Extinction Rebellion cofounder Clare Farrell on moving from hope to action
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“Hope for me feels like the opposite of admitting that you have to do it. ‘I hope someone else will fix it.’ That’s a disaster. Hope dies and action begins.”
— Extinction Rebellion cofounder Clare Farrell
As journalist David Wallace Wells told us a few months ago, the world is moving towards serious action on climate change in a way that felt impossible until very recently. Steps towards decarbonization are starting to happen, with governments and companies beginning to hop on board.
Though few people in power would give them credit, a new generation of climate activists, led by Greta Thunberg, Fridays for the Future, and the civil disobedience group Extinction Rebellion, are a big reason why. Their actions have made the climate something people in power can no longer ignore.
All climate activists receive ire, and Extinction Rebellion especially so. Their civil disobedience has involved people glueing themselves to subways, using their bodies to block construction, and other disruptions that earned them supporters and detractors.
A friend said to me not long ago that Extinction Rebellion might be the most interesting startup in the world. Inspired by the theories of holacracy and the book Rethinking Organizations, they’re a decentralized, post-consensus organization where anyone has permission to act in the group’s name so long as they follow a few basic rules. Because the climate crisis is so urgent, the thinking goes, they must be action-oriented rather than deliberation-oriented.
Clare Farrell is a cofounder of Extinction Rebellion, and one of the people responsible for XR’s name, visual identity, messaging, and much more. Today on the Ideaspace, Clare discusses the group’s strategy, getting arrested, and why it’s time to move from hope to action. Listen to our interview on the web, Apple, or Spotify. Read the full transcript here. A condensed and edited version of our conversation is below.
YANCEY: You're a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, which officially launched in 2018 — is that right?
CLARE: The concept was agreed on in late spring 2018. The official launch is viewed as the Declaration of Rebellion, which was on October 31, 2018. Not very long ago.
YANCEY: For those who aren’t familiar, what is the strategy of Extinction Rebellion?
CLARE: The main strategy was to awaken as many people to the climate and ecological emergency as quickly as possible through face-to-face mobilizing and forming local groups, encouraging a decentralized approach to building the movement out, then encouraging people to take part in mass participation and civil disobedience.
YANCEY: What’s the argument for civil disobedience in 2021?
CLARE: It gets things to happen much more quickly than people anticipate when it's done well. One of the original talks that we had was called “Heading for Extinction and What to Do About It” by Gail Bradbrook. One of the lines she said about civil disobedience which has always stayed with me: “People like it in the past, but they don't like it in the present.” We were just protesting on Parliament Square, and there's a statue of a suffragette, there’s a statue of Gandhi, monuments to people who committed these kinds of acts. And yet when they happen in people's real lives in front of them, they go, “I'm not sure about that. I don't think that's right." People somehow think it’s not relevant, or it doesn't really suit the 21st Century.
That said, when we were doing those experiments at the early stages, a lot of it was designed to try and get you a meeting with the relevant person. Some of that really worked. The campaign at the universities involved some criminal damage. Some students get arrested, the university is very embarrassed, then a bunch of people go on hunger strike. It worked in terms of getting in the room with the decision-maker that can say, “Okay, fine, we'll do a divestment program, and it will be quick.”
We did another set of tests going after the Mayor of London about air pollution. We didn't get in the room with him, but we did get in the room with his policy advisors. For that it took civil disobedience, people breaking their bail terms, and then people going in prison on remand. It was also a little bit of data: that’s how you get in the room with somebody at City Hall. Then we did other campaigns at the Labour Party, learning what it takes to get a meeting with a leader of a political party.
All of this stuff was based on trying to think about it that way. It’s a means of opening a conversation. That's what people say about non-violence: it begins a conversation. It doesn't mean that you need to know what the answer is — which is very helpful, because this is highly complex, and no one knows the answer — but there's some humility in being able to say that non-violence opens a space and then the dialogue can take place. A lot of our work is focused on dilemma. You create a dilemma for the institution. For example, the university: they're very embarrassed, their reputation's at risk, other people are talking about it, other students are talking about it. You put them in a position where the issue can't be ignored.
YANCEY: So you're designing these interventions from the eyes of who you are trying to affect? You’re strategizing, thinking, “When we do this, a government official tends to do this”?
CLARE: Yeah. We did have a meeting with the government in May 2019, shortly after that April rebellion, when we ground some parts of London to a standstill for nearly two weeks. That got us in the room, as they say. The outcome was not anything very impressive in terms of actual impact, but shortly afterwards we had Parliament declare a climate emergency. Some people claimed that part of our strategy was then complete and that we’d done very well. I totally disagree with that, because I think it's extremely naive and it’s clear that declaration has resulted in nothing.
Nonetheless it was proof that that kind of thing worked. Since then the government have had a lot of advice from the right-wing, neoliberal think tanks, some of whom have publicly very directly said, "What you should not do is talk to them.” [Laughs] So now they've got a policy of trying not to talk to us as much as possible. That's why you then find yourself in a position where you need bigger numbers. So we’re in an interesting place now, because people are questioning the tactics, wondering whether it really can work. At the same time, there's some of us saying we still haven't tried it properly. It needs to be bigger and longer and more resilient. The state needs to feel more threatened by it in order for it to get a deal on the table. We had a meeting with some limp handshakes and special security tags that we had to wear because we were very dangerous people that weren't even allowed to go to the toilet by ourselves. [Laughs]
We need to try the civil resistance method with bigger numbers now that the message has landed. It's important to remember that to the majority of the population at the time, the urgency of the climate and ecological crises was news. Whereas now we've moved that conversation on: the school strikes have, Greta has, David Attenborough has. Loads of people have made a big noise. It's either over 60% or maybe it's nearly 80% of the British public that think we need much more serious action on climate. So it's worked in terms of shifting the hearts and minds of the public. People need to believe in what you're trying to achieve, not necessarily your methods. We're not here to be liked.
YANCEY: The last time we saw each other was in London, and the next morning XR activists were gluing themselves to the tube. There were all these scenes on the news of commuters yelling at these activists: “Why are you doing this, I'm just trying to get to work.” For me, as someone who's sympathetic, who’s friends with you and the movement, it's an interesting thing to see the discomfort that you create. It's required to get people to talk and pay attention, but it’s also a moment of conflict.
CLARE: Non-violence is a methodology for confrontation. I don't know who it was who said it: “Non-violence is not for cowards.” It can be quite scary. Part of the power that you gain through nonviolent work is by being vulnerable. Particularly when you're faced with powers like a very repressive state apparatus, the vulnerability of the protesters becomes their strength. That action in particular was so problematic for a lot of people. Yet it got us the most reach that anything ever has. I don't think necessarily that all publicity is good publicity in our line of work, but it is important to recognize that.
YANCEY: How many times have you been arrested?
CLARE: I’ve been arrested five or six times. Sometimes it's okay, sometimes you just don't really want to be locked in a room. I've had times where I've found it easier and times when I found it harder. Being released at 4:00 in the morning is always pretty shit. But I have to say, Extinction Rebellion has got really beautiful teams of people that go and meet you in stations. The last time I got arrested I came out in the middle of the night and I was given a cup of tea and some snacks. It was really sweet.
YANCEY: How do you quantify, if you do, the value of an arrest?
CLARE: It's a good question. [Extinction Rebellion cofounder] Roger [Hallam] once said to me, “Well Clare, I’m a ruthless empiricist.” He's always looking at historical stories and data and trying to think about what might work from a sociological perspective. He tends to look at the empirics. The numbers, when we were looking at them in terms of a rebellion on the ground, the thinking is how many people does it take to slow down the system to the point where they either stop arresting people or they de-arrest people. People have tried to work out how many police cells are in London.
But personally, I also think being arrested for this work is kind of a spiritual pursuit. I say that as a not-religious person. When you're in the throes of doing this work, your embodiment of resistance to what's happening and the self-sacrifice that's involved becomes a spiritual act. It's not just a numbers game.
YANCEY: What does “spiritual” mean for you?
CLARE: That I'm using what I've got whilst I'm alive to try and help the larger body of the human race. It's enacting peaceful refusal, a non-cooperation, in a very carefully planned and premeditated way. Internally it helps you feel in contact with your own moral integrity. The embodiment of this resistance that somehow connects you to who you actually are, not who you have to be to pay your rent.
YANCEY: When you're tired, when you've been blocking a road for a long time and you're thinking, “I just want to be on with it,” what do you think about? Are you doing this for someone?
CLARE: The last time I got arrested I made a little video before I went out. I was dedicating it to my goddaughter and my nephews, because I was trying to think about the young people that I know and that I'm very worried about. I wouldn't say that I'm exceptionally more worried about them than I am about anyone else, because it feels to me more broad than that. But it felt nice to connect personally with thinking about young people: not as a concept, but to go and say, “I'm dedicating this action to these young people, because I need to know that I'm going to be able to speak to them and say, ‘I did this for you.’”
It feels important to think about who this is for because we are acting on behalf of other people. If you look at a lot of other movements, study the Civil Rights Movement, people were acting from their own integrity as people that were suffering massive oppression. The same with the suffragettes. Those women went out and said, “We want the vote for women, and that means us.” When we go out and we say, “We're doing this now, because of young people,” or “We're doing this now, because of those folks who live in the Global South,” people can quite easily look at us and say, “Well, it's not for you, though, is it? So why do you think you're so good that you have to do it?”
It's quite interesting that that's what happens. Because of course there are contexts where people have come out and taken action on behalf of movements that don't just fully serve their own personal gains. But it speaks to our own culture that we're swimming in individualism that people can’t believe that you could do that for other people: “But what's in it for you?” Rather than saying, “How interesting that you're up for doing that because you want to give a better chance to the next generation” or whatever, some people say, “You don't have any legitimacy because it's not about you.”
YANCEY: We've talked before about the structure of XR and thinking about it as a post-permission organization where anyone can act in XR’s name so long as they follow a few rules. How has that played out in practice?
CLARE: I feel quite proud of the thinking behind it, which wasn't mine, but I feel quite proud of the people who came up with it. Now we're in a place where people are trying to work out how to make everything more democratic and make things more accountable. There are major issues with governance if you're going to go out and say, “We’re post-consensus, so everyone go and do whatever you want.” In some ways we didn't really understand some of the things we were trying to do. We said decentralized, but actually some of the work is much better organized in a distributed model rather than a decentralized model — you have a certain amount of centralized teams doing certain things. Decentralized working has also made a lot of our systems really hyper-messy. A lot of platforms, a lot of data in different places, a lot of not being able to quantify everything ever. Not knowing precisely who's a member, not knowing how many people have done anything, not knowing how many groups there are, or being able to know how to get everyone to do something at the same time. It's very, very difficult.
That said, there is also something very resilient about the decentralized nature of things. If we can't even map it, they can't shut it down, right? If we were facing much greater state repression, our systems being being this dispersed would actually be a strength. It's something that, in a repressive scenario, is way more resilient than having a centralized system that's very efficient and works really well. So who knows, maybe it's about to come into its own. [Laughs]
We haven’t always known how to design participation well. Are we designing a participatory process that works well, or are we designing something that's going to just end up being dysfunctional and rely on people going, “I think consensus is fair, so let's do some consensus?” In the back of our minds there's a thing that says consensus is good and fair. People want to go there all the time. Sometimes it’s good, but not always. There's nuance around this that we've found difficult to have conversations about, particularly because as we expanded, it was this explosive growth and we just couldn't keep up. The system was designed to expand and morph and change as it did, and in some ways it did a great job of that. But it felt like every time we redesigned something so it could hold more people, it ballooned again and then it wasn't right again. We were running to keep up. When I look back at this in about five years time, I'll go, “That's what we should have done. I know now.” [Laughs] Gail always jokes with me about how we should write a book called How Not to Start a Social Movement.
YANCEY: You should! That’s a great idea.
Two years ago you spoke at Oxford, and you challenged an audience — quoting you — to “liberate yourself from hope, let go of the fantasy of hope.” Have you liberated yourself from hope? What’s on the other side of not-hope?
CLARE: It's personal for me because I had quite a traumatic childhood and I associated hope with being miserable. [Laughs] But in seriousness, hope for me feels like the opposite of admitting that you have to do it. “I hope that someone else will fix it.” Or worse still, “I hope that maybe we can just leave everything basically pretty much the same and not change anything.” That's a disaster.
YANCEY: The opposite of hope is responsibility?
CLARE: Action. We used to say, “Hope dies, action begins.” That was one of the phrases that we started to band around at the start of XR. That was the spirit of it: “We're fucked. Let's do something.” In a way, maybe people do need to be totally fucked before they do anything. When people get to a breaking point they act. People are diagnosed with terminal cancer, then they give up smoking. We know this is how people go on. I did an interview the other day with the scientist Mayer Hillman. He's nearly 90, and he's got a very bleak outlook. He was like, “Until people admit that there's no light at the end of this tunnel, they won't start acting in the way that they need to.”
YANCEY: You, Gail, and Roger have all spoken about the difference between intellectually accepting that the climate crisis is bad and emotionally accepting it. Experiencing grief. This is what it takes to change behavior?
CLARE: That was one of the most important things we were able to do when we emerged, to encourage people to feel how it really feels. All of the educated, repressed, quite privileged people who are working in environment and sustainability movements — quite often it lacks an emotional honesty, which is, when you really go there, “This is heartbreaking.” I feel like shit when I really think about it. Sometimes it hits me again, then you think, “Wow, that's back.” In that way it's like grief. It comes back and it goes away, and then it comes back again, and it goes away again. Having experienced a decent amount of grief in my life and knowing how I deal with it, and having watched other people deal with it and finding it so interesting that we all do it in such different ways, the one thing that's always the same is that people don't come out of it the same. If it's necessary for us to transform ourselves to face up to this, then a life-changing emotional experience is no bad thing to collectively go through together.
My deepest thanks to Clare. For more on Extinction Rebellion, visit the links below.
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Peace and love my friends,
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