Video of the speech can be viewed here on YouTube.
One Saturday in late 2018, I sat in the road on Waterloo Bridge, London to block the traffic for a few hours. Six weeks later I resigned a well-paid position with one of the UK’s largest pension companies, NEST, to volunteer for Extinction Rebellion. Over the following nine months, I was arrested three times by the Metropolitan Police.
What caused such a dramatic change in my normal, respectable life? Was it boredom with a 30 year City career that included spells in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Bangkok with HSBC…or something else?
Well I believe it was to do with TRUTH… and I’ll try to explain exactly what I mean and how truth (however you define it) might be relevant to us all.
I’m from a family of journalists and so I grew up admiring the likes of John Pilger (I remember him breaking the story of Cambodia’s “Killing Fields”, in the Daily Mirror, in 1979). If I was an ‘activist’ in my 20s and 30s, I’d claim I was an anti-war activist: campaigning for the human rights of suffering populations, against the brutality of the powerful, often for the resources (normally oil) they lived above.
Unlike many environmental activists, I’m late in fully realising the climate and ecological emergency we’re in. I had other causes, as I’ve said, but also a young family and a busy career. If I thought about climate change, it still felt distant and a difficult threat to define.
My digital footprint does allow me to pinpoint a moment when I finally got it — writing a blog in 2015 where I apologise to grandchildren I might never have (my kids were teenagers at the time). That was just 10 months before the Paris Agreement was sealed.
Three years later, I was glad to no longer be on the investment bank trading floors of HSBC or Lloyds Bank and now worked for NEST, a pension company, helping the young and often the less well-paid British worker to save for retirement. It felt socially progressive and, under a ‘business as usual’ scenario, it is.
Business as usual is unsustainable
The problem was ‘business as usual’ was increasingly unsustainable. As 2018 progressed, we experienced a global heatwave (in July, The Sun’s headline was “The World’s on Fire”), I read a paper, Deep Adaptation, by a little known British professor, Jem Bendell, and the United Nations’ IPCC clearly stated the the dramatic cuts in carbon emissions required to give us a 50/50 chance of staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. It was then two years after Paris, global carbon emissions were still rising and Trump was in the White House. Things didn’t look promising.
So in late 2018, when George Monbiot wrote of the launch of Extinction Rebellion, I saw the possibility of another path.
It made more sense than the pushing long term savings products down the throats of the next generation or the low paid. Annually, we are consuming the resources of 1.7 earths and the sustainability of the world’s stock markets require you to believe in infinite growth on a finite planet — essentially a Ponzi scheme. But perhaps it’s not possible to be guilty of mis-selling when the entire savings industry and government are cheering you on?
I felt my worth as a father, a citizen, a human being required me to face the TRUTH…that’s why I resigned.
Extinction Rebellion and their demands for truth
I recognise my privilege, that I can resign my job and not worry about a roof over my head or food on the table. Volunteering for Extinction Rebellion is how I choose to use that privilege. To not do so, I felt, would to be to remain complicit in my generation leaving an ‘uninhabitable earth’.
XR has three demands and the first 2 relate to truth:
- Demand #1 is that government Tells The Truth (about the climate and ecological emergency) and the urgency for change;
- Demand #2 is that it Acts Now (basically, to act consistent with the truth of our predicament).
As an anti-war activist I‘m familiar with how politicians can vote for war contrary to public opinion (consider the 2003 invasion of Iraq) and for that to happen the media is often (perhaps always) complicit. The only antidote to that deadly cocktail is persistent people power…lots of it.
Throughout 2019, the actions of Extinction Rebellion had an effect and it was ranked the #1 organisation for raising public awareness about climate change (just a year after it was founded).
But even now, does the public really know the truth about the climate and ecological emergency? I don’t think it does.
Sir David King was the UK Government’s chief scientist for 7 years and led the UK delegation to Paris in 2015. The following year, he told how he’d wanted to connect with the British public in the lead up to Paris, to emphasise the gravity of our predicament, but was stopped by special advisors in 10 Downing Street. “We don’t want to do that” they said “because that’s going to upset the Murdoch Press”.
The media, owned by a handful of billionaires, are clearly part of the problem which is why XR blocked the printing of several Murdoch titles in September — even Murdoch’s own son resigned as a director of News Corporation protesting its editorial content (almost certainly its climate crisis denial).
Let’s face the truth about our consumer industrialised society
We can complain about government, but often politicians are simply a reflection of the societies they represent. Have we faced the truth of the costs of our consumer industrialised economy?
The climate and ecological emergency is simply the biggest symptom of what is a brutal economic system. Current capitalism demands corporate executives maximise profits (and that often means passing on some costs of their product to others).
We’re all familiar with the example of tobacco…knowing the dangers of nicotine on their customers’ health, executives hid the evidence for years and used profits to pay “Merchants of Doubt” and buy political influence. But there are many other examples today which deserve a public debate:
- Fossil fuel companies (still massively subsidised by taxpayers) can sell £10 of coal-fired electricity whilst passing on at least £16 of costs to human health and the climate;
- Budget airlines can offer cheap (but highly polluting) flights thanks to no tax on aviation fuel;
- What products do we buy and which industries profit from activities that cause the air pollution that kills almost a million people a year in Europe (and almost 9 million worldwide)?
- The costs of war are often a long way from home and so not seen — dead and broken bodies, millions of refugees and the tragic mental health consequences for ‘our boys’ (and girls) who, we are told, are fighting to keep us safe. Clear parallels with the costs of our carbon intensive lifestyles on the poor in the Global South.
In this information age these ‘externalities’, as economists refer to them, need to be denied or hidden from public discussion (or simply crowded out by trivial gossip). That’s why media companies are so attractive to the billionaires.
Those that do reveal the truth (either war crimes or what politicians really say behind closed doors) become the persecuted and the mainstream media and social media companies are complicit in ensuring you don’t get to know. What we once thought were acts of rogue and undemocratic states now take place under our noses in our own capital cities.
The Government knows we’re heading for disaster but it choses to paint itself as leading on climate policy and yet isn’t even meeting its Paris commitments (which might be a step in the right direction but allows us to continue our polluting lifestyle for longer and burden our children and grandchildren with many of those costs).
Climate scientist, Peter Kalmas, has said “‘net-zero by 2050’ is disastrous and tantamount to climate denial”.
Change is difficult but we have to believe solutions are within our grasp
Over the last 30 years since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was formed, all the efforts of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth. The Green Party have failed — carbon emissions are 60% higher today than they were then. Politicians and the media have put the onus on us as individuals to solve the crisis with personal choices.
I don’t blame anyone for being overwhelmed by thoughts of what we need to do to resolve this crisis. It will involve millions of solutions, and trying things that don’t work, but let’s be realistic…our response needs to be similar to a wartime mobilisation.
The IPCC says the world needs to halve carbon emissions within a decade which feels impossible until you hear this from Kevin Anderson of Manchester University’s Tyndall Centre. He says “if the top 10% highest emitters (were to) reduce their individual carbon footprint, to the level of the average European citizen, that would be the equivalent of a one-third cut in global emissions, even if the other 90 percent did nothing.”
But let’s not kid ourselves doing more of the same things will produce a different outcome.
That’s why I believe non-violent civil disobedience needs to play some part if we are to make the changes we must. And if what worked for the US civil rights movement in the 1960s, or for India in its fight for independence is not for you, I hope you won’t condemn it.
Is Extinction Rebellion the solution?
So is Extinction Rebellion the solution? Almost certainly not…because the change required is so huge, so profound that there will be no one solution. But until somebody convinces me there’s a better use of my energy and focus it’s where I’ll be for now.
People in Extinction Rebellion are just like me, and you. They are school teachers and lawyers, scientists and electricians, nurses and manufacturers, factory workers and students, life long activists and people who don’t consider themselves activists (they’re just fighting for the futures of their grandchildren).
And we don’t claim to love our children any more than you love yours.
I’m always nervous of speaking to audiences who I assume are already doing their bit for the environment, often far more than most of their friends and associates. But what comfort will that be to any of us if we fail to make the required dent in emissions. You can do wonderful things in their work and personal lives but it won’t be enough unless enough people do it. That means most of the affluent and middle class in the UK and worldwide…
It’s been a difficult year for Extinction Rebellion; COVID has stopped us being on the streets as much and impacted our income. There have been missteps and that (and our success last year) has sharpened the attacks on us by government ministers and the media. Don’t be fooled by their rhetoric.
XR must adapt, building alliances with other groups calling for radical societal change. Our fight is also the fight of groups like Black Lives Matter against racism, or, of the animal rights movement against the horrors of intensive animal agriculture. This ‘movement of movements’ won’t always agree with each other but we’re united joining the dots and our a vision of a fairer world.
Call to action — will you join us (and rebel)?
Our world is dying, we’re in an emergency situation but there’s still time for everyone to play their part. That’s terrifying but it’s also incredibly exciting.
I decided a failure to speak the truth, defend the truth or live a life that acknowledges climate truth was to fall short of what was necessary. To fall short of what is asked of all of us right now.
So will you join us?
I’m frustrated by friends and associates who commend me for my involvement in Extinction Rebellion but don’t consider themselves a ‘rebel’ (even if it’s to add to our numbers on the streets — only a small percentage are prepared to be arrested). To my friends who disagree with XR’s tactics I say “What’s your plan? If it makes more sense, I’ll join you!”
Two years ago I faced up to the truth of our predicament and decided I could no longer remain silent. I didn’t want to ever look my children in the eye and tell them I didn’t do all that I could. I grieve for what we will lose but, in living my values, I experience true freedom.
I want that for you, too — so live in climate truth and Rebel for life.