‘Every Adult has a Choice Now About How to Show Up for These Times’
Stephen Colegrave speaks to Gail Bradbrook, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, about how the movement has evolved and what keeps her fighting
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SC: It’s five years since you co-founded XR. What has its main impact been?
GB: Prior to setting up XR in 2018, climate change was not a top issue for the general public. But now figures from the Office for National Statistics show 75% of the public is ‘worried about climate change’. Of course we were not alone – Greta Thunberg, David Attenborough, Mark Carney and Jem Bendell all made important interventions.
How have you kept resilient?
There is a need to practise self-care as a radical act, despite what some might call ‘internalised capitalism’ – the way we enable extraction from our own bodies. I often tell activists in or on the edge of burnout that the first place Earth begins for them is their own bodies. It doesn't make sense to be pressing for change whilst depleting themselves unsustainably – it's the same system at play.
I have a variety of practices to support my wellbeing and attend ceremonies for the bigger shifts and seasonal resets – there’s so much wisdom and holding from the Earth. If this all sounds a bit ‘earth mother worthy’ though, I also find gin and tonic to be an excellent medicine. Not to mention sex. Also, we all need a laugh.
How concerned are you that the UK's Carbon Footprint is still increasing?
Somehow, I am past being concerned – because I understand our carbon footprint will hardly change since we are part of an economic system and a story of modernity that has destruction baked in. It's part of the design and it is leading to collapse. The key issue now is what will this collapse into?
We need to discover the ‘strange or third’ attractor that seeds collapse into a better state, even as we face a momentous ordeal together as a species. Collapse into some kind of eco-fascistic surveillance state is a strong possibility, many signs of this are already there. Ditto a collapse into chaos.
How far do you think we already are in a state of collapse?
In the important new book by Professor Jem Bendell, Breaking Together, he argues we entered collapse in 2015 in the UK and elsewhere. These various crises are in our mental health, inequality/poverty, in our biosphere, and of course all these are linked. But this is a 5,000-year-old story of domination and control; a paradigm we are waking up from. It is in fact, to my estimation and without being glib about the impacts, an exciting time to be alive.
How important is democracy and the fight against authoritarianism in protecting us from further collapse?
We really have to get to grips with the fact we don’t have a functioning democracy. In studies, the majority of people feel they do not have a say in anything. Democracy is about informed consent and the media on the whole is captured by right-wing billionaires. Even those media that are not are biased by their advertising of high carbon consumer lifestyles which are at odds with their environmental reporting. Now it’s even more worrying with AI’s potential for messing with people’s heads. I think getting reliable channels that people trust is going to be essential.
We must get skilled-up around forms of participatory democracy. XR is working with others like Trust The People to support and train people to run people’s assemblies.
It is important to start thinking about collapse awareness, to start meeting with the leadership across our communities, including those that helped build mutual aid when the pandemic hit. We must really work in our communities to scenario-plan and to even imagine things like food rioting, mass deaths caused by an even more virulent illness than Covid, or a fascist takeover and mass flooding.
We need people to improve local decision-making, as this is a question of survival. Even in these difficult times, people can discover thriving in adversity and sometimes people find that the most challenging times are the ones that bring back community. We also need to learn and find ways to deal with conflict well and be able to give and receive feedback.
How fundamentally do we need to change society to survive and protect the planet?
Clearly, the continual growth of GDP is not sustainable and is destroying the planet even though this is how most governments measure their success. Capitalism itself has become less functional and transparent even according to its own definitions. There is an increasing dishonesty in the system as monopolies increasingly hold power.
We have to recognise that the foundations of capitalism are no longer possible. There is no choice – change is happening. It is no point clinging on to the belief that better leaders or improving the system will be enough – I am not against reform and there can be some short-term gains, but eventually there will be a collapse and people need to get their heads around it. Baselines are already shifting.
What is required for fundamental change?
We need to build the new and rebel against the current.
One example is the non-payment of council tax. Non-payment of bills had a big spark last year when the Don’t Pay movement achieved its aims before it even got going. It seems obvious that the non-payment of water bills is the thing to do considering how badly the water companies have treated the environment.
Of course, all these things need organising and collaboration is essential. There needs to be practical support and that’s why XR has done the systems realignment project that has produced a practical toolkit for collaborative practices. This includes how to decide who makes which decisions and how to do feedback and learning, how to handle conflicts and how to support the flow of resources.
It is no coincidence that the cultures that have survived understand this. Indigenous cultures that have got this far, and still kept something alive despite the hideous murderous destruction of their people, have an amazing resilience. They don’t just give us clues about sustainability but about survival itself.
In the Global North, the false story of modernity offers a predominantly white, middle-class some comforts and incentives to play the game and some sense that we might be okay – but it is just a spell because we are being asked to sacrifice our kids at that altar.
How has XR’s approach evolved?
When we were out on the streets for the Big One, we achieved our goal of 100,000 people or near enough. In some ways, it helped some of us come to terms with the reality that the street protests aren’t going to do it alone.
When you want to make a shift, you need to have enough power. Up to now, we’ve been good at idea power – breaking the spell of climate denial, resignation and apathy for many. Physical power was important too, with people physically preventing HS2 cutting down trees that slowed down that whole terrible project. Economic power is the hardest to achieve, especially with the trade union laws in this country, but it is time to focus on this and particularly bill payment strikes. Mortgage non-payments will happen when people wake up to the impact of high-interest rates. It will need the solidarity that happened in Spain, when people stopped the banks from reclaiming people’s houses.
The biggest challenge for environmental movements is to build genuine relationships with our family in the Global South who’ve been resisting and struggling for years. Subtle forms of racism and white supremacy get in the way that we don’t sufficiently address in our movements. My colleague Stu Basden wrote an article about one aspect of this that we call ‘the white glaze’ – I recognised this in myself, when a sister who is a Sufi Muslim talked about me glazing over when she was talking about resistance struggles in India. It just wasn’t part of my story and so I didn’t connect with it. We must not feel shame or guilt but see how these systems operate and take action to do something different.
How do you get the rich and powerful to give up their grip on society?
Douglas Rushkoff wrote beautifully about this in The Survival Of The Richest, meeting five leading hedge fund managers who paid half his annual salary as a professor to ask where they should build survival bunkers. He talked about the depth of despair behind these questions. Is this the life anyone really wants?
Rich and powerful people only have a grip on society because we are staying in this individuality story and we are separated from our family in the Global South – where all the extraction that gives them this wealth takes place. If we collaborate and build a sense of community, this can change. This is important because, as collapse happens, there is a strong risk of eco-fascism and surveillance capitalism.
What makes you hopeful about the future?
Hope? It's a funny term. It is insipid if it means a sort of comfort-seeking assurance that all will be well, or could be well, because someone else is going to sort it out. Every adult has a choice now about how to show up for these times. I know there’s pressure and stress, and still we all have something to do. What is mine to do? There’s a question to return to. Then doing it – that’s where the hope is. Wider than that, there is the very aliveness of life and the mystery of this vast universe. My best times have that feeling of flow with something way bigger than me that seems to have a purpose.. it is all about love, love in active service to life.#
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