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Learning From the Climate Activists

There’s something to be said for uninhibited zeal.

Climate activists block road in Bremen
(Photo by Sina Schuldt/picture alliance via Getty Images)

There's a particularly haunting passage in Søren Kierkegaard's two-volume classic, Either/Or. Kierkegaard argues that every person must choose either an "aesthetic life," focused on pleasure and diversion, or an "ethical life," focused on adherence to social and moral conventions. There is no in-between, and given human nature, failing to make a choice is effectively to choose the aesthetic over the ethical life. Most people, Kierkegaard thinks, embrace the aesthetic life this way, floating mindlessly from distraction to distraction and dying without ever having considered the pathetic and self-directed nature of their choice.

Kierkegaard believes himself to be the bearer of an unbearable message about the human condition. He compares himself to a clown who tells the audience the building is on fire only to be laughed off the stage:


In a theater, it happened that a fire started offstage. The clown came out to tell the audience. They thought it was a joke and applauded. He told them again, and they became still more hilarious. This is the way, I suppose, that the world will be destroyed—amid the universal hilarity of wits and wags who think it is all a joke.

I thought of this passage when I heard of the increasingly lurid and disruptive climate protests taking place in cities around the globe. This week, protestors in London rushed the stage at a Shell board meeting as they sought to influence a vote on new emissions targets. A shirtless man and woman in Italy dumped buckets of mud over their heads to protest inaction on climate change in front of the Italian Senate. Protestors from Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion sat on an airport's tarmac in Geneva to protest fossil fuels and the wealthy's use of private planes.

Those are but three recent examples. There have been countless videos of protestors over the past few years blocking traffic and bringing urban life to a halt—tying themselves to monuments, defacing public property, and disrupting the regular business of government to call attention to climate change.

I am sure that these protestors believe themselves to be like Kierkegaard's clown: bearers of an unbearable message, considered ridiculous only because the masses have deluded themselves about the nature of the crisis.

If they're right about climate change, there's a certain logic to that view. If the world is going to end in a decade, and there is a silver-bullet policy that could reverse or at least forestall Armageddon, it might be perfectly rational to engage in disruptive or even criminal forms of protest.


You might even be able to justify, if you're given to this kind of thinking, all sorts of terrible means because they serve the noble end of saving the world. Yes, a parolee was made late for his court-mandated job by a protest on the interstate. But shouldn't he be less concerned with prospective jail time and more concerned with having a planet to live on when he gets out? As protestors at the National Gallery in London, who glued themselves beneath a Van Gogh exhibit, asked reporters: "What is worth more, art or life? Is it worth more than food, worth more than justice?"

We think those questions and the protestors are ridiculous, because we think their cause is ridiculous—global temperatures rising by a couple of degrees centigrade in the next century won't bring about the sort of wide-scale ruin that activists claim. But what if they were right? And if even they aren't, is there any issue that could justify this sort of radical approach to protest?

Take abortion. Don't you wonder, sometimes, whether pro-lifers really believe that abortion takes a human life? I know we say we believe it. But do we act like it?

If we really thought more than 1,000 children were being killed every day with full endorsement of the law, wouldn't we at least countenance a more radical response than cutting checks to pro-life non-profits? A radical response wouldn't have to involve violence, but it certainly would involve something more impassioned than the business-casual approach some in the pro-life movement have taken in response to the industrial slaughter of the unborn.

You could certainly argue that the types of demonstrations these climate activists engage are not politically effective. Disruptive forms of protest tend to activate the public against your cause. Sitting down in the middle of a busy street, smearing black paint on famous works of art, or storming the field at football games isn't likely to win many converts.

But about politics generally, or at least about the matters of life and death, shouldn't we have a bit more of the climate activists' zeal? If the choice, either or, is between apathy and action, maybe the climate activists have something to teach us—if not in their cause or their methods, at least in their fervor.