(Drawing by Minty Sainsbury)

A Speech For Extinction Rebellion, 02019

Hello, I’m a scientist, and my name is Matthew Shribman.

I’m just here with some humble numbers…

I’m going to start with 5 and count down, until we’re out of time.


Number 5: that’s the hundreds of years it takes for topsoil degraded by intensive farming to recover a single cm.

Nowadays, between 1/3 and 1/2 of all global topsoil is considered to be degraded.

Many parts of the world are thought to only have a few decades of harvests left, and then we’re looking at the entire length of civilisation multiple times over to recover our soil.

We literally have no technology to accelerate the recovery of degraded topsoil, and very little research is being done, almost as if we think someone else is going to solve this problem.

No one is going to do it if we don’t. We are being so reckless.


4 is a %. If you put all of the land mammals in the world in a giant pile, then less than 4% of that pile would be wild animals. That includes everything from squirrels to elephants, from beavers to tigers. Meanwhile 28% would be humans.

For the record, the biggest chunk, 41%, would be entirely cows.

We raise cows because they give us protein from grass: ideal in the past when the big problem was making enough food…

But we now know that cows are one of the most inefficient and polluting protein sources in the world, and now that 1/3 of all the food in the world is wasted, it’s total madness that we have so many cows.

The amount of pollution from cows is staggering. I didn’t believe it at first…

Using conservative numbers, a single person switching an average amount of beef for animal-free proteins, even if you keep eating other meats, saves as much CO2 as giving up cars (that includes driving and being driven).

Over a year, the same switch for one person saves enough land to grow the trees for 7 million sheets of paper, and the same amount of water as switching your kitchen tap on full blast and leaving it for 6 days.


Number 3 is the hundreds of kilograms of plastic that enters the ocean these days, every single second.

Nowadays, the vast majority of sea creatures tested are found to contain plastics, and those particles of plastic are acting as magnets for oceanic pollutants, concentrating them into the food chain: our food chain.

Everybody knows how bad the plastic problem is, and yet our supermarkets remain crammed full of it.

It’s absolutely heart-breaking that our government has managed just a 5p charge for carrier bags, and a tax for plastic packaging not even due for another 3 years, that only taxes plastic packaging if it’s less than 30% recycled. It’s not enough.

And they expect supermarkets to take care of the rest.

This is an ongoing problem… that governments expect people and corporations to manage so much of their own pollution and carbon footprint.

It’s kind of like the government saying “We’re going to do away with all the laws, and meanwhile could everyone please just not do any crime please? Thanks.”

This isn’t how it should work.

Do we think that large-scale pollution should be a crime?

Yes. Yes we do.

And how do we manage criminal problems? With laws and enforcement.

Global governments are not doing anywhere near enough.

There’s mounting evidence that the plastic problem is getting so bad that there are tiny particles of plastic in the air that we’re all breathing in right now.


Number 2 is a very scary one.

Despite the fact that we’re pulling more oil out of the ground every single year, the estimated quantity of oil in the world isn’t going down; it’s going up by 2% every year, and has done of the past ten years!

Every year, we’re finding more oil, faster than we’re using it.

Fossil fuels are never going to run out to save us from ourselves: they won’t even come close to running out before we turn this planet into an unliveable sauna.


And number 1… that’s the number of habitable planets we know of, and therefore the number of chances we have to get this right.

We don’t know what’s going to happen if we carry on polluting as we are doing, but we know that it’s going to be bad.

The best-case scenario involves pretty radical changes in sea level, availability of water and availability of food.

The worst-case scenario involves large-scale acidification of the oceans and oxygen-producing plankton dying in droves, and none of us being able to breathe.

(Edit: it’s now considered unlikely that oxygen-producing plankton would die off en-masse; rather we think their populations would shift very rapidly, causing huge disruption to global food chains)

The climate is already changing faster than it has for at least a million years.

17 of the 18 warmest years since the 1800s occurred in the last 18 years.

Meanwhile changes in our oceans are occurring at a rate that hasn’t been seen in at least 252 million years. And what happened 252 million years ago?

An extinction event literally called “The Great Dying” in which the oceans became highly acidic, methane-producing bacteria flourished, and over 90% of all the previously living species on Earth disappeared, forever.

How on Earth have we found ourselves living on an Earth where the evidence is so clear, the messengers so well-meaning, so careful in their research, and so desperately trying to be heard, and yet terrible decisions with awful environmental consequences are still being made every day?

Over the hills and far away, there’s a person with a beating heart and a thinking mind, who’s been exposed to different things in life, thinking it’s okay to sign a piece of paper allowing drilling in a fragile ocean, mining in a dwindling rainforest, or the construction of a new coal-fired power station under a smoky sky.

This isn’t just a crisis of the environment: this is a crisis of information.

I refuse to believe that people are so fundamentally evil as to both truly and deeply understand the risks and dangers we face, and not be doing all that they can to avert disaster.

I think we need to help these people to understand. We are here today as global citizens, here to help people to understand.

Just because the world is full of engrained normalities, doesn’t mean they all make sense.

Have you ever heard of the experiment with the monkeys and the ladder?

A ladder was set up with a load of delicious bananas at the top in the middle of a monkey enclosure.

The ladder was set up such that any time a monkey tried to climb it, cold showers were activated across the entire enclosure.

Before long, the monkeys learned to stop any monkeys from trying to climb the ladder, attacking any who did.

Gradually, the experimenters introduced new monkeys who learnt from the old monkeys not to climb the ladder and to punish others who tried.

Gradually they removed all of the old monkeys until there were no monkeys who even knew why the ladder wasn’t to be climbed, and the showers were even deactivated.

Yet still, no monkeys climbed the ladder that was now perfectly okay to climb.

As adults, we get it into our heads that the “way things are” is what normal is and what normal should be.

It shouldn’t be normal to hunt fish stocks to extinction, or destroy what remains of the rainforests, or to carry on emitting greenhouse gases when we know what they’re doing.

The other day, I was teaching a young student of mine, and in the middle of the lesson, I decided to sit upside down on my chair, with my legs in the air, for about 2 minutes.

Not only did he not say anything; I don’t think he even thought it was important enough to remember. Why should it be important if someone sits upside down for a while?

Sometimes it takes children, not affected by the pre-conceptions and expected normalities of adults to see what’s actually important.

Is this why it’s taking children marching in the streets to tell our leaders something that’s totally obvious… that what we’re doing to the planet is total madness?

This isn’t something we can try to sort out later, when we find out how bad it is.

The Earth’s climate is kind of like holding a piece of paper vertically, with your hands on either side. As you put more CO2 into it, it’s like moving your hands further down the paper: more paper is balancing at the top, and the climate becomes more unstable.

(skip to 44s for the bit where I show this with a piece of (my) paper)

Eventually, you move your hands so far down that it collapses: the paper flops over and large-scale climactic change occurs, extremely rapidly.

But here’s the interesting bit… if you then start to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, by moving your hands up the paper, to where they were just before it collapsed, then it doesn’t instantly right itself again.

In fact, you have to move your hands all the way to near the top of the paper before the paper finally rights itself, and the mess is undone.

300ppm is the highest the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has been for the past million years or so.

In fact, on average it’s been around 220ppm.

But now… in barely the time it takes for an oak tree to grow, we’ve somehow pushed the concentration up above 400ppm.

We’re already getting unprecedented heat waves, increased flooding, droughts and worsening hurricanes.

Collapse is nearing, and the system isn’t getting better anywhere near fast enough.

Our global system is built to optimise for money and profit, and this is a problem, because it’s very difficult to make environmentalism profitable.

A mountain has no price until it’s crushed into minerals.

A river has no price until it’s blocked by a wall and turning turbines.

A tree has no price until it’s a pile of paper bills.

Who can protect these things if the system is set up to make destroying them profitable?

Governments. We need governments that represent us — governments that respect that this is an emergency.

Only 6 of 151 countries have set targets for reducing climate change that are actually in line with their commitments to the Paris agreement.

Here’s an extra bit that wasn’t in the talk.

The Paris agreement has two major faults…

1) It excludes fossil fuels extracted, if they’re then sold to other countries.

In the prosecution of illegal drugs, suppliers are punished far more severely than users, because they enable the users.

In a global system built around money, someone somewhere will buy fossil fuels if they’re sold cheaply. We need to build a system that penalises supplying fossil fuels even more than using them.

2) It excludes air travel, which means that countries can continue to build new airports and runways, without counting any of the emissions caused by them.

The main reason this is a problem is because it means there isn’t enough incentive for airlines to invest in electric aircraft technology.

Some people say that electric airplanes are a long way off, but this isn’t the case. It may not yet be public knowledge, but at least two UK universities have research groups that are capable of building delivering the necessary technology.

In Holland, the people sued their own government for not doing enough about climate change, and they won. Same in Pakistan and Columbia.

Even conservative legal systems are starting to accept that governments are doing nowhere near enough to protect us from impending disaster.

We’re made to think that solutions aren’t obvious or straightforward, but it’s nonsense.

Polluting industries need to be curbed. Polluting foods need to be reduced. Polluting transport needs to be reduced.

We have the technology to create the change we need, if only the political will existed too.

We’re running out of time.

We don’t know when the proverbial asteroid is going to hit us, but it’s coming, very fast.

For far too long, governments have been ignoring the science. It’s time to stop hiding from the truth. It’s time to act.

Here we are: the first generation to be feeling the effects of climate change, and very probably the last generation that can do anything about it.

Science Storyteller, Environmentalist, Teacher, Normal Guy // MChem (Oxon)

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