The sight of a well-dressed Extinction Rebellion member grounding a commercial airliner at London City Airport brought to mind a certain type of apocalyptic thriller. Exemplified by Twelve Monkeys, the genre relies on a millenarian cult bringing down civilisation by any means possible. The Bond film Moonraker (1979) turned on a more rarefied version of the same premise: that to save humanity you must first destroy it. The same anti-humanist paradox has this week been stalking the streets of London. With their lurid statements about depopulation, the eponymous ‘extinction’ seems to be something after which the movement rather hankers: a world cleansed of the breeding, loving, fighting, fallible human race. In this it reflects the Club of Rome’s notorious Malthusian statement: “The real enemy, then, is humanity itself.”

Given how long humanity has strived to maintain its foothold on life, this is a strange pass to have reached. Don’t we want to live any more? Or has life become too easy to be appreciated? The fact that environmental alarmism is so concentrated in the comfortable West seems to present a version of Monighan’s Law, which states that complaints of violations mount in inverse proportion to actual violations (he was originally referring to human rights). The more Britain shifts to a low-carbon economy, the less these measures are accepted by the prophets of destruction. Yet they have been uncritically enabled by large sections of the media. Sky News for one was willing to abandon its usual oppositional format and interview two people from the same organisation. What is driving all this?

First, to give credit where its due: our society is indeed massively unbalanced in favour of materialism. The deeper consequences are not simply environmental: they are also spiritual. By narrowing human experience to a single plane, and denying the broader impulses of human consciousness, materialism breeds a type of depression. Consumerism is particularly isolating because it deceives the ego into believing a mastery of the five senses is also a mastery of life. What is infinite or immaterial is ineluctably reduced to a memory. By stomping their feet in Trafalgar Square, the protestors are offering an intuitive response to these fallacies. Like Zorba the Greek, they are trying in their inchoate way to say, “there is more to life than this”. Hence the widely-shared and unusually candid Medium post “Extinction Rebellion Isn’t About The Climate“.

This reveals the deeper truth that climate protests are only a cipher for a much deeper unease about Western life. In this respect, they are a distant cousin of gun massacres in the US. But take away the catalyst, and you don’t take away the problem. As with gun violence, the solution is fundamentally an inward one rather than a legislative one: it concerns the individual recalibrating their sources of meaning and their relationship with the world. Of course, striking a new balance is nearly impossible when our poor brains are confronted with the hormonal and psychological assault of modern marketing; hence the total rejection of modernity espoused by these protestors. But total rejection is the easy option precisely because it is so fantastical: much more difficult is finding a new accommodation.

Yet just as we turn to seek out alternate pylons of meaning, we find they have been kicked away – including by some of the very forces the protestors themselves most closely embrace. The growing lacuna at the heart of Anglo-American life has been created not just by capitalism; it is also a result of the very deconstructionist attitudes espoused by climate radicals themselves, including in the above blog post. In a world where basic empathy is parsed and allocated according to a million identitarian sub-divisions, how can we find anything to celebrate in the entirety of human life? The universalist, spiritual connection they are seeking is placed out of reach; not least in its great original form of religion, which has been discarded as too strong a source of competition to these new, incomplete sources of meaning.

The impulse towards an ineffable, overarching love remains ever-present: hence it is instead directed towards love of the planet, which has becomes the new repository of secular virtue. But as this “philokosmos” remains material in essence, it cannot fulfil the deeper need for the human connection. Instead of decking the policemen with flowers – as they did during the campus protests of the 1960s – the protestors offer muteness and introversion.

The Extinction Rebellion movement has attracted plenty of comparisons with puritan religions movements of the past: indeed its supposed asceticism is one of its attractions. And yet its high-mindedness pales in comparison with its hubris. By setting themselves up as the unmediated representatives of the planet, they are setting themselves up as God. Such power is an intoxicant and functions as its own reward. But it rejects the central lesson of great spiritual and political revivals of the past: that to save humanity, you must first learn to love it.