Why haven’t we tackled the ecological crisis and what can we do about it?

The following is a recent keynote speech for Nesta FutureFest by Dr. Gail Bradbrook, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion. A few pictures added by me. Available to view on FuturePlayer http://bit.ly/FuturePlayer

In these coronavirus times it’s common and understandable to hear people longing for when we can get back to normal. But “Normal” was responsible for creating pandemics and normal was not prepared for crises of its own making. Normal should have been prepared for the coronavirus crisis because pandemics were named as the most impactful, high-likelihood event on the Cabinet Office National Risk Register created as a result of the 2004 Civil Contingencies Act.

The coronavirus pandemic is of its time and also a shape of things to come. It is a white swan event. Look around and see all the swans! A variety of crises are already here or clearly on their way, with global south countries especially on the frontline as well as the most vulnerable people in our country. A coroner recently made legal history in the UK by ruling that air pollution was a cause of the death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah. Researchers believe that 1 in 19 deaths in the UK are linked to air pollution.

Other white swan crises include devastating floods, water shortages, antibiotics and anti-fungal resistance, a crisis of soil fertility and of production of food from the sea and on the land.

Our bodies contain chemical and plastic pollutants that we can’t get rid of; except that a mother offloads her toxic build up of dioxins and PFOA, etc, onto her baby, through her placenta and her breast milk. We are setting mothers up to literally poison their babies with their own bodies (breast is still best).

Let’s really pay attention to what we are talking about here — we are living on the most beautiful, life-filled planet, and we are both annihilating it and removing the support systems that sustain us: the pollinators, the aquifers, the fertile soil, the glaciers that regulate water flow and temperature, that are leaving us right now.

A “Frontiers” science paper from January this year — authored by 17 ecological scientists, in institutions spanning the globe, said:

“The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its life forms — including humanity — is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp even for well informed experts”.

They go on to state: “Ours is not a call to surrender — we aim to provide leaders with a realistic ‘cold shower’ of the state of the planet that is essential for planning to avoid a ghastly future”.

How could we have failed to act and continue to do so, how can our so-called plans be so deeply inadequate? It is a time requiring a true emergency response, not unlike that of a war economy, though I prefer to think of a postwar reconstruction — we have been and are at war with nature.

Have we failed so badly because of the ‘tragedy of the horizon’? — — because the crisis is not affecting us enough now for us to step up and act. This is the hypothesis of the former Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, from his 2020 Reith Lecture. Can that really be the case, even with the wildfires and the experience of Covid19? Covid, as a zoonotic disease, is a clear example of nature’s response to our abuse.

I would argue there has been and continues to be a systemic failure of leadership, within the media, business and of course politics. This is not to discount those voices who are and have been shouting as loudly as they can, though I might suggest to them that doing so whilst glued to a government building will add much amplification to their messages 🙂

A 2016 report called Thinking the Unthinkable, based on interviews with leaders across the world, made it clear that our leaders are perilously inadequate at facing the very real possibility of extremely difficult, non-normative events.

I believe our leaders are rendered unwilling, by the culture of our political economy, to confront the reality we find ourselves in. It’s a culture that has led to a new market in the building of bunkers for the super rich, in an attempt to survive what is called “The Event” when our civilisation collapses.

We are not simply talking of significant risk and harm here, rather of existential risk.

An existential risk is an adverse outcome that would either annihilate intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.

Last June the government’s own climate change committee issued a warning that we should prepare for a 4 degree warmer world, despite having said in 2008 “The Committee’s judgement… is that if a 4°C rise were reached, extreme consequences potentially beyond our ability to adapt would arise”. In fact, there is, according to Professor Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre, a widespread view that 4°C is:

  • incompatible with an organised global community
  • beyond ‘adaptation’
  • devastating to eco-systems
  • And highly unlikely to be stable

We can’t be sure of when impacts will arrive and and how deep they will be, because the climate science community is still figuring out climate sensitivity effects. But Sir David King, former government Chief Scientific Advisor, is not alone in believing that we are already breaching climate tipping points and that we do not really have any so-called carbon budget left.

Also there are second and third order effects that arise with overlapping crises; thus outside the domain of physical sciences. They are studied via a variety of disciplines which feed into a lesser known branch of social science: collapsology. The path we are on — based on actual emissions as opposed to inadequate and unmet promises, points towards the collapse of our civilisation, endless war, famine, and billions of people dying.

Crimes Against Humanity are being committed right now on a vast scale. It really is hard to get your head around.

So let’s stop pretending we have got this one, or we are about to sort it out. We’ve failed. We have passed thresholds, meaning we are in the age of consequences and the severity of those consequences depends on our ability to prepare, to adapt; and the extent and urgency with which we are willing to go into full, effective and meaningful, emergency mode.

The “Frontiers” authors go on to ask: “what political or economic system, or leadership, is prepared to handle the predicted disasters, or even capable of such action?”

And then they state: “The predominant paradigm is still one of pegging ‘environment’ against ‘economy’; yet in reality, the choice is between exiting overshoot by design or disaster — because exiting overshoot is inevitable one way or another”.

The public are with them it seems. A recent survey by B lab UK says that 76%* of the UK population believe that capitalism either isn’t working properly or is harmful AND 72%* believe that businesses should have a legal responsibility to the planet and people, alongside maximising profits.

As Mark Carney states: “The current generation, with our horizon fixated on the current news, business and political cycles, has few direct incentives to solve the issue, even though the sooner we act, the less costly it will be; for an issue that can only be solved in the present, we have to value the future.”

While hinting at the systemic nature of our predicament, Dr. Carney falls short of naming that the current system actively incentives harmful behaviour, keeps us focussed on the current, with little ability to care for the future (bear in mind the future means our children’s lives), as well as containing feedback loops that shape our values. The $560 billion global advertising industry, growing in their power to shape consumerism, the algorithms in social media, deciding what we see, and so on.

It is known from the work of ‘The Spirit Level’ authors, Wilkinson and Pickett, for example, that income inequality affects trust, many aspects of personal and social wellbeing and our ability to consider and act on climate change. The richest 10% are also responsible for 50% of emissions and if we were to bring the carbon footprint of the richest down to that of the average european, emissions would go down by a third. Meanwhile global south countries are not in a position to pay for measures to transition to a green economy, due to vast wealth inequalities between countries. This is caused in large part by the systemic looting enabled by secrecy jurisdictions, aka tax havens, and the biggest facilitator of this neo-colonial plunder is the UK and our crown dependencies and overseas territories. If we want to work together on this, we need to stop rigging the system, in a way that is costing governments of the world the equivalent of an annual nurses salary every second.

This is a time for truth telling and speaking out and I’m especially calling on leaders of institutions and businesses to come out and make career risking statements about the inability of our current political economy to address the apocalyptic situation we are in.

I was once invited into the inner sanctum of a ‘corporate responsibility’ retreat in a FTSE100 tech company to be a ‘critical friend’. The senior manager who was there said to the group, ‘I love this company, I feel like I can be my true self here and say what I think’. In my session, I said to the group, ‘Here is the evidence of your wholesale tax dodging. How can you pretend to care about inclusion and then participate in such inequality-creating corruption?’. In the coffee break, the same senior manager took me quietly to one side and said: ‘Thank you so much for saying what you did — there’s no way I could have done that’.

Where are the business leaders with the backbone to risk their careers for the truth? Those who can admit that many corporate business models would collapse if the ‘externalities’ of pollution, biodiversity loss, health impacts, and social costs were internalised? Business models built around aggressively persuading people to buy things they don’t need, things that will soon break through built-in obsolescence.

When will business leaders admit that the straight-jacket of profit over purpose incentivises the damaging of our world? When will they call out the absurdity of a system that insists on growth regardless of whether social and environmental wellbeing is growing too? Can they truly stomach a system that enables monopoly power and erodes democracy? A system where money, funnelled through a global network of corruption, buys advantage; subverts the media; manipulates behaviour; and weaponises big data?

It is time to speak out, the political economy emperor has no clothes on and it needs to be said by you, business and institutional leaders. The path we are on can easily lead to fascism; hear the call of your greater responsibility here.

Questioning the status quo is often dismissed as ‘extremist’ or ‘anti-capitalist’, but all I’m doing here is calling for a system that puts measures in place to protect life. What’s extremist about that? Don’t we all want to live? We shouldn’t have to protect the economy, as if it is an emergent natural phenomenon — it isn’t- we have choice — the economy we choose should protect us. There’s a bounty of ideas for better economic systems, which prioritise the wellbeing of people and planet. I’m asking us all to set aside preciously held ideological positions, to have a coming together, a grown up conversation. There’s a bounty of ideas for making incremental system changes — this isn’t about pulling some huge lever that points from one system to another whilst foregoing all the immediate action we could be taking. And, there are 9 different schools of economic theory all with things to offer. Many economies are in reality a blend of approaches.

So this is not about throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water — if business and markets within the current set up can rapidly decarbonise our energy systems, then let it happen soon, though without furthering global injustice.

The ecological crisis isn’t all about carbon however. We need to consume less and lower our energy usage. The IPCC has been clear on that point. Where is the systemic drive for that? Why isn’t the system willing to step into a wartime economy, as it has had to before when faced with other existential threats?

Let us be honest- this isn’t a failure of the system- the system is working perfectly well, with its goal to convert nature and human labour into profit and economic growth…

The political economy is wedded to GDP growth. Growth requiring extractivism, consumerism, and “excretivism”- plunder, gorge and waste. The logic of cancer. Growthism advocates are trying to tell us a new fairy tale where we magically can now have green growth.

A two part literature review essentially seeking evidence for green economic growth, assessed 835 papers, screened from a base of 11,500. The authors stated “We conclude that large rapid absolute reductions of resource use and greenhouse gas emissions cannot be achieved through observed decoupling rates, hence decoupling needs to be complemented by sufficiency-oriented strategies and strict enforcement of absolute reduction targets.” In plain english we can have growth or we can avoid a climate and ecological catastrophe. The argument that we can have both, is untrue.

This does not preclude growth in certain sectors or in countries whose economies are developing. But overall we need to let go of GDP as if it is measuring something only positive and work with other measure sets, several already designed, that include measures of ecological, social and personal wellness.

Ha Joon Chang, a reader of Political Economy at the University of Cambridge has said that a foundation of democracy is ordinary citizens challenging economists, because power politics are far more important in determining what policies get implemented than economic theories.

Citizens Assemblies at national, regional and international levels have been used to tackle challenging issues and there is a growing body of work understanding how to optimise their effectiveness. In such deliberative processes, ordinary citizens could work with economists, and other experts, to assess issues that are contributing to humanity’s crisis point and help design alternatives.

There seems to me to be a desperate attachment to a “no value lost” transition — leaders are hoping for incremental, “politically-realistic” changes from a business-as-usual mindset, dominated by vested interests. We are playing a lethal game of appeasement with nature. Can we stop lying to ourselves? We fucked up and there’s a price to pay. And those with the most resources have to pay it- as in times of post war reconstruction.

So we are experiencing a kind of denialism, a form of bargaining. And this includes pernicious greenwashing. Listen to what Barclays, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, HSBC and BlackRock have to say about their green credentials and then look at who is funding the destruction of the Amazon and new fossil fuels across the world.

The capture of rational thought has gone so far that a so called Nobel prize for economics in 2018 was given to William Nordhaus who suggested 4 degrees of warming was actually optimal (this work has been thoroughly debunked by Professor Steve Keen but the damage is done, the work helped to shape and justify policy thinking for years).

The political economy is a manifestation of a diseased way of thinking and feeling. A disease that has, however, not infected humanity forever, as far as I can tell. And it does not seem to infect all cultures. Indigenous people in the algonquin languages name this disease Wetiko. We are so infected with it, it can be hard for us to imagine living differently.

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a scientist and decorated professor, as well as an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. In Braiding Sweetgrass she describes that when she asks her students for examples of how humans are destroying nature, they provide her with plenty. When she asks how humans interact with nature in a way that is beneficial to nature, the class is silent.

With sweetgrass disappearing from its historic locales, Robin and her students wanted to find out how harvesting practices might be causing its demise. In one method pickers pull the whole plant up from the roots, in another they snap the plant off near its roots. They carried out a field trial, observing both methods alongside a control area where no harvesting took place.

The result showed the sweetgrass actually thrived with either method of harvesting, if the indigenous wisdom law of leaving more than half unharvested, was honoured. Surprisingly, the place of most demise were the control areas, where no harvesting took place at all. So sweetgrass wants us to pick her, we are in a reciprocal relationship so long as we honour the agreement.

What relationships do we need to have with nature in these modern times? And I really mean relationships. What agreements do we need to honour? Where are these questions being asked in the mainstream discourse in tackling the ecological crisis? They need to be foundational. We can set this right.

Another name for wetiko is patriarchy. A paradigm of domination, of one group by another, of humanity over nature, one that leaves us feeling powerless, separated and with a sense of scarcity. The shift that we need is profound. Systemic shifts can be both fed by and be an enabler of the shifts we make internally, as individuals and within our communities.

There are other forms of power coming into the force- the power of what Miki Kashtan calls the soft qualities — traditionally seen as feminine and accessible by all of us regardless of gender. The power of humility and vulnerability, the power of truly feeling these times, then of letting go of the attachments we have to the numbing comfort and status afforded to some of us, telling the full truth of what we are bearing witness to.

There is a true force in the power of no longer giving a shit what the system will do to punish you if you step out of line. Thus the power of collective action, especially civil disobedience, which expresses the inflammation of a system that is diseased.

In Extinction Rebellion’s Money Rebellion we are organising financial civil disobedience and actions targeting banks and economic institutions calling for change. This includes conditional commitments where some are pledging to withhold mortgage payments if others join them. It includes taking out loans with banks and giving the money to those resisting and repairing the harm that is being caused by the bank, with the rebel having little if any intention of repaying. Some of us will withhold the percentage amount of tax money that the UK Government is using to fund destruction, such as through the subsidising of fossil fuels- we are the worst offenders in Europe- and projects like HS2 and the road building programme. We do this in solidarity with those who can’t afford the debts they have, and mass non payment therein may be considered by some.

Space for dialogue and change can arise when you disrupt the operation of “normal”.

The demands of XR Money Rebellion, targeting government, banks and wider institutions, are:

  • Tell the truth: our political economy distorts priorities and rewards harmful behaviour; it is hard-wired to create crises and destroy life; we must set aside differences and confront why we have failed to act.
    Act now to stop financing and enabling destruction, fully disclose their social, climate and ecological impacts, and reorientate their purpose to minimise harm, repair the damage, and prepare for crises.
  • Champion Citizens’ Assemblies at all key levels, including global, with mandates to design a regenerative political economy in service to all people and life on earth.

There is already greater interest in transformative approaches to democracy- so that we can (in George Monbiot’s words) rewild democracy, bringing it back to the people, through deliberative processes like citizens assemblies and participatory budgeting.

So I don’t want to go back to normal, but what I do want us to do, is to reimagine what a new normal might look like.

Where climate anxiety can debilitate or create panic stricken burn-out, facing and feeling our grief and remorse together, has proved to be liberating, opening up the space for imagination, courage and vision.

Let our grief and remorse break us open in a way that means we are ready to build a new world, as this paradigm falls to pieces around us.

In the words of Transition Towns founder Rob Hopkins, let us move from What Is to What If

  • What If we redesigned our economy and our production so it mimicked nature — abundance within boundaries and nothing wasted?
  • What If we redesigned our democracy, so that it was orientated towards providing our basic needs, repairing the harm we have done and planning for, and adapting to, the crises to come?
  • What If we cancelled HS2 and used the money instead to support our farmers to transition from factory farming, pesticides and fossil fuel fertilisers, to agro-ecology, which offers one of the biggest hopes for carbon capture and storage- in healthy, life filled soils.
  • What If a Global Citizens Assembly, and there’s one on the way inshallah, brought our beautiful human family together to address systemic issues? Like tackling our corrupt global tax system. Like bringing about a global crime of Ecocide. Like redesigning the foundations of business so that it is purpose led?
  • What If we prioritised using all the latest knowledge to rapidly heal from the trauma we are all carrying, in different ways, our own version of wetiko, to restore our dignity and free our capacity?
  • What If we decided to repair the harm caused by years of colonialism and racism?
  • What If we used our skills where they were most needed, with a deep sense of living in our purpose, on the way to becoming worthy ancestors?
  • Rob Hopkins has a book full of these “What IF’s” and I’m sure you have your own..

SO What If we all took part in civil disobedience, refusing en masse, in meaningful and mischievous ways, to participate in a system that is killing life on earth? What If we did that in solidarity with all the communities of resistance across the exploited world? And What If that sparked the change that so many of us are longing for…

I’ll end with this quote that I love from Martin Pretchel’s book, Secrets of the Talking Jaguar, recounting his time living as a shaman with Mayan people :

“Mayan tradition does not teach that the Gods want people to be sinless or perfect, but they believe that the Gods love beauty, eloquence, fine clothes, great music, fine poems, bravery, high animal spirits and gratitude.”

Thank you.

Gail Bradbrook

Extinction Rebellion

From 11am, Monday 15th April, London and all over the world.

331 groups in 49 different countries so far.

We are facing an unprecedented global emergency. Life on Earth is in crisis: scientists agree we have entered a period of abrupt climate breakdown, and we are in the midst of a mass extinction of our own making.

ACT NOW

https://extinctionrebellion.org.uk

 

From the anti-fracking frontline in Lancashire

The government has recently proposed changes in planning laws that will make fracking in the UK easier. This is madness, fracking in this country was always a non-starter – it’s been banned in France, Germany and Scotland for good reasons. I’m supporting protests from a distance these days but here is a moving piece, re-posted from one of the long-term frontline protectors:-

“Recently after a nun, vicar and monk spoke during faith week… I asked some police officers, just who were the ‘good guys’? And they said themselves. So I asked who are the ‘bad guys’ they were here policing… was it the nun, the vicar or the monk? They laughed but it isn’t really funny is it… there must be ‘bad guys’ if policing levels are what they are and the only alternative on this road is Cuadrilla. The obvious fails to be seen by those who don’t look.

…………………………..

Today is day 501 since we arrived at Preston New Road to face Cuadrilla and the huge task of stopping them. Since then they have built a pad, changed their traffic management plan countless times, breached till it became so troublesome and obvious that they had to make a new rule that says: “If the police are accompanying the vehicle… it doesn’t count as a breach.”… they’ve proceeded but NOT as planned; if it had been as planned, they’d have done the flow test (fracked) by now. It is estimated they are 9 months and a year behind schedule.

Lancashire Police have estimated that policing the protests has cost £7 million

The ONLY thing stopping them being on-schedule is us. No part of our government or council has put any barriers in place or asked for pause on safety considerations when Cuadrilla made changes… they just get a well-greased ride from our ‘authorities’. The knitters, the ditherers, the delayers, the prayers, the surfers, the lock-ons, the dancers, the tea-drinkers… we’re the cause; every single moment of delay has accumulated into a huge headache for Cuadrilla, with suppliers having to work round us and some, getting wised-up or fed-up enough to pull out.

Success is impossible to measure, though the share price has not recovered since we caused the drop in it and remains below .40 cents (most investors bought in at a much higher than this price).

Failure though is felt every moment of every day that any of us stand before the beast of a rig. We feel small, inconsequential and aghast that we even have to do the work of regulators and authorities in order to keep our community and its children from harm.

Our right to peaceful protest is dependent on who is in charge at any given moment and the definition of acceptable peaceful protest has diminished to banner-waving across the road from the site entrance. We continue to sit in the entrance to the site… and are removed with the regularity of the vehicle arrivals and departures. Sometimes we are moved with care… other times we are quite literally thrown. We attempt too to get in front of the vehicles to slow them (as has been done on every other frack site) but here on the busy A583 PNR… the vehicles put pedal to the floor and don’t stop for anything. The police stand by and wrap-round the rapid vehicles, putting their own lives at risk for the flatbeds with pipes, the waste trucks, the water trucks, the skip hire and the toilet cleaning vehicle – each gets the sort of policing you’d imagine for an urgently required kidney en-route to a dying patient.

But still we come… still we gather and still we stand in protest anywhere we choose until we are rudely removed. It’s a weird thing… as a small child we are picked up and popped down all the time but as a grown-up, the act of being touched without permission and moved against your choosing – is such an affront to go through. We sit and get picked up and placed elsewhere so many times but after each… return to knit, sit, sip tea and carry on our essential defiance of the misappropriated ‘law’. The police say it is always for our own safety… there is no easy way to get them to see the lunacy of this statement when they make it in front of a drill rig they are facilitating into development with their services.

Is there a breaking point for us? There can’t be because what we are doing is too essential but there are certainly parts within us that ‘snap’.

I have had two episodes where I know I have been somewhat changed inside… the sort of change that although it adds to the determination to keep on keeping on and keeping on harder… but maybe a little something of the heart and spirit is damaged along the way. But this is a small price compared to what is experienced by those just like us, acting with the same urgency and motivation elsewhere in the world. Active citizens doing what we do are imprisoned, seriously hurt and killed in other countries and this fact… makes it all the more important that we DO NOT SUBMIT. We stand for our community of course but we also stand for all the others who do the same… one world, one water, one earth and air. I wonder what it is that gets us from our situation to theirs and only know that if we give up and say it is too much hurt, risk or difficulty – that we give up something very important in society.

Watching those we admire (if you’re fighting alongside us… you are amazing) getting hurt is so bloody hard… the natural sense of needing to peel off the police officer from their bodies or even thump the ones who threw them in the hedges or against fences, is hard to ignore. The problem is that all that anger builds and you can’t direct it at Cuadrilla because they’ve got the bubble-wrap of police around them and you can’t direct it at the police because they’ve got the protection of ‘law’ on their side. Honourable people fulfilling an obligation to safety in our community …are ‘the criminals’ in this scenario and that’s just plain bloody crazy.

It hurts to see anyone harmed and takes all our might to hold ourselves back… I swear a lot more now in place of constant charges of assault that would otherwise happen if I didn’t.

The eldest of my nieces is roadside with me and I have huge respect for the incredible job she does… her decisions are wise and I don’t worry that she makes dangerous choices as she’s intelligent and places her role as a mother as a priority. She was a distance from me last week during the exiting of a vehicle and all the crazy that comes with it… I glanced across and saw a tall, strong male body pushed up against the length of her from behind… his arms wrapped tightly round her front just below her breasts and as anyone would, saw obvious assault and ran to her. To me, her little face still looks as cute as it did when she was a toddler… I clawed at the officers hands to remove them but he had ‘law’ on his side. Our instincts that are natural, right and true are also attacked and squashed down into the growing tinder-box within ourselves and I wonder where this goes, what harms we are actually unaware of taking place within and how the hell we counter any of this.

Then I remember I am a grandmother and obliged to protect the young… and I remember George Bender and how the fight overtook him and the honourable lives lost where governments are even more brutal… and so I’ll get up and be there on day 502 and 3 and 4 until whatever it is that marks the last day.

To all who are at Preston New Road Rolling Roadside Protest and all who can’t be but ensure we are not unseen by sharing and supporting in any way possible – thank you, we will one day have time to pause, tend our wounds and heal past this theft from our lives.”

Tina Louise Rothery

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