This is Sustainability in Conversation: a series where I talk to people about their individual experiences of sustainability. In a world where the media is a continual onslaught of negative news and general dreariness, I wanted to talk to the environmentalists, the business owners, the experts, the craftspeople, and everyone else with a love for sustainability about what they are personally doing to help protect our beautiful planet. Maybe in doing so, I can remind myself (and hopefully, you) that there are some pretty wonderful people out there doing some amazing good.
You might’ve seen Extinction Rebellion Youth (XRY) in the media in the past year, campaigning and protesting to save our planet in what some consider fairly radical means; so radical, in fact, that last year counter-terrorism police labelled XRY’s parent organisation (Extinction Rebellion (XR)) as an “extremist ideology”. But is that label really deserved, especially when we clearly need to start making drastic changes to the way we live in order to stop more than 1.5C of warming? This week I sat down (over Facetime) with Poppy Silk, a member of Extinction Rebellion Youth, to discuss what XRY are really about and what we need to be doing in order to protect our planet.
“I think the GCSE definition of [sustainability] is actually quite good,” Poppy said, “Looking after our planet for future generations… Living your life in the moment but also living your life in the moment in a way that you know your future generations will also be able to do that.” For that reason, Poppy explained that sustainability has to be about more than just climate. “We want a world for future generations also in terms of social justice, so I think that really comes into sustainability.”
She asserts that the meaning of sustainability has been “watered down”. “I kind of cringe when I hear ‘sustainability action’ because to me that means, like, ‘How are we gonna recycle?’, not ‘How are we gonna solve these structural issues about climate change and capitalism?’” It seems that our contemporary understandings of sustainability still follow the GCSE principles, they just have much greater, much broader implications for our society and the way we live our lives than we thought.
So, what are XRY all about? Poppy explained that XRY were initially set up during the first Extinction Rebellion uprising. “[XR] has historically been a fairly white middle class movement,” Poppy admitted, explaining that XRY was set up in response to that, attempting to push for greater climate justice. XR demands are as follows: “01. Tell the truth”, “02. Act now” and “03. Go beyond politics”. According to Poppy, XR are also working on the possibility of a fourth demand, which is a “Just transition”, where our transition to a renewable, restorative and sustainable world must be fair and just, “especially to those affected by the climate crisis”, Poppy affirms. Poppy explains that XRY have almost the same demands, but focus much more on achieving social and climate justice.
“I think one of the really, really important things that XRY has is we have a really, really big group called XRY Solidarity and they work with partners around the world, so indigenous peoples, frontline activists,’ Poppy commented. She went on to list many of XRY’s campaigns, including their campaigns towards decolonising conservation and their campaigns against the Nigerian SARS.
“XRY has always been this pressure group to make (XR) more radical,” Poppy commented, “Obviously, it still has some of the issues, but it has much less”. XRY is an especial “champion” of the youth voice in the fight for climate change, Poppy further noted, advocating for the importance of this, “because, basically, it’s our futures”.
XR and XRY tend to come under fire in the media for their so-called radicalism, but is this really a fair criticism? “If someone thinks you’re too radical, chances are they don’t know how bad it is,” Poppy expressed. She went on to admit that her perspective might be a little bit biased, as in her circles being “radicalized” isn’t necessarily a bad thing; “radical” clearly has a lot of different definitions depending on who you’re talking to. “You know, we’re blocking roads, and that seems to some people kind of radical, but like, the government is destroying our futures; we were just sitting in the road,” Poppy added. Ours certainly seems like a broken system if we label activists trying to prevent ecological detriment and destruction as “radical”, rather than the governments and corporations causing that damage. “It’s kind of only seen as radical because it’s a change,” Poppy points out.
Another criticism levelled against XR has been the feeling that they represent an exclusionary form of sustainability and environmental activism; I asked Poppy what her thoughts on this were. “So, I think there are kind of two sides to what people view as it being ‘exclusionary’, and they come from the right and the left. So, from the right we get ‘You’re being exclusionary because you can’t be in XR unless you’re vegan and you’re plastic free and perfect’, which I don’t think is the case in any way. I don’t think there is an attitude within XR that says you can’t, you know, fly to visit your family or eat meat, to be in XR. So, that’s just the right [wing side of politics]. “Whereas, the thing that comes from the left is more of XR representing a white, middle-class movement, is definitely true, and has definitely been true, but I do think, actually, it’s moving really, really rapidly in the right direction at the moment.”
Then, Poppy went on to say that she feels that XR has taken the pandemic as an opportunity for a “reset”, describing how her local groups have made conscious efforts to overcome the aspects of their movement that are exclusionary and do need work. Importantly, Poppy commented that she felt that, although true to a level, the sentiment that XR and XRY are white, middle-class movements is quite reductive, and often means that the incredible and invaluable work people of colour do within the organisations gets overlooked and cast aside.
Poppy also commented on the impact of the rise in the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020: “I think the BLM protests in particular kind of gave us that kick up the arse [to become more inclusive], I’m not gonna lie. I think it’s important to recognise the amount of work people of colour within XR are doing.” She went on to say that XR halted much of their actions and operations for the summer of 2020 in order to offer resource support to the Black Lives Matter movement.
From an XRY member’s perspective, what do we need to overcome the threat of climate change? Poppy responded: “I think we need participatory democracy. Essentially, the people who decide how we stop climate change should not be a group of incredibly privileged politicians who don’t actually represent the country, because we don’t even have proportional representation. It should be a group of people who: cannot be influenced by fossil fuel companies, don’t have money in mind, and hear from the experts first and also hear from stakeholders.” She went on to explain this is referred to as citizens assemblies, and added that she feels any sort of participatory democracy is the only way to handle our climate and environmental crisis. Moreover, she commented that she doesn’t think it’s the right thing for any group to advocate for just one solution as the only solution. “I don’t know the best solutions,” Poppy points out, explaining that interdisciplinary approaches, involving ‘ordinary’ people can produce the best solutions.
“I think [the climate crisis] needs to be solved with social justice at its core, as well,” she asserted, “We could fight the climate crisis without solving things like white supremacy, but that’s just ecofascism… I think the climate crisis actually kind of shows us the solution, like, it gives us a way to solve all these issues.” She then alluded to the COVID-19 pandemic, as a mirror of the climate crisis: an emergency situation which has offered us opportunities to tackle serious ingrained inequalities and issues within our society.
Extinction Rebellion has come under a lot of fire for their “Boycott Fast Fashion” initiative, but Poppy says they’ve been doing a lot of work to make sure the people really in the wrong are feeling the crunch. The group that used to call themselves Boycott Fast Fashion “have moved on to Fashion Action”, according to Poppy. “It’s not about the everyday consumer who’s, you know, buying from Primark when they need to, ‘cause that’s all the money they have. It’s about—you know, you just have to go on YouTube to see influencers doing hauls every week. It’s overconsumption, and overconsumption is not average, everyday people – it’s the rich.” She went on to say that she feels we’re already seeing the impacts of these protests in people’s behaviour. “XR’s focus is not on individual change, it will never be, but obviously if you’re learning a lot about how fast fashion companies are polluting loads and over consuming all this stuff, you probably aren’t going to still keep wearing it.”
Finally, maybe Poppy’s most important takeaway: “People say that the whole thought of, like, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism… We definitely have to see an end to capitalism and how it is now,” Poppy said, “I don’t know the solution to that. I’m not an economist or any of these people, you know, I don’t study politics or anything like that, but I also know the system that we have at the moment is broken.” In a society where economic gains and GDP are prioritised over people’s health, people’s livelihoods, and on the macro scale, the health and prosperity of our environment and planet, eventually something’s gotta give. Let’s hope it’s former
Poppy is a second year Physics student at the University of Bristol. She is a member of Extinction Rebellion Youth and has been critical to much of their work and action, including their initiative to open up ‘Know Your Rights’ training to everyone who wished to take part. She first got involved in climate activism during the ‘Fridays for Future’ school strikes. She has been vegetarian all her life and is working towards being vegan. You can check her out via her Instagram @poppy_is_a_mess or @p0p.sy.
Words By: Gina Moran
Edited By: Rosie Harkin-Adams