This article examines the temporal rhetoric of Extinction Rebellion and Fridays For Future to discuss how the new generation of climate movement organizations offers ideas of an open future that can be acted upon. Research has shown how climate organizations create economic and social disruptions. However, as the article shows, they also create temporal disruptions. Taking theoretical inspiration from critical utopian studies, the article states that the climate activists should be understood as utilizing a disruptive utopian method that aims to disrupt the present and thereby open the future. The method relies on utopias that are relational and open, not static or absolute. Hence, the utopianism employed by these groups is not about closure and perfection, but rather about openness and offering alternatives.
“I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. [ . . . ] I want you to act as if the house was on fire. Because it is.” The statement was made by Greta Thunberg (2019, 40), initiator of the Fridays For Future (FFF) organization, at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2019. Thunberg’s statement emphasizes how global warming threatens us all and that there are no safe havens. In a way, Thunberg’s rhetoric was typical of the environmental movement, which since its birth has been infused with a strong apocalyptic sentiment. However, while the early organizations drew on a fear of a threating future and focused on issues of preservation and conservation, the new generation of climate activists argue that such practices come too late as the catastrophe is already upon us. In the words of Thunberg, the house is already on fire.
“The Earth is already warming” states FFF (2020b), drawing on topoi of presentness and urgency, a rhetoric that is shared with several other climate organizations. For instance Extinction Rebellion (XR) that argues: “We are in the midst of a climate and ecological breakdown” (2020b), and: “Destruction that was forecast to unfold decades from now is already here” (2020c). The catastrophe that prior environmental groups warned against is now stated to have become real; the climate apocalypse is no longer a future threat but a present reality. Hence, rather than drawing on future-oriented fears, the new generation of climate activists leans on present experiences. On might, as suggested by Erik Swyngedouw (2010, 216), talk about “a distinct millennialist discourse around the climate.”
On the other hand, time is central to politics. It is crucial to how phenomena are conceptualized and how narratives are communicated. In the political process, time is both a resource and a restraint (Palonen 2008). For political possibilities to be discernible, the future must be open, at least to some degree. If the future is fully determined, there is no space for imagining, creating, planning, or deliberating (Nordblad 2021). This leads us to the question: If the house is already on fire, has the future been closed off and left us in an end time?
Taking cue from the rhetoric of two of the most influential climate organizations, XR and FFF, the purpose of this article is to discuss how these organizations, despite their seemingly pessimistic messages, can offer an open future that can be acted upon.1 These activist groups are traditionally understood as trying to create economic and civil disruptions (e.g., Saunders, Doherty, and Hayes 2020, 6). However, as this article shows, they also create temporal disruptions. The organizations should be read as utilizing a disruptive utopian method that aims to disrupt the present rather than providing blueprints for the future that are to be imposed on the present. Thus, utopian thinking should not be confused with pure optimism, but rather understood as a critical method for exploring possibilities that lie beyond the limitations and possibilities of the present; it is about disrupting the present, and thereby opening the future (see also Friberg 2021a).
A New Generation of Climate Movement Organizations
The 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen (COP15) is often seen as a turning point for transnational climate mobilization. Never had so many taken an active involvement in climate movement initiatives (Hadden 2015). The rise in climate activism had several parallel causes. One was the increased media attention that the climate emergency received, for example, because of the movie An Inconvenient Truth. This attention resulted in a climate debate in which several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were given new opportunities to present their cause by using climate change as a hook (Aykut, Morena, and Foyer 2017). There was also a movement spillover process in which the global justice movement became increasingly involved in climate politics, thus strengthening the emerging climate justice wing of the movement (de Moor et al. 2021; Hadden 2015).
However, the COP15 was a disappointment to many activists, as the summit had been presented as a now-or-never moment but did not result in any strong agreement (de Moor and Wahlström 2019). There were therefore strong reservations among the activists about getting involved in the subsequent summit held in Paris in 2015, COP21. While the COP21 mobilization focused on the official negotiations, the post–Paris climate movement shifted attention to direct action campaigns against the fossil fuel industry (de Moor et al. 2021; Tramel 2016).
While the post-Paris campaigns continued, a new set of climate organizations took the stage in late 2018, most prominently FFF and XR. In August 2018, the then-fifteen-year-old Thunberg sat alone in front of the Swedish parliament building to protest against the lack of action on the climate crisis. The initiative quickly gained followers on social media and soon went viral; hence FFF was born alongside the School Strike for Climate initiative (FFF 2021a). On March 15, 2019, the first Global Climate Strike was organized by the organization, resulting in more than 1.5 million people in over 2 000 locations taking to the streets to express their resistance to the failure to act on the climate emergency. The third global event of FFF, the Global Week for Future, took place in September 2019 and mobilized around 1.6 million strikers (de Moor et al. 2021).
Two months after Thunberg’s initial school strike, XR got into the public eye when activists assembled in London in October 2018 to announce a Declaration of Rebellion against the UK government. The organization existed before but this was the first time the group received vast public recognition. The following weeks were filled with actions by the organization, such as blocking bridges, planting trees in Parliament Square, and activists supergluing themselves to the gates of Buckingham Palace. A few weeks after the initiative, new rebel groups emerged in Europe and the United States and soon spread throughout the world (XR 2020a).
Currently, XR and FFF are two of the most influential climate organizations that have attracted considerable public attention, albeit for different reasons. While FFF is notably known for legal protests, such as the School Strike for Climate initiative, and states that the goal of the organization is to “put moral pressure on policymakers” (FFF 2020d), XR has drawn attention though spectacular civil disobedience protest initiatives that have resulted in arrests of its members, and states that a goal of the organization is to “go beyond politics,” that governments should be led by a Citizens’ Assembly (XR 2021). Despite their differences, FFF and XR have been interpreted as representing a new generation of climate activism. While the organizations share some continuities with prior climate mobilization, they also display novel characteristics. For example, they have managed to mobilize a historically large number of people, especially young ones with no or little experience of activism; their emphasis on disobedient forms of action is stronger than earlier mobilizations; they mainly target local or national governments; and they have opted for a “rather vague prognostic framing” (de Moor et al. 2021, 6; see also Saunders, Doherty, and Hayes 2020).
The analysis is structured into five parts. First, I discuss the concept of utopia and the need to separate between the utopian locus and the utopian horizon. Using theoretical inspiration from Ernst Bloch, I argue that the historical category of the utopian should be understood as a radical act of disjunction; it is the forward dream of what is not-yet. In the following parts, the rhetoric of FFF and XR is analyzed in the light of different theoretical perspectives: first, Reinhart Koselleck’s categorization of space of experience and horizon of expectation, and François Hartog’s thesis on a presentist Zeitgeist; second, in relation to Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s idea of postapocalyptic retroactivity; and third, from the perspective of a dialectic of misfitting as suggested by John Holloway. I then conclude that the utopianism of XR and FFF is not only a method for reflection but also a method for changing the world. I state that the actions by the organizations can be considered microutopian practices. These practices do not aim to solve the bigger problem of climate change but to develop consciousness about the problem and open a discussion about the future that is necessary for political action.
The Concept of Utopia and the Utopian Method
In 1516, British author Thomas More coined the concept of utopia from a junction of the Greek terms outopia and eutopia, that is, no-place and good-place. Hence, utopia came to denote a good place that did not exist. During the sixteenth century, the world was still relatively unexplored, and it was, at least in theory, possible to imagine an earthly utopia. However, during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, when explorers mapped the earth, the spatial possibilities for an earthly utopia were surpassed by experience. With the experience that a utopia could not be discovered or established on the present-day earth, utopia shifted to the future. Utopia thus turned into uchronia, a product of which the controllable ground of the present was abandoned (Koselleck 2002, 84–99).
Since More, a plethora of literary utopias have been conjured up, and the concept of utopia has become the generic term for imagined ideal worlds (Hölscher 1996). The concept of utopia has been ridiculed for promoting visions of future societies that are impossible to achieve in practice. However, the conceptualization of utopia does not carry any connotations of impossible blueprints. As Eskelinen, Lakkala, and Laakso (2020, 6–10) state, utopia can be considered an epistemological category rather than an ontological category. A utopia can simply be understood as referring to a place that is better than the one we currently inhabit. Hence, the absolutist utopian position, with its static visions of the future, should be contrasted with a relational position that concerns criticism and the construction of counterimages that are developed against the present. As Ruth Levitas (2011) states, utopias always serve the function of critique. Because the present always changes, its counterimage cannot be static but consequently changes along with its present.
Here, there is a need to pay attention to the distinction between the utopian locus and the utopian horizon. While the former refers to the historical situation that shapes the utopian vision, the latter refers to the vision itself. The utopian horizon is thus dependent on the utopian locus. Consequently, the utopian vision will be different in every historical situation, that is, the horizon changes as the agents move through different loci (Lakkala 2020). Understood in this way, utopian visions are heuristic tools for social imagination; constructing a utopia is in itself a critical act toward the present and expresses a need for change.
According to German philosopher Ernst Bloch (1995, 7), hoping for a better tomorrow—or in Bloch’s words, “venturing beyond” the explorations of human possibilities—is constituted by a complex feature of drives that are inherent in humans (see also Geoghegan 2008). Bloch (1988, 5) describes the concept of the utopian as “an invariant of the direction [ . . . ] longing, completely without consideration at all for the content.” Hence, there is no single, fixable utopian content. Instead, the historical category of the utopian constitutes a radical act of disjunction; of imagining something different than what is presently the case. As Fredric Jameson (2004, 38) states, utopian images play “a diagnostic” on our present.
Bloch’s temporality engages with time as the “creative epistemology of the possible,” both destructive and constructive (McManus 2003). The constructive insight that progress might be made provides inspiration and drive for what Bloch (1995, 45–47; 2000) calls a utopian impulse: an insight and a response to existing conditions that can effect an attempt to transcend or transform those conditions to achieve an ideal. Utopia is thus the forward dream of the not-yet that is set in motion by a utopian impulse; it is the expression of hope. According to Bloch (1995, 97–116), the temporality of hope displays as a plural present, it contains connections to future possibles and to past futures that have previously been hindered.
As Levitas (1990) points out, the distinction between abstract and concrete utopias is fundamental to Bloch’s critical project (see also Sargent 2010; Thomson 2013). While abstract utopias are wishful thinking that is not accompanied by the will to change anything, concrete utopias embody what Bloch claims to be the essential utopian function, that of simultaneously anticipating and affecting the future. Bloch thus uses concrete in a Hegelian sense, as something that can be approached by reflection and action so that it might eventually become reality. According to Bloch, utopia is not a permanent and abstract place but a process that takes place in the material world with the hope of making it better (McKnight 2020a). A concrete utopia should thus not be misunderstood as a blueprint; it is rather a temporally and spatially situated vision of what might become, a vision that is continuously redescribed and redefined.
Disrupting the Omnipresent Present
In recent decades, several scholars have argued that the future has disappeared as a field of action. We are, as François Hartog (2003, 8) famously states, living in a presentist regime in which “the category of the present has taken hold to such an extent that one can really talk about an omnipresent present” (see also Assmann 2020; Gumbrecht 2014; Hölscher 2013). This discussion inspired Jameson (2015, 105) to restate his thirty-year-old diagnosis of postmodernity as the “predominance of space over time.” According to Jameson, past and future have dissolved into a perpetual now, where only the dimension of space extends in all directions.
The presentism is notable in the rhetoric of the new generation of climate organizations. For instance, FFF (2021c) states: “The climate crisis is already here and it will only get worse.” In a similar tone, XR (2020b) frames the current situation by stating that “every day we move closer to a state of irreversible chaos, ridden with sickness, greed and desperation.” The activists understand the present as a beginning; the signs of global warming that are visible today are taken as omens of what to expect from the future. Consequently, the future is understood as a prolongation of the present.
The German historian Reinhart Koselleck (2002; 2004) uses the categories of space of experience and horizon of expectation to explain how the principle of historia magistra vitae was abandoned. During the late eighteenth century, expectations became more important than experiences when imagining the future; hence, it was possible to imagine a future that was different from the past. Simultaneously, time was understood as a forward-directed movement. The present was consequently separated from a sealed-off past that had been worse and a future that would be qualitatively better. In Koselleck’s terminology, the space of experience was separated from the horizon of expectation.
Returning to the climate organizations, their rhetoric seems to reconnect the space of experience to the horizon of expectation, as the future is imagined as an intensified version of the present. However, when imposing an understanding of utopia as a critical method for disrupting the present, the activists’ statements can be understood as critiques of the present rather than as closed statements about the future. The rhetoric aims to disrupt the linear continuum of climate change time; it creates a break between the present and the future so that the future becomes open. “We are standing on a precipice. [ . . . ] We are already locked in to a certain amount of warming and biodiversity loss, but there is still time to change this story,” states XR (2020d). And FFF (2020b) argues that “not enough is being done to limit warming—not even close. [ . . . ] The good news is that scientists believe limiting warming is absolutely technically possible. [ . . . ] No matter what happens, it is never ‘too late.’ There are always better and worse futures to be had.” Although the organizations are driven by a catastrophe that to some extent is present, they emphasize how change is possible. By disrupting the present, they create a gap between the space of experience and the horizon of expectation that makes it possible to transform the future by adjusting things in the present (see also Friberg 2021b; McKnight 2020b).
In the rhetoric of FFF and XR, the present functions as a point of departure. FFF (2020a) states that “more and more tragedies and injustices are taking place across the world, ranging from more intense and frequent extreme precipitation events to wild fires and food insecurity.” The organization also states that: “The climate crisis is an inescapable reality and we are fighting for our common future” (FFF 2020d). XR (2020c) argues: “The science is only becoming clearer as the years pass. An ever-growing number of scientific studies prove two things: the earth is warming and we are the cause.” The activists go on to state: “We rebel against the system that got us here. We rebel for the future we want” (XR 2020d). The present crisis is seen as a consequence of previous generations and their inability to act on the issue of global warming. To find a better future, a new system is needed. Hence, the disruptive utopian method becomes a tool for extrapolating the possibilities of the present. It draws on the experiences and cravings of the present.
Moreover, FFF (2020c) states: “We cannot go back to normal. Normality was already a crisis – a crisis of inequality, destruction of nature, and climate. [ . . . ] The system is not broken, it was built to be unjust.” XR (2020d) argues: “There is a better life on the other side of the crisis. [ . . . ] We know the crisis we are facing, and we want to change the future.” The organizations point to a future possible that transcends the current possibilities and limitations. Going back is not an option, the future must hold something different. In this way, the apocalyptic rhetoric disrupts the present by pointing to how the future can, and must, be conceptualized differently.
The apocalypse is used as a point of reference against which visions of the future are developed. For instance, XR (2021) states: “Our climate is changing faster than the scientists predicted and the stakes are high. Biodiversity loss. Crop failures. Social and ecological collapse. Mass extinction. We are running out of time, and our governments have failed to act. XR was formed to fix this.” Likewise, FFF (2020b) argues: “We are fighting for our future and for our children’s future. We strike because there is still time to change, but time is of the essence. The sooner we act, the better our shared future will be.” These examples show how the organizations use an apocalyptic rhetoric as a disruptive utopian method; the presentness of the apocalypse is used to create a utopian moment in the present that provides inspiration for visions of future possibles. The apocalypse thus functions as a future point of reference from which a utopian moment arises in the present; it is what nourishes the political imagination of the activists. The method is about creating new forms of practices within the present. It does not transcend the present, but rather works against the present within the present itself. The climate groups constantly emphasize a topos of urgency that is further underlined by bringing the future apocalypse into the present.
Postapocalyptic Anticipations and Postapocalyptic Retroactivity
Scholars have put forward the notion of postapocalypse to discuss the experience of the apocalypse as already having occurred (e.g., Berger 1999; Swyngedouw 2010; 2013; Williams 2011). However, the climate activists’ narratives about the climate catastrophe should not be understood in terms of postapocalyptic expectations, but rather as anticipations (Friberg 2021b). Anticipation is, as Adams, Murphy, and Clarke (2009, 246) state, “the idea that things could be (all) right if we leverage new spaces of opportunity, reconfiguring ‘the possible.’” FFF (2020a) states: “The climate crisis is rampaging here and now. If the world leaders keep failing us, the climate crisis will become uncontrollable resulting in the degradation not only of our natural resources but also of human life. We cannot allow that to happen.” In a similar tone, XR (2020c) frames the situation by arguing: “The future is coming for us—faster than we imagined. [ . . . ] But it’s not too late. We can still create a better future. [ . . . ] The window of opportunity is getting smaller but is still very real.” Hence, while the catastrophe may be upon us, we can still change things. Through anticipation, the present is understood as being contingent upon an ever-changing future that, despite its uncertainty, must be acted upon. Anticipation thus demands action.
French philosopher Jean-Pierre Dupuy (2007/2008; 2012) has argued that the reason why humans do not react to future catastrophes is because the future is not understood as real. It is only in retrospect that the catastrophe will appear to be possible. Dupuy (2012, 579) attributes the disbelief in future catastrophes to an overrating of science: “soon [ . . . ] the engineers will find a way to overcome the obstacles blocking our path.” To solve the problem, Dupuy argues in favor of a postapocalyptic retroactivity, that is, to accept the catastrophe as our fate, thereby projecting ourselves into the future and looking at our present from there. Only then, when we believe in it as real, can we avoid it: “if one is to prevent a catastrophe, one needs to believe in its possibility before it occurs” (Dupuy 2012, 586; see also Žižek 2008; 2019). The retroactive method thus demands a cyclic time, or a loop of time, in which the past and the future reciprocally determine each other. Within retroactivity, it is not the present that changes its future, but rather the future that changes its past.
However, in contrast to Dupuy, FFF and XR rely on the idea of an open future. The organizations constantly argue that it is never too late, that there is always time. For instance, FFF (2020c) argues that: “It is up to us [ . . . ] to organise, mobilise, and bring about the change we want to see in the world.” “Another world is possible,” states XR (2020c). “We can still create a better future” (XR 2020d). The climate organizations are motivated by the final apocalypse, but they do not see it as inevitable in the way that Dupuy suggests. The anticipatory horizons of the activists do not have a fixed endpoint. Instead, they offer a way of thinking about the future without knowing how it will turn out (Friberg 2021b).
When Thunberg (2019, 74) spoke in the European Parliament in April 2019, this kind of thinking was conceptualized as cathedral thinking: “Our house is falling apart. [ . . . ] But it is still not too late to act. It will take a far-reaching vision. It will take courage. It will take fierce determination to act now, to lay the foundations when we may not know all the details about how to shape the ceiling. In other words, it will take cathedral thinking.” The concept of cathedral thinking traditionally refers to the far-reaching visions of architects and builders in the Middle Ages who would commence work fully aware that they would not live to see the project’s completion (Rogers 1995). Hence, the concept refers to extensive visions and commitment to long-term implementations. In Thunberg’s rhetoric, hope is a critical process that disrupts the present and becomes a resource for the discontinuous (McKnight 2020b).
A Dialectic of Misfitting
In his book Crack Capitalism, John Holloway (2010) presents the idea of the crack in discussing strategies for social transformation. According to Holloway, the world is always open to change. However, because of the ideology of the dominating class, the walls of what we perceive as a closed world are rapidly closing. Social change therefore demands that we, as Holloway describes, “run to the walls and try desperately to find cracks, or faults beneath the surface, or to create cracks by banging the walls” (6). The opening of cracks in the present consequently means opening a world that presents itself as closed. The method of the crack contains “a dialectic of misfitting,” that is, thinking from the perspective of those who do not fit in, those who are left outside (14).
The climate activists can be thought of as utilizing this dialectic of misfitting. For example, many of them are too young to vote and therefore cannot fully participate in their respective political system. Moreover, they often lack trust in established institutions and in capitalism to reform itself into a green and sustainable format. Instead, they rely on other platforms, such as social media and school strikes, to challenge the present order. “We have a duty to disobey this system which destroys life on earth and is deeply unjust,” states XR (2020a). FFF (2020a) states: “If the world leaders keep failing us, the climate crisis will become uncontrollable resulting in the degradation not only of our natural resources but also of human life. We cannot allow that to happen. So we will stand together and protest.” It is by not belonging, by not having a voice within the current political time or room, that these activists can create cracks in what seems like a closed world.
By disrupting the present, the activists open a plurality of futures. As XR (2020a) states: “Our vision of change is sufficiently broad that it can contain a variety of opinions on how to best work towards that change.” And FFF (2021b) admits that the organization does not “have the capacity or the competence to evaluate solutions [to the climate crisis],” but instead demands that we “listen to the best united science currently available” (FFF 2021d). The activists have been criticized for not providing concrete answers to the ethical and political questions central to climate action, that their claims about listening to the science are too vague, and that the ethical rhetoric is therefore undeveloped (e.g., Evensen 2019). However, it is precisely by not formulating absolute answers or by providing static blueprints that the organizations can disrupt the present and open the future in multiple and relational ways. However, through anticipations, the future still demands action in the present. The disruptive utopianism practiced by the activists does not aim to formulate absolute goals, but to create counterimages of the present and thereby transcend the current order.
Opening the Future
Research into social movements traditionally understands the emotion of hope as one of the most important collective motivations (e.g., Flam and King 2005; Jasper 2011). However, as Cassegård and Thörn (2018, 574) have stated, when studying climate activism, there is a need to dispense with the premise that all mobilization needs hope in the sense of “upbeat, optimistic messages” (see also Almeida 2019; Kleres and Wettergren 2017). Hope should thus not be confused with pure optimism. As the analysis has shown, XR and FFF utilize a postapocalyptic rhetoric as a disruptive utopian method in their attempts to create cracks in the present social and temporal order.
Another common assumption within social movements research is that political opportunity structures are perceived by movement actors, who adjust their strategies accordingly (e.g., Meyer and Staggenborg 1996). However, the organizations studied in this article do not rely solely on existing opportunities; they also aim to create such opportunities by opening up the world to alternatives, both in the present and in the future. The disruptive utopian method enables the activists to make postapocalyptic claims while simultaneously arguing for a plurality of futures. The utopias employed by these organizations are directed toward the present and its shortcomings. Hence, the utopias critique the present from within itself.
However, the utopianism of the organizations is not only a method for reflection but also a method for changing the world. Because the activists rely on a changeable future that cannot be fully determined, they lean on constantly changing horizons. The actions of the activist groups are about disrupting the present rather than imposing blueprints. Carol Becker (2017) draws on a Blochian approach to utopia when discussing the creation of microutopian communities as small-scale examples of larger problems. The small-scale projects may be temporary, but they are nonetheless essential to the development of a consciousness and how we envision our future (Becker 2013; see also McKnight 2020a). XR (2020d) states: “We are paving a different path.” Likewise, FFF (2020c) argues that the Paris Agreement was “a promise to the world” by the world leaders, but that there is now “no point in simply asking our leaders to live up to the promise they made in Paris. It is time for us to make our own promises.” The utopian counterimages of the present are turned into counterpractices, such as strikes and protests, that aim to disrupt the present economically, socially, and temporally. The school strikes and protests by XR and FFF can be considered as anticipatory microutopian practices. Although they may not solve the bigger problem, that of climate change, they do develop consciousness about the problem and open a discussion about the future.
The utopianism that XR and FFF rely on is not about closure and perfection, but rather about openness and offering alternatives. The disruptive utopian method relies on utopias that are relational and open. The method aims to disrupt the present, and to offer ideas and visions of future possibles so that the walls around us can be broken down, and the future can consequently be opened. The climate organizations offer a way of thinking about the future so that activities such as imagining, creating, planning, and deliberating become politically meaningful. Hence, while it may be true that our house is on fire, we still have the time to put it out.
This work was supported by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond (the Swedish Foundation for Humanities and Social Sciences), grant number P18-0121:1.
The analytic focus on climate rhetoric should not be taken as a denial of the material reality of global warming; climate change is not understood as a merely rhetorical phenomenon. Instead, the basic assumption is that the rhetoric of the organizations and activists reflects the reality of their experiences.