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Climate Emergency with Roger Hallam of Extinction Rebellion

On the show this week, On Contact host Chris Hedges talks to Roger Hallam, co-founder of the British-based group Extinction Rebellion.

The global grassroots movement uses non-violent acts of civil disobedience by occupying areas in the capitals of major industrial countries, in a protest aiming to reverse what they argue is a one-way track to global extinction. Activists are demanding that ruling elites state the truth about the climate emergency and implement radical measures to halve carbon emissions by 2025 and to terminate a 150-year human binge on fossil fuels.

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CH: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we discuss the climate catastrophe with the co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, Roger Hallam.

RH: We’re looking at the collapse of the world’s agricultural systems.

CH: Right.

RH: I mean, long before the sea level rising and what have you, we’re going to have world economic collapse because we’re not going to be able to feed ourselves.  And that’s what’s, you know, that’s [BLEEP] that’s why people are--they’re in a panic, you know, in the UN, in academia, in the elites.  Everyone is looking at this, they’re just pulling their hair out.  And it’s only because we have this repressed sort of media space that is not obvious to everyone but I think this is the role of Extinction Rebellion, is to break through that repression.

CH: Ten days of protest led by Extinction Rebellion in London this April saw one thousand one hundred and thirty people arrested for various offenses as they repeatedly shut down major parts of the city to protest the failure of the ruling elites, to confront the climate catastrophe.  But this is only the start.  Extinction Rebellion has called for a global strike by workers around the world this fall.  We’re walking out of our workplaces and homes to spend the day demanding action on the climate crisis, the greatest existential threat that all of us face the group announced.  It’s a one-day climate strike, if you will, and it will not be the last.  This is going to be the beginning of an action all over the world and we hope to make it a turning point in history.  Joining me in the studio in London is Roger Hallam, a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion.  So Roger, let’s begin with what happened in April, highly successful both in terms of building a movement and the political aftereffects.

RH: Yeah, we plan to go to London and close down significant parts of the center of the city and that’s what we did.

CH: And--but give me the--what it looked like, what you did, the bridges, the roundabouts, how--the kind of mechanics.

RH: Well, we were preparing for it for several months because as, you know, in November last year, five thousand people sat down on five of the bridges in Central London for the day.  We got a feel for what that looks like and how to organize it.  And obviously that wasn’t going to, you know, change the world but it certainly caused a stir.  Then over the following months, we decided we’re going to do it again but we’re going to do it day after day, what we call the civil resistance model, closing down the city continuously.  Over those months, we mobilized around 10,000 people I think it was.  We came down on the 15th and then we took over four or five different parts of London, roundabouts, one of the bridges, and we stayed there.  Set up the tents, and day after day, we sat there waiting for the government to respond to this catastrophe that we face.

CH: And how did the government respond?

RH: Well, as you can expect initially, there’s some bemusement.  But as the days went on, I think it dawned on them that they’ve got a major situation.  And towards the end of the 10 days we were there, people in the political class started coming out to see us.  People in the left, the labor party, started making statements.  And then shortly afterwards, we got a government meeting with the government minister.  There was a debate in the houses of Parliament.  There was a vote on whether there was a climate emergency or not.  And that was passed.  I mean, it was obviously symbolic but this was like a major, major change because the political class in the UK never talks about climate change, apart from the most general way.  So it was a major success as a--as a first step.

CH: Talk a little bit about tactics.  People were super gluing themselves--didn’t they use super glue?  People super glued themselves to Jeremy Corbyn’s home or just talk a little bit about the tactics you used because there were a variety of tactics.

RH: Yeah.  Well, the first thing to say is that Extinction Rebellion is absolutely committed to non-violence.

CH: Right.

RH: And that we made that clear everywhere and anywhere.  And then within that definition of non-violence, obviously there’s a whole range of different things that we considered doing.

CH: Let me just interrupt because it’s an important point which you made the last time I interviewed you.  Why?  Why is non-violence so important?

RH: Because it works.  You know, I mean, a lot of people are into it for ethical reasons but what binds everyone together is it’s the simple fact of the matter is it works.  You know, violence is very divisive, corrects authoritarian tendencies.  And even when you win, usually leads to authoritarian outcomes.  With non-violence, it doesn’t guarantee you’re going to win.  Obviously, nothing ever is.  But it’s significantly more likely to enable to win in a major social conflict.  Also enables you to attract many different communities, many different demographics, young people, old people, people who are in vulnerable groups who don’t want to get out in the streets when there’s violence and what have you.  And also a lot more enjoyable dare I say.

CH: Well, it also speaks to elements within the power elite that are sympathetic to the issue and recognize the truth of what it is you are--of what it is you’re saying.

RH  Oh, absolutely.  I mean, you know, anyone with a semblance of intelligence knows we’re in a complete catastrophe.  You know, it’s all hands on deck.  This is a major, major crisis.  This is the biggest crisis in history of the human race.  And there’s lots of people and the elites realize this, and maybe most of them do, but certainly a good number of them who are ready to defect as you might say in the theory of civil resistance, that’s what you want members of the elites to do, to start defecting to your side and they are, they have been contacting us publicly or privately to say brilliant, you know, keep going.  You know, no one wants the civilization to collapse, you know, it’s no one’s interest.  We’d hope so anyway.

CH: So talk about a little bit of the variety of tactics that you used in April.

RH: Well, I think how you should look upon it is there was a sort of main show and this was something that everyone can participate in.  And the main show is that you go into the city, you select a number of key sites.

CH: What sites did you select?

RH: Marble Arch, Oxford Circus, Waterloo Bridge, Parliament Square.  They were the main sites, one or two other ones.  So these are major, you know, these are major traffic centers, major political centers and what have you.  You’re not supposed to occupy them.  Let’s put it like that.  And we went there, split people into four groups from different areas of the country.  People in the Southwest went to Marble Arch and what have you.  People from the north went to Oxford Circus, that sort of thing.  And we already had told the police what we were going to do but we said we had a lot of numbers and it was going to be non-violent, respectful, and what have you and we knew where the stage is with a nice pink boat in Oxford Circus, a number of other weird and wonderful things, and we were there by 11:00 on the 15th.  And we stayed there and the police decided to try and arrest a few people that evening but they’re arresting people who were weak and more people came into those spaces and when people are released from custody, then they went back.  I mean, some people were arrested four times during the week.  It was like a yoyo thing.  So that was the main--that was the main tactic as it were.  And the--and the beauty of that is that once you--once you’re occupying somewhere, a bit like occupied, you’re a physical presence.  The media come, the people come and have a look, you know, people come and have discussions.  You can have cultural things, you know, people do music, statements, speeches, and what have you.  So that was that.  And then--and then at the same time, groups of people went off to various important places like Shell, places like that and glued themselves to the doors with super glue, which means you’re there for a while.  Yeah.

CH: Talk a little bit about the difference between the reaction of the labor party before this action and in particular Jeremy Corbyn and after.  And people glued themselves I think to his house, right?

RH: Yeah.  I mean, how Extinction Rebellion works is that if you’ve got an idea for an action, then you go and do it.  It doesn’t go for a central committee.  No, as long as it’s within the aims and principles as you might say, you know, it’s non-violent and respectful.  And the people that glued themselves to Jeremy Corbyn’s, I think it’s his fence or something, you know, they were--I don’t know if all of the members of the late party but some of them were and it wasn’t an aggressive act.  It was saying come on, Jeremy, you know, you’re supposed to be on the left.  Let’s get on the--get going.  You know, we’ve got a massive--a massive crisis, you know, there’s no workers on a dead planet after all.  So--and it worked.  You know, Jeremy did the right thing and had a meeting with…

CH: Well, talk about what he did because it was quite dramatic.

RH: Yeah, yeah, it was.  I mean, last year, the majority of labor and peace voted for the expansion of Heathrow, which is the biggest Corbyn-intensive infrastructure project in Europe I think.  So they were nowhere near understanding the crisis we’re in and then, you know, we’re in the street for 10 days and suddenly a whole host of labor of politicians are making the right noises.  And as I said, there was a debate in Parliament and the labor and peace voted…

CH: Well, Corbyn used your language I think.  It sounded like he’s just lifting…

RH: Well, see, I mean, this is the big change. You know, I’m not pretending for a minute just for the record that anything substantial has happened.  What has happened is the change in the language.  And, you know, that’s everything but it’s something substantial and now the language is climate emergency or climate crisis.  And you’ve got to get that language out there.  This isn’t some vague, you know, thing that’s going to be happening in half a century.  We’re here now, you know, in the next five to ten years.  And what Extinction Rebellion has done I think its biggest success is to wake the media and the political class up and they’re using this language.  I mean, The Guardian has just changed its language to, you know, climate emergency, climate crisis.  And it’s funny because you’re reading the article and you’re sort of used to that, you know, repressed language.  And suddenly, when you’re reading it, emergency, it just stand out, and you think, “Oh, they’re right.  You know, this is real.”  And I think millions of people understand that now and I think there was a poll and I think 65% of the British population now accepts this climate emergency, which is a, you know, this is a massive transformation.  I think, you know, months before we went out in the street, I think probably only 10% of the British population understood what a climate emergency was.  Never mind that there is one.  And there’s been a big spike in its concern and the concern of the British people on what the main issues are, you know, and I think the environment is back up there in the top two or three concerns.

CH: Just quickly explain why you use the term emergency.

RH: Well, personally, I’d use the word catastrophe to be honest.

CH: Right.

RH: You know, it makes it even more sort of real but I think the word emergency has been used because it corrects the reality that there’s no time left.  That’s what emergency means, isn’t it?

CH: Just tick off a few reasons why there’s no time left.

RH: When it came out, I’d say about last week or the week before, that we’ve got 415 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere.  And, you know, it sounds just like a figure but if you know your climate science, you know that’s catastrophic.  You know, it’s gone up 3.5 in a year.  So do your math, that means in 10 years, we’ll be hitting 450, 450 means we’ve got two degrees over pre-industrial locked tent and two degrees is a gateway to hell as everyone knows.

CH: Well, we know from past cycles in the Earth what a two degree rise in Celsius does.

RH: Yeah.  I mean, we’re looking at the collapse of the world’s agricultural systems.

CH: Right.

RH: I mean, long before the sea level rising and what have you, we’re going to have world economic collapse because we’re not going to be able to feed ourselves.  And that’s what’s, you know, that’s [BLEEP] that’s why people are--they’re in a panic, you know, in the UN, in academia, in the elites.  Everyone is looking at this, they’re just pulling their hair out.  And it’s only because we have this repressed sort of media space that is not obvious to everyone but I think this is the role of Extinction Rebellion, is to break through that repression. And once you’ve broken through it, then you get this good gushing effect and people saying “Yeah, yeah.”  I mean, I think most ordinary people know, you know, the whole thing’s beyond bad.

CH: Right.  When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation with Roger Hallam, a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation with Roger Hallam, a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion in our studio in London.  So Roger, before the break we spoke about the actions you carried out which I think were quite successful in April.  Where do we go from here?  What’s next?

RH: well the plan is to do it again on a bigger scale and with lots of cities involved ideally all on the same day, starting on the same day.

CH: Do you have a date?

RH: I think it’s more or less set for the 7th of October.  It’s just one or two, you know, discussions to be had, but I think it’s effectively set now.  And it’s going to be in London, quite possibly in Paris, and Berlin, New York, and various sort of global cities around the world.  And what we’re aiming for is for thousands of people to send in those cities and basically to stay there until we actually see concrete change.

CH: I mean this was tried by Occupy where I spent a lot of time in Zuccotti.  And that debate about open-ended occupation especially as the weeks wore on became quite intense because there was a kind of breakdown of the social fabric especially as it got colder and the tense came in.  Is that something you’ve thought about?

RH: Well, Extinction Rebellion is a quite big organization now.  And it involves a lot of people with experience in how to organize effectively which are festivals.  And what we did in April was we had a whole organizational structure for each site.  And we had induction sessions, we had lots of different working groups, and the whole thing was pre organized, let’s put it like that.  So what we’re looking at in October is potentially doing many different sites.  Well, I think the difference here is that we are actively breaking the law.  And so that’s going to involve potentially thousands of arrests around the world and in London.  And I would hope that after a week or two, we’re going to see some cracks in the establishment.  And if we don’t, then it’s just going to get bigger and bigger anyway.  So the sooner they come to the table the better.  And we’re going to sit down with them, and in a democratic accountable way, we’ll be asking for substantial changes, and the biggest thing you want to ask for is a citizen’s assembly, which is where each country comes together, ordinary people come together, and look objectively and scientifically at what the reality is that this existential threat our societies face and what needs to be done.  And I think that will provide the democratic legitimacy for the massive changes that everyone from the UN downwards is saying are now necessary.  So let’s hope it works after a week.

CH: We’ll talk about those changes.  What has to be done and what’s the time scale?

RH: Well, I should say Extinction Rebellion does not have a set line on exactly what has to be done.  We’re an alliance of people who want to be involved in mass civil disobedience in order to create what you might call the political space, the Democratic space where the people themselves can decide what they want to do.  It’s not for us to say, not in detail anyway.  It’s up to them.  Having said that, our understanding of the situation is, the UN and all the agencies, that we’d need a massive transformation of our societies and economies in the next 10 years.  Extinction Rebellion is going for 2025.  Now, you know, it’s not for me to say exactly how that’s going to happen but it’s going to be similar to a wartime mobilization.

CH: Well, let me ask you--let’s just have you speak personally what do you think, as an individual, as Roger Hallam, we need to do in that 10-year period?

RH: We need to insulate all the housing stock.  We need to turn over the economy so it’s completely electrified.  We need to have all the energy coming from renewables.  We need to have a social transformation so that the rich are taxed and pay their fair share.  And we need to organize communities along cooperative lines so that people can learn to adapt to these changes, these dramatic changes that are going to happen.  Whatever happens…

CH: Which we shall be clear are coming regardless, even if we stop all carbon emissions today which we’re not doing?

RH: Absolutely.  Those--this is a matter of physics.  It’s not a matter of political opinion.  These changes are coming.  We’ve left it far too late for massive increases in temperatures not to happen.  What we’re looking at now is whether we’re going to go extinct or not.  And I know that sounds like science-fictiony but it is true.  Now, we all--we all just need to look at those figures, you know, 425 parts per million.  I mean as I said in your previous shows, it’s like going to the doctor, you know, this is cancer.

CH: Right.

RH: And, you know, you don’t like it then that’s fine, but that’s not going to stop you from dying.  The only option is do you actually want to accept this is the situation or don’t you?  If you don’t, you’re going to die.  If you do, then it’s a chance but you’re going to a have to get a move on, you know?  And that’s what we’re saying.  You know, we’re saying this to everyone in society, not just to, you know, progressives or whatever.  We are saying this to everyone and then we’re saying wake up because at the end of the day, we’ve all got kids, right?  We’ve all got, you know, young people we know.  And do we have any feelings of empathy or responsibilities to younger generation?  It’s all hands on deck and the most civilized way of dealing with this situation is to come together as countries, as the world, in these citizens’ assemblies and allow the ordinary people of the world to decide what to do because after all it’s their lives.

CH: You have powerful interests.  We can begin with the US Military which I think is certainly within the United States, the greatest contributor to greenhouse gases.  You have the fossil fuel industry, ExxonMobil, they have a long track record of deception, political manipulation, and let’s call it for what it is, essentially legalized bribery.  And I was at Standing Rock.  They will use violence.  These paramilitaries and mercenaries, many of them who’d come back from Iraq and Afghanistan, had no identification on them at all, carrying long barreled weapons.  You have powerful vested interests that should you gain a critical mass will be vicious in terms of fighting back.

RH: Yeah.  And, you know, that’s what progressives have been telling themselves for the last 30 years and the subliminal message of that is we’re already defeated.  Well, Extinction Rebellion doesn’t agree.  You know, we’ve looked at the literature and the irony here is the more powerful the opposition in some ways the more likely you are to win.  And the reason for that is because of the backfiring effect.  If the powers that be choose to repress this popular movement, then they’ll trigger a greater mobilization.  Now, there’s no absolute guarantee of that, you know, there’s nothing guaranteed in this world.  But they’re playing a very dangerous game because people will realize what’s going on when they see people suffering in the street as a result.  And this has happened, as you know, over and over again.  It’s nothing--this isn’t some weird theory, right?  This happens over and over again particularly in the Global South.  If you use violence against the population, then there’s a good chance the population will continue and exponentially increase its active--activities against the regime.  And obviously in London, you know, the state’s been very smart.  It’s just been, you know, nicely putting those into police funds and what have you.  But in October, if they do opt for violence then they’ll be shaking a big dice.  And, you know, the people in Britain are not stupid.  You know, they know something terrible is going to happen and they won’t like it when people are getting dragged off the street particularly when they’re grannies or 10-year olds.  So there’s only one option here which is to actually accept the reality, come around the table, negotiate, and allow people to decide, you know, future of this world.

CH: Isn’t a key component that you need the amplification provided by the press?

RH: Yes and no, you know?  I mean, the media landscape’s changed as we all know.  So, it’s great that the media’s been broadly on site, but obviously at some point the corporate media may decide their interests are, you know, threatened and go over to the side of darkness as it were.  But the game’s up.  You know, the social media out there people know, people know that we’re entering a time of catastrophic unimaginable suffering, you know, that’s coming down the road.  And we need to grow up and we need to all come together and go, “Right, there’s a problem.”  And the longer we leave that, it’s going to get exponentially worse.  So, you know, it’s decision time, isn’t it?

CH: I mean my fear and--is that we shift to China’s kind of totalitarian capitalism where this new generation doesn’t even know that Tiananmen Square happened.

RH: Yeah.

CH: Complete surveillance, complete control of information.

RH: Uh-hmm.

CH: That’s also a strong tendency within these corporate states.

RH: Well, we have--we have all these fears, don’t we?  We have fears of failure all the time.  But that’s not really the issue.  The issue is what are we going to do?  You know, do we just stand there and be paralyzed by our fears or our criticisms, or feel smug in our cynicism saying, you know, Extinction Rebellion won’t work?  Well, what will work?  You know, what else have we got on the table here?  And Extinction Rebellion has shown a clear pathway to success by April the 15th.  And we’re going to do it in October.  And if someone else has got a better idea, I’d love to hear it.

CH: I have another one.  I have another one.

RH: But, you know, Extinction Rebellion is basically following a tried and tested methodology which is mass participate in civil disobedience.  You know, we haven’t invented this.  It was invented by poor people around the world to, you know, protect their interests.  And we’re in service to that tradition.

CH: So what are you doing now and what do you want to see?  Other movements in the United States and other countries, what should they be doing at this moment?

RH: Well, I think the main model for the [INDISTINCT] is going to be a movement of movements model, which means that it’s not necessarily just going to be Extinction Rebellion.  I think Extinction Rebellion has said to our societies, “Here’s a model for change,” and then it’s up for other movements, other networks to get on board with it.

CH: Well, you talked earlier before the show about the animal rights movement grafting itself on to this.

RH: Absolutely.  I mean I think there’s big changes in the animal rights movement at the moment.  They’ve realized that, you know, extinction means extinction of the natural world and there couldn’t be a bigger reason to go to cities and sit down in them than the extinction of the natural world.  So, I think they’re putting their differences aside and doing the mature thing which is to work constructively to come together on the 7th of October.  And I think the invitation is there for the labor movement as well because there’s no workers on a dead planet, right?  You know, this affects everyone.  You know, it’s an invitation there to women’s movement, it’s an invitation there for all sections of the progressive left and what have you, and there’s invitations for people on the right as well, you know?

CH: Right.

RH: I mean it’s--this affects everyone.  And, you know, once we’ve won, once people comes to senses, then we all agree that democracy is the way forward.  And we need to allow the ordinary people of our countries to have the final say.

CH: Great.  Thank you, Roger.  That was Roger Hallam, a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion.

RH: Thanks.

CH: Thank you.

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