April 24, 2023 / 7 comments
My speech at Extinction Rebellion’s ‘The Big One’
I gave a pretty much identical talk twice during Extinction Rebellion’s ‘The Big One’ protests over the weekend, both of which were a lot of fun. A few people came up and asked if I might be sharing the text as they wanted to use it in different ways. So here it is. These are the notes I used anyway, so they are a bit ‘notey’, but hopefully they give what you need.
“You’ll hear many bleak visions of the future from this stage, and they may well be right.
But I would like to share something different.
I’ve travelled here from Totnes in Devon. You may have heard of us. We are the town famously twinned with Narnia. We are the town where, it is said by local poet Matt Harvey, when you’ve lived there for a while, your body starts to secrete a new hormone called Totnesterone, that brings your masculine and feminine into perfect alignment.
What you might not know is that we also have a Time Travel programme. It is super secret, so don’t tell anyone, it’s just between you and me. In an old cellar deep beneath Totnes Castle we have been working on the development of Disbelief suspenders, Cynicism Overrider circuits and much more, and we now have perfected a fully working actual Time Machine! That deserves an ‘ooh!’ I’d say!
It is inspired by Afrofuturism and traditional African understandings of time which state that time isn’t linear, but rather that we are the central hub in a wheel and every spoke offers routes to different pasts and different futures.
And our technology is shaped by bell hooks who wrote: “What we cannot imagine cannot come into being”. And by the great Sun Ra who said “we’ve tried the possible and it failed, now it’s time to try the impossible”…
Yes at the moment, the predominant direction of the future looks bleak, but there are other pathways into the future, and in our Time Machine, we explore them. Not Utopias, not dystopias, but rather the futures that resulted from our doing everything we could possibly have done.
It’s vitally important that we make the spaces to explore “what if it’s too late”. But it’s also vital that we make the spaces to explore what if it isn’t?
I want to tell you the story of a recent journey we took in our Time Machine. You might like to think of me, standing here, as the Marco Polo, or the Phineas Fogg, of the climate movement, bringing you back extraordinary tales from a very different future, one that is still possible, just ….
The air smelt amazing, and the birdsong was so loud
London smelt like a Spring day in the mountains
The city had far more tree cover, keeping it cool in summer
There was now far less tarmac and concrete
The UK now had passed 100% renewable energy, exported renewably generated electricity to other places, and much of the renewable energy put in place is in community ownership.
Getting to this moment has felt like the most exhilarating time in history to live through, like a revolution of the imagination. It’s been an incredible time to be alive. I feel so lucky to have seen it.
And oh, the bicycle rush hours! You’ve never seen anything like them. Underground car parks from 2023 have been repurposed as amazing underground bike parks, everywhere.
The worst of the international speculative banks collapsed in 2024 and this time we didn’t bail them out, we nationalised them in service of the Transition and the Green New Deal, and those bank offices are now repurposed as the home to all sorts of coops and new economy businesses.
We visited Citizens Assemblies which are now used for all big decisions – the sense of empowerment and possibility were palpable. And every city now has a Civic Imagination Office, vital to the flexing of that place’s collective imagination muscle.
Schools are now democratic, imaginative, artistic, a living embodiment of sustainability, designed by the kids, many now have a rainforest in the middle.
We eat about 80% less meat than we did in 2023, but you know what? Hardly anyone noticed the shift, and we are all so much healthier as a result.
We’ve already retrofitted 70% of the UK’s housing stock, and we started with the poorest housing first. New buildings are all Passivhaus, are beautiful, and many use more locally produced materials, which has been a big boost to local economies.
85% of peoples’s lives have hugely improved – there’s no homelessness any more, no fuel poverty, no fuel poverty, because in that 2030, the right decisions are made to enable those things… we look back on 2023 in horror and shame!
Shell and BP went out of business in 2026 and we celebrated their passing with such fierce dancing. People still talk about the parties that marked their demise.
We see no floods any more because we rewilded the uplands and we developed the humility to realise that beavers are far better hydrological engineers than we can ever be – and it’s led to an explosion of biodiversity… far faster than anyone expected. It all happened so fast.
Aviation has fallen by 80%, and no-one has seen a private jet since 2025. Rather than the constant fights of 2023 to stop the opening of new runways, we now vote annually on which of the existing ones we should be closing down and in which order. Half of Heathrow airport has already been returned to forests….
Public transport is now free, and, hard to believe back in 2023 I know, but it’s really good – punctual and comfortable.
Universities now teach everything through the lens of the climate and ecological emergency, and universities are now showcases of a different future. They are surrounded by food gardens, generate more power than they use, and are deeply democratic.
Rishi Sunak finally had his climate change dark night of the soul in 2024 and committed his vast wealth to tackling the climate and ecological emergency. His actions inspired many other wealthy people to do the same. King Charles committed in 2024 to rewilding all the Crown’s lands, and that process has happened so fast. And no-one has heard anything at all from Jeremy Clarkson for 7 years now.
The UK is now the most welcoming place in the world for displaced people, and policing has been transformed, with restorative justice and more funding going into supporting poorer communities than goes into policing them.
We now have a Universal Basic Income, and people seem to much less stressed, and anxious, mental health has improved hugely across society.
The UK’s leadership inspired other governments around the world to be much more ambitious on climate change, and global CO2 output has now fallen substantially for the last 5 years, and that decline is accelerating, while all the indicators for wellbeing and happiness continue to rise.
All those beautiful but burnt out, exhausted and stressed activists who gave so much in the early 202os finally got to take a rest because the fundamental direction of travel and changed, and because guess what, it turned out that they were right!
In 2030 we walked down streets filled with music, carnival, conversation, kids playing, food growing, bees buzzing. It is hard for me to express just how beautiful it was. I get emotional just thinking about it.
In early 2025 the UK and many other nations made reparations for slavery and colonisation, and international debts were cancelled, loss and damage was paid, and we’ve seen a flourishing of democracy and the building of new low carbon economies… and in the education of women, which looking back from 2030 turned out to have been one of the most important things we did to address climate change.
It’s not Utopia, but the transformation has been incredible. It felt like such an honour to have been able to see it, and to be able to share it with you.
You might be wondering why we needed to be wearing these Time Travellers suits in order to travel to 2030?
It’s because one of the most noticeable things by 2030 is a fragile, but very real sense of “you know, we might just do this”. Call it hope, call it agency, call it possibility, call it what you like, but one of the golden rules of time travel is not to pollute that with our 2023 cynicism and despair, our “yeah, right, like that’s ever going to work” … so this is to protect them, not us.
It is my strong sense that it is not enough to just talk about extinction and collapse, we also have to express something beautiful for people to run towards.
The UN recently published a report in which they said “all chance of staying below 1.5 degrees is now over unless we see what they called a rapid transformation of society. Every headline, every news article, all ran with headlines like “i.5 degree is over”. None of them said “Let’s have a rapid transformation of society”, let’s do that rapid transformation of society. Why is that?
Walidah Imarisha, in her book about the speculative fiction of Octavia Butler, wrote “all organising is science fiction”. Which I love so much. You call being here is a work of fiction, it’s such a powerful story.
So let’s make our story one that nurtures and kindles a deep deep longing for the future, whether we have a time machine or not. Let every conversation we have about how terrified we are about the future include what we long for in the future we could still create: “I long to live in a city where the rivers are so clean that people swim to work”, or “I long to live in a place where the birdsong drowns out the traffic”.
I must go now, as I left the Time Machine on double yellow lines, and you know what it’s like in London, but I will leave you with a quote from the poet Rilke. He said “the future must enter into you a long time before it happens”. That’s so beautiful. Let our work, our activism, our storytelling, allow the future to enter into people.
April 25, 2023
inspiring words. “we also have to express something beautiful for people to run towards.”
April 25, 2023
“Let every conversation we have about how terrified we are about the future include what we long for in the future we could still create”. As ever you have nailed it in a few words… Thank you Rob
April 25, 2023
Should be translated in French, with that collapsology attitude!
April 26, 2023
Don’t underestimate the power of being collapse-aware for motivating action! Isn’t the saying “hope for the best, prepare for the worst”? 🙂
May 22, 2023
yes, that is a good one! thanks Andrew
Lucy Isherwood Green
April 26, 2023
Having not been able to make it to London its really helpful to read this and have your inspiring perspective Rob – it’s so needed. Thank you!
April 29, 2023
Lovely stuff, Rob – sorry I missed you at The Big One.