A Matter of Principle
It's Friday, 13th September
I'm Anthony Day
This is the Sustainable Futures Report.
This week’s episode is devoted to a matter of principle. Would you be arrested for your principles? Would you go to prison for your principles?
I recently met Zoe Cohen who believes that she should go that far to protect herself, her family and indeed the rest of us from the risks of catastrophic climate change.
She was arrested in London at the Extinction Rebellion protest at Easter. She has appeared in court and goes to trial next month. In the meantime she’s going down to London to take part in XR’s October protest.
We had a wide ranging conversation. Here's what she told me.
Anthony: Let me start by introducing you. Or perhaps asking you to introduce yourself. Because, you are a highly experienced coach, and in fact your role in businesses has been much broader than that because you've been a board level director in some pretty large organisations.
So although you have got a very strong interest in the environment and the climate crisis, that is not your profession; you are more concerned with the success of business. If that's fair. And I think you agree that if we don't actually solve the climate crisis, nobody's got a future in anything.
Zoe: I would certainly agree with your latter sentence there. Definitely. Yeah, I would say I'm probably in my third career now. My first career was as a director in the NHS - different types and different sizes of NHS organisations. And I was kind of board level for nine years in organisations of different shapes and sizes and significant turnovers.
And then I set up my own executive coaching practice and have run my coaching practice for a decade. So that's become very much my second career, which I would say I'm still in.
But I, for the last nine months or thereabouts, have been transitioning into what is probably my third career. I always thought I'd have a third career. I must admit, I thought it would be a yoga teacher, but it's not a yoga teacher. [laughs] Might be my fourth career. My third career, which is largely unpaid -- but is as climate activist. So, I'm doing both. I'm wearing both hats very much -- executive coach and director of my own Small Business, and more and more climate activism.
Anthony: Yes. And of course you went to London in at Easter when Extinction Rebellion decided to try and lock down central London. And you demonstrated your commitment to the cause to the extent that you were arrested. And you've already appeared in court once and I believe you have to go back for trial in October.
Now that's quite a step. Because I think anybody would describe you as a highly responsible member of society. And all of a sudden you are getting arrested. And you are standing up to them and saying, no...
Well, tell me what your position is?
Zoe: My position... I was smiling to myself when you were saying I was upstanding - I’m not always standing up. I was actually sitting down on the floor. [laughs] I was actually sitting on the ground in Parliament Square peacefully roadblocking.
But, yes. And I made the decision to go public about my arrest and court plea hearing, which it happened at the beginning of August. I deliberated long and hard about it. But I decided to go public because I really want to normalise people from all walks of life being part of a nonviolent direct action movement like Extinction Rebellion.
And being totally honest with yourself, and any lovely people who are listening to this podcast, Anthony, I'd never been involved in nonviolent direct action before, before I got involved in Extinction Rebellion. I've been passionate about sustainable development, global justice, the environment, nonhuman species as well as human justice, etc., etc., since I was little.
And I've done things outside of my work life in a volunteer and community sense from a very young age in all sorts of ways. And like many people, a substantial number of people, I think, who've become involved in Extinction Rebellion. And I talk to and train a lot of people and a lot of them have similar stories, that they've been trying to tread lightly on the planet most of their lives and trying to do that, not just do their bit, do way more than their bit. Plus do, do you know, community activism or that kind of stuff. And I think in the recent months and years, many of us have realised that that's just not enough.
I don't think it was ever enough, but we believed it was enough or do believe that these small things together could add up. But we have more than enough data to tell us that that's just not the case.
And, thank you for saying I'm an upstanding member of the community, or some of the language you used Anthony. But, I am an educated professional woman. I've got three master's degrees. I know one end of a bit of science from another.
I'm not a climate scientist, but I've got enough training and experience and expertise to believe the science when I see it. And I genuinely believe that the message that Extinction Rebellion and others, whether that’s Greta Thunberg or whether that's a whole bunch of climate scientists like Kevin Anderson and others, say that we are in an absolute emergency situation and if we want to have any chance of averting utter catastrophe, we've got to do an awful lot now. And it involves a level of changing our lives and lifestyles way beyond what governments and politicians that owning up to.
Anthony: Right. Okay. Well, since the protest at Easter, the government has paid lip service, I think, and no more, to the problem because they've changed from an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 to a 100%, and 2050 of course is way, way out. They've also said that they're going to set up a citizen's assembly.
But this is, again, this is talk, nothing's actually been done. And unfortunately, as we well know, the present government is fixated on one single issue to the exclusion of all else.
Anthony: That’s probably why Extinction Rebellion is going to go ahead and try and lock down London again on the 7th of October. We have a much more right wing home secretary now and the Metropolitan Police was saying it's going to take a very hard line. In fact, it is taking a hard line in that it is charging everybody that it arrested.
So, will you be going down on the 7th of October? And what do you see as the future for all this?
Zoe: I definitely plan to, Anthony, along with thousands of others.
It might sound all highfalutin, or whatever people think. But I genuinely believe that personally, and as a mother and a human, I have a moral obligation. I genuinely believe I have moral obligation. Because lots of people around the earth are suffering already and have died or are having extreme suffering from all sorts of planetary impacts already and ecological impacts.
I've got a 16 year old daughter; she's a big part of why I'm doing what I'm doing. And the same sort of motivation goes for many parents, grandparents that I've met along the way. And for the seventy-six-year-old grandma who was arrested when I was arrested in Parliament Square and more besides. And I genuinely feel that as a parent, I have to look my daughter in the eye, knowing what I know.
It's like once you actually really absorb the scientific truth, I cannot not act. So when I stand up and speak for Extinction Rebellion, which I do. I give the Heading for Extinction Talks and I train other people to do those talks around the northwest and beyond. And when I do that, I genuinely introduce myself by saying, I can't not do this. I can't not be involved.
It is a drive to act, which is so strong because a big chunk of that is about being a mum.
Anthony: Okay, okay. But leaving aside whether or not Extinction Rebellion will be successful later this year, do you believe that we are in time to actually be able to change things? Or do you... Have you have you heard what Guy McPherson and Jem Bendell say, which seems to suggest it's all over.
Zoe: Yeah. It's the million, million, million dollar question isn't it? Or whatever the right phrase is nowadays.
I think I've got several answers to that, or versions to that answer, Anthony.
I haven't read Guy McPherson's book, but I have watched a number of his YouTube videos and I've read, obviously Jem Bendell's "Deep Adaptation" and watched some of his stuff as well.
And I think Jem's not quite in the same place as Guy McPherson is he? - not quite in the same place as immediate near term human extinction; he's more in the place of -- actually, we're heading for social collapse, but we don’t know the ending.
So they're not quite in the same place, is my understanding.
I'm probably not far off Jem Bendell's position. But I guess, the position I come from is that the decision for me personally... And I think this is an evolving situation, so I'm not putting a line in the sand saying this is how I'll always feel, because things are evolving and we haven't got time, we've got developing and you know, we haven't got time.
We've got for so little time to start making major, major change before we really, really, won't have time.
All of the very recent evidence with the very scary melting at the Arctic and the Greenland ice sheets and stuff seem to be pointing to what a significant number of people fear -- that the IPCC was far too conservative and behind the curve, and that things are happening much quicker than they said they would. And that was a critique that's been around for a while anyway.
But to actually experience -- not directly experienced, because I'm not on the Greenland ice sheet -- but to actually read with the benefits of global media and social media now, one can see things pretty quickly and you know, there is so much horror going on right now with the rates of melting, the rate of... Only just literally earlier on today I was looking at this news just come out on fires in the Amazon. So not only is the Amazon being cut down at an extraordinary and ever-increasing rate nearing its own tipping point, but there are thousands of fires going on in the Amazon right now, as well as the enormous fires in the boreal forest, in Russia and so on.
The scale of this is just huge. And, I think there's quite a possibility that we've gone past the point of no return. But we don't know it. And it's probably impossible to absolutely prove. And why spend our time trying to research and prove that rather than actually just acting?
Because we don't know for sure where the exact tipping point is. I don't know for sure where it is. There's the hot-house Earth scenario that was published last year, where the writers thought it was about was about two degrees. And that a two-degree warming will hit into a hot-house Earth scenario, where tipping cascades will set off changes that we won't be able to act on.
I know some people believe that we have a number of locked in... It's not, "some people believe," it's -- there is a range of science out there showing that we have a number of locked-in temperature increases.
So, for example, when the particulate matter clears out of the atmosphere from reduction of fossil fuel burning, etc., that that clearing of the air will get a one-off warming hit, because we're actually being slightly masked from the sun's energy by that particulate matter.
So, I personally think we were heading for way beyond 1.5 degrees. I cannot see that we are going to be able to limit that. And I think anyone who feels like we could meet that 1.5degrees must be in some sorts of denial or collusion, because you just have to look at the Keeling curve. You just have to look at the plots on the Keeling curve, and it's going up and up and up.
And last year's emission was May 2018 to May 2019, was the highest emissions ever in a 12-month period.
So, these data points don't show any sign of slowing down.
But at the same time it's easy to think things are good by reading -- people want to read smiley, happy stuff, and yes, there's some joint G7 meeting about to happen in some posh place of the world’s leading fashion houses looking at sustainable fashion. And I just shared it on LinkedIn just earlier today and you know, I just, I'm afraid I must've be come across a little bit cheeky in my LinkedIn material, but I think it needs to be said -- that these people can agree all sorts of things, but at the end of the day, consumption’s got to go down.
Zoe: So I suppose answering your question. Coming back to your point -- what do I actually believe? -- and part of me thinks we probably have gone past the point, but I'm choosing to not allow that part of me to be in the majority because it would prevent me from acting.
And, attempting to be a moral being with integrity, I have to hold on, not on a sort of blind hope thing, but hold on to it to the sense that we don't actually know for sure, so we better bloody well -- excuse my language -- but bloody well do as much as we possibly can to have a chance.
And also, if we don't know exactly where the tipping point is what I feel is clear when one really thinks about this and connects emotionally and in a pragmatic sense, is the journey from here to there, wherever "there" is, is going to be full of bleeding misery.
We need to try and make whatever that journey is as human and humane as we can, without allowing what's happening in the world to keep on going, which as you know, that was with the rise of the Right and Fascism and all the rest of it, which is just...
And coming originally from a Jewish background with grandparents and grandparents coming and escaping from Nazis in Europe and so on, that chimes a chord with me, big time.
And I don't want society to go in that direction. Let's... But it's already heading in that direction, isn't it, there's so many signs. And as resources get more scarce, it's going to prompt more of that.
I don't want that world. I think all of these things go hand in hand in trying to wake society up to get action before it's genuinely too late. There's very little that comes above that in my priority list, to be honest, Anthony.
Anthony: When I do presentations, people come up to me and say -- well, what can I do?
Anthony: That's a very difficult question to answer, I find. The answer I take is basically -- support governments and urge governments to take action. Because it's only governments that can take the action of sufficient magnitude to have any effect.
But what would you say?
Zoe: Oh, that's a good question. And I also got asked that kind of question on a regular basis. And that's one reason why I wrote the article that I did on LinkedIn and about May time when I wrote an article on how to declare your own climate emergency, partly to speak to that question.
And I think like most things in life, it's multi-factorial and it's a "both/and". Because I also find, I think there's... Well, a lot of a lot of conversations I have, what shows up as a kind of triangle, if you don't mind the spacial metaphor, that people talk about in it. There's government, there's business and corporations, and then there's public and consumers, and that those three points of a triangle. And depending on what in it. And they're all humans, they're all people in all of those, and all those people that usually inhabit more than one space, because everyone's a consumer.
But depending on what hat a person's got on, they blame the others. They blame -- we can't do anything; business can't do anything without government setting the framework; governments don't want to change until enough consumers or voters want change -- so they just go around and around the bloody triangle while blaming each other.
But I think actually... As I've gone through lots of reflections in recent months about all of this, it's not actually a triangle, it's a square or a rhombus or whatever, because the fourth point is the media. So I think the media have an enormous role to play. Hence some of the other stuff that I've posted on LinkedIn.
The media have an enormous role to play, an enormous obligation. If I worked in the media, I'd find it pretty hard to look myself in the mirror right now, knowing if I hadn't done my duty. And there's so few media outlets who've done their duty on this stuff.
And they justify doing what's right now.
The short answer is I'm coming back to what do individuals do, is, take action on all of those fronts.
So, of course we need system change. Without system change, we can't decarbonise the energy supply, etc., etc. All of the things that they can't completely change -- the agricultural system and turn linear economy to a circular economy. Of course we need a bigger system change for that.
But from where I sit, I know some people say individual action is pointless. I don't believe individual action is pointless. I think it's both. Because at the end of the day, if we are to get system change, whether that's carbon taxes, meat taxes, reduction on flying, changes in food production, whatever, whatever, whatever -- you can preempt what needs to happen and start doing it. [laughs]
So why wait for government to create taxes and set incentives and disincentives? Why not just start doing it?
So that's how... So I don't fly anymore, etc., etc., etc., because action... It's going to have to stop. So I might as well stop it before someone makes me stop it.
I think there's that piece to it. I think there's also a kind of change maker piece to the individual action that -- if we not only make changes in our life but tell our friends, family, communities, business partners, etc., etc., that we're making these changes, that helps to get the conversations out there. So I've had all sorts of conversations with people about the fact that I'm not flying anymore, for example. Or whatever else I'm just not doing.
But I think we... Personally, I would absolutely stay on top of all of that, that for everyone you feel is that then any way they can support movements like Extinction Rebellion or Christian Climate Action, or whatever climate activism movements they can, school strikes or whatever, that in any way people should support those movements if they feel that they can in any way, whether that's being involved directly in any way, of which there are lots of ways to do without being arrested, or whether it's donating or whether it's just sharing stuff on social media -- as much as possible. Because these movements are not extremist. I mean, we know from history and the social sciences that systemic large scale political changes do not happen through being polite.
They don't even really happen through the ballot box. They happen through nonviolent direct action. And there's plenty of research that shows that over decades and decades that that's how significant system change happens, is through nonviolent direct action.
I hadn't bodily engaged with all of that until the last year. But it just totally makes sense. It's logical, and as well, is emotionally sensible.
Emotionally I'm totally engaged in this stuff as you can probably tell. But actually I'm also pretty logical, rational, geeky kind of person. And it does rationally makes sense.
Anthony: Well, I shall be down in London on the 7th of October. Avoid getting arrested, I'm afraid.
I did hear somebody from Extinction Rebellion who was asked -- well, what should we do? -- to which he said "that's not our role." It's just to stimulate government to do things. I thought that was a bit of a cop out, but perhaps he was in a minority.
Zoe: Okay. Yeah. This kind of question comes up quite often in conversation about XR. So Extinction Rebellion - we don’t see our role to dictate to people specifically what changes need to happen. For many reasons. One is that there are lots of clever people and scientists and researchers and so on who've worked out what needs - the sorts of changes that need to happen, like Project Drawdown, etc. -- they're just not happening.
So it's not the question of what needs to happen. It's the question of -- they need to happen.
A bit like you were saying before in our conversation, it's action we should concentrate on, not the words.
And as a movement, XR doesn't want to dictate, because actually, we need more and better democracy, not less democracy. So that's why the third demand is there in terms of having citizens assemblies to be legally binding to create informed, or informed policy guidance for government that government needs to be actually used to guide its actions, based on the evidence and based on randomly selected representative body of the population, who don't have to make short term decisions. Because of course we know that our current system, not only the first past the post, which doesn't help very much either, but also the short termers, and as well, allow and doesn't encourage any thinking longer than two, three, four years.
And if ever long term thinking was needed, you know, it's this. We need to be thinking not just decades, but generations ahead and longer. Because, just from the sheer fact that CO2 can last hundreds if not thousands of years, we've got to be thinking long term and we've got to think, turn this supertanker around in a way that requires a level of human leadership that we've never seen before.
So it's actually an inspiring opportunity for humans to be their absolute best. But in order to have that, we need the truth to be told, so that people genuinely understand the truth.
And clearly there's a lot more awareness of climate issues now from the media, but there's still an awful lot of lack of understanding and misunderstanding of the actual nature and scale and pace of the urgency.
Anthony: So we need action, not words. And you've got a conference coming up -- the ethical consumption conference, avoiding "greenwash."
Because there is a big temptation in the corporate sector to be seen to be doing something, although it may only be superficial.
Zoe: Yeah. Well, thank you for mentioning that. Yeah, it's actually not a conference. It's not that big, but it is an event. So one of the hats that I wear as well as exec coach and XR activist and whatever, is as I'm the lead for the Greater Manchester area through a network called Women in Sustainability. I've been involved in that for a few months now and it's a network which is across the UK and expanding out internationally as well.
It supports women who work in, or wants to work in any aspect of sustainability, to build their resilience, their personal development, their ability to make a difference, as well as their own career and opportunities. But to make the difference that they want to make, really.
So we have events every two or three months in central Manchester, and yes, you're right, this next event coming up in the middle of September is an event specifically around ethical consumption and avoiding greenwash. That's one of the topics that our members highlighted that they'd be interested in.
So we've got a really great speaker, Joanna Long from the Ethical Consumer Organization coming to talk about that. And it'll be a really good event.
I think for me, avoiding greenwash is so important, because it's absolutely bandwagon now, isn't it? It's an absolute bandwagon. And I think there's a lot of disinformation and a lot of consumers who might be influenced by bits of greenwash, when, if you actually knew the reality that it would be far from the truth.
Anthony: Right. So if people contact you via LinkedIn, you can give them the details in this, can you?
Zoe: Yes, absolutely. I've recently re-posted the advert for the event. So yeah, they can contact me on LinkedIn and I'll happily share the details.
It is a Women in Sustainability event, so it's a women's networking event. So any guys, please don't contact me, but please do pass it on to contact email colleagues. And yes, I'd be really pleased to welcome more members. It's a really friendly and confidential space. So yeah, delighted to do that.
Anthony: Zoe, thank you very much for taking the time this afternoon to talk to the Sustainable Futures Report. There's a tremendous amount of information there. I applaud you going to the XR event in October in London. I'll be there. I hope other people who listen to the Sustainable Futures Report will be there, because you've laid out the fact that it is so, so important that we get some very, very significant and fundamental actions taken. Otherwise we have got a very, very bleak future. Thank you.
Zoe: Thank you, Anthony. And, look forward to perhaps having a follow up podcast later on in the year.
Anthony: Right. That'll be great
I'll certainly keep in touch with Zoe and we'll see how her court case turns out. Unfortunately all this seems so unreal at the moment, at least in the UK where as I commented last week we are going through a constitutional crisis with an obsessive fixation on leaving the EU.
We need to get the government’s attention on the climate crisis - much more than attention - we need action.
As Zoe said, “…we know from history and the social sciences that systemic large scale political changes do not happen through being polite.”
I’m almost lost for words when it comes to ending this episode. It is so difficult to persuade people to examine the detail of their views on Brexit - even without trying to change their minds - that it makes me very pessimistic about persuading them to accept that changes are needed to meet the climate crisis. Still, it won’t stop me presenting the message. It won’t stop a lot of people from coming together in London and all over the world next month to continue to call for action.
Don’t forget, next week, next Friday 20th September there will not only be another Sustainable Futures Report but another School Strike. This looks like a big one. It’s going to cause argument and it’s going to cause debate. At the very least, let’s all work together to keep the conversation going.
That's it for this week.
I’m Anthony Day.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report. As I said, there will be another episode next week. I'm not sure what it will contain but I have a couple of interviews coming up which should link stand up comedy, self driving cars and archaeology with the climate crisis. All will be revealed once I have finalised the details.
Before I go, thank you for listening. If you're a patron, thank you for being a patron. If you're not, and you’d like to be a patron, then go to the website patreon.com/sfr where you'll find full details.
I'm Anthony Day.
And that's it for another week.