In the past four years, since the Paris Climate Agreement, the idea of linear effects caused by a linear increase of greenhouse gases has pretty much gone. Climate science is now focused on run-away effects and sudden or exponential change – tipping points.
There are several key systems that are now vying for the top spot in a frightening conversation about an apocalypse. Scientists’ models resemble games of Russian Roulette. The most downloaded scientific paper in history, ‘Deep Adaptation’ by Jem Bendell, is certainly worth a read. I’d summarise it like this: people are now divided by whether they have already understood, or are still yet to understand, the full meaning of a sign I first sat underneath on Waterloo Bridge last April; We’re Fucked. Thankfully, Bendell sees this as the beginning of conversations we desperately need to have, rather than the end of them.
The genius of Extinction Rebellion is seeing that many of these tipping points are arriving at the same moment. Firstly, along with climate crisis vs climate catastrophe, comes each person’s personal tipping point into this reality. For me, it wasn’t the We’re Fucked sign. It was more recently, when, a few feet from where I was standing in front of the Bank of England, the kneeling 77 year-old Rabbi Jeffrey Newman refused to move. Shortly after he was taken away, a woman from Cornwall I was talking with told me that whatever happened, good or bad, she just wanted to be able to look her children in the eyes. I have three children.
Another tipping point is towards more democracy – new togetherness, hugging strangers, collective grieving, people’s assemblies, accountability FFS – or tipping towards fascism. The same moment I was outside the Bank, there were riot police deploying water cannon and pepper-spray in a terrifying attack upon Extinction Rebels in a city square in Brussels. Old people and young children lying on the cobbles with pepper spray in their faces, hands cable-tied. In Belgium. 2019. The chief of police was unable to conceal his enjoyment.
Extinction Rebellion shows us a tipping point towards new radical justice vs an accelerating dismissal of human and civil rights. Either we finally acknowledge and try to repair the legacy of colonialism or we carry on with more exploitation. One of the first acts of the October Rebellion was a beautiful lesbian wedding on Lambeth Bridge. As the registrant asked us if we would support the couple in the vows they had made before us many witnesses, we shouted ‘we will!’ and burst into applause.
‘What is love, if not valuing life?’ said a young middle-Eastern woman, reporting on ‘XRTV’ from Trafalgar Square the day after the police had announced that two of us gathering together was now an illegal assembly. We shouted ‘We love you!’ at hundreds of commuters taking videos from the steps of Cannon Street Station. The offices above looked like glass-fronted ants’ nests, each suited worker with their own screen. The older woman next to me couldn’t help but shout ‘rebel!’. Three Amazonians spoke and sang in front of Blackrock, while bowler hatted activists sat at a dining table trying to eat money.
Sanity is another massive tipping point. This moment in history is turning everything on its head. What does it mean to be delusional at this time when business as usual is a suicide pact? What is generalised anxiety when they say my children may not grow old? What is panic when ‘we’re fucked’ is good science? What is depression when I keep crying in the arms of strangers on the street? What is normal when grandparents are squeezing superglue onto their hands? What is self-harm when we have created an incredible food insecurity that means that crop failure thousands of miles away, which is already beginning to happen, could lead to empty UK shelves in a week? What is a stable upbringing when I’m looking through my diary to see which days this week I could get arrested and who will cover the school run? (And when the kids know why I’m doing it)
Is there anything – anything at all – that suggests mental health services are the place to turn for these answers? Or for any kind of useful help? But then, are there any institutions left that can be trusted? Turns out I quite like the rule of law. Either we will tip back towards it and the judiciary will hold us up, create laws against Ecocide, hold the extractors and the polluters accountable, or we will tip away to God knows where.
I wandered away from Westminster. It was already dark and I was exhausted. Just a couple of streets away from a man clutching a photograph of his children and lying under a hearse, I walked into a very nice Italian bistro. I ate my calzone as four women on the table next to me laughed too loud at each other’s jokes and compared notes about the refurbishment of cruise ships. One of them told the waiter she hated Chardonnay.
Extinction Rebellion has done its homework. Many rebels love a core text by Joanna Macy that explores ‘Deep Ecology’. She says that, whether we are conscious of it in this way or not, we feel because we are the Earth in pain. Our madness is the Earth’s brutalised consciousness. Our health is the planet’s health and the health of the superorganism is ours.
Back in Westminster, Well–being tents are put up to makes spaces to acknowledge grief and build the resilience that comes from being in truth and with others. Extinction Rebellion is the newest mental health provider in the country. With over 20 years as a mental health professional, I see no reason to prefer anything more established. I’ll come and sit in your tent, I’ve got nothing else left.
As I digest this new climate science of tipping points, it seems Extinction Rebellion’s ‘mental health service’ is what I need. But their ‘assessments’ are a bit different. Their ‘care plans’ are too. When they say ‘recovery’ they mean ecosystems, you and me included. Their ‘diagnosis’ is that the planet is ill but those of us in acute distress about it are perfectly sane.
Our suffering is our inner extinction rebellion – why suffer it alone? Unfortunately, just like in the old mental health services, we also risk being detained. Police officers seem to be racing around everywhere, arriving in vans, one of them telling a fellow protester he was just glad of the overtime. In the old mental health services, the highest risk of violence and aggression is thought to be from black young men from the inner cities. In the new ‘Extinction Rebellion mental health service’ the most concern is about the risks posed by wealthy older white men working in the City of London.
What am I going to teach my mental health nursing students now? These days they are supposed to use the word compassion’ all the time. They talk excitedly about it when I interview them to come on the course. It’s one of the Six C’s. OK then, compassion – literally, suffering with – that is what my classes will be about. They can all suffer with me.
Here is what I want to say to them: Welcome to mental health nursing. The world is on fire. The trauma bar is being raised. We are all either acutely disturbed or superbly dissociated. Mental health services may become meaningless without notice because there is no mental health on a dying planet. I love you, by the way. At some point you may have to choose between starving in your house and violence at the shops. Look around you, it might be a very good idea to make some friends. Today’s assignment is getting through your first breakdown.
Jonathan Gadsby is an Extinction Rebellion activist and editor of the Critical Mental Health Nurses’ Network website.