ACTIVISM: Extinction Rebellion is a rapidly growing climate protest movement, which seeks to convert love of nature, and the rage over political inaction, into collective action. But what is the political potential of grief?
Anders Dunker
Dunker is a Norwegian philosopher, and regular contributor.
Published date: March 5, 2020


In the US, I recently decided to attend an #Extinction Rebellion# briefing, and found that their main message is actually basic facts: in numbers and charts local representatives sum up our climate predicament and the sinister statistics of the so-called sixth extinction – the ongoing dying out of species and beings in the wake of mankind’s industrialized civilization. This is the kind of knowledge that demands a response. The first principle of Extinction Rebellion is «Tell the truth» is followed up by the elegant and provocative second principle: «Act as if the truth is real». With this allusion to #climate denial#, ubiquitous both on political and personal levels, they directly address the explosively conflicted feelings caused in each of us by the emerging global disaster. Feelings are, after all, what must fuel the change that is needed – beyond knowledge of the facts.

Among themselves, participants in Extinction Rebellion often begin and end their communications with the phrase «with love and rage», which also precede the opening title of the #Czech documentary Žal Žen – «Grief». In the opening scene of Andrea Culková’s new film, a mother and her daughter are sitting in front of a bonfire talking about the environment and the mother talks about how the grief comes and goes, how it is hard even to stay with it, perhaps since we need to protect ourselves. The daughter, less moderate in her reactions, starts crying when she hears about the fires in Australia and asks about the koalas. «I don’t want them to die» she exclaims before she explodes with a frustrated love for nature that has turned into grief, anger, and prophetic desperation: «All the animals will die! All the humans too! It will all be over!» The mother is accepting. There is nothing wrong with crying over the future in front of the children, one woman in the film says. These reactions are appropriate.

Make your grief public

I was surprised at the focus on grief and trauma at the Extinction Rebellion event, I attended. #Grief is what you feel when the loss is accepted as a fact. Is this a kind of resignation, then? One answer might be that a great amount of grief is the price for loving nature these days – and without that love, there is no credible environmental movement. As this film demonstrates, grief can build a community. Haven’t many societies been built upon the acknowledgment of a shared trauma or a collective loss? Yet, summoning people together to grieve remains an unusual and innovative strategy for a political movement.

Žal Žen is a portrait of activists, mostly women, who in coming to terms with their environmental depression, have found a way to turn the feeling of sadness into political action. Environmental grief, sometimes termed solastalgia, is becoming a real and widespread phenomenon. From a psychological point of view, we are told, activism proves to alleviate the worst symptoms of depression. In other words, working for change and expressing yourself, is both a release and a form of therapy.

Activist art and artistic activism

Artists have long known this, and pain is an integrated stimulant to much artistic expression. As the film amply illustrates, arts also play a significant part in the public campaigns and demonstrations of Extinction Rebellion. Solemn and theatrical performances; The die-ins where people lie down making foreboding scenes of mass death, prefiguring and testifying to the mass extinctions coming down on us and other living beings;  the silent pantomime movements of the mysterious «red brigades» with their pale faces; the people under the gallows, ropes around their necks, standing on melting ice-cubes. On a more humorous and sarcastic note, in another scene, people clad in plastic bags invade a shopping center in a burlesque and ironically ecstatic celebration of consumerism.

A troubled tribe

The intimate, almost private, portraits of the activist at home and with their kids portray all the different nuances of dedicating oneself to a cause. Identifying with the global environmental disaster becomes a worldview, a way of experiencing life in the present moment. Some activists experience conflicts and discussions with other family members. Some couples find a new energy in sharing a common cause, while other couples end up drifting apart, because they disagree on the seriousness of the situation, and somehow find they no longer live on the same planet.

Feelings are, after all, what must fuel the change that is needed – beyond knowledge of the facts.

Long clips are dedicated to people on the street claiming that the rebellion is misguided, exhibitionist and alarmist. This gives the storytelling some two-sidedness. We recognize the perspective of the critics, but also have to recognize their prejudice. Also, the film doesn’t underplay the activist’s own doubts and disorientation. They feel that people don’t get it, they feel powerless to cause real change as they are trying to rise to the occasion. Can a message of grief and desperation create a mass movement? Perhaps – when it becomes clear that grief comes from love, and that love sparks justified anger, the emotional ally of all revolutions. Despite the desperation, the tone and style of the movement, as the film beautifully captures, is one of humble humanity.

In my local XR gathering, the speaker reminded us that statistically you only need to engage 3,5% of the population to cause drastic societal change. In groups we were encouraged to talk about our fears and concerns, as well as the parts of nature that we loved. In the end, we also ended up becoming connecting and forming friendships. This Czech film is most of all about commitment – and what it means to take in an indigestible, incomprehensible, unmanageable truth, and to try to work on it together. An almost tribal experience – rare in our modern age. The troubled tribe whose problems are discussed in these little councils, however, is not the activists – but humanity as such.