“It is not from too great an indocility of individuals that the dangers for the future of humanity will come.”[1] This complex sentence was uttered by Jacques Lacan in 1945 on his return to France from a trip to England. He was talking to fellow psychiatrists about how psychoanalysis had been used by the British army to turn recalcitrant citizens into effective and willing soldiers.

After the demonstrations of May 1968, he said to the scarcely indocile students in Paris: “As revolutionaries, what you long for is a master.”[2] This warning was based on his formulations on the structure of discourse, which allowed him to predict that this particular discourse could conjure up a master who would be worse.

These two phrases framed my viewing of the 2021 film Rebellion,[3] a documentary about the development and impact of Extinction Rebellion (XR)[4] in Britain, and shaped my intervention in a roundtable discussion where a Barcelona psychologist and a climate and wine journalist in Italy spoke about initiatives provoked by global climate change.[5]

In April 2019, XR staged a major occupation of Oxford Circus which resulted in many arrests––the aim of the action. As hoped, a meeting with a Government minister followed. Within 24 hours, the UK government became the first in the world to declare a climate emergency.

The film follows a founder member who had been a farmer for twenty years. When his crops fail due to climate change, he lays off his workforce. Having lost his business, he hurls himself into creating XR, using his knowledge of the Suffragettes, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. He focuses the protest on breaking the law and getting arrested.

His teenage daughter joins the struggle. After the Government declaration, she realises something is happening to her that she cannot sustain: burnout. She can’t keep up the pace her father is setting for himself and the group. In a pivotal scene, she and others speak about their discomfort, asking him to slow down and listen. She later calls this an instance of the climate crisis playing out in the microcosm of the movement. But her father cannot stop––he says action is imperative if he is to save himself from depression.

Something invisible, moving at a kind of subatomic level, makes itself known. It leaves a trail of destruction. It is silent yet somehow it echoes. The editing tracks it through time and bodies. First, for the woman, then for the organisation, whose members decide to expel her father from the group. Out in the streets, new forms of law enforcement deploy more brutal strategies. Finally, in Parliament, a bill is introduced to make protest more difficult. A new and nastier master enters the scene.

“It is not from too great an indocility …” Lacan said just after his country had lived through the humiliations of Nazi occupation. Too much docility has its dangers––a cowardly abandonment of conscience left a vacuum to be filled by the death drive. We can also learn from the recalcitrant British army recruits, from the rebels of 1968, and from XR’s experience: there are modes of indocility that benefit from careful handling.

At a previous meeting of this Effort of Ecology, Gustavo Dessal asked: “What if the climate crisis is not the result of a careless failure of human civilisation, but is endemic to that civilisation’s structure?” What, then, can be done by the elements of that structure? Lacan teaches that discourse is a structure. It operates like a machine and has effects on the real. If we grasp this, will we be better able to put our indocility to use more wisely and precisely?

*This is an edited version of a talk given via zoom at the “Effort of Ecology” meeting organised by Las Introductorias del Psicoanálisis Lacaniano, Colombia, 14 May 2022.

[1] Lacan, J. “British Psychiatry and the War”, Psychoanalytical Notebooks of the London Society of the New Lacanian School, Vol 33, 2019.

[2] Lacan, J. Seminar 17 The Other Side of Psychoanalysis, text established by Jacques Alain Miller, trans. Russell Grigg, London/New York, Norton 1991.

[3] Rebellion, a documentary by Maia Kenworthy and Elena Sánchez Bellot, UK 2021.

[4] Extinction Rebellion is an environmental movement using nonviolent civil disobedience to compel government action to avert climate change. It was launched in the UK in autumn 2018.

[5] Antoni Talarn and Nick Breeze were guests at the fifth roundtable in the Effort of Ecology series organized by Andrea Zúñiga López and colleagues in association with the Alliance Française in Colombia.