Extinction rebellion, the struggle for law, and the role of the arts – or scholars source Extinction Rebellion NL

Extinction rebellion, the struggle for law, and the role of the arts – or scholars

In this entry, Professor of Literature, Culture and Law, Frans Willem Korsten reflects upon the struggle for law and the role of the arts in the midst of the current Extinction Rebellion protest at the A12 motorway in The Hague, September 2023.

Since the 9th of September 2023, Extinction Rebellion has been aiming to occupy the A12 in the centre of The Hague on a daily basis. At the moment of my writing, they succeeded in doing this for seven days in a row, including the 15th of September, when there was a big protest in the context of a Global Climate Strike. For the protests in The Hague, FFF (Fridays For Future, a movement started by Greta Thunberg) worked together with XR Onderwijs, Teachers for Climate and Scientist Rebellion.

The actions of Extinction Rebellion have caused considerable debate, also in academic circles. Some have difficulty seeing that these actions are part and parcel of what the 19th century legal scholar Rudolf von Jhering called “der Kampf ums Recht”: the struggle for law and justice. The moment of publication was 1872, and the context is feudal Germany exploding as an industrial giant. The incredible acceleration of things implied that socially, economically and financially all sorts of relations between social actors were not adequately addressed by law. Jhering’s analysis requires upright citizens, people of good faith in the rule of law, to fight for legal regulations that adequately and legitimately regulate the new situation. The title of Jhering’s essay, Der Kampf ums Recht, is well chosen. A law that is experienced as legitimate cannot concern all. For this, the interests of different parties in a society are simply too different. This is why law cannot exist as the collectively shared guarantee for the status quo: it has to be fought for, and over. In this context, it is extremely important to emphasise that in this struggle, Jhering puts his trust in the people of good faith: upright citizens; not in the German state or government, or in the corporations that were rapidly changing the very shape and form of the German landscape.

Our current situation is, on the one hand, proof of the fact that law and justice cannot be established without struggle. On the other hand, the current situation demands that we translate Jhering’s analysis. Before our very eyes, the ecological stability that people have taken for granted is exploding. As a consequence, the legal problems concern not so much the social relations between people amongst one another, but the relations between humans and nature – which is no longer acting as what humans used to describe as “their environment ”. To begin with, this environment is not “ours”, nor is it a passive entity that can be exploited at will. This is why scientist philosopher Isabelle Stengers used the concept of Gaia to indicate that the earth, nature, has its own moments of agency. In this context, it has become clear that all sorts of issues have not been adequately dealt with by law, or have been defended illegitimately by law.

One example: In the 1970s there was consensus between many scientists and politicians that the vector of capitalism would not lead to a sustainable, let alone a livable world The report of the so-called Club of Rome, notably being an independent collective of scientists and entrepreneurs, was crystal clear. These projections were not even contested by companies such as Shell. Such companies have the money to attract the best and brightest, so they ran their own projections, which came down to the same thing. Shell knew that its business would lead to extreme climate change, enormous disturbance of ecological systems, and human calamities. Yet, it chose to safeguard profits above the well-being of the world. This has not been addressed by law for fifty years now. Shell is still protected by a law that safeguards private property above common ecological well-being. To change this, we have to struggle: politically first, then legally. In my humble opinion, Shell should be brought before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. And my expectation is that we will see it there, or rather its responsible CEOs, within the coming decade.

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A12 Blokkade 2023, photo credits Extinction Rebellion NL

Since I am a humanities scholar, one might ask by now: and what about your expertise, concerning literature and the arts? Rudolf von Jhering addressed the struggle for law in terms of what people feel to be just. What people feel to be just, depends on their capacity for empathy, which in turn is intrinsically related to people’s capacity to imagine things, and to place themselves in the position “of”. I cannot defend literature and the arts as the proponents of what Aristotle called “the good life”, which is a life of virtue. There is an enormous amount of art that is not virtuous at all. Nor should it be. The arts explore the full potential of human beings, for better or worse. In this sense, the arts are as much the site of struggle as the struggle for law and justice. In this context, it is impossible to do research, teach, or act as a citizen, without taking sides. Those who claim to be impartial or objective have a valuable voice, for sure. Still, if scrutinised scholarly, scientifically, they will prove to have chosen a side nevertheless. As a citizen and as an academic I have chosen a side. I am a member of Scientist Rebellion, as a humanities scholar. This is why you will find me out on the street, in a struggle for law and justice.

Works Cited

Jhering, Rudolf von. Der Kampf um’s Recht. 4te Aufl. [Volksausg], 1874.

Meadows, Dennis L. Rapport van de Club van Rome : de grenzen aan de groei. Het Spectrum, 1972.

Stengers, Isabelle. “Autonomy and the Intrusion of Gaia.” The South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 116, no. 2, 2017, pp. 381–400, https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-3829467.