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A conversation between the angry banker and the activist consumer

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For a few months now, I’ve given Gail Bradbrook, Co-Founder of Extinction Rebellion, a voice on this blog. The idea was to get understanding through talking. There have been many negative reactions, particularly this challenge from an angry banker. Since then, he has sent me several more negative emails, which I haven’t shared, but decided the best way to get into the detail was to connect the angry banker to Gail directly, so I set up a conference call. Here is what happened:

Angry Banker (AB): Maybe, to start with, you wrote something the other day about breaking windows of banks is not something that is illegal, and yet destroying the property of another person is surely not legal? 

Gail Bradbrook (GB): Whether it is illegal is a matter for the Courts to decide, because there are defences in law when one breaks windows. For example, if your child was in a house fire and I broke your window to get them out, then that wouldn’t count as criminal damage because, from the perspective of the law, I’d acted under “duress of circumstances” or “necessity”. If you are acting to prevent a greater harm, then damage can be allowed. Other activists have been acquitted on this point though the law has tried to make these defences harder to use.

There was a recent case with respect to protests. You might be aware of the issue with the Colston statue, where a former slave owner in Bristol was being honoured by a statue. There was a campaign to have it removed, and eventually people took matters into their own hands and threw it in the river. Some would class this as an act of criminal damage and others would class it as a necessary prevention of harm given the offense being caused. That is what got argued in the Court of law.

The four people involved were found not guilty, and the attorney general has sent aspects of the case for review to the higher courts.

Extinction Rebellion activists who broke a window at the Shell building were found not guilty by a jury of their peers, even though the Judge said they didn’t generally have a defence in law. So that is a signal to us, isn’t it?

Also, one has to look at history and recognise that at times people didn’t have a defence in law.

Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing didn’t have a defence in law, because it was decided that men having sex with other consenting men should be illegal and both of their lives were ruined by that.  Quite possibly Rosa Parkes didn’t have a defence in law, the suffragettes obviously, the Tolpuddle Martyrs that wanted to start a Trade Union.  And there are many examples when the problem is the law itself, and I think we are actually in those times.

So, I suppose that what I would really want to say is that I class myself as an intelligent woman, and I don’t go around breaking windows for no reason!  I have a rationale, and I can see that what I am doing has the impact that I am hoping it has, and I think it is necessary.  Whether the law recognised me as a conscientious protector is the law’s problem, not mine.

AB: So why aren’t you attacking Government buildings, rather than bank buildings?  What’s my bank got to do with it?

GB: I have broken one window of a Government building, in the Department of Transport. That one was apparently bullet proof glass, and I was told it cost £27,500 to replace and so I could go to jail for that.  I’m due to be on trial for that some time in the Autumn.  Trial dates keep changing because of some of these discussions about protest law.

I think it’s important to recognise that what we are talking to are systemic and institutional issues.  We are not, on the whole, talking about specific individuals. I say it in this way: the economic system we are choosing incentivises bad behaviour and, if the system is a problem, we need people to speak out about the system and say that they are struggling to make changes within the system, within the shackles that the system creates.

We’ve acted against various banks and have three demands. One is to report on their climate impact, and provide a path towards change. The second is to name the systemic issues that create this incentivisation of harm. The third is to champion an assembly of ordinary people who can support a process to make the changes to the system that are necessary, and that is a complex thing to do.

A friend of mine organised a conversation with a C-suite member of a major high street bank the other day. He said they understood why people took extreme action at times, and he also  thought that they were sometimes needed, if they didn’t harm anybody. He said that people who were working for the bank feel trapped within a bad system. This senior banker agreed with some of the sentiments we feel. They were saying those things themselves, and that something in the system has to change, as people can’t make change within the system.

AB: Well, that is my key point. I have a family and I’m not stupid. At the same time, I’ve got to work within the bank, investing in the right things for the bank to enable a return on investments and assets.  And yet, you seem to be saying that we are not doing the right job fast enough but surely 2050 is fast enough?

GB:  Well first of all, I think to live at a time when we are destroying life on earth is a difficult thing for any of us to really sit with.  Who are we meant to be in these times? How do we serve the immediate needs of our family and our loved ones, and how do we take care of their future? Because my understanding is, as a mother, my primary responsibility to my children is to keep them safe and to ensure that they have some kind of a decent life, a good future.

In other cultures that really think well about the next generations, there’s a thing called the children’s fire, where no decision is made without sitting round the children’s fire and thinking about the impact it would have on the next seven generations. What would it be like if our investment decisions and our banking decisions were made on that basis?

There are good things to invest in of course. We need some sectors to grow, and this idea that companies have to be focused solely on the bottom line, the shareholder value, is actually really questioned these days, isn’t it? I mean it was questioned in the World Economic Forum.  The Companies Act of 1996 talks about the triple bottom line including society and the environment.

You have got alternative forms to the mainstream set up and corporate law. For example, what comes out of a B Corps movement*? Where you can’t be a B Corporation without having set yourself up in service to be something bigger,  and have a bigger purpose.

A bank might make that choice and become a B Corporation, and invest in both the things that need to grow in the world and the degrowth that needs to happen as well in the world.

AB: So, you are targeting my bank because you think we put shareholders above stakeholders?

GB: Yes and, by the way, you mentioned 2050 and yes, it is too late.  The IPCC report that talked about 2050 said we had 50/50 chance of keeping temperatures to the less dangerous levels. It’s not really about the date. It’s about the amount of carbon emitted and how much so called ‘carbon budget’ we feel that we have left.

There are key scientists like Sir David King, former Chief scientist in the UK, who said: “there is no carbon budget left folks”, and that is what I think. Earth’s temperature tipping points are already being breached, and life support systems are in jeopardy. So, the idea that we’ve got the luxury of time to make this change is clearly incorrect.

You can make is as long as 2050 but it just means that we have to cut a lot more sooner, because there is a long tail. It’s a graph, right? And it depends how quickly it falls off.  If you were to do a 2050 date, you have to do something like 80% of your cuts by 2025.

However we say it, what the scientists say is to act now. The cuts have to happen how.  The International Energy Agency said no new investment in fossil fuel, and yet that is happening. We haven’t got the luxury of time anymore.

AB: I’ll come back to us, let’s carry on down this track for a second.  We are not investing in any fossil fuel or non-renewable energy projects. What we are trying to do is educate our business and our customers to make the shift, so surely, we are actually more important to you than you seem to rate us? After all, we are critical to persuading financing fossil fuel firms to move to renewable energy.

GB: I don’t think that’s true. Since the Paris Climate Agreement, something like $4.6 trillion has been pumped into fossil fuel firms by the biggest banks. Within that there are many new fossil fuels projects, with Barclays Bank investing something like $200 billion into new fossil fuel projecst for example.

It’s like a drug dealer argument which says: if I wasn’t funding it someone else would be. There’s a little embellishment on that which says: oh, and I’m going to be a good influencer as I’m doing that investing.

AB: This drug dealer analogy. What you are really saying is that if banks make profits for shareholders, from funding new fossil fuel projects and non-renewable energy projects then, like a drug dealer, you can’t be the guy or the girl who’s weaning people off the habit whilst funding the habit.  Is that what you are really saying?  

GB: I’m saying the argument that it’s okay to fund it, because somebody has to, isn’t okay.  It’s that sort of argument, isn’t it? Sometimes you have to be the one to say that it’s not okay to fund this stuff.

And then the fossil fuel companies are perfectly able to make their own statements, saying they are going to be moving towards renewables but, frankly, they’ve been saying that for a long time.  I think that there is very low trust in both the fossil fuel sector and the finance sector.

It is this way for a number of reasons to do with the funding of client denying think tanks, and a whole plethora of methods to promote climate denial over the last twenty years (see video at end).

We know that Shell knew that climate change was real, and they had the science on it. Their reaction was to work with a PR company called Hill and Knowlton.  John Knowlton had perfected this thing, having worked on with Big Tobacco. His thing is: what do you do when everybody knows that something’s a problem and you are making money out of it?  He said that you cannot stay in denial about it, saying it is not happening, because you look stupid. What you have to say is maybe there is some problem and so let’s do some research.

Knowlton perfected a whole methodology of obfuscating, distracting and slowing things down, that means a lot more people have died of problems with tobacco. The same methodology has taken over the fossil fuel sector.

We also know that the banks and finance institutions have resisted regulation, which means we’ve put foxes in charge of the hen house.

There are many issues there and you hear people speaking out in the banking sector.  I think it was Mervyn King [former Governor of the Bank of England] who said there are many different types of finance systems that we could have, and we’ve got the worst one.

Going back to the drug dealer analogy, I think it’s difficult to trust people to make significant change, which means it’s not happening. You have a sense that people are genuine when they take career risking moves to make the change.

AB: One bank is turning away any business that is causing climate issues and my bank’s doing really well by taking that business. Like your drug dealer, if someone turns away from a deal, someone else will take it.

GB: Well that is going to happen because there are a lot of wobbles in the finance system where it could collapse. The father of chaos and complexity theory, Mandelbrot looked at this sort of chaos and complexity within the finance system and stated, very clearly, this thing is going to collapse under its own inner contradictions at some point.  It also operates within the laws of nature. There is a moment when it’s over.

I mean there are people within the IMF that have said this, and other major institutions. They are saying that the finance system is going to kill its own. It’s like a parasite that eats its own host.

AB: I’ve heard this for years. It’s just a noise. 

GB: Well, that’s interesting. There’s a sense of complacency. The way things happen in systems is that they have very rapid changes.  Of course, maybe you heard a noise in 2007 from Professor Steve Keen and a few other economists, who were so-called heterodox economists. They were saying the systems going to collapse soon and then, of course, we had the meltdown of the finance system in 2008 where ordinary people were asked if they would bail out the banks.

AB: Yes, but that was nothing to do with climate. I mean, the climate noise has been going on for at years and yet we are still here.

GB: We are, but the number of people dying each year is going up. Just look at the harvests this year. There is a huge struggle. When food supply shuts down, there is no food.  This is when the shit hits the fan and it is all around food, because food grows according to the laws of nature. Historically it’s a well-known fact that people rise up when there’s a cost of living and food price crisis, and there’s an impact already of the climate system on food.

We are only at 1.2 degrees of warming and, according to the science and the commitments that people are breaking, we are heading towards 3.2 degrees and possibly higher. On the one hand are you going to listen to what the green movement wants, and make such drastic changes to how we live or, on the other hand, are we going carry on as it is and destroy the planet, in which case this civilisation is finished.

AB: I hear you articulate the problem, Gail. I hear what the problem is. I don’t hear what the solution is because one person or one institution taking action alone is not going to change anything. This is a global issue that you are talking about. It is not something that one bank can change. 

GB: When you are working in one of the top banks for funding fossil fuels, we activists and campaigners have the ability to trash your brand reputation. We know how strongly organisations, especially if they are in the public domain, protect their brand. That said, I’m in agreement, this is not down to any one given institution. There’s a systemic issue of how we organise our economic and finance system, and that needs to be changed. It is not easy.  I’ve heard it described as a bit like trying to change an aeroplane into a helicopter mid-flight.

I don’t think it is easy and, at the same time, it’s going to go into a meltdown at some point, and possibly quite soon.  So, how do we make the change and what does it involve?

I’m only going to be able to speak in generalities, because I’m not a finance person, but there are plenty out there that are making statements about what needs to happen.

We speak in Extinction Rebellion about ordinary assemblies of people in a democratic form, to listen to various experts, then to decide upon what the solutions are, because everybody’s got biases,  haven’t they? We can look to organisations like The Rapid Transition Reliance, that was set up by Andrew Simms and others, for how to make these big and rapid transitions.

We have to have the confidence that if we have the will to do that, we can do it. We are clever.  You know we’ve had to do it in times of war. We’ve had to change our entire economic focus. We had to do something like that recently with Covid. We can do it.

The real issue is being willing to step up and say, it’s time to make this change folks.  And the issue is being really clear that we have no choice in this. This issue is for those that have a vested interest in the current system, which many of us do.

We need the best brains to work together. We need the best brains in finance, we need the best brains in economics, we need the best brains in business, we need the best brains in government, to think about: how we are going to do this together? And it has to be real. It can’t be a fake thing.  That’s what activists are going to call out. When it’s something that’s trying to just shore up a brand and carry on as business as usual. It has to be real. It has to be meant. No greenwashing.

AB: Well, let me put it to you that the only way my bank would change its position is if the government told them to. That’s the only way that any bank in the world behaves. If the government tells them they will withdraw their banking licence if they continue to fund fossil fuel projects, for example, then that is the only way we will change.

GB: There’s their a argument isn’t there? It’s a cop out frankly. Why don’t the Chief Executives of the biggest banks go and glue themselves to the Department of Business government office, and say: please regulate us? please take away our banking licence if we don’t do this?  I know that’s a strange and funny image, but this is what I am talking about.

Politicians would say: well, we can’t make the changes because the capital is going to fly out of the country, and we are beholden to this economic system, and the economy is going to collapse, and so we have to do it this way.  But then bear in mind that the City of London was created out of a beautiful spirit of Guilds and honourable craftsmanship, and wanting to make sure the crafts had their own powers outside of that of royalty. This is why the Queen is not allowed into the City of London, without permission.

We don’t have a remembrancer in Parliament for future generations or for nature or for life. We just have it for the finance system. If you genuinely want the Government to regulate, then tell them how.

I used to work in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). I’ve heard this argument before, and I thought NO! I just don’t believe that. If you really want the change, then stop lobbying. I’m not saying you personally, but there’s a lot of lobbying that goes on. We know about it. The lobbying is all about trying to stop the change happening.   Why don’t they lobby for the change? Why don’t they try to be ahead of the curve? It’s like that the emperor has no clothes on. People don’t want to say what it is and they don’t want to face it.

AB: I talk to my Chief Executive every day about where we are going, what should I be telling him?

GB: Well as a bank, make a simple declaration, no new investments in fossil fuel.

AB: Can’t do that. I can’t do that because we make a lot of money out of loans to those firms. We can’t shut that down. 

GB: Well, if you are asking me what you can do, that’s what has to be done.  There isn’t a sort of soft landing here, there’s just the right thing to do.

AB: But what about if I said we could do that over the next 10 years? Gradually tune it down.

GB:  Well, I am saying no new fossil fuel investments, I am not saying that you pull out of every investment that you’ve already got. I am saying no new ones.  Just don’t put any new money in.

AB: Then we will be in the same situation as banks that are losing business to others, because they are turning down such loans of new fossil fuel projects. We can pick those up and make money.

GB: Well, then you are following the money as ever and, of course, that is what the system asks you to do.  As I said it is incentivisation of bad behaviour.  What I think is needed is for finance folks to get together and make an agreement all together to not fund any new investments in fossil fuels.  Send that signal out to the market.

There is in fact a movement now towards an ecocide law. An ecocide law says that individuals would be held personally for decisions that were made, that led to the mass damage and destruction of the environment. Ecocide law would join the other Rome Statutes, which is the highest law on the planet.  That’s where the crimes against humanity, war crimes, crimes of aggression, crimes of genocide sit, An ecocide law would be a fifth crime against peace.

So, it’s fantastic that some finance bodies have said we want this.

AB: There’s naivety in what you just said though in that if you look at the sanctions on Russia or the money laundering activities of the criminal underworld, and the way in which they manipulate the financial system through arbitrage between countries, there’s always a way around whatever you are outlining. There will always be a way of getting around what you are trying to achieve.

GB: I’m not naïve about that. I used to chair the Governing body of the Tax Justice Network. The UK set up most of those corrupt processes. There is a reason why people call London Londongrad (a reference to Russian money laundering). There is reason why there is a lot of corrupt London money. It comes back to the thing I said earlier about the finance curse. We are letting the finance system be way too big and dominant, and what that does is it entirely distorts the economic system. Everything gets financialised, and corruption runs free, because it’s all about the money. You have to have international cooperation.

There’s a whole set of things on the table again, like country-by-country reporting tax standards so you know what people are doing with their money. There are proposals for registers of beneficial owners of companies. There’s the general anti-abuse principle that can be applied.  There are many great suggestions on the table, but most get lobbied against because of the system’s construct.

The thing about Russia, and other corrupt money, is that it has been talked about for many years, but it’s just been ignored.  We’ve got a deeply corruptive finance system.  I’m not saying everybody’s bad. I am not saying it’s all bad. I am not saying we don’t need finance.  It’s too big. It’s a mess, and it needs sorting out. We need finance people to think about the future, especially those of you that are parents, to think with care about what world you want to leave for your children.

AB: My final question is that do you really believe it is fully justifiable to break windows, glue yourself to buildings and block roads so I can’t get my kids to school or my mother to an operation?  You think that’s okay?

GB: I think it needs consideration.  I don’t think it is something you just do lightly, and it needs a lot of care.  You also may not be aware that, in terms of emergency vehicles, we have a policy in Extinction Rebellion of making sure that they can get through.  We often, before we’ve done our big protect disruption, talk to the police so that they can re-route emergency vehicles. We take as much care as possible.  What would you have us do instead, that would be more effective?  That is always a question I want to ask.

AB: My question is why do you need to do this?  I’ve already mentioned that we’ve heard the noise.  Why do you need to make is so much noisier?

GB: Because the change hasn’t happened.  I think that said, I do think the alarm has been sounded. We seem to have finally moved away from the time of climate denial. There is still some of that there, but what we are in now is what was always planned: the climate delay time.

“Well, we can put it off, we don’t want to disrupt this, we don’t want to damage that.  We can get round to it, but we can’t do it yet because there is this other problem. We’ll deal with it in a bit”.

It’s delay. It’s a new version of denial.

At this time, what we really need is the inspiration, to hear the vision of the change. We need to hear confidence in ourselves as people. We need togetherness so that we can feel we are making the change, and making the world a more beautiful place.

If that sounds a bit naïve and a bit hippy, it’s what we have to do now because it’s desperate.  The problem we face as an environmental activist is that you know that once everybody has understood how bad it is, and there is not enough food, well there’s always something that you can do. The issue is that it is going to be a long way down the road by then.

AB:  How far are you willing to go?

GB: Personally? Well, I expect I will find myself in jail at some point. I am quite scared about that. I’ve spent 24 hours in one jail cell, and it was tough for that length of time in one room. I am quite scared about that. I’ve got teenage boys that need me but, if it helps make the change, if it’s in service for something bigger than myself, then I’m willing to do that.

AB: Well, I can’t endorse you but having said that, I have listened, I will think about it.

 

This latest discussion  from Dr Gail Bradbrook Co-Founder of Extinction Rebellion follows previous ones here and here. In it she responds further to this challenge from an angry banker.

 

For all the climate deniers out there, check this out:

 

* bcorporation.net began in 2006 with the idea that a different kind of economy was not only possible, but necessary — and that business could lead the way towards a new, stakeholder-driven model. B Lab became known for certifying B Corporations, which are companies that meet high standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. By harnessing the power of business, B Lab positively impacts companies around the world, helping them balance profit with purpose. Together, B Lab is shifting our global economy from a system that profits few to one that benefits all: advancing a new model that moves from concentrating wealth and power to ensuring equity, from extraction to generation, and from prioritizing individualism to embracing interdependence. B Lab won’t stop until all business is a force for good.

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Chris M Skinner

Chris Skinner is best known as an independent commentator on the financial markets through his blog, TheFinanser.com, as author of the bestselling book Digital Bank, and Chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club. He has been voted one of the most influential people in banking by The Financial Brand (as well as one of the best blogs), a FinTech Titan (Next Bank), one of the Fintech Leaders you need to follow (City AM, Deluxe and Jax Finance), as well as one of the Top 40 most influential people in financial technology by the Wall Street Journal's Financial News. To learn more click here...

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