The First Demand, Revisited

That the Government must tell the truth about the climate and wider ecological emergency, it must reverse all policies not in alignment with that position and must work alongside the media to communicate the urgency for change including what individuals, communities and businesses need to do.

From the US Extinction Rebellion website
(See Janet Weil’s essay for a refresher.)

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

Upton Sinclair

Here’s a spicy take: What if XR’s First Demand is wrong?

What if the government can’t tell us the truth because it doesn’t know it? What if it can’t know it?

I need to make a distinction here. I am referring to the government not as “they” but as “it”. There is a difference between a bureaucracy and the collective of individuals that inhabit it. Each and every one of those individuals can personally understand a truth while the greater structure remains unable to grasp it. The United States government employs many of the world’s finest climate scientists. But even though their work tells us a significant part of what we know about the climate crisis, they don’t set policy.

What we get instead ranges from ambitious plans that fall short, to bills killed under preposterous circumstances, to incoherent lies, to radio silence. None of this is actually in the government’s self-interest, or really anyone’s. There is no government in a future where we fail in this task. The concessions our leaders make are for special interests that will cease to exist.

But this is what the system was built to do. It’s working as intended. Every single incentive for every elected official is aligned in this direction. Of course they don’t understand! They can’t afford to!

The government is telling us the only truth it knows!

That leaves us with a couple of questions. The most obvious might be “What does this mean for XR?” In my opinion, “not much”. We are, first and foremost, a direct action organization. The specific demands are less important than the strategies we use to achieve them, and I suspect if you surveyed Rebels about what they hoped to see XR accomplish, “making government tell the truth” wouldn’t show up very often.

The more urgent question is what do we do if the government not just won’t take action but can’t? What if there are no paths where the government is not, at best, a permanent stumbling block and, at worst, an enemy? Are there plans that can succeed without the cooperation of the government?

We have less than 10 years to end the climate crisis. Perhaps government will pull through, but now is the time to start thinking about our options if it doesn’t. We can’t afford not to have a plan B.

But don’t let it get you down. The work continues.

Remember, we’re rebels for life.

About Austen Lethbridge-Scarl

Austen Lethbridge-Scarl (he/him) is the editor of the XRPDX newsletter. Besides climate issues, he focuses on racial justice, police abolition and antifascism.


Tri Sanger’s Climate Emergency Declaration Testimony

Earth Day to Tax Day Rally: Telling the Truth on Tax Day