It is often said that every revolution seems inevitable only in retrospect. “The people were angry”, they say. “The old regime was bound to fall.” But is this true? What might have been different if a few more people had stayed at home? If the rain had arrived one hour earlier? If the king had not strayed from his usual route? Is the revolution only inevitable with the benefit of hindsight? What about all the people who knew about it already? Who had dreamt about it, worked towards it, had sacrificed everything to make it happen? We forget how inevitable it can feel, in the midst of a protest. To us. In the moment. How close the future seems from the top of a barricade.
Many revolutionaries have, of course, been wrong about the inevitability of their own revolutions, and many sober activists have had their heads turned by an excitable crowd. “We are the future”, shouts a young activist into her megaphone, “we are the future demanding to be heard.” What happens, then, when we lose? Does the future disappear? Or is it simply delayed? I worry about it. I know I shouldn’t, but I do. “By this date, at this time, this number of people will die.” I know many climate activists who feel the same. There are so many years to recall, dates to remember, numbers to memorise. Catastrophe looms over every graph, every spreadsheet, every clock and every calculator. “I was born at 362.58ppm”, I told a friend recently. “It is now 416.43ppm.”
Time, too, is a victim of climate change. My generation will mark the passing of our lives not only by the years and the months, but by the gradual breakdown of the natural world. Seas rise, glaciers melt, time bends and buckles underfoot. When I started protesting, it was common to describe the future in apocalyptic terms. “We are running out of time”, activists shouted at one another. “We are two seconds to midnight.” As we grew in numbers, this metaphor slowly transformed. Today, time is a forked road. “There is one future in which we survive and one future in which we die, we can choose which path to take”. We tentatively allowed ourselves to believe in the possibility of change. “We can avert catastrophe, if we act now.” It is not quite the certainty of the revolutionary. For the revolutionary, the future is a straight line. Towards justice, towards utopia. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We are not there yet. “In time, an event will thrust us like an arrow into that living future.” We have lost that certainty. Our future is more unsure, unsteady. But, now, at least we allow ourselves the possibility of escape. We dream of alternatives, of futures beyond the rubble. Of different worlds, new worlds, life beyond the interregnum. “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.”
Climate activists have, for understandable reasons, built our timetables around these dates. We have grown up with the years emblazoned into our minds. 2025, 2030, 2050. I can tell you what will happen at every stage along the way. “By this date, at this time, this number of people will die.” I cannot forget it. I feel obliged to remember it. Because my life will be defined by these dates. In 2030, I will be 33 years old. In 2050, I will be 53 years old. If I am lucky enough to still be alive by the end of the century, I will be 103. What change will I see over all that time? What pain? What suffering? What extraordinary transformation? If I survive so long, I will have lived across three centuries. I will either look back upon my life and say, “Yes, we did it.” Or, “No, we failed.” This is the critical century for climate action. We will either be the people to sort it all out, or we will be the people who failed. What we do now matters. It is us, or nobody.
I have sat in rooms and argued that these dates are of the upmost importance. I have fought for them, been arrested for them. I have always maintained that we need to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2030, or we are failing in our duty to the Global South. I have accused people who think otherwise of condoning genocide. So, what then, will I do when we sail past these dates and nothing substantial has happened? Will I move on to another date, keep on looking further into the future? Or will something inside me break? Will I finally decide to fight back with the ferocity this crisis demands? Some of the most determined activists I know claim to have already accepted the inevitability of collapse. They say their desperation makes them fearless. I admire them, but — truthfully — I do not understand it. I still believe that a better world is possible. And I think I always will. “We have to act now, before it is too late.” This is true, but it is not all of the truth. There will never come a time when it is too late. Too late for what? Too late for whom? Every fraction of a degree matters. Every year, every month, every day matters. There is so much left to save.
As hope dwindles, so too does out belief in the inevitability of our project. “Don’t mourn, organise”, is the unofficial watchword of the left. Repeated again and again, unthinking. “Don’t mourn, organise.” The original expression is borrowed from a telegram written by Joe Hill just before his death. “Don’t waste any time mourning. Organise!”, he wrote to his comrade Bill Haywood. He followed this message with a second telegram, “Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don’t want to be found dead in Utah”. Some distractions from organising are clearly worth considering. This reproach has always struck me as an odd response to defeat. Don’t mourn? Why not? Something has died, has it not? I much prefer the words of the Chartist poet W. J. Linton, writing during the decline of the Chartist movement: “Chartism is indeed dead”, he said, “Bury it decently, and go home to think what next is to be done.” Bury it decently, yes. But why is that always so hard?
Geological time crashes up against activist time. Climate change is not a question of “what”. We know what needs to happen, we have all the technologies already at our disposal. It is a question of “when”. When will we be ready to change? When will our movements be strong enough to bring about the kind of society we need? This is why, I think, so many people in the climate movement are so fiercely committed to their own projects. “If we abandon this, will all our time have been wasted? Will we have to start again, from the beginning?” Movement education takes time. Skills and experience have to be amassed over many, many years. When I left Extinction Rebellion, I wondered if I was leaving behind our one last shot at change? It was ridiculous, I know. But that was what kept me up at night. “We know so well the timescales of climate breakdown. But what of revolutionary time? How do those timescales work, those trajectories and tipping points?”
As the climate movement fractured, I became obsessed — and, I admit, unhealthily so — with the idea of time. I was often told that revolutionary periods came in cycles. If you so wish, you can trace this idea back to ancient Greece. The Greek historian Polybius believed that every political community went through a cycle of political systems in alternating virtuous and perverted forms: monarchy followed by tyranny followed by aristocracy followed by oligarchy, and so on. This was an idea revived in the Renaissance and, even later, by early students of revolutionary movements. In King Lear, Kent cries: “‘Fortune, good night; smile once more; turn thy wheel!’” Later, Edmund will announce: “The wheel is come full circle.” Fortune. Fate. Revolutionary fervour. Call it what you want. Whoever spins the wheel is playing a dangerous game.
In the twentieth century, historians like Crane Brinton wrote about stages of human civilisation, much like those that characterise biological development or the stages of a disease. Indeed, there are some people who still think like this; in a strangle and idiosyncratic book entitled The Fourth Turning, William Strauss and Neil Howe argue that modern history moves in cycles, each one lasting about the length of a human lifetime and each composed of four eras — or turnings — which last about twenty years and which always arrive in the same order: “high”, “awakening”, “unravelling”, and “crisis”. According to the two authors, we are currently in the fourth era of our current cycle: “crisis”. Sure. I do not need a theory of time to tell you that. Strauss and Howe describe our generation as the “heroes” of this turning, the people who will have to resolve the crisis in front of us. Our children will be “artists”, they say. They will help to process the crisis, and respond to the new circumstances in songs, books, and art. “Modern societies too often reject circles for straight lines between starts and finishes. The more we endeavour to defeat nature, the more profoundly we land at the mercy of its deeper rhythms.”
Thinking about cycles of history in such a codified way is a bit like writing horoscopes for nerds. But there is, nonetheless, something true here. Buried deep underground. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “the generation which commences a revolution rarely completes it.” Revolutions do indeed take time. They are nurtured, slowly, over many generations. And then, suddenly, they explode. Micah White in The End of Protest compares revolutionary time to the construction of a cathedral in medieval Europe. “The architects who designed it and the masons who built it did not live to see their work completed”, he writes. “As you are not able to choose which part of the cycle you are born into, it may be that you will live your entire life in preparation for a revolution that your grandchildren will finish.” There is a tendency to think about revolution as merely a matter of insurrection. But real revolutions are prepared over time; resentments grow, people organise, a means of seizing power begins to emerge.
Whilst it might be fantastical to suggest that history passes in predetermined cycles, it is clearly true that there are periods of contention followed by periods of calm. The social movement scholar Sidney Tarrow believes that although “cycles of contention” do not follow a determined set of stages, we can nonetheless observe familiar patterns. “In the initial stages of protest,” he writes, “the most disruptive tactics are often to the fore. New actors invent new tactics as emerging collective identities require radical action. As the cycle of protest continues, the reaction of the authorities produces simultaneous processes of radicalisation and institutionalisation.” He goes on. “When disruptive forms are first employed, they frighten antagonists with their potential cost, shock onlookers, and worry elites concerned with public order. But newspapers gradually begin to give less and less space to protesters that would have merited banner headlines when they first appeared in the streets. Repeating the same form of collective action over and over reduces uncertainty and is greeted with a smile or a yawn. Participants, at first enthused and invigorated by their solidarity and ability to challenge authority, become jaded or disillusioned.”
If movements have lifecycles, then so do individual organisations. Scholars have once again tried to define these cycles in four distinct phases: “emergence”, “coalescence”, “institutionalisation”, and “bureaucratisation or decline”. Other scholars see it differently. They point towards five different outcomes before an inevitable decline: “success”, “failure”, “co-optation”, repression”, or “going mainstream”. I am personally quite sceptical of any theory that seeks to order something so obviously disordered, but whatever your opinion of this kind of scholarship, it is certainly true that all social movements go through periods of boom and bust, stasis and flux. A movement can emerge, lose, decline, re-emerge, and eventually succeed. These cycles may happen over months, years, or even centuries, and different stages may be repeated over time. For activists, the question seems obvious: “how do we make successful outcomes more likely, and how do we protect ourselves from failure?” But there is another question that seems important to me: “is it possible to diffuse the lifecycle of a movement, to crosspollinate the processes of contention, so that the patterns of boom and bust become more sustainable over time? Or, at the very least, to make the booms more frequent?”
This question, the question of time, once kept me up at night. I was gripped by the fear that we had ruined our best chance, that the next revolutionary moment would not be for another five or ten years. “How do we draw this cycle to a close and begin a new cycle?”, I garbled. Eyes wide, beer in my hand. “What if we could turbocharge the patterns of revolutionary change? What if we could find a way to make our activism more regenerative, minimising the gaps between boom and bust?” My friends looked at me, concerned. “Are you sleeping enough, Sam? Eating enough fruit? Exercising at all?” Of course I wasn’t exercising. I was burnt out and upset. “You don’t understand,” I said, embarrassed. “I am in my decline era. We all are.”
In hindsight, my obsession with time was itself a symptom of defeat. Protests come in waves, and sometimes waves turn into revolutions, but it is a fool’s errand trying to predict when and how these moments will manifest. Before he is about to die, Hamlet turns to Horatio and says, “There is special providence in the fall of sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.” As the crises around us grow deeper, there are more opportunities to resist. New movements emerge, new cycles form, new journeys start. Activists tend to overestimate the effect of their actions in the short run, and underestimate the effect in the long run. We will never be content. We will never be pacified. This is what drives us forward, and spurs on the next revolution. Trying is always better than doing nothing; indeed, it is the only thing that has ever worked.
The readiness is all.