Extinction Rebellion co-founder Dr Gail Bradbrook is explaining “terror management theory” over the phone from her home in Stroud.
Though The Independent only called her for a comment on her recent arrest – for smashing a window of Barclays Bank – the conversation has quickly expanded, largely due to her apparently infinite appetite for discussing the limits of human potential and our impact on the planet.
Terror management theory, she says, is about how cultures emerge, frightened of death, and how they cope with this fear.
“So they try to manage it so you don’t have to face it – they give you a story. And people become more attached to the story than they are willing to protect their own children – which I think is incredible.
“So terror management theory suggests you’d rather your child die than have the culture which takes away the fear of death removed from you.
“The examples used are often things like the mother of a jihadi who blows himself up and people say ‘wow, how can you celebrate the death of your son?’ or in Mayan culture where children were thrown off towers.
“But surely the worst example of it is narcissistic consumer capitalism. It gives us this space to function in, it’s addictive, it feeds our hunger and creates our hunger and it pulls you into that space.”
Challenging the bond we all hold with the dominant capitalist narrative, Bradbrook suggests, is a key part of what Extinction Rebellion is here to do.
Calls for revolution among activist groups are hardly new, however, the vast levels of international support and the number of people who identify with Extinction Rebellion – an organisation explicitly calling for wholesale systemic change – is something unseen since the rallying cry of communism during the 20th century.
It’s been a time of meaning and at the very least, people want to look their grandchildren in the eye and say ‘I did what I could
Gail Bradbrook, XR co-founder
We know our planet is already deep in the throes of environmental crisis – the early trickle of warnings from scientists in the latter half of the last century has gathered into a roaring tsunami in the 21st – but what we still don’t fully understand is how to build enough of a consensus to respond to this existential threat.
It is from within this frantic vacuum of leadership that Extinction Rebellion exploded, providing both a diagnosis and the promise of a salve to soothe the gnawing ache caused by the contradictions our society throws at us.
The most acute of these contradictions, so XR says, is the demand on humans made by our economic system. We need money to survive, but the organisations and structures underpinning capitalism are destroying our planet.
“We can’t live like this any more,” Bradbrook says. “There’s a denial at the heart of the economic system and the banking system – as long as you’re making money it’s ok. What they’ve done is to set a target to get to ‘net zero’ by 2050, but with no clue as to how that’s happening.
“The latest science is that we’ve already broken the Paris agreement – we’re hitting 2C of warming no matter what we do. And banks have put over $3 trillion into funding destruction since that agreement was signed.”
Bradbrook’s recent arrest came as the organisation announced a surge in activity, much of it focused on the international banking system, which the group has accused of perpetrating “ecological devastation”, which they said was “directly caused” by “funding, subsidising, and bailouts of toxic industries”.
Activists hosed the Bank of England with fake oil (biodegradable and made from a mixture of black pond dye and guar gum extracted from beans), and protests were also held in cities including New York, Paris and Vancouver.
“But this is not just about banks,” Bradbrook says.
“It’s easy to focus on the banks, and obviously they are a significant part of the issue, but we talk about the political economy as being unfit for purpose – well, it’s not unfit for purpose, the problem is its purpose is a detrimental purpose. The purpose of the political economy we have right now is to produce profit and growth. That’s not what humanity needs to hold as its purpose. It needs to hold as its purpose the protection of life on Earth.”
Formed in May 2018, less than three years ago, and three months before Greta Thunberg’s first solo School Strike for Climate, what began as a small group of seasoned protesters snowballed almost immediately into a significant global movement.
Protest actions under Extinction Rebellion banners have brought many tens of thousands of people to the streets in cities across the world, from New Zealand to Chile, via Switzerland.
A month after the official launch of the movement in October 2018 in Parliament Square, around 6,000 activists blockaded five central London bridges, in what was described by The Guardian as “one of the biggest acts of peaceful civil disobedience in the UK in decades”.
This was followed by far bigger protests in 2019, which blockaded central London streets and saw thousands arrested.
The movement has won huge levels of support from across political divides and from all parts of society. Famous names who have voiced support include Emma Thompson, Noam Chomsky, Stephen Fry, Steve Coogan, Mel B, Matt Berry, David Byrne, Jarvis Cocker, George Monbiot, Benedict Cumberbatch, Riz Ahmed, Peter Capaldi, Anthony Gormley, Ray Winstone, Jude Law, Amanda Palmer, Baroness Rosie Boycott and Natalie Imbruglia.
Even Lord (Zac) Goldsmith, currently minister of state for Pacific and the Environment, has described Extinction Rebellion’s recent protests at the Bank of England as “legitimate”, and Boris Johnson’s father Stanley said the movement was “extremely important”, in tackling the climate crisis.
But Bradbrook remains cynical about the intentions of government and big business.
“I’m told there are seismic shifts happening in the world, but there’s a phrase Ghandi used which is ‘first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you, and then you win.’
“But there’s this guy Ben Phillips, who’s written about inequality, who said it’s actually ‘first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you, then they say you’ve won.’
“I think we’ve hit that phase.”
“We’ve got the left saying we need this great reset, Prince Charles saying we need a paradigm shift, The Economist championing citizens assemblies, so maybe we are ripe for a change. But then you see that maybe £200bn is heading for HS2, which is basically an airport shuttle service, and you think ‘my god, imagine what we could spend all that money on’.”
Extinction Rebellion’s demand to see real systemic change is not only what has breathed life into the movement, it is also helping to lay the groundwork for a totally new post-capitalist ideology – whatever form it takes.
While governments continue to support existing capitalist structures, they are also unable to acknowledge the huge social and ecological ills market-based ideology propagates, XR maintains.
We have “a political economy that doesn’t want to do the right thing,” says Bradbrook. “What it’s done is concentrate wealth and power in the hands of so few people.
“There’s an underlying disease in the vast majority of western so-called democracies and societies that’s been deliberately pushed through the neo-liberal agenda – which is individualism – and to try and take away functioning democracy and hand it over to the market.
“There’s been a whole pile of neo-liberal thinking which has been from politicians’ short-term thinking that maybe the market will reflect human values and that will serve us well. I don’t think it was all necessarily pure evil intention, but it’s failed, and there’s not enough admittance that this project has failed.”
She describes the paradoxical twin sense of emptiness and gluttony engineered by capitalism in terms of a systemic modern affliction – almost an unseen pandemic.
“The disease indigenous cultures talk about – the Algonquin ‘wetiko’ – is the idea of being captured by an insatiable hunger and the drive in the system which seems to come from scarcity and separation and powerlessness,” she says.
“When you have that codified in your economic system you’re in bad trouble.”
Her own background is in politics and science.
“I come from a working class community. My dad was a coal miner and we were in a town where you’d have Arthur Scargill walking past you, so it was part of that landscape,” she says, of her hometown South Elmsall in West Yorkshire.
Bradbrook went on to study chemistry at Manchester where she got the best exam results in her year, and then went on to do a PhD in molecular biophysics.
During her time in Manchester she says she was also involved in the animal rights movement “to an extent”.
“I’m often portrayed as this kind of rebellious like anti-society type person, but the reality is that I’m the girly swot.”
Despite thinking seriously about starting a civil disobedience movement since 2010, she struggled to meet like-minded people.
But when she met farmer and activist Roger Hallam, “who was just as serious as I was”, it set the ball quickly rolling, and XR was founded.
She also cites a 2016 psychedelic retreat in Costa Rica, where she took the drugs ayahuasca and iboga as “part of the birth of the movement from my perspective”.
“I sort of used intention and prayer as part of my practice, and as a scientist it feels weird to talk about that as part of what I do.”
The psychedelic realm, she says, can help bridge the gap between science and humans’ spiritual needs.
“The scientific method is about experience and experiment isn’t it? And the consistent experiences of people who work with psychedelic medicines is that they make a connection with something bigger than themselves.
“There’s at least part of the science of consciousness which suggests it is bigger than – not an emergent property of the brain – something that is a kind of primary fabric of the universe.”
She cites the quantum physics of David Bohm who maintained that traditional, separate understandings of the mental and the physical world were inadequate.
Instead, using quantum mechanical theory, Bohm suggested that at a cellular level, the very process of thought also works according to the mathematics of some quantum effects, and therefore the very substance of thought is distributed through the ether just as quantum particles are.
This led Bohm to suggest that if there is a fault in the functioning of thought, it could therefore be a systemic fault, which infects an entire network of thinkers.
“But you’ve got this problem where you have scientific orthodoxy which can be quite unfortunately somewhat resistant to change, and quite sneery of other forms of wisdom and knowledge,” Bradbrook says.
Asked if it is difficult for Extinction Rebellion to bring a level of spirituality to the movement without diverting attention from immediate matters, she says: “It’s important that people feel welcome and don’t feel compelled to believe in something they haven’t got evidence for if it’s not their thing, or don’t want to go there.
“We’ve got Extinction Rebellion Muslims and Jews and Christians, lots of atheists as well, it’s important that people feel there’s space for them in this thing, there are quite a few people like myself who identify as pagans.”
While the movement is still in its infancy, it is already counting its successes – including putting pressure on local councils and the government to declare a climate crisis, influencing institutions to divest from fossil fuels, and having a major impact on the cultural landscape.
Though Bradbrook says her own view of the controversial Canning Town Tube action was that she “didn’t think it was that smart,” overall she gives the sense her pride in founding the movement is minimal and that in any case the work is not yet done.
“It’s been a time of meaning and at the very least, people want to look their grandchildren in the eye and say ‘I did what I could’.
“People [come to the demonstrations] because they feel they need to step forwards and be an upstander, not a bystander. If you’re an upstander you’re doing what’s necessary.
“And often people have a cracking good time.”