Environment

My Extinction: How I learned to start worrying and love activism

As much of the world roasts under record-melting temperatures, it’s easy to think there’s not much you can do about it. That’s what filmmaker Josh Appignanesi thought too. He explains how he

Josh Appignanesi meets a furry activist

The Bugs stops here: Josh Appignanesi meets a furry activist

It’s not like I didn’t know the world was ending. It’s not as if no one told me about the mass extinctions, the droughts, the wildfires, the pandemics. I’m assuming you might have heard about them too. 

Yet somehow there I was, somehow too absorbed in everyday life (read: the everyday destruction of our entire environment) to do anything much about it. It’s not like I was even unaware of the irony. But my cognitive dissonance was registered via the odd dinner party joke, and that was about it. 

We know that failing to take action on climate isn’t a question of not having the information or intellectual insight. What is it a question of then? Maybe it was just that I didn’t feel like it. 

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I don’t mean that flippantly. Feelings are everything. At a time when our politics already feel like “too much” – too livid, too triggeringly polarised, too exhausting – the idea that we then have to take on an existential threat? Well that just feels like a sick joke, provoking an eye roll, a face palm and finally a sad shrug. 

But then I decided to make a film about it as a way of figuring this all out (including a few sick jokes along the way). What would change look like?

I took myself as the test case – someone who had the education, the resources and the insight to act, yet not only did I not act, I acted against. I made, among other things, car commercials. I was the problem.     

It’s hard to say what the tipping point was for me – Greta? The kids on the street at Extinction Rebellion’s first rebellion? My own kids returning from school after their first lesson in climate breakdown? A friend suggesting I come along to meet her colleagues, the writers’ activist group Writers Rebel? 

Maybe all of the above. So I dipped a toe. And that was enlivening – but then almost immediately dispiriting. These people seemed great – thoughtful, engaged, proactive – but surely I couldn’t live up to such challenges. It wasn’t “me”. I wasn’t a “joiner of groups”. Others were “altruists”, but not me. And “what difference would it make anyway”? Feelings kicked in that I now realise were defences against getting involved: fear, impotence, guilt. I think I worried that really joining in would necessitate the dissolution of my entire personality.  

My Extinction follows the filmmaker Josh Appignanesi as he goes from being ambivalent about climate change to a fervent activist
My Extinction follows the filmmaker Josh Appignanesi as he goes from being ambivalent about climate change to a fervent activist

I was wrong. Because sitting down with others and sharing those feelings at home and abroad started to have an effect. It’s a basic insight of psychotherapy: sharing your feelings transforms them, even if you don’t notice it straight away. The rage, for example, that I felt towards basically everything, but especially my own sense of embittered redundancy in my embattled career, shifted. It didn’t go away (I still get furious) – no, it got recycled. 

It turns out that those stymying, paralysing feelings, shared in the right way, can become fuel for action. They also become easier to bear. And then, aha! Then we got stuff done together: protests and campaigns that really made a difference. (They totally do, it’s just we need more of them.) 

I’d highly recommend joining a local environmental group, no matter which flavour. Your level of commitment is unimportant, it’s that first step – take a friend if you’re shy – that matters. There is no better way to overcome your moral isolation, where the conditions of capitalism trap you in a sense of uselessness, than to physically put yourself in a place with others. (Hint: online won’t cut it.) 

By the way, that isolation and impotence, I discovered, isn’t just a side effect of the way we live. It’s actively stimulated and put into you by powerful oil lobbies with high-level connections to government and media. That was one thing we campaigned against, outside the science-denying “think tanks” of 55 Tufton Street. Now that’s worth getting angry about. 

You don’t have to change who you are. You just become a you that’s more integrated. And you’ll find your speed, which for some, sure, might be gluing yourself to the M25, but for others will really not be that at all.

Extinction Rebellion have now disavowed arrests and disruptive tactics, as do the Climate Majority Project. Protests are just headline grabbers: the real work is giving up one night of Netflix a week, which I guarantee you will feel like a relief, and showing up to figure things out with other actual bodies in a room. Feel free to drag a climate-impotent friend along to our movie for a few pointers, while you’re at it. 

Don’t wait, because, as we all already know far too well – see the theme emerging here? – your political and corporate leaders, well… let’s just say they aren’t going to do it for you. See you in a room! 

Josh Appignanesi is a  film director, producer, and screenwriter. My Extinction is in cinemas across the UK . Find screenings here.

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