Radical activists: climate movement on the brink

Dhe climate activists are under a lot of pressure. Not long now, they believe, and the world will burn. Half of the continents become uninhabitable. Millions if not billions of people will starve and die of thirst. The survivors will fight wars for the last resources. It will be a catastrophe of biblical proportions. Therefore they must do something.

Justus Bender

Editor in the politics of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sunday newspaper.

Morten Freidel

Editor in the politics of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sunday newspaper

From their point of view, what they have done so far has not achieved enough. They have demonstrated in hundreds of cities, skipped school and explained the state of science over and over again. They were glued to streets and paintings and threw tomato soup at themselves. Despite this, the federal government has still not shut down coal-fired power plants, banned internal combustion engines, and shut down industry.

Experience teaches that in such cases people become more radical, more extreme. After all, humanity is in danger, so any, really any measure can seem legitimate.

In the climate movement, they consider this concern unfounded. At Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion, the Last Generation or Scientist Rebellion nobody questions nonviolence or democracy, on the contrary. They rave about more democracy, about citizens’ councils in which people can finally push through more climate protection against the will of lobby groups. And then they stumble. Suddenly say things that make you sit up and take notice.

For example, when Manon Gerhardt has breakfast in the morning, activists from the last generation sometimes sit across from her. They spend the night in their Berlin apartment, then take Autobahn 100 and stick tight. Gerhardt doesn’t like to stick to the asphalt herself, she works as a violist at the Berlin Opera, so she needs her hands. She belongs to Extinction Rebellion, which is a similar, close-knit group. Gerhardt says two things. First: “We are a deeply democratic-minded movement.” And: “I’m under a lot of pressure. I’m trying to keep up the forms of action that are suitable for the masses, but I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up. Something has to happen.” Could some in the movement drift into extremism? “Yes, that can happen,” says Gerhardt.

Then the movement exceeds its own tipping point

So the movement is on a threshold. And what comes after that is not entirely clear. But it could get violent. The legal philosopher Joachim Renzikowski warns of this: “If all of humanity perishes, then I can let people jump over the blade.” Political scientist Hans Vorländer calls the activists the “riders of the apocalypse”. If something comes together in a group, namely the belief in the end of the world, the certainty that one has to act one way and not another, Vorländer considers it “sect-like”. And when a situation arises that seems hopeless and a group dynamic in which every escalation seems necessary, the sect becomes a “revolutionary cell”. Then the movement crosses its tipping point. Nietzsche says: “And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”

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