Climate emergency campaigner and author, and HS2 Rebellion protester
Where does your impulse for eco-activism come from and how did you come to get so actively involved so early in life? Did your family play a role in that?
My dad lives in the Hebrides and I spent a large part of my childhood there. They have salmon farms there where they shoot seals and illegally scare off whales, dolphins and porpoises with noises designed to hurt their hearing. The farmed salmon infect wild salmon with parasites and diseases and as a result wild salmon are becoming extinct. The salmon industry had captured the Scottish Environment Ministry and seeing that, my dad tried to stop it. That was what first made me realise how we are harming nature and how government is part of it. After that, I went to the declaration of rebellion against the British Government for their inaction on climate and nature breakdown, in Parliament Square in October 2018. That was the start of the Extinction Rebellion and it all went from there.
You were arrested at the Extinction Rebellion (XR) event and famously celebrated your seventeenth birthday in a police cell. Was that an important moment for you in terms of your commitment to eco-activism?
Yes, it was incredibly important. It was nasty being locked up for so long – they kept me longer than they were allowed. The police kept waking me all night and wouldn’t give me water; they were playing mind games with me, saying I was making them have to strip search me and things like that. I was traumatised, and it took a while to get over it. But I’m really glad I did it. You know when you’re doing something that is finally making a real change, rather than just signing petitions and marching, when your energy gets used up without changing anything.
Do you think your level of environmental awareness is unusual for someone of your age or do you think your generation is instinctively more eco-conscious than previous ones?
We are fighting for our lives and everything we love. Obviously, we’re not going to shut up and be quiet. More and more, people my age understand that the Government is making lots of noise but not doing what it takes to stop this – so we are going to have to do the job for them. It shouldn’t be like this – we should be studying – but we don’t have a choice.
The Times and others have compared you to Greta Thunberg. Do you think that sort of comparison is useful in getting XR’s message across or does it just cause a distraction?
This is not about personalities; it’s bigger than any one of us. The media try to distract people from what we’re saying by making it about personalities. I’m the British Blue Sandford, and there are countless others like me who are saying “No Way!” to idiotic high carbon projects like HS2. And as time goes on there will be more and more of us, so in the end the Government will have to do the right thing.
The media, of course, love to focus on individuals involved in campaigns like HS2 Rebellion. Even this interview is singling you out from other campaigners. Do you feel a particular sense of responsibility to get the message across?
Lots of people are in denial about the emergency we are in – even some people of my age. So yes, like everyone else who gets what is happening, I’ve got to do my best to tell the story in a way that helps people understand it – especially people of my age.
You were recently interviewed by BBC Woman’s Hour from the HS2 protest tunnel at Euston Square Gardens where you and others have been for over three weeks, but they didn’t ask you anything of substance about the campaign or the climate crisis. Do you think the media in general are guilty of trivialising and “dumbing down” environmental issues?
The Woman’s Hour interview – it was okay, it was just she was making out like our protest didn’t mean anything and that we were just putting ourselves and the bailiffs in danger for no good reason. And asking what food we were eating and how we went to the toilet – diverting me from speaking about the real issues. And there’s a pattern with this. That’s why things like the tunnel are so important – it makes it harder for them to blank the real issues like droughts, food security, social collapse and the role of mega-projects like HS2 in causing it all.
Does the media trivialise young people’s views — particularly those of young women?
For sure. I get told all the time I don’t understand, I should go back to school and study and let the adults deal with it. The problem is the adults show no sign of dealing with it – they’re doing everything and anything, except what it really takes.
You wrote a guidebook for young people on saving the planet called “Challenge Everything”. How did that come about?
I was lucky. My sister knew a publisher who was interested in the protests we were doing with XR Youth, and they asked me to do the book. It was a real struggle writing it though – I found it hard to do.
In your book you speak about “greenwashing”, and how people tend to focus on mainstream actions like recycling and using less plastic, but without really engaging with the bigger climate and ecological issues. Are we all as guilty as the media of burying our heads in the sand?
We are all implicated in what’s happening and given human psychology this makes it hard for us to see it for what it is. And yes, the media makes it about mobile phone chargers or plastic straws to try to make us think we are achieving something. Meanwhile the Amazon burns, the seas heat up and acidify, and the Arctic melts.
The book urges young people to challenge how they’re governed, how they consume, and what lifestyle decisions they make. Is it up to your generation do you think, or can movements like XR bring about a real movement for change across the generations as some other protest movements have in the past?
Young people have an important role. I think something really powerful is for young people to talk to their parents and say: “No, you have to stop doing this”; to say, “Look me in the eyes and tell me you’re doing everything humanly possible to save my life and the lives of the people who are already dying from this all over the world.”
Is there anything about today’s “green movement” you don’t like or agree with?
It’s important to be rational and scientific and not let ideology cut down your options. There’s denial in the green movement too – the truth is pretty horrific, and we all use denial to protect ourselves. But the real way to protect ourselves is to face up to the problems, and do something that will actually work.
There are those that say the climate emergency is too big an issue for individuals to make an impact – that unless governments globally start taking serious action we’re doomed anyway. How do you respond to that?
This is such a serious problem that everyone is going to have to act – governments and individuals. There is a convenient form of denial that individuals use to let themselves off the hook – telling themselves they can’t change anything. Yes we can – we can protest, we can stop being docile consumers, we can pressurise employers and MPs. I’m not perfect, but I’ve stopped buying clothes, I’m vegan, and a lot of my food comes from skips. And I believe in peaceful protest to get the Government to wake up.
What is the best way to motivate young people to activism?
Well, tell them it can be really exciting, and you learn a whole lot more than by just being in school. It’s really affirming to be able to fight for life – for all the species that are becoming extinct, for all the children your age who are dying of climate breakdown. It throws you together with the most amazing people. It is uncomfortable and difficult – it’s horrible being arrested for instance. But it’s not boring! And there’s nothing more important than this.
Probably one thing the public don’t appreciate is the personal risk protesters take. Not just the danger of being in the tunnel, but the financial risk, and in your case not finishing school. Does the personal cost of your activism ever deter you?
I’m naturally an academic person. I love reading. So yes, if the climate wasn’t collapsing, I wouldn’t be doing this. But it is and so I have to. I don’t have a choice.
Was it a difficult decision to drop out of school to protest inaction on the climate crisis?
Not once I realised I could do that, and it was the best way for me to make an impact. There was no question about it – I didn’t hesitate.
Does it make you angry that there are not more mainstream ways of effective protest than dropping out of school? Do you think our political system is a part of the problem?
Yes! The politicians don’t get it – we’re burning and flooding our only home by burning fossil fuels. We’ve burned more or less everything we can without setting off chain reactions that will first cook and then starve us. High carbon vanity projects like HS2 have to stop, but the political system is failing us.
Are there aspects of your own life that are incompatible with your views on the environment?
None of us is perfect. And there are carbon emissions hidden in everything we use. But that’s not a reason to give up – it’s a reason to try harder. It’s a question of keeping your eyes open and trying out everything you think will give people my age a chance of having families and surviving into old age.
Some in the media say protest tunnels like the one at Euston Square Gardens puts lives at risk including those carrying out evictions, and breaking the law in this way alienates some. How do you respond to those sorts of criticisms?
HS2 and the Government are saying we are reckless, irresponsible protestors. They should take a look at themselves. They’re the reckless, irresponsible ones, pushing through stupid schemes like HS2 that use huge amounts of high-carbon concrete and steel, and destroying endless habitats. Our tunnels are really safe – but they are also being reckless and irresponsible by taking unnecessary risks in the way they are digging us out.
Do you think the Covid-19 pandemic and the disruption to our normal activities presents us with an opportunity to reset – to change our priorities and the way we do things and create a more sustainable future?
Yes, people are reminded about dying, and about what is real – love of your family, of nature, of other people. But the Government hasn’t got the message and is bailing out decrepit industries like the airlines – it’s everyone’s job to make the Government understand they won’t get away with it.
Why do you think people are generally willing to accept the science when it comes to taking action against Covid, but seem to resist it when it comes to action on climate change?
What people are able to see is coloured by what they think they need. They think they need to survive, so they can afford to see Covid. They think they need to consume lots of fossil fuels, so they don’t see how this is likely to kill their children.
It seems over the past few years a combination of Brexit and Covid-19 have largely knocked environmental stories off the front pages. Are you hopeful that as those issues recede there will be a renewed focus on the climate crisis?
The people selling the fossil fuels, and the cars and the aeroplanes, will do whatever it takes to distract people until it’s too late. We’re not that stupid, I hope, and must see through what they are doing and refuse to let them destroy us.
President Biden has declared environmental considerations central to decision making across all government bodies in the US. Does America’s re-engagement with climate issues give you hope, or you think Biden needs to do more?
Biden is still at the empty gesture stage. When US emissions start going down steeply is when we will know he is serious. To comply with the Paris Agreement, their emissions need to be falling by at least 10% a year, starting now.
In November 2020 Boris Johnson introduced a ten-point “net-zero” plan for climate change. And yet the Government remains committed to HS2 and has failed to intervene to stop the new deep coal mine in Cumbria. What do you make of Johnson’s commitment to green issues?
Boris Johnson is still at the posturing stage. It’s great he feels he needs to posture – that’s a start. But in no way is he doing what it takes.
HS2 Rebellion has called for a “Citizens’ Assembly” to make decisions about how we handle the climate emergency. How would such an assembly fit into the political system we have now?
The Government has completely failed to get a grip. The fact they have not yet scrapped HS2 is a good example. The idea in the Climate and Ecological Emergency Bill, which is going through parliament now, is that if more than two thirds of the Citizens’ Assembly – made up of people randomly chosen like a jury – voted for something, then the Government would have to do it. And, if more than half did, then the Government would have to explain why they didn’t want to do it.
It seems that increasingly big business is investing in so-called green technology for a profit. How do you feel about that – can it ever be a part of the solution?
We are going to have to use every tool we have to drive down emissions and stop trashing nature.
Our survey and other polls show public opinion is turning against HS2, with people objecting to both its huge cost and significant environmental impact. Are you confident it can be stopped?
It makes no sense to burn that amount of carbon on a project we won’t have the energy to run anyway, or the passenger numbers. So we will do our best to stop it. But we are going to need your help – whether by talking about it, protesting
Blue Sandford’s book “Challenge Everything” (Pavilion Books) is available online from most major booksellers