Extinction Rebellion and European Nihilism


Extinction Rebellion protest in Parliament Square, April 2019. Photograph by David Holt via Wikimedia Commons (cc).

by Ansgar Allen

There is an uncanny resemblance between Extinction Rebellion and what Friedrich Nietzsche once called “European nihilism”.

This might seem an odd association. Surely Extinction Rebellion is on the side of hope and truth, and nihilism on the side of despair and darkness?

The first demand of Extinction Rebellion UK, after all, is to tell the truth. The nihilist, according to popular understanding, has given up on truth.

The tactics of XR, disruptive as they may be, are also defined by their outward decency.

As Roger Hallam, one of the co-founders explains, XR tactics combine self-sacrifice (“only through sacrifice – the willingness to be arrested and go to prison – do people take seriously what you are saying”) with respectfulness (“only through being respectful to ourselves, the public and the police, do we change the hearts and minds of our opponents, which makes it easier for them to negotiate with us”). XR also seeks to make protest ‘fun’ (“it has to be fun – many more people are attracted to celebratory cultural spaces than narrowly political ones”).

This does not fit with the conventional view, according to which nihilism is a state of negativity. The nihilist is gloomy, not cheerful. Nihilism produces apathy. It is an excuse for inaction.

For Nietzsche, however, nihilism can take various forms and there are different ways of responding to the crisis that nihilism represents.

This crisis is, for Nietzsche, the still-continuing fallout of the ‘death of God’. For centuries, Europe was dominated by what Nietzsche calls “the Christian moral hypothesis”. This granted human beings “an absolute value” and gave them a place, and a role in the universe. As we know, this moral order eventually floundered. Crucially, for Nietzsche, its failure was not the result of external attacks, or an internal lack of commitment. Rather, it was “the sense of truthfulness, developed highly by Christianity”, that eventually turned against it.

For Nietzsche, the commitment to tell the truth, is what produced European nihilism. This commitment to investigate our place in the universe developed a sense of the “smallness” of human beings. Humankind was reduced by way of this commitment to, in Nietzsche’s words, an “accidental occurrence in the flux of becoming and passing away”. But – and this is the crucial moment in Nietzsche’s analysis – those who inherited this system lack the means to cope with the world; a world without final sanction, a world in which the human being becomes an insignificant speck in the universe. This is what produces “European nihilism”, understood as a series of (always failing) coping strategies.

One coping strategy that defines European nihilism is a commitment to decency and propriety. For Nietzsche, nihilism is not a product of cultural degeneration, as “Ours is the most decent and compassionate age”. In Nietzsche’s analysis, however, the moral frameworks which underlie conceptions of decency are based on a lie, or a set of lies, about the inherent dignity and rightness of humanity.

Another coping strategy is to raise new ‘gods’. The figure of the educated, cultured person is one such ‘god’.

The educated classes have been particularly active over the last two centuries, convincing themselves of their legitimacy, of their world-historical importance. XR benefits from this history. XR is a distinctly educated protest, which manages (and perhaps this is its greatest achievement) to attract and mobilise those who would describe themselves as ‘ordinary’ – which means respectably middle-class.

In one XR testimonial published by The Guardian, the author describes himself as an “ordinary mid-career professional…well-respected and growing in my career”. In another from a retired doctor, again the ‘ordinariness’ and respectability of the organisation is asserted: “Extinction Rebellion protesters aren’t anarchists – we just want to save our world.” Often highly educated, then, largely middle class and white, its members pursue a strategy that builds upon and takes advantage of their privilege.

Unsurprisingly, Extinction Rebellion has been taken to task for its privilege, and for showing “carelessness around issues of race – or even institutional racism”.

The good intentions of XR are still recognised, however, even as critics attack XR for its failure to identify capitalism as the core culprit in ecological destruction; for its appeals to science above indigenous knowledge; for its denial of the reality of police violence and the repressive function of the state (including celebrating the state, colluding with the police and propagandising on its behalf); and for its presentation of the crisis as one that is about to happen, rather than as a crisis which has been unfolding for some time now, and has disproportionately affected the poorest, weakest, and most exploited.

From the perspective of its critics, XR, for all its faults, still defends life on earth, however. XR still wishes to change the conditions by which we live so that environmental collapse may be averted ‘before it is too late’.

XR has not yet been associated with practices that are essentially antagonistic to life. These practices may not be equivalent to the global destruction it confronts, the extinction event that the movement rightfully targets, but they do reveal another element of nihilism within the movement itself that demands some interrogation.

Another key feature of European nihilism, for Nietzsche, is its hostility to life. Nihilism is based within the disintegrating practices of a Christian moral order which has long domesticated the body, its drives and instincts, in the name of a ‘higher’ calling.

This antagonism to life is expressed in every practice that submits the body, and bodily drives, to the domesticating effects of culture. The diligent academic, bent over a laptop for hours on end is on par here with the pious Christian who submits his or her body to the demands of faith. Each case involves subjecting the body to learned restraints in the name of something better, a metaphysical promise, which is, for Nietzsche, a mendacious lie.

When placed within a longer history of cultural promises and the domestication of the self (which Nietzsche narrates in The Genealogy of Morals and elsewhere), the activities of XR begin to display a familiar asceticism.

In addition to recommending civil disobedience, XR activists respond to looming environmental crisis by appealing to a well-practiced formula of life denial, or personal restraint. This involves a set of indulgences, minor privations, only the educated and well-off could consider worthy: fly less, eat less (or no) meat, consume less power, but remain socially advantaged. The educated cannot – will not – see that it is their way of existence that must be replaced, destroyed, reconceived.

This formula can be seen within the protest strategy itself, which conceptualises being arrested as “the only real power climate protesters have”, ruling out all other forms of protest by default. Arrest is presented as a ‘personal sacrifice’ if not a “moral duty to use my privilege” that the good, concerned activist is prepared to make.

Against the objection that this strategy only works for those who have relatively little to fear from prison, XR has argued that this is not only a personal sacrifice, it is also a sacrifice performed on behalf of others. Those who are ‘arrestable’ (i.e. white, middle-class, and privileged) will sacrifice their own freedom on behalf of those who risk too much by having themselves arrested. Time in custody is likened to a ‘cheap hotel’, from which the activist hopes to emerge with minimal consequences. It has even been suggested that a night in prison might afford time to reflect, that it might be a transcendent experience where ‘monastic epiphanies’ may occur, and from which the protester may emerge transformed, enhanced. Even doing time becomes an elevating, educational experience (a repellent idea for anyone who has actually experienced the brutality of the prison system).

It has been argued that in addition to its demonstrable ignorance, a kind of ignorance that comes with privilege, the movement lacks radicalism, and this is despite its high profile acts of civil disobedience. The primary tactic of mass arrests may well be effective to a degree, as some (though not all) critics concede, but must be accompanied by “an ongoing analysis of privilege as well as the reality of police and state violence”. The gaze of XR critique must be turned inward, as well as projected outward.

The XR movement lacks radicalism, in that it lacks radicalism towards itself. This can be seen in how the very success of Extinction Rebellion affirms the political influence, the commitment to truth, and sincerity of its activists (and its leaders in particular). A thoroughgoing critique of our present must surely include a critique of the educated professional who cannot, will not entertain the idea that the educated are, as a class, somehow culpable.

For Nietzsche, European nihilism is the condition of our age. It is inescapable. This must lead us to suspect that, as Nietzsche writes in Ecce Homo, “All questions of politics, the ordering of society, education”—which is to say, the grand questions that educated people pose themselves and over which they nod with such gravity—“have been falsified down to their foundations”.

Nietzsche claims that the grandiose language of the educated—of those concerned for ‘the state of society’, ‘the importance of politics’, ‘the necessity of truth’—only appears because of how it distinguishes itself from everything that is not educated, not refined, not civilised or cultured. This distinction is possible, this contrast between the serious-minded educated person and trivial matters is able to come about, Nietzsche argues, because so much “contempt has been taught for the ‘little’ things”—the mundane processes that make up our lives, and the environment in which we live.

The first question XR might ask itself is why we should secure the future of humanity on earth in the first place. Can humanity dignify itself as worthy, as a custodian? Or is belief in humanity the greatest, most deceptive conceit?

If human beings cannot escape the grasp of European nihilism, whereupon governments, NGOs, protest groups and individuals can only respond to the crisis it perceives by regulating their activities, by policing them, by domesticating their desires, their impulses — perhaps these regulating activities should be further developed, if not at the same time, realigned. Humanity, thus pictured, could attempt to better and more conclusively enact its nihilistic tendency to self-regulate and restrict.

And yet, rather than domesticate the individual, the class, the community, in the name of a redemptive lie – ‘God’, ‘virtue’, ‘progress’, ‘science’ – the lie itself might be submitted to the restrictions, the self-policing interrogations, it has us enact in its name.

The lie that humanity can become custodian of earth by becoming, among other things, carbon neutral, might be treated to a thoroughgoing analysis of its effects—which tend to recommend more industry, more development, more exploitation of natural resources.

As that lie is interrogated, as its hold upon us diminishes, the survival of humanity may come to appear less essential, just as it has come to feel less guaranteed. This will change how we respond when faced with calls for all-out investment to secure the future of human beings on earth – a process that must involve a fundamental overhaul of economic, social, political, and industrial strategy. Such calls would be met with some measure of confusion. The best alternative to redoubled effort and faith in humanity may well be withdrawal: retreat from the earth, from its last wildernesses, skies and seas, its national parks, pastures, ranches, golf-courses, mansions, palaces, and private enclaves. Humanity, such as it exists, would be saved despite itself.


About the Author:

Ansgar Allen is Lecturer in Education at the University of Sheffield. He is the author of The Cynical Educator (Leicester: Mayfly, 2017) and blogs at