Blog | Reflections on the Rebellion

This blog is part of a series celebrating the anniversary of our first International Rebellion in April 2019 – sharing memories from the two weeks that steered the ship of system change and raised the flag of Rebellion. In this blog, James reflects on feelings of loss, and keeping alive the desire to change the world.

An international Rebellion flyer held up in front of rebels and a banner
Photography credit: AndyReeves

In April 2019, just weeks after my first XR meeting, I joined my new-found friends on the streets of London for the April Rebellion, occupying central London and camping on the tarmac. 

After enjoying five glorious days of workshops, talks, swarming, outreach, and people’s assemblies, I, like many, was left with a bittersweet feeling as my time in the Rebellion came to a close and I returned to my “normal” life. 

XR is more than an environmentalist movement. It is a movement to build a new society, one in which cooperation is valued higher than competition, in which fairness and justice are actively sought out and not merely tolerated or stuck on for show, in which future survival is not surrendered for present enjoyment. 

For two brief weeks we built this new world and lived it. On top of everything else that it was, the April Rebellion was a proof of concept for this new world. 

As the big pink boat weighed anchor early on the Monday morning, I felt as though I was standing on the mountain top and seeing the promised land. And yet, when I returned to my flat and my normal life of laundry, bills, work and Saturday morning supermarkets with a feeling I had not felt before, a feeling of loss for a world which could have been. 

We talk a lot within XR about grief: grief for the world that has been lost, the species that have already gone extinct, the lost opportunities for us and our children. 

Grief brings to light the web of dependencies in which our lives take place, the tangle of relationships that define us, and is consequently deeply related to identity. When something in this web of life is lost, it shakes us in the core of our being and we experience this as pain. 

In this sense, what I feel when I think about the world that could be is not exactly grief but a sadness for that which has not yet happened. And yet, the world we created was the world in which I feel I belong, the world in whose web I locate my identity (or at least the identity I would like to have) and my reason for being. 

This feeling of pain in the present for an event in the future reminds me of what psychiatrist-turned-climate action advocate Lisa van Susteren has termed “pre-traumatic stress disorder,” a reaction to what E Ann Kaplan calls the ‘slow violence’ of climate change. Pre-traumatic stress disorder is the condition of anxiety and anguish generated by the merging of present and future realities whereby we witness the seemingly unstoppable momentum compelling us to continue acting unsustainably despite our knowledge of the consequences. Pre-traumatic stress disorder is an emotion felt tomorrow compressed into today. 

Borrowing from van Susteren and Kaplan, I characterised my current feeling on returning from the April rebellion as “pre-grief”: a feeling of emptiness and loss for the future in which I feel that I belong, but which is precluded from becoming real by the current ordering of the world. My sense of identity was shattered even before it had a chance to form. 

With every passing day the window of opportunity for this other world becomes more and more narrow. Sometime in the near future, it will be closed altogether and a far more frightening world will be locked in in its place. 

Then will it be time to grieve and to suffer the tragedy of opportunity lost. But for now, I am left only with the half-felt longing for a world that may never come to pass. 

Grief can be overcome through time and through healing the wound made by loss. The disappointment of a broken dream will pass as new dreams come to fill the void. But what of pre-grief: how can we mend a wound that is yet to be made, how can we mourn that which is not yet even a dream? 

I do not know the answers; the emotion itself is new to me. Perhaps some clue can be found in a comparison of pre-grief to utopianism – the two are after all quite similar in their imagining of a  society reconfigured. 

Yet, I would argue that pre-grief differs from utopianism in that the latter, by highlighting what is lacking in the present world, is a form of critique and is therefore a negative statement of how the world ought to be. Pre-grief, by contrast, comes from the positive experience of a different world, one hidden in the cracks of the present but which is fleeting and soon to be once again obscured by reality. 

Utopianism looks to the future, a better tomorrow; the new world XR seeks – one of belonging, of inclusion, of justice – is already around us and inside us today, but just hasn’t yet been realised. For precisely this reason, it cannot be taken away. Instead, what we are losing with each passing day are the conditions necessary for its realisation. 

So perhaps this is where our struggle lies, in the amplification of practises of cooperation and inclusion and sustainability. To keep alive the desire to change the world and fight to prevent the conditions of change from being closed off forever. 

There were a number of imperfections during the April Rebellion (leaky tents and compost loos being two notable examples). It was not a perfect society. But it was a beautiful coming together of people sharing a common purpose and sharing the weight of the task ahead. 

It is in these relationships of sharing that we must place our trust. Not a blind utopian trust, a hope that things might be better one day; rather a raw and urgent trust, one necessitated by the need to live as we choose. 

We can grieve for what has already been lost but console ourselves perhaps with the fact that in such relationships of trust as we can find are contained the seeds of something far better. 


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