This summer I am one of many who have joined Extinction Rebellion’s (XR) campaign to galvanise action to address the impending climate and ecological emergency - yesterday I participated in XR’s occupation of Bristol Bridge. As Emeritus Professor of Death Studies working with the University of Bath’s Centre for Death & Society, I have begun to consider how the movement is reconfiguring the relationship between life and death.
Both XR and teenage school striker Greta Thunberg argue that inaction, or inadequate action, by adults today will impact badly on their children and grandchildren. It is already impacting many poorer communities around the world suffering from sea level rise, habitat loss and extreme weather. Initial widespread support for XR’s agenda is by no means guaranteed to continue - some of the decisions national and local government are being urged to make will not be popular as they will require lifestyle change and radical economic redistribution from rich to poor.
Throughout human history and prehistory, humans have typically revered their forebears and ancestors in the knowledge that it is they who have tilled the soil, built the culture and invested their labour to produce the society from which the current generation benefits. Culture and material wellbeing are the product of our forebears’ labour, and we are the beneficiaries. In return, humans revere their ancestors or, at least, respect their dead – and continue the project of building culture for future generations.
The discourse of XR and the school strikes predicts an end to this age-old contract. When we become ancestors, will we be shunned by descendants who will have to live with the mess we have created? What will this do to intergenerational relations, not least within families? And how will we look back on our lives in old age? Will millions of us experience what Bath’s Malcolm Johnson calls ‘biographical pain’ as we enter old age, a sense that a life of inaction has damaged our children and that it is too late to make amends?
Of course, ours is not the first generation to face regret over communal failure. Millions in 1950s Germany had to deal, somehow, with the knowledge that they themselves, or their parents and grandparents, had not stood up to the Nazi regime – for good reason, given the consequences of opposition. But we will have no such excuse when our children and grandchildren grieve our inadequate action on climate and biodiversity.
Conversely, XR and the school strikes offer the chance of a life supercharged with meaning should we grasp the nettle and become the generation that chooses to take action. What could be more meaningful than saving the planet, than being part of the generation that turns the tide? This surely is part of the movement’s appeal to young people – it makes them the heroes that Ernest Becker argued enables humans to deal with the terror of death. Likewise, philosopher Samuel Scheffler has argued that humans need posterity to make their life meaningful, as much as they need ancestors to create the conditions for a decent life.
So inaction could erode the social bond between the generations, between the living and the dead. But action in an emergency can also galvanise people to work together, and in this case to restore the relationship between the living and the dead, between us and posterity.
Sociologist and thinker-outside-the-box Michael Young spent his long life documenting and fostering social solidarity in Britain - he helped found the welfare state in the 1940s and then the Open University and the Consumers Association. He later wrote in a study of cancer dying that death, while sundering relationships, can also bring people together. ‘Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity.’ As with everyday death, so too the climate and ecological emergency has the potential to further divide humans – rich and poor, old and young, living and dead – or to bring them together. Time, not in plentiful supply, will tell.
This article was written by Tony Walter, Department of Social and Policy Sciences, University of Bath