On Contact: Nonviolent rebellion with Roger Hallam
Chris Hedges discusses resistance with Roger Hallam, co-founder of Extinction Rebellion and author of ‘Common Sense for the 21st Century: Only Nonviolent Rebellion Can Now Stop Climate Breakdown and Social Collapse’.
In April 2018, Roger Hallam met with a group of 15 activists, environmentalists, and scientists in a café in Bristol. Along with Gail Bradbrook and Simon Bramwell, he and others founded Extinction Rebellion. A former organic farmer and long-time climate change activist, Hallam has been on successful hunger strikes, been arrested 10 times and has served a prison term, all in the service of preventing a climate catastrophe.
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CH: Welcome to "On Contact." Today, we discuss resistance with Roger Hallam, the co-founder of Extinction Rebellion and the author of "Common Sense for the 21st century."
RH: But when you have a crisis, people have to--and they do put aside those identities in favor of what you might call a cultural neutral universalist brain, and what I mean by that is we don't want to die, right? You know, the prospect of human extinction violates every human value of every cultural group, you know, apart from psychopaths, let's say, but it's everyone, and we know this happened, like, in the Second World War. You know, in the French Resistance, you had conservative Catholics, you know, fighting with radical socialists. In other words, people that traditionally hated each other came together, and that's what needs to happen now, and it's starting to happen of course because there's enormous frustration with radical politics, I think, at the moment.
CH: The science is unequivocal. If we do not radically reconfigure our relationship to the planet, we and most other species will become extinct. This extinction is not in the distant future. It is happening now. There is an average decline of 60% in the population size of thousands of vertebrae species around the world since 1970. Coral reefs are suffering massive die-offs from heat stress. There is over a 70% decline in flying insect biomass. Carbon dioxide concentrations are 415 parts per million, an increase of over 45% from preindustrial levels. These emissions are at the highest level in at least 3 million years. Even if we stop all carbon emissions today, the heat trapped in the oceans will continue to push the temperature of the planet upwards for over a decade. In the face of this global emergency, our ruling elites have done nothing to halt the death march. "What," to quote Lenin, "must be done?" Roger Hallam, the co-founder of Extinction Rebellion in his new book "Common Sense for the 21st Century" argues that our last hope lives in mass civil disobedience to disrupt and overthrow the ruling global elites and end our reliance on fossil fuels. The activism, protests, lobbying, petitions, appeals to the United Nations and the Democratic Party along with the work of countless NGOs, he argues, have failed. They have been accompanied by a 60% rise in global carbon dioxide emissions since 1990. Hallam, who has long been a part of the environmental movement, says of his past activism "I was wasting my time." Joining me from Wales is Roger Hallam to talk about how we must organize and revolt to save ourselves along with other lifeforms from impending death. So, Roger, in the beginning of your book, you argue, I think correctly, that the most important statement about the climate emergency is its truth, which is obscured even by environmental movements, and that's really your foundational point. Why?
RH: Well, as you've just told people, Chris, the situation is beyond horrendous. It's beyond description, and if anyone's just listened to what you’ve said, you know, maybe it's worth taking a moment or two to let that soak in because we hear it a lot of course, but it's enormously emotional to actually realize that the human race is facing extinction not because of some conspiracy theory, not because of some sociological, you know, speculation, but because of the raw, basic geophysics. That's what's coming down the line, and the reason is because we've been putting carbon into the atmosphere and we're still doing it and it's still going up. I mean, that's the fundamental sort of reality we face. It's the most important reality we've ever faced and ever will face, I think, and I think one of the reasons why nothing's really been happening is because the NGOs and the political parties and the political class more generally have just been using euphemisms. They've just been saying, "Well, there's a little bit of a problem," and we all remember that, don't we? I mean, everyone was in that space, like,10, 20 years ago. It was like, "Oh, there's climate change. It's coming along. It's a little bit of a problem. Someone's gonna be sorting it out," and then suddenly over the last 2 or 3 years, millions of people have just woken up to the fact that it's not getting sorted out, you know? It's not getting sorted out, and it's that sort of panic, isn't there? We all experience that panic, you know, in our bodies that this is our kids, you know, this is our communities, this is our nation. It's all gonna go, and I think that's the fundamental sort of emotional realization that's needed before we can actually move on to the really dramatic sort of necessities that we need to undertake, and if we haven't experienced that emotional panic and that realization then, obviously, we're still in the realm of policy change and voting for the Democrats and, you know, a little bit of this and a little bit of that and we'll just muddle through. So that's why the sort of truth, telling the truth as it is is central to the message here, I guess.
CH: So let's begin with the book. You dismiss, I think correctly, these gradualist solutions, these environmental movements, who at a certain level must understand the depth of the crisis but are in the business, I think, of selling hope rather than truth, and what you're really asking is people to walk away from the system itself and stand in utter defiance to it, not to busy or waste their time with either reformist parties or reformist rhetoric.
RH: Yeah. I mean, I want to make clear, you know, I was in the environmental movement since I was 15, so--you know, the Green Movement, so I've got an enormous amount of respect for the people that have spent their lives trying to prevent this from happening. So this isn't a personal thing. It's not a political attack or anything. It's just a matter of facing facts, and the fact of the matter is carbon emissions have gone up 60%, right? That's the bottom line situation. So there's been a catastrophic failure, and the only sort of moral, intellectually coherent thing to do at this stage is to take a deep breath and accept the utter depth of that failure and the horrendous consequences of that failure because, as you rightly said, Chris, this is now locked in. It's not a matter of whether this is gonna happen or not. It's a matter of how bad it is and whether we go over that line towards extinction, so this opens up the space really for the key question that's in the book, which is, "OK. So what's actually going to work?" You know, because everyone knows it's too late now for sort of gradual changes, and again, this isn't a political point. It's a geophysical point, right? We need to slash carbon emissions, you know, to zero in a matter of months and years, and we know that can be done, right, you know? We did it in the Second World War, we transformed the economy, so the problem isn't technical. The problem is political, and the political problem is that we're not actually engaging in the tactics that work, and we need to look historically to see how rapid change works.
CH: So let's run through some of the--as you do in the book. It's really a manual for resistance, and I just before we begin want to say that you're very frank in the book that you're not in any way arguing that this is inevitably gonna work. What you're arguing, I think correctly, is that it's the only option we have left.
RH: Yeah. This is the essential sort of step to make is we're not arguing here about trying to find something that's definitely gonna work. We just don't have that option. What we have is a number of different options, and all the options which don't rely upon mass resistance are useless. That doesn't mean mass resistance is gonna work, right? It just means it's better than everything else by a long shot, so in other words, this is a practical problem. We're not in a university seminar room here, right, doing pure critique, right? Everyone can criticize mass resistance. You know, there's loads of problems with it. That's not the issue. The issue is what else is on the table, and the only other thing that's on the table concretely is continuing with this reformists sending e-mails, doing marches, you know, voting, and all these things that have evidently failed over the last 30 years, so we're left with this phenomenon of mass resistance, civil resistance, so the real question is what is it, and how can we maximize the probability that it's actually gonna do the job? That's the only question we have at this point in history.
CH: So let's talk about what you call the tactical options. You're quite specific about what they are. Let's just begin with mass mobilization, but let's run down that list. What are the mechanisms that people have to employ in order to confront power elites and ultimately hopefully remove them from positions of power?
RH: Well, the starting point here is to think what do people do when they're desperate to create political change, and what that basically means is when there's an emergency, and there's a fundamental aspect to an emergency, which is it's fairly straightforward. You know, if your children are burning to death on the top floor of your house, you don't have a big intellectual discussion. You know exactly what to do. There's only one option. You run through the door, up the stairs, you grab hold of them, and hopefully, they're still alive, right? There's not, like, lots of other options, not, like, going round the backdoor, ringing the police, having a chat with people down the road. There's only one thing, so what you find in history is when there's a real emergency, when there's massive injustice, when there's a massive crisis in a society, then there's only really one thing that happens. I mean, there's variation on the theme, but the thing that happens is people go to the capital city or they go to the main cities or they come out in those cities, they go to the street, and they stay there day after day, blocking that city and protesting, so don't confuse this with a sort of one-day march or a traditional civil disobedience, you know, sit down in the road for, you know, 6 hours and then go home. What the fundamental thing that people do--and, as I'm sure you know, Chris, like, in the Global South it's been done many times, is people go to the capital city and they stay there, and if you look over the last hundred years, it doesn't actually take that long until political change happens. You know, you either provoke a violent response from the state and then the state's rolling a dice. You know, maybe you get crushed, or maybe there's a backfiring effect and more people come into the street, but the point is it's like after a week or two weeks you start to see changes in the elite. They start to crack, and they start to move towards making concessions. Again, there's no guarantees about it, but there's substantial evidence that this happens, and even if there isn't substantial evidence, like, what's the alternative, you know? This is what people do. They don't, like, read a Ph.D. thesis on it. You know, this is what people instinctively do when terrible things are happening in a society. So that's what the book is basically reminding people of. It's not some new-fangled theory or anything. It's just saying, "Let's do what everyone would do if they, you know, took seriously the fact that this thing's coming down the road and it's beyond horrendous."
CH: When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Roger Hallam, the author of "Common Sense for the 21st Century."
Welcome back to "On Contact." We continue our conversation with Roger Hallam, the co-founder of Extinction Rebellion and the author of "Common Sense for the 21st Century." So, Roger, before the break, we were talking about tactics. Let's talk about the relationship to the law and breaking the law.
RH: Well, as I was saying, what people do when there's a massive crisis and when they organize themselves is they go to capital cities or the in the main cities, and they stay there day after day, and they break the law, so a fundamental sort of move here is from obeying the law through to breaking the law, and there's legitimate reasons for breaking the law at least in democratic societies. Our democratic tradition says there's a social contract between the government and the citizens, between the people and the rulers. We are not subject to their laws in all circumstances. We are only subject to the laws to the extent that the government protects the people and enacts social just. When those things are broken, when a government facilitates the mass destruction of the people, then the people have the right and indeed the duty to rebel against that government, and that's a fundamental idea in Western society and obviously in other traditions, as well, going back 200 or 300 years, so this is not like, you know, any moral thing or a politically wrong thing. This is actually what we should be doing. This is what our duty is to our children, to our communities, and to our nations given the extremity of the criminality of the political class, and just to remind ourselves, right, for 30 years, the political class has known exactly what is coming down the road. We were told in 1990 we were facing ecological collapse. Ecological collapse is a euphemism, a euphemism for social chaos, which is a euphemism for millions of people being killed, millions of people being raped, millions of people starving to death. That's what we're looking at here, so in that context, there's every justification for people to break the law, and that's the fundamental move that is being put forward in the book.
CH: Two issues you raise in the book. You say focus on government, not intermediate targets, and always make sure that you adhere to nonviolence. Can you talk about those two tactics?
RH: Yes. When you're dealing with a social crisis, a structural crisis which goes to the depth of the politics and the culture of a country, there's only one institution that can sort it out, and that's the state, and again, this is like a massive move because for 30 years in sort of neoliberal sort of ideas on the left in the right, it's a bit like "Everything's OK. There's one or two issues. We go after a few bad guys. We sort it out, and the system stays fundamentally the same." Now that would be fine if the system was fundamentally, like, OK, you know, wasn't gonna take us to destruction. What we're dealing with here is a complete paradigm shift, which is it's the system itself, it's the whole thing because everything's locked in together and also we don't have the time. So in that context, it's justifiable and it's strategically required that we go to the state. The state's the only institution, you know, that has the monopoly of violence, that has the legitimacy to transform the economy and the society that is demanded by the geophysics, so that's a big move, and you see that often, you know, historically with political movements. You know, they start off with a particular issue, you know, like hunger or something, and then they move on to political maturity, which is to change the whole political system because they realize that's necessary, and that transformation is basically happening now, you know, with Extinction Rebellion. As far as the nonviolence is concerned, the fundamental point here is that nonviolence is the most effective way of changing a society in a progressive way. It's possible, as you all know, to change societies through violence, and occasionally, it can have a progressive outcome, but we don't have the luxury here of not following the social science. The social science is clear. If you want to maximize the probability of changing--fundamentally changing society rapidly in a progressive way, then you need to engage in civil disobedience like nonviolence. The other thing about nonviolence is it's basically a numbers game. If you want to change your regime, it's about how many people you get on the street, and if you're engaged in nonviolence, loads more people can engage in it. There's lower barriers to entry, as they say in the literature. In other words, you can get old people, young people, disabled people, people regardless of how much money and background they are. Everyone can come to the street, and that's the genius of civil resistance. It's basically about thousands of people breaking the law all at once and overcoming, you know, the government's resistance to change.
CH: And I watched this in the revolutions in Eastern Europe, crowds of half a million people in Wenceslas Square in Prague or in Alexanderplatz in East Berlin, and of course, what it does is creates paralysis in the mechanisms of control, i.e. the police or even the army, who will no longer defend a discredited regime, which, as all the theorists of revolution--Geoffrey Davies, Crane Briton, and others--have pointed out, is key. Let me ask--you say you must present the authorities with what you call an impossible dilemma. What do you mean by that?
RH: When you're approaching the government, there's two options. The government can either negotiate with you or repress you, and the dilemma for the government when you engage in civil resistance is if the government goes for the repression option they risk what's called backfiring. What backfiring means is people see thousands of people being arrested or being put into prison or being beaten up, and that can lead to two things. You know, it can lead to success, and as we established at the beginning of this interview, civil resistance, it's not like press the button and you're gonna be successful. What civil resistance enables you to do is throw a dice. You know, no one can predict the outcome of it, and the reason you're throwing the dice is that there's a high probability--there's no certainty, but there's a high probability that when people are arrested en masse and/or thrown into prison and/or, like, subject to violence, thousands more people come into the street. So the dilemma for the state is "Do we go for repression, or do we submit to the demands of the movement?" And at a certain point of course, the state is forced to submit to the demands of the movement, and that's why it's so successful because they may go for the repression option. You know, as Gandhi said, you know, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you," right, "and then you win." So there always has to be this fight stage. It's not a pretty process, you know? No one's claiming it is. It will involve violence, but nonviolent discipline is the most effective way of bringing the state to the negotiating table because of this mechanism.
CH: Let's talk about alliances, which you write about in the book, and the danger of seeking alliances with those whose, you know, ideological or political viewpoints replicate our own, that this is, in fact, a very dangerous move.
RH: The fact of the matter is is just about all the established organizations in society are wedded to a sort of reformist paradigm, you know, and this is because people find it very difficult to change. You know, there's organizational inertia, people are paid in their job, it's what they've always done, so what you find, I think, in revolutionary situations is that people literally come up from the street. In other words, it happens outside the institutions. Now I have no particular problem with institutions in themselves, right? You know, institutions are vital, and it's essential that there is institutionalization within these movements in order to maintain discipline, but the fact of the matter is the geophysical system has changed so fast that there's this massive lag. You know, most of the NGOs, all the NGOs, if we're honest with ourselves, are still in this paradigm of doing campaigns and what have you, and I talk to them and say, "You know, send out an e-mail, ask people to do mass civil resistance," and they won't do it because they can't get their heads round, you know, something that's literally not happened for decades, but the fact of the matter is this is the only thing that works, so what's going to happen, I think, is people are going to break out of those institutions, those political groups and join rapid mobilization systems, you know, like we've got with XR America in the United States, where you have teams of people going round the country, mobilizing people through talks, and then they go to nonviolence trainings, they get into affinity groups, small support groups, they go to the cities, and they sit down. It's a very straightforward, you know, reduced mechanism, but it has sufficient institutionalization to work. You know, it's not chaos, but on the other hand, it's not like going through the institutions, so it's somewhere in that sort of area that we're actually looking at having the optimum situation, as you might say.
CH: You say that the message has to come in what you call culturally neutral language. What do you mean by that?
RH: Well, if you're going to mobilize literally millions of people, they're not all going to be from the same culture, and one of the big difficulties of political movements is that they're successful to a certain point, and then they stop being successful, and they stop being successful for the reason they're successful, which is they appeal to a particular cultural group with particular views, you know, ways of speaking, linguistic rules, you know, particular value systems. When you get to civil resistance, what happens is people put aside their particular identities. I mean, identities are fine, and they're necessary and a crucial part of politics in a normal society, but when you have a crisis, people have to--and they do put aside those identities in favor of what you might call a cultural neutral universalist brain, and what I mean by that is we don't want to die, right? You know, the prospect of human extinction violates every human value of every cultural group, you know, apart from psychopaths, let's say, but it's everyone, and we know this happened, like, in the Second World War. You know, in the French Resistance, you had conservative Catholics, you know, fighting with radical socialists. In other words, people that traditionally hated each other came together, and that's what needs to happen now, and it's starting to happen of course because there's enormous frustration with radical politics, I think, at the moment, that it's not actually coming up with the goods, and that's because its caught in this identity politics past. Now that doesn't mean that we're not having focus on social justice and all that emphasis on the justice of gender, as you might say. What it means, though, is that we put our focus on coalition building with many groups on the basis of this universal agenda, as you might say, and if we don't do that, we're all dead. Heh.
CH: Let me just--to close in the last two minutes, Roger...
CH: just very quickly talk about some of the actions that you have carried out in London and the importance of what you call a post kind of revolutionary agenda, that all of these movements have to come accompanied with a vision.
RH: Well, they have to come with more than a vision. They have to come with a program of how to organize the political state after the uprising. Otherwise, as everyone knows, it can move into chaos, and the big sort of--the big thing here is citizen assemblies, which is randomized selections of citizens, who will decide how to transform the economy, who are insulated from corruption, insulated from big money and from the political class, and that's something we've seen in small examples all over the place all over the world. So there isn't, like, a void here. What Extinction Rebellion is doing and what the other groups that are joining with Extinction Rebellion are doing is saying, "Right. We're over this. What we want is ordinary people to decide how the economy's gonna get changed," and that gives the political legitimacy for a just transition.
CH: And just to close, I mean, Extinction Rebellion has a long history of shutting down numerous city centers, including London, thousands of arrests, and it is exactly this kind of disruption which has to be amplified.
RH: It does, but let's be clear, Chris, right? People aren't going into the street because they've read a theory. They're going into the street because they're mad as hell, right? It's an emotional process. You know, we don't know whether we're gonna win or not. That's not important anymore. What's important is you do your duty to your children, to your community, to your nation, and you go into the street, whatever happens, because there's no alternative, and people can look up. Extinction Rebellion exists all round the world now. You can look up when the events are happening, when the civil resistance is happening, and you can join in, and I would say, like, there's no going back, right? Heh. We can't go back to safety. We're just going into a hell here one way or another, and it's a question of, you know, do you want to be on the right side of your conscience at the end of the day? That's the critical question each of us has to ask of ourselves.
CH: Thanks. That was Roger Hallam, the author of "Common Sense for the 21st Century" and the co-founder of Extinction Rebellion. Thanks, Roger.