, more probably, bot) on Twitter using the term ‘Britons’ in relation to Brexit, suggesting that his normative understanding of British identity draws on a mythical idea of pre-Roman/Norman/Windrush purity without jollof rice or vaccines.
Nonetheless, it’s a fair question. I’m a ‘Brit’, if you like, and I don’t appear to be panicking, despite the fact that in three weeks’ time there may be troops on the streets to quell potential food riots, and all sorts of infrastructures whose existence, let alone importance, I have remained blissfully aware of all my life could collapse overnight. (The amount of unknown unknowns is, inevitably, unknowable.) If there’s a glimmer of sanity in Theresa May’s head that scenario won’t quite come to pass (yet), but if so we can be sure that Nigel Farage and Tommy Robinson will be doing all they can to spark an immediate civil war and (in Farage’s case) will be given plentiful access to the airwaves to do so.
Philip K. Dick wrote that sometimes it is an appropriate response to reality to go insane, and this would appear to be an opportune moment to do so, except for the fact that people all around the world are very noticeably not panicking about rapidly rising temperatures or the return of the far-right to power in some of the world’s most powerful countries, which might give us pause to think: how do we “panic” if no one else seems to be doing so? Perhaps I am panicking without quite being aware of it. After all, we already have food stored under the bed and precautionary plane tickets booked for the end of the month. And yet, in the meantime, we still need to eat, sleep, see friends, take the baby to the park, go to work; there are Michael Jackson documentaries to watch, and subsequent arguments to pursue online with people who (mystifyingly) refuse to accept the facts; there are articles to read which reflect intelligently on how we should react to the final evidence of Jackson’s corruption: should we continue to play his music? Write it and him out of history? And yet, it’s been a central element in our shared emotional life. More, one might even say, then the European Union…
So what’s a reasonable reaction to news that shakes the ground on which one stands? It may be rational to panic, to scream and run away, but where do we run to? It is, in the words of this article, “easier not to believe” such terrifying truths, especially when, away from social media, so few people seem to be even slightly perturbed by what’s happening. Maybe our sense of how to behave is akin to how we construct our identities: in the words of the sociologist Charles Cooley, “I am not who you think I am; I am not who I think I am; I am who I think you think I am”. The reason that British people are not panicking is partly that other British people are not panicking. After all, not panicking is what we’ve all been doing on a wider scale in relation to even more terrifying news about our climate.
No amount of frozen metaphors about frogs in boiling water or memes of dogs in burning rooms can begin to do justice to our failure to respond adequately to collective existential threats. Michel Foucault talked about how power operates through a shifting process of normalisation, where even the most radical changes to our daily lives can be incorporated into our picture of the world, while Pierre Bourdieu developed the concept of habitus, according to which it’s practically impossible for us to think beyond the parameters of our working assumptions about our lives and our reality. Not only do we live in an environment saturated with reassuring messages about the future, we live, speak and breathe those messages, reproducing them in our thoughts, posts, conversations and actions. We see adverts for events that take place in April, May and beyond, myriad timescales which take no notice of March 29th, market imperatives that must supersede whatever happens in news headlines, just as everyday life and consumption has so far managed to outlive any number of terrorist atrocities or climate catastrophes in cities we visited just a few weeks or months before and just as the global market was able to incorporate the election of Trump, Bolsonaro and Salvini with nary a blink. When we were considering what to do at the end of March and trying to make plans for the following month, I made the following suggestion: Imagine we know there’s going to be a hurricane or a flood, one whole scale we can’t predict until just before it happens. But perhaps a better analogy, given that Brexit is first and foremost an ideological project, is a terrorist attack way beyond anything Isis could dream up; given the nature of such attacks, we don’t know whether it will hit the particular station or square we happen to be passing through, but it won’t stop us travelling or holidaying or going to work or shopping – although actually, you might want to strike that last one off the list, and the first and second come to think of it. As for our jobs… Dostoevsky wrote somewhere that the greatest strength and weakness of human beings is that we can adapt to any set of circumstances; post-modern society thrives on disruption, according to any number of Ted Talks. The statement that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism has been attributed to everyone from Frederic Jameson to Slavoj Žižek to (I seem to recall) Peter Andre. In such a setting it’s impossible to overcome the sensation that, as Thomas Pynchon puts it in ‘Against the Day’, “there will always be time”.
But perhaps, in the end, Brexit is not the cause of the (apparent absence of) panic, but rather its consequence. Maybe panic is setting in at the level of politics, and that’s what Brexit, much like Trump, Salvini et al, is an effect of. Maybe for many people the notion that their decision has somehow had an impact on world events serves to assuage the sense of doom and helplessness they feel in their daily lives.
In the meantime, then: Michael Jackson. I’m writing this in an airport. All around me people are going on with their lives: chatting, sipping coffee, unfolding pushchairs, tapping out sanctimonious diatribes about other people’s complacency on their devices. It’s soundtracked at this moment by some Motown classic which might be called ‘I believe you’. If I sit here long enough I’m sure to hear one of the totems of our culture: maybe ‘ABC’, ‘Rock with you’ (one of my personal favourites) or maybe (possibly, apart from the pedophilia, his nadir) ‘They don’t really care about us’. On the way into the terminal I saw a young woman wearing the same jacket Melania Trump when she went to sneer at terrified children ripped away fron their parents: ‘I DON’T REALLY CARE, DO YOU?’. I briefly thought about remonstrating with her, but didn’t want to create a scene. Which raises the question: how does one show that one cares? And related to that: what does it mean to panic? Maybe initiatives such as this and this can help us to, to borrow a phrase, take back control of our fears and frustrations in a way that’s doesn’t involve lashing out at conveniently-placed scapegoats.
Update: Someone on Reddit responded to this piece by accusing its writer (me) of being ‘ill-informed’, ‘stupid’ and ‘apathetic’. Here is another version written especially for him:
Having posted to his blog yet another diatribe about how Other People’s inertia, apathy, laziness, complacency, cowardice, greed, ignorance and selfishness were responsible for austerity, Brexit, Trump, Salvini, Climate Change and so on, and how it was not just incumbent upon Other People but actually pressing, urgent (and some or other synonym for those previous two words) for those aforesaid Other People to take action up to and including risking their personal relationships, livelihoods, freedom and physical safety to stop, overthrow and/or prevent those things, there really was no higher priority for Other People than that as it was a matter not just of principle but also of survival, so basically why weren’t Other People panicking or revolting, what was wrong with those Other People, like were they all fucking stupid or mad or evil or something like that, having typed all that, chosen a fitting image, selected some appropriate tags and clicked Upload, he caught the train to St. Albans, took a wander round the local gallery/museum and perused the street market, stopped for lunch in a pleasant café before visiting the cathedral and graffitiing the words ‘YES, WE ARE ALL TO SOME EXTENT APATHETIC AND COMPLACENT IN THE FACE OF SUCH TERRIFYING THREATS AND HORRIFYING REVELATIONS, WE TEND TO DENY OUR OWN ROLE IN QUIETLY ALLOWING ABUSE TO BE PERPETRATED, THAT’S KIND OF THE POINT’ on the walls of the 13th century crypt, and then catching the train back to London to spend the rest of the day reading a book about climate change denial, eating the remains of the curry he and his wife had ordered off Just Eat the previous evening andwatching the rest of the Michael Jackson documentary.
I step away from the climate change demonstration and stroll down the street past the Queen Elizabeth II Convention Centre, where dozens of people are lazing around in the warm late February sunshine.
No, that doesn’t work.
I leave the global warming protest and amble down the road past the Queen Elizabeth II Congress Hall, where scores of individuals are enjoying the warm early spring warm rays of warmth from the warm late February warm sun.
I think I see the problem. It can’t be spring in February. Spring begins round about Easter, which this year (and I don’t think this has anything to do with climate change) isn’t until late April. Speaking of which, the 22nd isn’t really late February either; as TS Eliot would no doubt agree, February is the shortest month, so it’s actually mid-to-late February right now.
Naomi Klein wrote that climate change “speaks in the language of fires, floods, storms, and droughts”, which is certainly the case, but it also says things like “this is lovely” and “it’s like being in Greece!”. Given that I know several people who were planning to spend half-term skiing in Switzerland, this February heat actually feels a little…chilling. All the same, there are people on the steps outside the ICA eating ice-cream, and it would be to begrudge them their day in the sun. Hannah Arendt famously wrote about ‘the banality of evil’; few would have anticipated how pleasant the Apocalypse would turn out to be.
There’s a standard question that gets posed in EFL classrooms: what would you do if someone told you the world was going to end in seven days? The obvious answer, one that rarely comes up, is I wouldn’t believe them. What if we reframe the question: what are you doing in response to the overwhelming evidence, brought to us by all non-corrupted scientific authorities over several decades, that our way of life is destroying our habitat? The answer, if we judge our actions rather than our words, is the same. We don’t believe them.
In his book ‘Exterminate all the brutes’ Sven Lindqvist’ wrote about the roots of the Nazi genocide in European colonialism. He ended it with the words: “It is not knowledge we lack. It is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions”. As it happens, I’ve just witnessed an example of such bravery. Someone I’d been talking to just a few minutes before, the organiser of a protest at the almost total lack of climate change information contained in the National Curriculum, daubed the message TEACH THE TRUTH in red paint all over the entrance to the Department of Education, and then sat quietly in front of it waiting to be arrested. In doing so, he put both his freedom and his livelihood as a teacher at risk.
Billions of dollars have been spent covering up the causes and consequences of climate change. It’s only now, with the first generation to directly, unambiguously face its consequences coming of age, that the resultant taboo on taking it seriously is starting to, well, melt. Adult society is very adept at living amidst the starkest contradictions and most brutally unjust realities. Whether it’s our own society’s vivid legacy of racism and imperialism, or the staggering physical, psychological and social damage wrought by consumerism, we ignore a very great deal which should make us change how we think and behave.
What’s an appropriate response to Lindqvist’s exhortation to draw conclusions and (by implication) behave responsibly? How much courage do we need to take such actions? A couple of weeks ago in Bristol I came across graffiti reading “Anna lives!”. This is presumably a reference to Anna Campbell, the young local woman who went to Kurdistan and gave her life fighting for the YPG*. Reading about her life and her father’s tribute to her bravery put me in mind of the tribute in the Turner Prize 2017 show to the philosopher Simone Weil, who lived a profoundly ascetic existence in line with her principles. According to Wikipedia, some claim that the refusal to eat which led to her death, at the age of 34 in 1943 came from her desire to express solidarity toward the victims of the war.
If the alternative to quietude is too terrifying for the vast majority of us to contemplate (and I absolutely, but not proudly, include myself in that category), what are the broader consequences of passivity? We all, I presume, experience a sense of frustration with the world as it is, lashing out in various ways at random people and objects, usually through a screen, often (in my case) at the screen itself when some process gets in the way of my venting of my pent-up annoyances. Many fall for the oldest trick that power has up its sleeve: taking out their frustrations on conveniently-placed scapegoats. The Big Idea that inspired this website – more than a hunch than a theory – is that our civilisation’s response to the knowledge of its impending self-destruction is: racism. It can be no accident that all prominent far-right demagogues, from Trump to Farage to Salvini to Bolsonaro ad infinitum, have lying about climate change as a core principle.
But then, it would be wrong to attribute all the blame for our complacency on those in political power, or to pass the buck to the media for their incessant insistence on weasel words like ‘unprecedented’. We all (myself very much included) deny climate change by rarely bringing it up and changing the subject when it does come up. My project for the next few months, and the impulse for coming to the protest today, is to carry out academic research to find out how this works in classrooms. I need to make contact with climate-aware teachers who’ll let me observe their lessons and talk to me on record about what happened and happens in class. Would I have come to the demonstration had I not had that aim in mind? I’d like to think so, but then much like anyone else I do like to interpret my own (in)actions in a positive light. Had I stayed at home, I’m sure I would have been able to think of some plausible excuse to tell myself.
I walk in the door to the sound of an extremely high-pitched and insistent sound. I recognise it at once: it’s that bloody smoke alarm bleating for a new bloody battery. When we first moved in here the same thing happened and it took a lot of cursing and banging to get it to shut the fuck up. I only managed to get the battery out and stick it back in place with substantial difficulty. Later, when the Grenfell Fire happened and we were living in Rome, I remembered that incident and wondered whether our then-tenant had ever had cause to need the smoke alarm. It must have been him who replaced the battery which is now expiring.
Unfortunately the beeping noise I’d being accompanied by another insistent cry: the baby is demanding something called bettabetta. She’s in the kitchen pointing at the cupboard and her demands are almost, but not quite, in perfect synch with the bloody beeping of this nightmare of an object, the design of which makes it very, very hard to access the battery. I can’t remember what bettabetta is and I’m trying desperately to hack the battery out of the device whose beeping is becoming more and more insistent.
The whole episode takes a full two minutes, less a Two-Minute Hate than a Two-Minute Extreme Frustration. As the battery finally pops out I manage to remember that bettabetta is the baby’s name for Weetabix. She calls it that because I’ve always referred to it weeta-beeta, which is actually, it’s turned out, too complex for a two-year-old old to articulate. (It subsequently transpires that she also calls it Weetabix.) I quickly stuff the smoke alarm back into its fitting on the ceiling and get out the milk and cereal. Once things are becalmed the baby remembers (DICO! DIIIICO!!!) that I promised we could have a Friday nite pre-pizza disco while we wait for her mum to arrive. I plug in the disco lights I bought for £9.99 on Amazon and, obedient to the whims of the iPod shuffle, we joyously frug around the living room to this.
*It would be wrong not to acknowledge that while Anna Campbell gave her life in the fight against Isis, Shamima Begum and her friends must have felt very deep down that they were doing the right thing in going tofight for Isis. That Begum still felt that way despite witnessing how horrendously her new friends regarded and treated her fellow women is not a point in her favour.