Following a long and illustrious career as a slalom canoeist, which included a gold medal win at the London Olympics in 2012, Etienne Stott MBE has focused his attention on the growing problem of climate change. We caught up with him to find out what Extinction Rebellion is all about, and how it led to his arrest at the protests in London earlier this year…
At what point did you transition from an Olympic gold-winning canoeist to an environmental activist?
I started canoeing with the scouts when I was about ten, and kept going until I was good at it. I became a professional and it was my entire life’s purpose; I lived and trained mostly in Nottingham, and it led to winning the London Olympics with my crew mate, Tim Baillie. I think I’d always been interested in environmental issues, because canoeing is an outdoor sport. As far back as 2010 I was a member of 10:10, which was another environmental group – I was quite into it, but really my life was all about canoeing . After I retired I started to learn more about it, and became quite conscious of sustainability, which led to me becoming a vegetarian, and eventually a vegan.
Are you still a vegan now?
Yes, I am! I was learning more about the climate emergency and the ecological crisis, and had been studying Psychology with the Open University. I started to become more interested in social psychology, and that’s when it all came together for me. I became aware of the Extinction Rebellion towards the end of 2018, and it seemed like their ideas were really good. They were trying something different, because up until that point, nothing else had really worked.
For the uninitiated, what is the Extinction Rebellion?
Extinction Rebellion is a grassroots environmental movement whose aim is to get our leaders and Governments to tackle the threat of global warming and the mass extinction of plants and animals. They don’t try and blame the individual, and you don’t have to have any specific qualifications to join. Some people say that you can’t eat meat or drive a car to be a serious environmentalist, but it’s not about that. I strongly believe that, although individuals can make a difference, it’s down to our leaders to make changes on a systemic level. It’s really important to me that they’re committed to non-violence, because I absolutely hate violence – that’s one of the reasons I do canoeing! Extinction Rebellion essentially has three simple demands.
The first one is that both the Government and the media tell the truth, because most people don’t grasp the dire situation that we’re currently in. The second demand is to act now and immediately start working towards the commitments we’re already signed up for. We have to treat this situation as the emergency that it already is. The third demand is really powerful: they want to have a citizen’s assembly, which is an idea they have called Beyond Politics. That involves selecting people from the public at random, sort of like a jury, and giving them the power to decide how we progress forward. Although Extinction Rebellion has opinions on how to tackle the crisis, it would come down to the people to decide where we need to be to stop killing ourselves, and avoid the utter misery and devastation a lack of action will bring. It’s not about getting bogged down in politics, it’s about cracking on with a single focus of saving our lives and our futures.
How much is the Extinction Rebellion a search for justice?
I completely believe that the ecological crisis we’re in is a symptom of the world we live in. It’s a social justice issue, and a symptom of greed that has spiralled out of control. We are consuming the earth and turning it into money.
Do you feel a personal responsibility to speak out about these issues?
There are two levels of responsibilities. Firstly, there is the recognition that your carbon footprint is closely correlated to your wealth. The richest 10% of the world contribute 50% of the carbon emissions through their lifestyle choices. Personally, I recognize that my responsibility is the level of my position in society, in the most modest sense of the word, as an Olympic champion. I occupy a small platform thanks to London 2012, and people respect me, and tend to listen to what I have to say. Perhaps not as influential as people from Love Island, but I do what I can! I could be using that status to do stuff to earn lots of money, but the public has constructed my status in society, and I owe them something. I know I can’t possibly be an expert in this, but I can be as passionate, clear and rigorous in presenting my opinion of the world. I believe that’s what all social influencers should do.
How did this all lead to your being arrested during the London protests in April this year?
It’s a big step to break the law intentionally in that way, and was definitely something I’d spent a lot of time considering. But I was determined to add my weight to the cause and be truthful to what I believe in. It was extremely peaceful, and the police were very good to us. On the bridge where I was arrested we were singing a very powerful song that went, “Police, we love you, we’re doing this for your children too.” I don’t think they quite knew how to handle us, but they were very careful and polite. I was arrested, put in the back of a police wagon, taken to the station and put in a cell, which was quite an experience.
So how can your average Nottingham resident make a difference?
Nottingham is a pretty radical city; it’s got a history of rebellion. It’s just about adopting a mindset that says you’re worried about this issue. Extinction Rebellion is saying non-violent, civil disobedience will get the attention of the authorities; and if we can build the numbers and support, then we can get attention in a big way. I think people feel quite disempowered, and have come to realise that they have no influence on the larger questions in their lives. I disagree with that, and am all about empowering people and telling them that they can make a difference. You just have to realise that there is a problem and notice that everything we’ve done up to this point has failed. To me, this seems to be the next best idea.