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On Contact: Climate emergency with Extinction Rebellion

Host Chris Hedges talks to activist Christine See and Rory Varrato of Extinction Rebellion about the upcoming non-violent, disruptive civil disobedience events during the week of October 7 in cities across the world. Protesters demand an end to the corporate control of the political and economic systems that they claim are leaving us all unprepared for a future of climate emergency.

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CH: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we discuss the climate emergency and rebellion with leaders from Extinction Rebellion, Christina See and Rory Varrato.

RV: Ecocide is affecting us all equally regardless of your political affiliation, so I mean I think an important part is at least respecting the science of the situation.  But beyond that it's about really survival, collective survival.  And so the citizens' assemblies that Christina mentioned, et cetera, are just mechanisms for us to come together as humans in the world recognizing the total failure of global governments and saying we need to do this together one way or another, parallel institutions, et cetera.  And so reviving that democratic spirit which really is at the root of this country but so many people have forgotten. 

CH: We are unprepared for our future, in denial about the dislocations and suffering already of catastrophic proportions in much of the Global South that will become an inevitable part of our existence.  The ecosystem we depend on for life is swiftly degrading before our eyes, floods, droughts, wildfires, monster hurricanes, cyclones, extreme heat waves, crop failure, mass displacement, and the breakdown of society lie ahead.  There is no way out.  It is time to halt our denial.  It is time to act.  Voting, lobbying, petitions, and protests have proven to be spectacular failures.  The corporate forces that have seized control of our political and economic systems are immune to reform.  They are determined to drive us into extinction for profit.  All we have left is non-violent, disruptive civil disobedience, a rebellion.  And that is what the British-based group Extinction Rebellion is calling for in major cities around the world on October 7th.  Joining me in the studio to discuss the October 7th action, which I will join, is Christina See and Rory Varrato.  Rory, let's begin with you.  Why now?

RV: Yeah.  Extinction Rebellion, I think, is relevant now primarily because it recognizes exactly what you just said, Chris, that ecocide is a fete accompli.  It's done.  And so it's captured in the very name itself, extinction accurately and without reservation, identifies the state of affairs that we are in.  We are threatened by extinction.  We're already in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event.  Humans are not immune to that.  We're susceptible to it and indeed we are the cause of it.  Second half of the name, rebellion, unites ecology with politics.  Rebellion is the only solution at this point to not prevent ecocide and ecological collapse but to mitigate what's happening and what's on the horizon.  So, the necessity of something like Extinction Rebellion is what captures this moment, I think.

CH: Let's talk, Christina, a little bit about you've been organizing pretty much full-time around this coming event on October 7th.  What is it gonna look like?  How is it organized?  And what do you want it to achieve?

CS: So it's gonna be a global rebellion.  There's multiple cities across the world who are shutting down their cities in one way or another.  So, a lot of European cities, Sydney, London, of course, I think is trying for three weeks after their 10-day occupation in April.  CH: When you say shut it down, what's that gonna look like?

CS: Roadblocks with, you know, using their bodies, use of props like boats, other things.  I know there's some--the farmers are coming from all over the UK and they're joining in.

CH: And aren't they driving pink tractors?  Did I have that right?

CS: They are.  They are.

CH: Why--where did that from?

CS: It came out of--XR started with boats in their last rebellion and so…

CH: How did they use boats?

CS: They basically just plop them in the middle of massive intersections and then use that…

CH: In what--in like the Thames and…

CS: Well, this was in April so they did it in I think it was one of the squares.  I don't remember exactly which one.

CH: Oh, that's right.  They carried them onto the street?

CS: Yes.

CH: Right.  That's right.

CS: And they kind of set it up as the home base and they had music, and DJs, and things going off of it.  But that was the center of, you know, one of the five places that they took over.  And so out of that boats are--have now appeared all over the world with Extinction Rebellion events, including in DC this last week when they shut down DC for, you know, multiple hours creating massive gridlock in the city.  So, the pink tractors are basically a--another form of that because the, you know, the farmers are coming together, there's multiple people from all sorts of different movements coming together in London.  And in the--in New York City, while we aren't as big as London, we are massively growing very quickly.  And so I think the best part about Extinction Rebellion it speaks to not the seasoned activists, so to speak.  There's a lot of people who are coming from all walks of life who have never done anything like this before, but they're seeing that there's a massive need for it.

CH: And you structure it, it's kind of siloed as I understand it.  Explain the structure and how it works.

CS: Yeah.  So we organize using self-organizing system.  So basically we have different working groups who have mandates.  And within those different mandates, they are able to just do that work.  And so…

CS: But there are actions that will take place next week and you don't even know what they are, is that correct?

CS: Yes.  So there's massive--there's so many people working on various things.  We have people dealing with infrastructure.  We will be taking over Washington Square Park is the plan right now.  There's of course backup plans.

CH: As a kind of staging area, right?

CS: Yeah.

CH: Explain how that will work.

CS: So it's basically home base for everyone who is showing up for the rebellion in October.  And they will--it'll be a place where there's--you can go find out about Extinction Rebellion.  You can find out how to--you get trained.  You can get trained at NVDA and then go straight out and take part in actions.  There's also workshops surrounding how we organize about XR's kind of DNA and theory of change.  And also we're gonna have a stage with musicians and people speaking.  So it's--that's really going to be the home base for anyone, so they can hear about it throughout the week and go straight down there and get involved.

CH: Because it's a series of actions.  It will start on the 7th but it will roll--the idea is that it will roll forward.

CS: Yeah.  We have one big action on the morning of October 7th near Battery Park and then there's…

CH: At what time should people show up there?

CS: 9:30 AM.

CH: Okay.

CS: And there's multiple ways to get involved.  There's people who want to get arrested, want to, you know, use that as their kind of their voice.  And there's a lot of people who don't feel, you know, comfortable getting arrested which is absolutely fine.  There's many ways to get involved in Extinction Rebellion.  And we don't really place getting arrested above not getting arrested because, you know, not everyone has the ability to get arrested for various reasons.  So--that's Monday's action.  And then 2:00 PM on Monday, we'll start in Washington Square Park, and that'll go until the night.  And then we'll be in Washington Square Park from 9:00 AM to 10:00 PM every day.  And that there's an action at Columbia University.  We have a massive group there now.  And there's…

CH: On--this is on Wednesday, right?

CS: Wednesday in the afternoon.  I think it's 3:00 PM but I'm not--I have to check the details on that.  And then Thursday, there's a big action.  But what is also being planned is people coming in and just coming to the park and getting together with people and going out and taking action on their own.

CH: And before I go to Rory, what is it you hope to achieve?

CS: Well, we've gotten the climate emergency declaration passed in New York City which is our…

CH: And explain what that is.

CS: It's the city acknowledging that we are actually living in the sixth mass extinction, that there's an emergency, a climate emergency, ecological emergency, and that we actually need to acknowledge that and do something about it.  In….

CH: Which the Labor Party did after the April Extinction Rebellion protest which shut down major thoroughfares in London?

CS: Uh-hmm.  Yeah.  We did some--we did an action outside City Hall in April.  We shut down the Brooklyn Bridge, and our demand with that action was for the city to declare climate emergency.  And we worked with the City Council to get a climate emergency declared.  And so--but the problem with that is like it didn't have teeth.  There's no timeline on it.  One of…

CH: It's like the Paris Accords.

CS: Exactly.

CH: Everything's non-binding.  Rhetorically, sounds great, but utterly meaningless.

CS: And…

CH: Or as James Hansen said, "A fraud."

CS: Yes.  Definitely.  And so what we are asking for and demanding basically is that they get together citizens' assemblies because these are things that need to be dealt with and talked about with people on the front lines, with people who are being affected now.  And to actually make those changes happen on, you know, a much more rapid basis than they're happening.

CH: So, Rory, tell us a little bit about--Christina talked about the DNA.  And one of the things I like about Extinction Rebellion is that it has been carefully thought through in terms of how you resist beginning, of course, with non-violence.  But talk a little bit about its kind of philosophical attitude towards rebellion itself.

RV: Yeah.  Well, we have ten core principles, one of which importantly is non-violence as you mentioned.  And the idea there, so far as I understand it, is that this--the types of actions that we want to engage with are disruptive to business as usual, but all--but disruptive in a way that is not repellant to observers or outsiders, people who may not even consider themselves to be environmentalists or politically active, or aware, et cetera.  But people who are just paying attention in the world and understand that we are in a crisis, and so they will be attracted or drawn into the spirit of the rebellion which is nonviolent and which is forward-thinking, hopeful, optimistic despite the odds, despite the awful predicament in which we find ourselves.  And so the philosophy there is that XR is transformative, right?  In a sense, it's drawing out people who already agree or who are on the verge of agreeing with what is necessary to be done to combat climate breakdown.

CH: Let me just interrupt.  Across the political spectrum, there's no political litmus test here?

RV: Right.  Ecocide is affecting us all equally regardless of your political affiliation, so I mean I think an important part is at least respecting the science of the situation.  But beyond that, it's about really survival, collective survival.  And so the citizens' assemblies that Christina mentioned, et cetera, are just mechanisms for us to come together as humans in the world recognizing the total failure of global governments, and saying we need to do this together one way or another, parallel institutions, et cetera.  And so reviving that democratic spirit, which really is at the root of this country, but so many people have forgotten.

CH: And yet it is about resting power from the elites ultimately, right?

RV: Yes.  Yes.  I think it must, because the machinery of the state apparatus and capitalism is what has gotten us here.  Petrol capitalism, the fossil fuel corporations, et cetera, have driven us in the momentum or inertia from the Industrial Revolution is continuing.  We have to pull the brake and take a different path.  And that necessarily entails stripping elites of power.

CH: Well, Amitav Ghosh calls it "The Great Derangement."

RV: Yes.  Yes.

CH: That's the right term.

RV: I think that's right.  I mean we live in a world where people are just willfully misrepresenting or misperceiving reality.  And we have to combat that.  That might be XR's most potent challenge is to say--is to speak truthfully, which is our first demand, speak truthfully about the situation.

CH: Well--and I think one of the demands is that you want the elites to speak truth--begin to speak truthfully which they're not doing?

RV: Yes.  But it's also frustrating because we have folks like Trudeau who recently joined a climate March for example, Greta Thunberg met with Barack Obama.  These folks are in fact the enemies of this movement.

CH: Yes, they are.

RV: And we have to recognize that, not collaborate with them.

CH: Well, their rhetoric is good but Barack Obama increased oil production by 88%, the largest increase in American history.  And Justin Trudeau just used Canadian taxpayer money to pay for the XL pipeline.

RV: Right.

CH: So, you know, you have the climate deniers which are bad enough like Trump.

RV: Yes.

CH: But then you have the kind of liberal elites that pay lip service but do nothing.  When we come back, we'll continue our conversation about our climate emergency with Christina See and Rory Varrato from Extinction Rebellion.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about our climate emergency with Christina See and Rory Varrato.  So Christina, what is the goal?  How long do you want these actions to take place and ideally, what would you like to see happen in New York City in particular, but also in other cities around the world?

CS: I think having them go on as long as possible is what we want.  I think where we are at in New York City specifically is we're the biggest group within the U.S. so far, but it's expanding rapidly so what we want is everyone out on the streets.  We saw it last week with the climate strikes, but I think everyone's ready for this.  They just need something.

CH: But it's very different because the climate strikes are choreographed with the police.

CS: Yes.

CH: This is an attempt not to March but to disrupt, right?

CS: Uh-hmm.  Yeah.  I look at the climate strikes as like a stepping stone, right?  People--some people are out on the streets for the first time in their life, others just want to feel like they're doing something and I think that's why Extinction Rebellion speaks to so many people is that they feel completely immobilized and overwhelmed by what's happening with the climate and ecological crisis.  And so Extinction Rebellion, for me personally, that was why I got involved is because I was tired of just watching the news and, you know, reading and all of these things and not actually feeling like anything I was doing was making a difference.  And so…

CH: Well, it was kind of boutique activism, you know.  350.org surrounding the right--White House on a weekend when Obama wasn't there, chanting, "We are your supporters." which actually took place.  This is different.  I mean, if you disrupt, tell me what you expect the consequences to be for capital.

CS: Yeah.  I mean, it's--we're always looking at how much disruption you'd do to make sure that you're not getting people--turning people against you, but I think at a certain point, the disruptions we've done so far, we haven't gotten that much pushback on what we've done because people know that there's issues and so I think that what we're doing for the week is targeting the different things that we have in New York City.  Culture…

CH: For instance?

CS: Cultural institutions, financial government, all of these things that are--that make New York City what it is.

CH: But is the idea to paralyze those institutions?

CS: You know, there will be actions.  I don't think that we, right now, starting before the week, we are not big enough to do a mass shutdown.  The goal is, and hope is that by the end of the week, there will be enough people on the streets that we can do that and I think that's the best part about how we've kind of framed the whole week is that it's adaptable and scalable.  So, if we start with, you know, a small number of people of the, you know, a few thousand people who are already involved, we do have the possibility of making it a lot bigger and really, you know, doing something that will attract attention.

CH: And what would a successful action or a series of actions look like if it was successful vis-a-vis its effect against the ruling institutions?

CS: Getting them to pay attention and coming to the table, you know, like actually being willing to engage about these issues.

CS: By seriously disrupting their ability to do business, is that--would that be correct?

CS: Yeah.  I mean we've seen it, we've targeted media, we saw it outside the New York Times.  I think that's just a small, small piece of what is possible.  But…

CH: My old newspaper, you know, why the Times?  Why did you go for the Times?

CS: Well, you know, everyone thinks of the New York Times as a leader in covering climate, but if you really look a little bit deeper, that's not the case, it's not always framed as what it needs to be, and they're still, you know, advertising money that's coming from fossil fuel industry and so there's all of these different things that just we saw it last month that we did sustain disruptions inside their lobby every week and I guess no one--not a lot of people who work there realized that they were a sponsor of the Oil & Money Conference in London and, you know, through our actions, they pulled out as a sponsor for that, you know.  It's a small win, but it does make people stand up and take notice about the fact that what they're doing is not in alignment with what they're saying they are, you know.

CH: Let's talk a little bit about various tactics, Rory.  In London, they--there were activists who super glued themselves to Jeremy Corbyn's home.  Talk a little bit about the variety of ways people can carry out resistance.

RV: Sure.  I mean there's a plethora.  The ones you alluded to are some of the more effective ones, I think, but anything--any action that disrupts the normal operation of daily life is something that we endorse and really we leave that through our demands and especially our principles to the autonomous decision-making powers of our members.  So, if you have a group of two or three people who, in their locality, based on context, decide this is a particular action that we should take, barricading a street for example or disrupting transportation in other ways is one of the most effective measures then you're authorized to do so under the aegis of Extinction Rebellion.  So, I think disrupting, like Christina mentioned, cultural institutions, it is--yeah.

CH: But give me specifics.  I mean like--because there are a variety of methods that are used, so just list some of the methods that have been effective.

RV: Yeah, direct action including barricades, performances.  There--we have a member of Extinction Rebellion who rides the subway I think almost every day sort of preaching the gospel of ecocide.  Christina may have other examples that come to mind in terms of direct action, but those methods that involve face-to-face contact in particular, I think, are humanizing and convey the urgency of the situation.

CH: Boats, we've got tractors.  Do we have tractors in New York?

CS: Not yet.

CH: Not yet?

CS: Not yet.

CH: Okay.

CS: But I--much of what makes Extinction Rebellion, Extinction Rebellion is their art and their creativity within these actions so it's not just…

CH: But that was very much a part of London.

CS: Uh-hmm.

CH: And talk a little bit about that because having covered revolutions, all of the revolutions in Eastern Europe, I covered the war in El Salvador for five years and the FMLN rebels used to actually travel with theater groups when they would take over towns and use music and had a clandestine radio station where they had a nightly soap opera, which was a kind of satire of the ruling--the president and his family that even the military listened to, it was so funny.  So talk--because culture is an important element.  So talk a little bit about that.

CS: Yeah, I think there's multiple ways that you kind of get through someone's consciousness.  It's not just activists on the street yelling about things because there's, you know, a need for that but there's also a need to speak to the people who don't engage with that and just kind of look at that as like crazy militant people on the street, and I think that that's what has gotten so many people engaged in Extinction Rebellion that it is--it's bringing in all sorts of people, you know.  Just last week, I think there was a--an action with XR doctors, which are basically a bunch of doctors who've signed on to XR's principles.  And as Rory said, anyone can take action in the name of Extinction Rebellion as long as they're following the 10 principles, which includes non-violence.  So, you know, there's so many different ways and it's kind of groups just coming together and saying, I--we, you know, we want to do this thing, and gluing hands has been a, you know, it's particularly fun one.

CH: Which took place in the Capitol in the United States and then XR did that, right?

CS: It did.  Yeah.  They--I think it was about 16 people glued themselves underneath the Capitol in the tunnel so that as they were going to a vote, they had to pass by them and see them and so they were demanding that they declare climate emergency, and, you know, they all got arrested.  I don't--I don't even think--they were all let go and released and no charges were filed as far as I know, but that's one of the things, you know, there's a difference between a soft block where you're just using your body and you kind of, you know, link arms with someone next to you, you can also use things that, you know, like bike locks or PVC pipe where you connect yourself to someone else next to you.  People in DC, last week, attached themselves through PVC pipe to a--to the boat so that they become part of the overall prop.  So they--we actually refer to those as barnacles.  So, there's a lot of different ways and I think that it's not just angry people on the streets, much of what we do is actually with respect and love to everyone around us.  It's not just screaming at people because shaming people into changing their behavior, as we know, doesn't necessarily work very well.  So it's about engaging with people who aren't, you know, in it already and, you know, getting them to--inviting them into it and we have families, we have youth strikers who we have a whole XR youth side of it, and they're, you know, highly engaged and so I think that all of these things come together and it makes Extinction Rebellion what it is.

CH: Ultimately, Rory, the idea is to create, I think, the term is people's assemblies, is that correct?

RV: Uh-hmm.

CH: Explain what that goal is about and what it hopefully will be able to achieve.

RV: Sure.  I mean in one sense, we want to leave it open to creative novelty as the movement grows and emerges and--but on the other hand, it's very clear that what we would like to see is a very democratic body or bodies of assemblies that are modeled on direct deliberative democracy and to put average citizens, regular people, in control of the levers of power through processes like sortitions.  So, just random selection of folks who have…

CH: it's kind of a lottery sortition.

CH: Exactly.  Just like jury duty or something.

CH: Right.

CS: But that's representative of the overall population.

RV: Right.

CS: Yeah.

CS: In a way that, of course, our government is not now, you know.  It's skewed overwhelmingly towards the wealthy and powerful and the white, but the people's assemblies would be responsive to and responsible for the people.  So taking actions at multiple levels local, regional, national, global, integrated, autonomous decision-making to address everything that needs to be done because it's an enormous almost mind-bogglingly overwhelming task ahead of us that we'll have to leverage the entire species to achieve.

CH: Well, it's, about resting power.

RV: Yeah.

CH: It's about creating a movement, a deliberative movement, a movement of sustained civil disobedience that transfers power from the corporate elites who are quite consciously profiting from our extinction…

RV: Yes.

CH: …to the victims which is the rest--I mean they're the victims, too, they just haven't figured it out yet.

RV: Yeah.

CH: I mean they think their money and their wealth will somehow protect them.

RV: Right.  And it won't or it may for a while, but ultimately, they will fall victims to their own "success."

CH: Just to wrap, you know, where can people who are interested in taking part in these actions next week, give us the website address, just, you know, how they can find you to participate?

CS: Yeah.  Our website is xrebellion.nyc.  There's tons of information on there or they can just show up at Battery Park at 9:30 A.M. and 2:00 P.M. at Washington Square Park and any other time during the week.  There'll be updates on our website, on Twitter.  We're using Telegram as well so you can get right on an announcement channel and get up-to-date information, and basically just come out and join what we need to do.

CH: All right.  Great.  I'll be there.  That was Christina See and Rory Varrato from Extinction Rebellion.

RV: Thank you.

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