Writer and lawyer Joanna Bury is a co-ordinator at Extinction Rebellion Wimborne. She joins us now to tell some hard truths about the state of the climate. And what XR means to do about it…
Founded in 2018, Extinction Rebellion have made headlines across the globe for their massive protests. The global environmental movement, which campaigns for concerted action against the climate and ecological emergency, now has over 1,000 local groups in over 70 countries. One of these local groups is Extinction Rebellion Wimborne. It’s a group of activists committed to tackling local environmental issues as well as supporting and taking part in national and international protests. We spoke to Joanna Bury — writer, lawyer and local coordinator of XR Wimborne, who also runs the popular Twitter handle @XRRebelEveryDay — to find out more about Extinction Rebellion and the role of social media in climate activism…
HOW DID YOU GET INVOLVED IN EXTINCTION REBELLION? WHY DO YOU THINK IT IS SUCH AN IMPORTANT CAUSE?
I started writing short stories about ten years ago. Eventually I thought, “I need to write something a bit longer”. So in 2015, I was trying to find a subject to write about. I ended up with a plot which very much involved the oceans. And I realised I knew absolutely nothing about the oceans. As I learned more, I started to panic about the level of plastic in the oceans, but also about things like acidification, mining, overfishing.
I realised that the oceans just weren’t being protected. Despite the fact that they cover two-thirds of the planet and the oxygen they produce provides us with every other breath. I then thought that I ought to incorporate information about climate change, and the effects of climate change, into my story, and I started to research that as well.
The interesting thing is that we all know about climate change. The percentage of people today who don’t accept climate change, or don’t accept that it’s the fault of humans, is vanishingly small… though they do tend to be quite noisy. But I realised that though I knew about climate change, I didn’t know how it worked. As I did more research about climate change and ecological devastation, it totally entered my imagination. And I think that once you feel it, rather than know it, then suddenly you realise that it’s actually an emergency. I was pouring all this anxiety and concern into my story.
And then one day in 2019, I was on Facebook, and I saw the XR symbol. The green circle with the hourglass logo, and the name Extinction Rebellion. The moment I saw the name, it really struck a chord. I thought, “That’s the answer. We need to rebel, because this is such a catastrophe”. I started to get in touch with local groups, and eventually set up XR Wimborne.
WHAT DOES EXTINCTION REBELLION WIMBORNE HOPE TO ACHIEVE ON A LOCAL LEVEL?
On a local level, the most concerning issue is the pollution in the River Stour. XR Wimborne have recently done three actions to draw attention to the state of the River Stour. These have all been totally COVID-safe, with extremely stringent risk assessments.
Only 14% of English rivers are in an acceptable ecological state because of the dreadful levels of pollution. The vast majority of people don’t know about the state of English rivers, so we wanted to alert our local residents, councillors and MP to this issue. We wanted to raise awareness by doing something memorable, so we protested in pink hazmat suits and masks, and our protest gained the attention of local papers.
In 2019, Wessex Water discharged raw sewage 13,876 times over 107,404 hours in the rivers they are responsible for. This is permitted by the Environment Agency during heavy rainfall. All the water companies in England can get permits from the Environment Agency to discharge raw sewage into rivers during heavy rain. Thanks to sewage, agricultural and chemical pollution, English rivers are some of the worst rivers in Europe. Clearly this is a problem that needs to be addressed, as it’s terrible for wildlife. As well as the rivers themselves, and for humans. Wimborne is full of riverside beauty spots, and lots of people paddle, swim and canoe in the river, and live by it. It really is quite important for the area.
YOU MANAGE THE SOCIAL MEDIA FOR EXTINCTION REBELLION WIMBORNE, AND THE @XRREBELEVERYDAY TWITTER ACCOUNT. HOW IMPORTANT DO YOU THINK SOCIAL MEDIA IS FOR ACTIVISM AND GETTING YOUR MESSAGE OUT THERE?
I think that social media is unavoidable. You have to engage with it if you want to get any kind of message across. As with anything in life, you need to have a plan. With XR Rebel Every Day, my plan was to celebrate and promote the actions of local groups which were taking place across the country, independently of one another.
Quite often, if you’re in a local XR group, you may feel a bit beleaguered when people around you don’t get it. It’s important to provide encouragement. To show people that they are not alone, and that people all over the world — feel the same. I have found that other groups have become aware of each other through stuff I’ve posted. I know I’ve found it inspiring finding out what other groups are up to, so I’m sure other people involved in XR are as well.
XR Wimborne has a slightly different message. I try and make it something that people in Wimborne can relate to, and focus on issues that affect Wimborne or Dorset or the South West. Apart from pollution from raw sewage in our rivers, Dorset suffers from terrible air pollution which is mind-boggling. 1 in 20 deaths in BCP are a direct result of air pollution, and Chideock has the worst air in England. I really think we need to look at issues that people here will engage with, because they relate to them locally.
HOW IS XR ADAPTING TO THE PANDEMIC AND ACCOMPANYING RESTRICTIONS? WHAT KIND OF IMPACT HAS COVID-19 HAD ON ACTIVISM?
Before the third lockdown, we were able to do actions with risk assessments. They involved a great deal of planning, and we all had to be extremely scrupulous. Since the new lockdown, we can’t do any actions. But we have still been protesting institutions like Barclays and HSBC, who are using our money to destroy the planet. By having just one person go out and stick labels on ATMs outside those banks. These are high street banks that we trust, and yet Barclays has invested $118 billion in fossil fuels since the Paris Agreement, which is just mad. Meanwhile, HSBC is financing oil drilling in the Amazon.
IT’S CLEAR THAT, OVER THE LAST FEW YEARS, XR HAS HELPED THE CLIMATE CRISIS MOVE MORE INTO THE POLITICAL MAINSTREAM. HOW CAN WE GO FROM TALKING ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE TO TAKING MEANINGFUL ACTION?
XR was founded in 2018 because there had been decades of failure to address the mounting climate emergency. Despite attempts by many worthwhile organisations, charities and campaign groups to lobby politicians and governments. I think the combination of XR’s actions and those of people like Greta Thunberg has raised the profile of the very serious issues that need to be addressed.
In terms of meaningful action, in September 2020, Caroline Lucas MP tabled the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill. That’s a serious plan to tackle the UK’s fair share of emissions, to halt global heating at 1.5°C, and actively conserve the natural world by protecting and restoring the UK’s ecosystems. Unfortunately, they’ve postponed that bill due to the pandemic.
Groups like XR are trying to raise awareness about the bill. They’re encouraging members of the public to write to their MPs and convince them to support it. It’s an essential piece of legislation. Right now, we’re on track to miss our current emission targets. And the government’s own committee on climate change has itself admitted that the current target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 only gives us a 50/50 chance of keeping the global temperature increase below 1.5°C.
A CITIZENS’ ASSEMBLY IS A KEY PART OF THE XR NATIONAL CAMPAIGN. HOW DO YOU THINK A CITIZENS’ ASSEMBLY WOULD HELP DELIVER SUSTAINED POLITICAL ACTION ON CLIMATE CHANGE?
The great thing about a Citizens’ Assembly is that politicians are led by the decisions made. Decisions that, for political reasons, they might otherwise find difficult to make. It’s a cross-section of people from society. Like a jury. Participants are selected to represent all sectors of society and advised by experts, to make the difficult decisions that are needed to transition to a net zero economy. It was used for the abortion issue in Ireland. A very difficult question for Irish politicians to discuss, but it was addressed successfully by a Citizens’ Assembly.
HAVE RECENT GLOBAL INITIATIVES LIKE THE SCHOOL STRIKES FOR CLIMATE MADE YOU MORE OPTIMISTIC ABOUT THE FUTURE?
I think they are very inspiring. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a child in a pandemic. But also to worry about the future because of the climate and ecological emergency. Obviously it is beginning to affect us, with record-breaking high temperatures in the summer and flooding in the winter. But they are the ones who are really going to suffer from it. Their lives are not going to be as easy as ours, and that’s our fault. It’s very inspiring to see a whole generation of children prepared to speak up and be active about climate change, and I think it’s extremely significant for the future.
I think the pandemic will produce a whole cohort of young people who are angry about the state of the world. It’s unbelievable what they have had to put up with. And I’m sure that it will produce a generation of activists who will want to stand up and have their say about what’s happening to the planet.
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