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The Espresso Series: an interview with Extinction Rebellion co-founder Dr Gail Bradbrook

Honor Crean and Grace Volante, students at the University of Edinburgh, interviewed Dr Gail Bradbrook, the co-founder of the environmental movement Extinction Rebellion, as part of their radio programme ‘The Espresso Series’ on freshair.org.uk.

Extinction Rebellion – often shortened to XR – was founded in the UK in May 2018 by Bradbrook, activist Roger Hallam, and members of the environmental campaign group Rising Up.

Since then, XR has become known for various international acts, such as protests, roadblocks and occupations.

In the UK, XR has three demands: for the government to ‘tell the truth’ about the climate crisis, for the government to ‘act now’ to reduce greenhouse emission and halt biodiversity loss by 2025, and for decisions to be led by a ‘beyond government’ Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.

Speaking of the lead-up to the group’s formation, Bradbrook speaks of her past as a Green party member and her interest in issues such as tax avoidance.

“I’ve always been interested in social change,” she states. “It’s really hard to find people to do civil disobedience with, it turns out.”

Through her and Hallam’s involvement with Rising Up, they “…tested some tactics…learnt some things about social movements and how to get them going…Eventually, we said ‘right, let’s try to start a rebellion’.”

Bradbrook describes other 2018 events, such as UN climate meetings and the Fridays for future school strikes, and how they influenced the creation of XR. “It was something that wanted to happen, and we just created the conditions for it…”

“It’s a movement that will be remembered by history,” Crean agrees.

Volante then describes the drop in pollution that has occurred during the Covid-19 pandemic as a result of reduced travel and industrial activity and asks Bradbrook how this change could be maintained.

“…the pandemic has shown us…the impossible can happen…50% of emissions come from 10% of the population and those emissions have dropped drastically because… we’re at home. It shows you that it is possible.” Bradbrook goes on to talk about the ‘No Going Back’ campaign, which seeks to continue the environmental changes put into place by the pandemic.

Continuing on this subject, Bradbrook explains how governments can act to prevent the reversal of this change, stating that they should not be bailing out high-carbon industries and should be ‘creating money’ to fight climate change in the same way that they have done to deal with the problems caused by the pandemic.

“What the government should do most of all is to notice that there aren’t safety nets,” she adds.

In response to Crean remarking that “…the government needs to be held accountable,”, Bradbrook states “It’s a systemic issue… you have to change the rules of the system.

“The onus is on us to build a different world.”

Talking then about actions the younger generation can takes, Bradbrook says that they should be “organised” and “angry” due to problems such as housing shortages, and that youth working together is the way to tackle this problem.

“They’re fucked, the government, if young people… come together and decide “we’ve had enough”.”

Crean’s next question is about newly-elected Labour leader Keir Starmer and his statement about climate change being Labour’s top priority, asking Bradbrook if she “believes in Starmer”.

“I’m doing social movements because I don’t believe in mainstream politics… I feel people should do what moves and motivates them.”

Bradbrook then discusses the challenges that Labour may face in becoming elected, such as the clash between their support of the environment and their support of unions for workers in industries which may damage the environment.

“I would caution against spending a lot of time hoping that Starmer is this sort of saviour… we’ve got to save ourselves.”

“I vote… and then I do real politics, which is, I think, getting us on the streets.”

Speaking more generally about politics, she describes UK-based problems such as the use of tax havens and resource draining.

“Until we stop doing that, we will be inherently, structurally and significantly part of the destruction of the planet,” Bradbrook explains, adding that the formation of a Citizens’ Assembly would allow for “a move away from this kind of democracy.”

Volante asks about the three government demands listed above and whether or not they would require systemic change.

“Whatever we do has to have justice at the heart of it, both for people and planet…I don’t see how you can look at issues of justice without looking at issues of finance and economics… same for the planet… you have to look at the planet’s capacity to provide.”

Bradbrook states that the government’s target, to cut carbon emissions by 2050, may require the “exploitation of people and planet” if too many resources are used in creating alternatives such as electric cars and nuclear power stations.

“We can’t live the way we’re living now…coronavirus is showing us that we’re not the ones in the domination story…

“Why don’t we look at the history that went on for millions of years… vast periods when we were in alignment with nature?” Bradbrook asks, comparing the idea of ‘totalitarian agriculture’ with the nature-led practices of certain indigenous cultures, in which humans are not the “dominant species”.

She speaks of the need for people to trust themselves and work together.

“The crucial bit of oppression of young people… is to make you think that you don’t know what’s going off, not to trust your intelligence, double down on if you’re a woman and you’re working class, don’t trust your thinking and… don’t believe in your power.

“For any group, it’s the togetherness that matters.”

The topic turns to the diversity of Extinction Rebellion. Crean asks if XR is representative of a cross section of society and, if not, how less represented groups can be included.

Bradbrook replies that she doesn’t feel that XR is necessarily representative of society in the UK: “It’s okay for XR not to be everything. It’s okay for XR to be what it is…we’re in this wider movement of movements.”

She explains that they are learning from other movements to improve connectivity and consider themselves to be part of an internationalist solidarity movement.

Continuing on this subject, Volante asks how XR has protected vulnerable members of the group in the past and will continue to do so in the future, such as during protests and when people choose to be arrested as part of their activism.

“It takes between 10 and 20 people to support anybody who chooses to get arrested…you may have a caring responsibility… there’s lots of reasons why arrest may not be the thing for you.

“We have, and we do, take care of people around the legal side of things as best we can… I guess there’s always improvements that could be made.”

The penultimate question relates to Bradbrook’s experience as both a woman and an activist: the advantages and disadvantages of being female in the role; advice that she may have for other women.

“Tackling internalised self-hatred… it brings a lot of compassion and … humility, for understanding that people struggle.

“The experience of sexism, if you can get over it… what doesn’t kill you can only make you stronger.”

Finally, Bradbrook is asked a write-in question from Giorgio Constandi of Cambridge, about whether or not she thinks the global rise of populism is linked to the fear of dwindling resources as a result of environmental change.

Describing the issues of division that populism may cause, Bradbrook states: “We are being actively divided…in our social movements we have to tend to issues of solidarity… People need to acknowledge that they’re being played.

“I don’t really believe in blaming anybody because it’s a route to division, it’s a route to individualism.

“Every place we can build togetherness is building our resilience.”

The Espresso Series airs every Wednesday at 5pm on freshair.org.uk.

Image: via BBC.co.uk