Over 400 years ago a ‘terror’ cell in London headed up by Robert Catesby planned an extreme act of violence (blowing up parliament) as a reaction to the intolerance and persecution inflicted on his community by what was felt to be a very oppressive monarch (King James I). What had initially been a plan for regicide was transformed into a plot to destroy the government in one single explosive event. We commemorate this every year with our own fires and fireworks on November 5th.
Much has been said emotively about ‘extremism’ in recent months. The word has been linked with those who perpetrate acts of fear and violence, both near at hand and far away. ‘Extremists’ are felt to be infiltrating schools, nation states and parliaments – whether followers of a religious tradition or of a political persuasion.
The word ‘extreme’ (from the Latin extremus) literally means ‘that which is not familiar’. It is a superlative of the term ‘exterior’ or ‘extra’ – that which is not part of us. A similar word used is excessive or in excess.
Therefore, in one sense extremism could be said to be activity that we are simply not used to. British politics would appear to be very passive and tolerant, all carefully managed and under control. So when people start overthrowing regimes with weapons of war or aggressively denouncing and threatening the status quo, we are shaken that such actions are somehow outside the rules.
Yet, life is not quite as simple as this – dividing people into groups that we are comfortable with and those we are not. The line between good and evil does not lie between nation states and tribes. It does not run between West and East, North and South; or between the developed world and the non-developed, or between one faith tradition and another. Nor between one coalition/alliance and another. As the Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once said, “The line between good and evil passes through every human heart.”
This is why as we see extreme behaviour in others, they may well see it also in us. Extreme responses are often reactions to what is felt to be extremist policy elsewhere. In other words, when somebody says or does something which we are uncomfortable with, they may actually holding up a mirror to us, and vice versa. We all have dark sides and nobody likes being reminded of this.
Our own society at this time expresses many marks of extremism (as a divergence from the norm): the extreme gaps between the very wealthy (1%) and the very poor; the extreme and obscene spending of the global arms trade; extreme corruption in governments elected to be our servants; the enormous chasms of disempowerment between the population and unelected bodies such as multinational corporations or distant decision makers – whether in Westminster or Brussels.
We have seen that excessive de-regulation is weakening democracy and encouraging extreme policies to privatise health, education, welfare and public utilities. Then we can note the extreme nature of some of the austerity cuts and their effects especially on people with disabilities.
This list goes on…
So we have an arguably increasingly extreme society which triggers other extreme actions in others as a response, and to which we are likely to respond in even more extreme ways. This is how violence is justified and injustice perpetuated. A potential spiral of revulsion and revenge.
Yet, in terms of green news, what is being ignored by the mainstream politicians of all extremes is the nature and danger of irreversible global warming. This week’s publication of the latest UN report on climate change has to be taken seriously in the run up to the Paris Summit in just over a year’s time. The IPCC’s Synthesis Report says the world faces “severe, pervasive and irreversible” impacts without effective action on carbon.
What the world’s scientists are telling us is that if we continue to ignore their advice to radically restrict greenhouse gas emissions to no more than 2°C, we shall experience a climate catastrophe by the end of the century. The consequence of all this will be to suffer ever extreme weather chaos that will shatter infrastructure and lead to massive food and energy shortages.
We already know the winds are getting stronger, the storms fiercer, the droughts prolonged and the rains disrupted on unprecedented scales. Climactic conditions that are unstable and unpredictable will result in extraordinary weather events, and we ignore these at our peril and that of future generations.
This really will be beyond our accustomed lifestyles and with extreme effects for us all…
All best wishes – Martyn