rupert read xr davos

The World Economic Forum (WEF) is the first of the big global conferences of 2020 that will lead us to COP26 in Glasgow where governments will be under enormous pressure to agree safe and realistic action for the future. With Extinction Rebellion (XR) and other protest groups converging in the Swiss alpine town of Davos, I asked their leading spokesperson, Rupert Read, whether the tone being set here is encouraging:

Rupert Read (RR): On the one hand it is absolutely clear that the WEF are trying, they have changed their rhetoric a lot, and they have made various kinds of token gestures towards sustainability. All of this is a kind of progress but on the other hand, there are some pretty big concerns. There are still literally hundreds of people flying in here on private jets and helicopters.

There just isn’t any future with private jets. I don’t mean there isn’t any future for the WEF being taken seriously for its sustainability credentials, which is obviously true, I mean there just isn’t any future!

So there are some pretty hard questions that the WEF is going to have to ask itself if it actually wants to get serious about the things it is claiming and, of course, that is part of the reason Extinction Rebellion is here, to ask those very challenging questions.

NB: In terms of asking the questions and holding to account, we seem to have a timeline between now and COP26. Do you have a perceived route along that timeline where Extinction Rebellion, for example, are popping up and saying ‘things aren’t going as well as they should’, or otherwise?

RR: So, XR is concentrating a lot on COP this year as something to work towards. Not because we believe that there is anything like the right kind of agreement coming out of it. The COP process is basically broken as far as we are concerned. It is patently failing and there needs to be a much more severe injection of concern, fear, hope and determination from civil society if we are going to get anywhere in this process.

In other words, basically, what we need is something like worldwide uprisings of an Extinction Rebellion nature which push governments way beyond where they are at present.

So we are going to be working towards this a lot this year. You are going to be seeing all sorts of stuff, obviously reaching a crescendo this November, and I think you will see the mother of all protests in the UK this November.

But this is not because we think there is a very strong chance of the right outcome happening, it is just because it is an enormous opportunity that we have to try to take.

NB: Coming back to the WEF, they seem to be saying what you want them to say, does that mean you are on the same side now?

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RR: I don’t think they are saying what we want them to say, yet, I wouldn’t go that far. I was in a meeting yesterday, a private meeting, talking about protests in the WEF context. It was a very interesting group of people and a fantastic conversation, to be honest.

There was, for example, a major sustainability director from a major household company there, and she was saying, ‘look we are doing all this great stuff and we are aiming for 2030’, etcetera, and I said, ‘well look, do you know that we in Extinction Rebellion are calling for 2025 for biodiversity loss to go to zero and for carbon to zero?’

She was like, ‘God, no, I didn’t realise that!’

So, as far as XR is concerned, even 2030 is off the pace, let alone 2050. Let’s be very clear, most of what is being talked about here is around 2050.

2050 as far as Extinction Rebellion is concerned is completely the wrong target. It is catastrophic death basically. Look where we are in 2020… look where Australia is in 2020. This is an emergency!

If you are in an emergency you don’t make things worse for the next 30 years, and that is what 2050 means.

So there is an enormous distance to go and it is not just a quantitative distance, it is a qualitative distance too because if you are talking about carbon net-zero by 2050, you can bet on non-existent technologies. If you are talking about carbon net-zero by 2025, you can’t. You have to make an emergency reduction plan and an emergency mobilisation now. That is something which no corporate has, as far as I can tell, got its head around, let alone embraced yet, and the same goes for governments.

So the distance is still pretty enormous.

NB: You make a good point referencing visible stuff that we are seeing like Australia and Jakarta, it is very tangible. With that tangibility, there is coming a lot of emotional distress and anxiety. We all have some skin in the game and we can see the climate impacts.

Now that civil society is wondering how they can do something that is affirming, and your being XR, that is something you want to tap into, can you talk about the value of action, for civil society?

RR: Yes. Taking action is the best way to deal with your hopes and your fears. A lot of people are feeling very isolated, very hopeless, very scared, the best antidote to that is to take action with other people. Real action that rises to the plate that expresses your freedom from what is normal in society, freedom from laws, from what government expects, etcetera, in other words, Extinction Rebellion, we are in rebellion.

We are saying ‘a government that is driving us over a cliff… how can that be legitimate?’ and when you go out on the streets and you protest outside companies and you protest outside government offices and so on, you are saying, ‘we are not prepared to go along with your rules anymore because you are driving us and our children off a cliff.’

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That is enormously empowering and that active hope is the best antidote to emotional distress. You know, this emotional distress, it is actually vital, it is actually healthy. What this emotional distress is telling us is that we are waking up. What it is telling us is that we are paying attention.

If you are not terrified some of the time then you are not paying attention and what is fascinating here in Davos and one of the reasons we are able to get somewhere here, you know, in the belly of the beast, is because we know that there are lots of business leaders, lots of people here a the WEF, they are feeling some of this distress too.

They are worried about their children, they are worried about what is happening with the natural world. They know, a lot of them, that we are right.

That is why what we are doing here at Davos is talking to people behind closed doors, talking to companies like Facebook, like Accenture, and so on, and saying, ‘look, you basically know that we are right, don’t you?’

People are people whether they are in corporations or not, and this is what is very exciting about what we in XR are very insistent on, that we really are all in this together.

If we can really get some fo the corporates, etcetera, to feel that then things start to become possible that were not possible before.

NB: Are you saying that the response needs to be more exponential?

RR: Absolutely, yes, the response needs to be exponential. Extinction Rebellion in the UK for example, achieved extraordinary things in 2019 with the people that we had, tens of thousands of people.

But tens of thousands of people isn’t enough. We need hundreds of thousands of people. We may need millions of people and we need a few of the people here in Davos as well.

Just imagine if we got a couple of billionaires here to give us a no strings attached vast donation. What I want to find is the Extinction Rebellion equivalent of the Koch brothers. A couple of billionaires who are actually prepared to put their money where their mouths, or, where their hearts are.

People who are woken up enough to understand that if they just try and hold on to their money, the whole world is going to go to crap. The situation is genuinely desperate. Yeah, we’ve got to be exponential, we have got to be exponential as civil society, exponential in our rebellion.

If there are a few people here in Davos who understand how they could fuel that, that could be very significant!


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