Rebel for life

Extinction Rebellion co-founder Gail Bradbrook talks to Nina Pullman about how to turn fear about the climate into action and why rebellion is sexual.

Perched on a straw bale in a smart white conference dress and with bare feet, Gail Bradbrook is talking about rebellion.

The co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, the direct action and civil disobedience group against climate inaction, has spent the morning addressing an audience of farmers and academics and laying down the scale of the challenge in no uncertain words.

“We’re either going to have a step change in humanity,” she pauses, “or we’re going to die. That’s how I see it.” She laughs at her own statement, feet swinging on the bale. 

For someone involved in a movement that’s in the business of waking people up to the climate apocalypse, Bradbrook’s default is surprisingly upbeat.

Gail Bradbrook
Gail Bradbrook: ‘Our movement says it’s okay to feel like this, because it is terrifying’ 

“What a more wonderful time to be alive than to try support humanity,” she continues. “It’s an honour to be involved in that change. I think that’s the thing about rebellion, I keep telling people and it sounds like an awful thing to say, but I think it’s quite sexual.

“Not everyone will feel that, but if you actively feel defiant and empowered, and want to make things better – it comes from the land, that feeling,” she says.

Land is a recurring theme at today’s event, where Bradbrook gave a typically rousing speech to set the scene for what is facing humanity unless radical changes in energy, land and food take place, including the sixth mass extinction of biodiversity and “multiple breadbasket failures”.

Bradbrook herself sees the role of farmers as vital: “I’m here to speak with farmers as a rebel, because I think that farming and the goals of Extinction Rebellion are intimately linked.

“I think that farming is a huge part of the solution, as much as a lot of farming is a huge part of the problem at the minute. We have to get back to nature-based farming and regenerative agriculture and organic, and permaculture, and all the rest of it.”

A scientist by training, and with a PhD in molecular biophysics, Bradbrook has an extensive back catalogue of social change activism, including the transition town movement and Extinction Rebellion’s predecessor, Rising Up. “I’ve always been a seeker of ‘what’s going off in this world, why are we doing this to ourselves, you know?” she says.

She cites social change academic Jem Bendell and political scientist Erica Chenoweth, whose figure that 3.5 per cent of the population needs to actively engage with an issue to make a change happen (two million people in the UK), shapes Extinction Rebellion’s drive to scale up and bring more people onto the streets.

And it appears to be working. The shutdown of London and other cities across the UK in April this year saw thousands take to the streets, and over 1,000 arrests – another way Extinction Rebellion encourages its activists to gain attention.

The group has three core asks: to tell the truth about the ecological and climate collapse; to enact legally binding targets to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2025; and establish a citizen’s assembly to oversee what is needed to take place.

Extinction Rebellion groups blockaded much of central London in April 2019 to gain media and political attention.

The target of 2025 itself has attracted attention, with other green groups, including the government’s Committee on Climate Change, choosing 2050 for their own target as more feasible.

“It’s not possible within this paradigm,” agrees Bradbrook, who likens the situation to a wartime mentality. “Look at what happened during the second world war – everything that was impossible was done,” she says. “There’s stories where we had to build thousands of war planes, and they said it was impossible, and then they doubled the output.”

Bradbrook says Extinction Rebellion is working with a group called the Rapid Transition Alliance to look at the practicalities of adapting to a climate emergency, adding: “We have to move into emergency mode, and I don’t know what’s possible when, but what is possible is what our wills decide.”

One of the criticisms levelled at Extinction Rebellion is the disruption caused to everyday lives. How does Bradbrook speak to those who just want to get on with their day? “That does feel pants,” she says. “Because we need to disrupt all of us. And when you block a road, some people will get significantly inconvenienced. Some people will miss an appointment that they might have been waiting for weeks for, and that’s not cool, is it?

“The point is that I don’t want to be on the streets, I want to be back in my community, doing the adaptation and mitigation work. But there’s no point doing that until we’ve got the success of the rebellion behind us.”

With her strong Yorkshire accent and speeches delivered with a healthy scattering of swearing, Bradbrook is becoming a regular on the speaking circuit, talking about Extinction Rebellion at industry conferences, as well as more typical activist events such as Glastonbury and Womad festivals.

“I wouldn’t say we’ve incited emotion, I’d say we’ve surfaced emotion,” she says. “Because if you hear this report, and then you carry on with your day, and the weather is a bit weird, and then fucking Saddleworth Moor sets on fire in February.

“There’s that sort of creeping sensation and then somehow a movement says it’s okay to feel this because it’s terrifying. Greta Thunberg says ‘I’m asking you to panic, not be hopeful’.”

When not working full-time for Extinction Rebellion, Bradbrook is the mother of two sons who she says just want “an ordinary life”. She says she’s accepted that, as co-founder, her name is “out there now on some weird right-wing lists”, but she’s open to the fact that not everyone is able to join the movement on the streets. 

Gail at Glasto
Bradbrook addressed crowds at this year’s Glastonbury Festival. 

“Obviously if you’ve got mental health issues, or particular responsibilities or migration status, or a certain ethnicity and you think you’re going to be treated badly,” she pauses, before adding, “I mean especially in this country – environmental activists get murdered in other places – it’s actually a bit outrageous, and I don’t mean to shame people, but it’s a bit outrageous to be like, ‘I’m a bit nervous about getting arrested.’”

It certainly does feel as though Extinction Rebellion is having an effect – alongside widespread media coverage of the April demonstrations, the UK government has declared a climate emergency and made tentative steps towards establishing a citizen’s assembly.

Is there a sense internally that things are changing? “People are constantly saying to me, you’ve changed the conversation. It’s the school strikes as well, and it’s the Attenborough film, I don’t want us to take all the credit for it,” says Bradbrook, who says the next mass action will take place in mid-October.

“The question now is whether we can keep it in the public domain. We’re just on the streets for two weeks and honestly it’s more fun than a holiday. Just come and see.”


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