Climate breakdown is not someone else’s problem

This is the transcript of the speech I gave in Berlin on 15th April 2019.

The science-fiction writer Douglas Adams had a great idea for how to make something completely invisible. You generate a ‘someone else’s problem’ field around it. That way, every time someone looks at the thing, whatever it is, all they see is someone else’s problem, and they completely ignore it. I think that this is what we do when we think about the climate and ecological crises that are unfolding around us. These are huge problems, but they are also conveniently invisible. I’m not just talking about the fact that we can’t see the carbon dioxide in the air, or that species go extinct before they are even named by science; it goes deeper than that. I’m talking about the fact that it is always someone else’s problem. China needs to use less energy. Brazil needs to cut down fewer trees. Even when the realities of the climate crisis crash headlong into our world, unless we are directly affected, it’s always someone else’s problem. Wildfires in California? Their problem. Heatwaves in Australia? Their problem. 90% of an entire city destroyed by floods in Mozambique? That’s in Africa, Africa always has problems.

We think that it is someone else’s problem because the system we live in ignores the annihilation of the world around us. When heatwaves in Australia were so bad that desiccated bats were falling from the trees like Halloween rain, most of the media was posting pictures of bikini-clad blondes sunbathing on beaches. We think that it is someone else’s problem because the system we live in tells us that people over there are not like people over here, and that their problems are for them to deal with alone.

We think that it is someone else’s problem because the system we live in tells us that we will be OK. That if we work hard, and play by the rules, the system will take care of us. That if we care about the world around us we should become climate scientists or ecologists and solve the crises. I tried to make a difference by playing by the rules. I studied hard, got a PhD in ecology, and travelled round the world to study animals and write scientific papers about how we need to save them. Since I was born thousands of species have gone extinct, more and more of the rainforests have been cut down, and the oceans are on their way to holding more plastic than fish. Scientists have offered solutions, but they couldn’t compete with profit. When I was a child I was told not to worry about global warming, because the grown-ups were fixing it. Since I was born annual emissions have gone up by 60%. Scientists have developed ways to wean us from our addiction to dirty energy, but the powerful corporate lobbies have protected their fossil-fuel profits time after time after time after time. The system is destroying the world around us, and destroying our very future. And yet still they tell us, don’t worry, it’s under control, play by the rules and the system will look after you.

I’ve stopped thinking that playing by the rules works. Last year I joined Extinction Rebellion in breaking the law to draw attention to these crises. We stopped acting like the destruction of the world around us was someone else’s problem, and took to the streets to shout that this was not ok. We were finally expressing the reality that we face. I’m not going to lie, it was painful to step out of the comfortable fiction we all live in and face up to the harsh truths. The truth that we cannot carry on living our lives as normal if we want to have lives worth living in the future. The truth that our governments value corporate profits over our very existence. The truth that most of us refuse to realise how bad things will get if we don’t act now. Expressing these truths was scary, but liberating.

Because once you accept the truth, it sets you free. When you realise that the rules of the system are killing us, you can step outside those rules. When you emotionally accept the truths of climate breakdown and ecological collapse, you cannot carry on with life as normal. There’s not much point worrying about your career progression when we face devastation. So you are free to break a couple of rules. Go on strike. Block a bridge. Seize the moment, and be a part of history. You have within yourself the power and the courage to demand change.

And demand we must. Because few great victories have come from asking nicely. Gandhi did not ask nicely. Martin Luther King did not ask nicely. The suffragettes did not ask nicely. People fighting for change, whether it was black people demanding the right to be treated as fully human, or countries throwing off the yoke of colonialism, have had to push relentlessly for what they know to be just and fair. The best movements were non-violent, but broke rules. And so must we.

The system that we live in wants us to think that we are alone. That we are not people, or communities, we are consumers. That we have to be more successful than our peers, have more money, a better house and car, and more glamorous holidays. By keeping us separate, by keeping us in competition, the system keeps us weak, and makes us depressed, and sells us more stuff. But — trust me, I’m a biologist — humans are not just a competitive species. Our defining characteristic is our ability to work together. We did not hunt mammoths by being stronger than them, we hunted them by working together. We did not eradicate smallpox through the genius of one person, but by working together across the world. Women’s right and civil rights were not won through the power of individuals, but through collective action. Now, we must work together to stop the destruction of life on Earth.

The system tells us that we are separate from each other, and separate from nature. That people dying in floods in Africa are not people like you. That nature is a thing out there, that maybe we visit sometimes, but that we don’t need, and that we are not a part of. These are lies. We are all interconnected, and interdependent. We are a part of life on this planet, evolved from the same primordial soup that also gave rise to trees and butterflies and greater-spotted woodpeckers. We share a common ancestry, and a common home. We cannot live without our distant cousins, the trees, the bees, the humming web of interconnected life. And other people are just like us. People in Mozambique who suffered terrible storms due to climate breakdown are people with hopes and dreams and fears, just like us. When India’s rains fail and hungry people head to the cooler lands of Europe, when war breaks out over water or food, when Africa’s crops die and our supermarket shelves start to look bare, when the soils blow away and give no more harvests, when we trawl the oceans and find no more fish, then will we realise then that we are all interconnected?

We know that what we face is huge. This is not a video game where if you die you get another chance. There is no undo function on Planet Earth. There are climatic tipping points beyond which there is no return, and we don’t quite know where those tipping points lie. But social movements have tipping points too. Points where people start to realise that they are strong, and united, and free. Points where people start to break the rules of a system that no longer works to keep them safe. Points where people look inside themselves, and realise what they will do to defend life itself.

Seven months ago Extinction Rebellion was just a handful of people. Now, we are active on every continent except Antarctica, and we have shut down central London. Eight and half months ago a young Swedish girl started taking Fridays off school to sit outside parliament. On March 15th this year she was joined by over one and a half million people in over 120 countries. A ripple can become a flood. And we have seen the global conversation on climate action grow in volume and seriousness as the number of people in the streets has grown.

We are here today because the climate and ecological crises are not someone else’s problems. They are our problems. We stand with people past and present who have fought, and are fighting, for a better world. Because we can see through the lies we are told. We know that we are free, we are many, and that together we can create an unstoppable wave of power and courage that can change the world.