INTERVIEWEE: Clare Farrell
BACKGROUND: Extinction Rebellion cofounder
TOPIC: Replacing hope with action
“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 seems to be moving towards serious action on climate change in a way that felt impossible until very recently. Decarbonization is starting to happen, and governments and companies are hopping 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 plenty of ire, and Extinction Rebellion especially so. Their actions of civil disobedience have involved glueing themselves to subways, using their bodies to block construction, and other controversial actions. Their sincerity and provocativeness earned them lots of supporters and detractors.
A friend said to me not long ago that Extinction Rebellion might be the most interesting startup in the world. Based on the theories of holacracy and the modern classic 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.
Today we’re joined by Clare Farrell, cofounder of Extinction Rebellion. Clare is one of the people responsible for XR’s name, visual identity, messaging, and significant impact to date. In a fascinating conversation, Clare discusses the group’s strategy, getting arrested, and why it’s time to replace hope with action. Listen to our interview on the web, Apple, and Spotify.
YANCEY: Hi, Claire. Nice to be together again, it's been a while. I wondered if we could start with you sharing your story: where you're from, how you got to XR.
CLARE: I was born in the south of England and then moved around quite a lot, so I don't often feel like I have a place where I'm from, apart from here in South London, which is where I'm from now, because I've been here for ages. I had a quite turbulent childhood: lost my mum when I was thirteen; my dad was really old, he fought in the Second World War, so he was 62 when I was born, so that's also pretty unusual. I went to secondary school in the northeast of England, and then I moved down to London to go to university. Somebody asked me this the other day, what was my first protest or something, and I thought, it's probably when I was at university, and I was thinking about the environmental impacts of the industry, and what it must be doing, because of this understanding, seeing the scale of it. And I guess I'd been sort of scientifically radicalized whilst I was at school, when they taught me about CFCs and the hole in the ozone layer.
When they teach you the thing at school, they go, “Oh, people worked this stuff out in the 1970s.” And I, as a young person, looked out in the world and saw everybody only just phasing CFCs out of consumer goods like hairsprays and all of that. And I just thought, “What the fuck have these grown ups been doing? That seems like the definition of insane." And I guess in some ways, the climate crisis is like that, but much more complicated and much worse. And the same thing is happening, which is that business and politics are not moving to act in line with the best available information about the impact on the atmosphere, which is an existential risk to humanity. From that place, I probably was at uni thinking about the environment and nobody gave a shit. I had a lot of tutors who broadly said, “Nobody can see it's organic from the catwalk”—I was a fashion student—“nobody’s really gonna care where things come from, people aren't interested, they only care what it looks like, blah, blah.” So I put signs up around the department telling people what were some of the most horrible facts about what the industry was doing. And then I wrote my dissertation about that, and went into work in the high street fashion sector, which felt like a way of trying to learn how they do the damage, on the understanding that after my degree, I pretty much still didn't know anything. And I ended up walking out of a job and then being quite miserable, and going to work with a friend of a friend who was making upcycled fashion; she was running a womenswear label called Good One. I worked on that with her for quite a long time; we probably did about eight or nine seasons together, making clothes out of post-consumer waste.
I guess after a bit of time freelancing and doing various different stuff—I started a brand and did my own thing for a bit—I then came across Roger Hallam, who's now my friend [and] one of the cofounders of XR. He was on hunger strike at the time at King's College over divestment; it was part of a campaign that he'd done to try and get them to divest from fossil fuels, and it was where he was studying his PhD. My friend Miles said to me, “Hey, have you seen this PhD student is on hunger strike?” And I remember thinking, “Yeah, that's totally what people should be doing, what the fuck is going on?” And I'd already been thinking and seeing about the science. We used to talk at the beginning of XR about [how] people have a Dark Night of the Soul where they realize that everything's actually as fucked as it really is. And I'd been paying attention to reports for quite a long time that said things like, “We've got ten years,” and then ten years later, there's another round of news stories saying we've got ten years, and I was thinking, “Where did the last ten years go? You don't just magically get another ten years.” So it seemed really fascinating when I went to meet up with with Roger and hear about his research. I immediately got roped into doing little campaigns in London with him, which was really testing civil disobedience tactics. It was very creative and iterative and fun. It's quite fun. I mean, as fun as blocking roads and getting arrested can be. And then quite quickly afterwards, we ran through a couple of little campaigns in London and then launched a rebellion which went way, way bigger way faster than I ever thought it would. And here I am.
YANCEY: Thank you. I wonder, thinking back to when you were at university and you hung up those signs saying “Here are all the bad compounds we’re using, bad products, wasteful things we're doing,” do you remember what you felt doing that? Was that exciting? Were you rabble rousing? Were you on your own doing that? What was driving you at that moment?
CLARE: I don't know. It was just me. I can't remember what it felt like. You know when you're young, and you’re quite pissed off about how disgusting things are? It's that time where you think, “This is so clearly a total outrage that I’m looking up stats”—and by the way, I think these women were massively underestimated—“that [say] things like 20,000 people will be poisoned to death this year by the cotton industry. And [that] we’ve bred the Merino sheep breed so that it has so much extra skin on its body that farmers chop the flaps of skin off, without an anesthetic, to try and deal with the mites that they get, because they just want bigger fleece per animal and stuff.” So it was things like that. As a young person, I felt an indignation that nothing about this is okay, and I don't really understand why the world is like this, but I'm pretty pissed off. And somehow I think it connects with a group that I was part of at the time called the Space Hijackers, which was a group of activists that I'd met who were loosely based on the Situationist artists. We did all kinds of ridiculous interventions in public space and stuff like that. So having met that crew and been going out causing a bit of a scene every now and then was probably an emboldening part of my part of my journey. Meeting that rowdy group of brilliant people.
YANCEY: You're a you're a co-founder of XR, and XR officially launched 2018, 2019?
CLARE: 2018. I think the concept was agreed on in late spring 2018. The official launch is probably always viewed as the Declaration of Rebellion, which was on October 31, 2018. So not very long ago.
YANCEY: I think most people are familiar, but for those who aren’t: 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, and then encouraging people to take part in mass participation [and] civil disobedience. So a strategy of non-violence and civil resistance, they were the main elements of inspiration.
YANCEY: What is the argument for civil disobedience in 2021? We know the stories of Civil Rights, colonial India. Obviously, it’s had success, but what about its relevance now? What do you see in terms of its effectiveness?
CLARE: I think 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.” One of the original ones was done by Gail [Bradbrook] and she recorded it in her house. And one of the lines that she said, which has always stayed with me, was “People like it in the past, but they don't like it in the present.” We were just protesting at the weekend on Parliament Square, and there's a statue of a suffragette, there’s a statue of Gandhi. [There are] monuments now to people who committed these kinds of acts, and yet, when they happen in people's real lives in front of them, they go, “Oh, I'm not sure about that. I don't think that's right." So it can be a bit of a hard sell to some people, because they think it's some somehow not relevant, or it doesn't really suit the 21st Century.
That said, when we were doing those experiments at the early stages of the work, it was like, “Oh, let's go and do X, Y, and Z and then see if it gets you in the room.” So a lot of it was designed to try and get you a meeting with the relevant person. And some of that really worked. The campaign at the universities involved some criminal damage, some spray painting with chalk on some buildings. Some students get arrested; the university is very embarrassed. Then a bunch of people go on hunger strike. In Roger’s case, it was just him, but people have subsequently used the same recipe on universities. And it's worked, in terms of getting them in the room with the decision-maker that can say, “Okay, fine, we'll do a divestment program, and it will be quick, and it will go to these dates.” We did another set of tests on going after the Mayor of London about air pollution. And we didn't get in the room with him, but we did get in the room with his policy advisors. And for that, it took civil disobedience, people breaking their bail terms, and then people going in prison on remand. And then once people were on remand, and they wrote to him from jail, shortly after that, we got some press—quite important, because the press don't pay attention that easily unless it feels sexy, or new, or difficult, or dramatic, or whatever. But also, it was like, “That's a little bit of data: that’s how you get like in the room with somebody at City Hall." Then we did other campaigns at the Labour Party, so what does it take to get a meeting with a leader of a political party?
So all of this stuff was based on trying to think about it in that way. And when you look at the scale of the crises, intersecting massive crises, some normal, shall we say, people really need to get in touch with the people who are sitting in those positions of power right now, because they're just fucking up so bad. So it’s a means of opening a conversation. And that's what people say about non-violence, it begins a conversation, and 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 fucking answer—but there's some humility in being able to say that non-violence opens a space, and then the dialogue can take place. And I always think that about actions: you go and create a thing that never existed before you started. So a lot of our work also 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. And suddenly that escalates the dilemma that they get put in. And eventually it can turn out to be “Well, are they going to press charges or not?” That's a great dilemma for them to have, because it means that they can't ignore you; they have to talk about the thing that you've brought to them to speak about. And they also have to do something to resolve it. They either have to tell you off, kick you out. Or they have to do what you say, or they have to have some kind of negotiation. So you put them in a position where you can't be ignored, where the issue can't be ignored.
YANCEY: So you're almost designing these interventions from the eyes of who you are trying to affect. You've learned some degree of what the kinds of institutional responses [are] to certain things that we do. And you are sort of strategizing through, “When we do this, a government official tends to do this,” or that kind of thinking.
CLARE: Yeah. And I think at the beginning, it felt like it all made sense, because we'd been doing this work before, and then it was escalated, and there were huge numbers of people doing it. And actually, we did have a meeting with the government in May 2019. So shortly after that April rebellion, when we sort of ground some parts of London to a standstill for nearly two weeks, that got us in the room, as they say. And the outcome was not was not really anything very impressive in terms of actual impact. But it did come shortly after that, thanks to also a visit from Greta [Thunberg], which I think had a massive impact on the people in Westminster. Shortly afterwards, we had Parliament say, “Okay, we're declaring a climate emergency.” And so some people have claimed that 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 really clear that that declaration has resulted in nothing. And also it was the Parliament total, not the actual government who were in power. So that's also a problem.
But nonetheless, it was proof that that kind of thing worked. And I think 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, I think that they've got a policy of trying not to talk to us as much as possible. Which means not that much, really, because if it's going to come to it, of course they're not going to want to talk to us, eventually. But that's why you then find yourself in a position where you need bigger numbers. So we’re in an interesting place now, because I think people are questioning the tactics, wondering whether it really can work. At the same time, there's some of us saying, “Well, we still haven't actually tried it properly; you kind of have, but not really. 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]
But we need to still, I think, further the build so that we can try the civil resistance method with bigger numbers now that the message has landed. Because at the time, as well, it's important to remember that to the majority of the population, I think the urgency of the climate and ecological crises was news. They sort of knew about it but they didn’t really realize. 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. So it's more understood now, especially in Britain, I think it's either over 60% or maybe it's nearly 80% of the British public think that we need much more serious action on climate. So it's worked in that way, as well, in terms of shifting the hearts and minds of the public, because people need to believe in what you're trying to achieve, not necessarily your own methods. So when people go, “Oh, well, I agree with what you're saying, but I don't think you should block roads and glue yourself to doors.” Well, that's fine. They don't have to like it. We're not here to be liked.
YANCEY: Yeah, the last time we saw each other, it was in London, and I think the next morning XR activists [were] gluing themselves to the tube. And there were all these scenes on the news of commuters yelling at these activists saying, “Why are you doing this, I'm just trying to get to work.” And for me, as someone who's sympathetic, who’s friends with you and the movement and all that, it's an interesting thing to see that discomfort that you create. And it's required to get people to talk and pay attention, but it also is a moment of conflict, I think is how a lot of people experience it.
CLARE: Yeah. And non-violence is a methodology for confrontation. I don't know who it was who said it: “Non-violence is not for cowards.” [laughs] It can be quite scary. And I think 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, let's say, the vulnerability of the protesters becomes their strength. And it's then challenged to think about that action in particular, to reflect on why that was so problematic for a lot of people. And yet it got us the most reach that anything ever, ever has. And whilst I don't think necessarily that all publicity is good publicity in our line of work, it is important to recognize that.
I got asked to go out and do the media the next day for it, and there were very few people who were up for doing that, because a lot of people didn't know it was going to happen, but some people who did had been saying, “Oh, we're not sure, we don't think you should do that, it's too difficult,” or, “It's too much.” I actually think that the only thing they did wrong, the team that organized that action, was that they repeated the same action that we'd done in the previous rebellion, with but they'd done it at the wrong station. It was in a station in East London, where there's a way lower average income than the previous time they'd done it, [when] they just did it in Canary Wharf. So it was all rich men in suits that they'd inconvenienced—well, fine, everyone's fine with that. But if you get seen to be disproportionately affecting people who are poorer working people, we got a lot of criticism about that in the media. But I think from a design perspective, it's important to think, “Well, you don't want the conflict that people see to be between you and the working classes." I mean, that's just not a good idea.
I actually think that wholesale public disruption is totally legitimate and fair enough, which is why I went out and—I didn't defend them, but I did refuse to apologize for them on the day, because I really think if people have taken to heart the situation that they were in, people would be doing things that are that serious all the time, because we're in such desperate times. And that was the point I was trying to get across to people in the media: “People are going to get increasingly desperate. And I don't know what you think that's gonna look like, but it's important to think about that.” And for me, that action opened the possibility to have that conversation. And unfortunately, a lot of people in the media, and also a lot of people in politics broadly, on the left, also, just went in on class politics and how we’d done something that was that was tone deaf or didn't feel right. And I think there's a more nuanced reflection to take on that action, and also recognize that some people went to prison for that. People deserve respect who are going to take actions that run that kind of scale of risk. Because it's certainly not everybody in our movement who's up for doing that.
YANCEY: How many times have you been arrested? Can you talk about the experience of being arrested?
CLARE: I’ve been arrested five times, five or six times. Most of those were before XR. There was one campaign that we did which was the air pollution campaign, where we were trying to test out breaking our bail terms. So I did repeated acts of painting a government building and breaking bail terms; breaking bail, breaking bail, and going back in court. And we did it four times in about eight days, the same place, to the point where the people in the local court—you get taken from the police station, into the courts, into the cells in the basement. They're very grimy—well, that one was anyway. The people [who are] running that space then take you out of handcuffs and take you into the courtroom, [and] you stand there and you speak to the judge. Every time they gave us bail, because they were starting by the end of the week to understand what we were doing, they were saying, “Oh, no, they've let you out again, okay, maybe I'll see you tomorrow." And the same in the police station, because we kept going in the same police station again and again, and they were like, “See you tomorrow, bye!” So it became a bit of a joke. And some of the police treated us really with great respect, and some of them less so. But it's also interesting, for me anyway, to go into that experience being ready to have a conversation if they are ready to have a conversation, if that makes sense. You can get extremely interesting pieces of information out of police officers if you can have a civil conversation with them. It depends which one they are and how are they treating everyone and all of that. And I'm very well aware of my own privilege in being able to, as a white, educated woman, go and say, “Hello, take me away officer,” and expect to, broadly speaking, have an okay experience.
I think also, what we tried to think about at the beginning was just to put ourselves in a global context. I only just did some proper googling the other day about how many police forces in the world are majority unarmed. And we have that privilege here, which is huge, actually. Even in Germany and other countries in Europe, I've heard activists say, “Well, you know, the police, when they're getting pissed off with us, they just pull a gun, just to scare us." And we don't have that in the UK. So we're extremely privileged, not just because I’m me, and I can do it, I can make the time and I can run the risk, and I also expect [it’s] highly likely that I will just be arrested and released within 24 hours and not harmed. But to add onto that the global context, I've spoken to other activists in South America, for example, who just said, “If I get arrested, I'll probably get raped.” That's a thing for huge, huge numbers of people. And that's before you even get to like earth and land defenders that are being mass murdered. So it's always on our mind, I guess, putting it in context and remembering that whilst we should respect people who aren't ready to get arrested, or don't feel able to or whatever, it's also extremely easy for us in this country compared with most other places. Which is why they're trying to crack down on it, I guess, because we've done so much protest in this country that they've started to talk about writing new legislation just to target non-violent protest. Which is also quite scary. I think a lot of movements here are really frightened at the moment, and rightly so, about the direction of travel.
But yeah, being arrested, I don't know, 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, I guess. And being released at 4:00 in the morning is always pretty shit. It's really hard to get home. But I have to say, Extinction Rebellion has got really beautiful teams of people that go and meet you in stations. And that's been quite amazing. Actually, 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, really sweet. So there's amazing support in the courts as well, people who show up and give you biscuits and cheer you on.
YANCEY: How do you quantify, if you do, the value of an arrest? Are you trying to get a certain number of people arrested with an action? Is it how long someone stays in that makes an arrest more powerful? How do you think about the value of an arrest?
CLARE: Well, it's a good question, actually. Roger once said to me something like, “Well Clare, I’m a ruthless empiricist.” So I know that 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. I think, because it's quite cold, that view somehow, for some people, makes them think, "Oh, well, it's not just a numbers game.” But it also kind of is, even though I agree with them that it's not, if that makes sense. And we used to say things like, to journalists, “How many people need to be imprisoned for it to get on the front page?” Stuff like that. Obviously, people can hazard a guess at it. But we've had people in jail and no one really pays any attention. I suspect that if we find ourselves later this year with quite a large number of people in prison and the UK hosting the COP negotiations, that would have a huge impact on the negotiations themselves, because our Prime Minister is going to be going out pretending to be the big green man, whilst we all know that he's actually not really going to do what it takes. So the numbers, when we were looking at them in terms of a rebellion on the ground, and just arrests in going into police cells, the thinking is like, “Okay, how many people does it take to really slow down the system to the point where they either stop arresting people, they de-arrest people”—they sometimes do that, they drive you down the road, and then just de-arrest you and release you. And in some senses, people have tried to work out how many police cells are there in London, how many do you need to fill up for them to start to struggle and then have to book buses and take people out of town. And that's something that you can look at from the Civil Rights Movement. In the Children's March, for example, when the police brought out buses to pick up the kids. There's a wonderful film about it, I really recommend it if you've not watched it. They've got film clips of the kids running out of school and running into the streets and they're all shouting, “We're going to jail, we're going to jail, we're gonna have a party in jail!” One of them's got her hairbrush with her and stuff. It’s this joyful kind of surrender of, “Okay, we're all gonna do this together. And therefore it's very meaningful, and it’s going to do something, and it's also going to be okay, because we're doing it collectively.”
So I struggle really to decide which side I'm on in terms of do I think it's the numbers, and we can value it that way, or do I disagree with valuing it in that way? Sometimes I think that I do. But because, personally, I also think that being arrested for this work is kind of a spiritual pursuit, really. And I say that as a not religious, not practicing any faith person. But I really think that when you're in the throes of doing this work, you're acknowledging that your embodiment of like resistance to what's happening, and the self-sacrifice that's involved, it becomes a spiritual act. And so it's kind of important to also know that it has personal impacts, which can be very challenging, but also can be really, really positive in the long term. So it's not just a numbers game, I guess is what I'm saying.
YANCEY: For you, someone who's not religious, I'd love to know what “spiritual” means for you. Is it that you're part of something larger than you? You are moving beyond your individual body? What does spirit mean?
CLARE: I guess it means, for me, that I'm using what I've got, whilst I'm alive, to try and help the larger body of the human race. And it's enacting peaceful refusal, a non-cooperation, in a very carefully-planned and premeditated way. Internally you're conscious that it helps you to feel in contact with your own moral integrity. And I think, from fashion industry through to now, I'm acutely aware of the cultural disease of the West, of the UK. And the fact that for me, to make a good living in my industry that I wanted to work in, meant that I had to compromise on my own values so much that I've felt disgusting. So if society is set up in such a way that you have to compromise so much of your own actual values in order just to pay your rent, then…Timothy Snyder's book On Tyranny, I just read it and it said something like “practice corporeal politics.” The embodiment of this resistance that somehow connects you to who you actually are, not who you have to be to pay your rent, if that makes sense.
YANCEY: There's a line people will say: “Activists are there to save the world, but a lot of it is saving yourself.” There's self work that's a part of it. I've been curious, and your answer leads into this. When you're tired, when you've been blocking a road for a long time, and you're just [thinking], “I just want to be on with it,” those lower moments—what do you think about to keep your head in the game? Are you doing this for someone? Do you have an image in your mind? How do you think about that?
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, 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, “Okay, 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's a weird situation, because it's also something that is happening now, so it's not just for them, it's actually work that we're doing for everybody. And I'm particularly thinking about people that are suffering impacts now. And so in some ways, I think it's really important to think about—it’s so late. I really wish that we'd started doing this kind of thing five years ago, ten years ago. I don't think that it would have been as possible somehow, because the rhetoric wasn't there from the broader space, the IPCC weren't screaming from the rooftops in quite the same manner. I don't even think they've been screaming compared with what they should have been doing. But anyway, nobody was saying such extreme things as they are now.
But nonetheless, it feels important somehow to also think about who this is for, because we are acting on behalf of other people. I think it gives an interesting dilemma for us personally, because if you look at a lot of other movements, study the Civil Rights Movement, those people were acting from their own integrity as people that were suffering massive oppression. And the same with the suffragettes, those women went out and said, “We want the vote for women. And that means us.” So in some ways, 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 over there,” 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?” And 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 I think it speaks to us about our own culture that we're swimming in, on the individualism and the lack of anybody to actually believe that you could do that just for other people. “But what's in it for you?” kind of thing. And then rather than saying, “Oh, how interesting that you're up for doing that because you want to give a better chance to the next generation,” or whatever. Then there's some people who say, “Well, you don't have any legitimacy because it's not about you. Find me someone find me someone from the future who can come back in a time machine, please, and tell me why you're doing it.” I don't know. I find it quite interesting.
YANCEY: That is interesting, because it's about whose behalf you have a right to speak for. And you are embodying this clash of trying to act collectively in a very individualistic world. So there's a values conflict you're feeling, where it's hard to get people to engage, but also maybe hard to get people to believe that you are sincere. Is that fair?
CLARE: Yeah. And I also think that people being very divided over lines of race and class and gender and sexuality and all the rest of it, it's becoming quite a challenge for me at the moment to think about what's good about the universalist messaging, which is what we went out with. It was trying to aim at a universalism, in the recognition that this is a universal issue. But I can see how that has not really landed that well with some people who want to see a recognition of the dividing lines, and who's got worse impacts and who's got less bad impacts, or who deserves it less, or deserves it more, or whatever. And that's also interesting, because, again, if you look at other movements—Martin Luther King is a perfect example: his way of saying, “I have a dream that all children can live together in harmony,” or whatever, that message—we like it when it comes from an oppressed person; we don't like it when it comes from somebody that we think is somehow a little bit too privileged to be able to say it. That's an interesting problem, because actually, aside from the fact that there's a lot of people in XR who are not straight up privileged, super middle class, wealthy, whatever, there are [also] several co-founders who are working class. I was raised by a working class man. It's more complex than that, right? Putting everyone in boxes and saying, “You don't get to say that because you're in that box, but you do get to say that because you're in that box. So well done, but we'll tell that person off because they shouldn't be talking.”
But in reality, we do need to recognize this as a universal threat. And we do need to also understand the nuances that it's not universally threatening, if you know what I mean. And for that, it requires us to go and say, “Well, hey, two things can be true at once.” And we're not particularly good at that in our culture. Saying, “Yes, you're right. And yes, you're right. And also, maybe there's even another thing too. And maybe there's a whole gray area, which we can move around in, where there's loads of different stuff which can be true.” But in terms of putting out big messages, like, “Tell the truth; act now,” those things have to be universal for them to work in this context. It's interesting seeing how things have landed, and I guess I'm gonna have a more intelligent perspective on all of this in about five years’ time.
YANCEY: Well, I think we're all navigating this stuff in real time right now, and this is just a moment when it's being sorted. But it's very striking seeing the three XR planks: tell the truth, net zero, and then the Citizens’ Assembly, and then to see for the US XR, this fourth provision that's longer than the first three put together, that is speaking to all the nuance of the personal experiences that are part of this. So it is that individualist-collectivist friction. It’s a hard circle to square, right? Maybe Fridays for the Future is a little better at that potentially. I'm not sure. But it’s difficult. Do you have any other reflections on that section of things?
CLARE: I guess the thing that I think is interesting about having that extra demand is that it's come from a place of longing, which is present for us in the UK as well. We've actually got a group that are starting to look at our demands finally to question should we have a fourth demand, should we have a “zeroth” demand, should we have something that reviews all three of the demands and embeds a greater sense of social and global justice into all of them?
I think for me personally, it's a shame because it overlooks the power of the third one, which is really the least understood and the most important. The reason I think that this came up through the states is because it has a slightly different context to the UK because of being on stolen land; there are indigenous people that don't have political representation. I guess here we do have some—at the moment, this Police, Crimes, and Sentencing bill is particularly targeting Gypsy Roma and traveller communities in the UK. So some of those groups are early indigenous traveller communities to this country who've always been marginalized, who’ve never been represented, who don't get treated well, and have been treated very badly by successive governments. So I guess in some way, they may be a similar kind of demographic of people. But it's really not the same as the context that you have in Australia or America, for example. And so there was a need there that that came from. And people said, “We think we need this.” So fine, do it; it’s decentralized, if you need to change it for your context, this isn't the definitive design, go ahead and change it.
But the longing that's coming through for this is wanting to see us speak out about these issues, but whilst, I think, not understanding that the third demand is designed to actually structurally deal with those issues, which I accept is a representative form of dealing with it rather than a recognition. I don't know in depth, but I think that in the scholarship, they say you can deal with matters of racism through representation only, which is what people tend to do. And it's very flimsy, and it doesn't really go very deep. You can do it through recognition, which means you have to recognize the issues and the people involved. So I hear that, and I think that's something that we did not do a good job of. Some of the criticism of XR has been totally legitimate on some of this stuff.
But I also think that most of the criticism comes from places that don't understand that we want to see these people that are currently being completely either overlooked by society or totally fucked over by society and give them a representation. And the way that you get people represented in a sortition system, which is random selection assembly process, is that you would say, “Okay, what's the demographic of the country,” [and] then you create a microcosm of the country. So if you have 5% of a certain demographic, you have 5% of that demographic in the assembly. And you can do that then with whatever rules you want around gender, ethnicity, religion. And when you've done that, you then look at a group that has absolutely no representation, and you might overweight their representative. So instead of giving them 5% of the seats, you might give them seven or eight or more percent of the seats, because you want to make sure that those voices get really properly heard, and that they won't get marginalized in the space itself. And I feel like one of the problems that we see with the assembly as a political sell, let's say, to the establishment but also to to activists, is that it really is obvious once you look into it that the decision is going to get swayed by working class people, because they're going to be the majority of people in the room. So the 1% have 1% of the space, for example.
Because we've got such a crisis of trust, I actually don't think that people trust ordinary people to do this work. And it's also very difficult to imagine how you would trust the people that set it up, because it has to be run extremely well. And that's no mean feat. It's really, really a big job to do it well, and it has to be done in a very smart way, and the people who run it have to have total integrity. And so it is a mechanism that will only work on the back of a lot of trust. And I think we're living in a crisis of trust, basically. And I think that makes it very difficult for people to accept that maybe it might go well. But in effect, if we could go away from saying “Citizens Assembly at a national level,” and we could talk about participatory democracy…the thing that is going to make stuff possible, it is the opposite of authoritarianism—which is really what I want to see more of, what if is the opposite to that, I want to see a lot of it really soon, please—and if people can get into the idea of participation, then we could begin to have a more politically tuned-in public.
I think part of the problem in the UK is that people think that they go once every four years and put a vote in a thing in the booth. Maybe in between, they do a few local elections, or mayoral elections or whatever. A lot of people don't really know what the parties are standing for, there's very little difference between them: nobody’s offering an alternative way from neoliberal growth-based capitalism. Nobody's really saying that they'll stand up for poor people. Nobody is really saying anything very interesting, basically. And they all sort of look and sound a bit the same. The whole space feels very corrupt. Because it is—some of them are more corrupt than others, but the politics of this country is really fucking rotten. And so if people could understand that it was cool to be involved in deciding the future of your own life and your own community, then that would be extremely helpful. People would start to see, “Well, something is possible, actually; we can do collective action, we can form local groups and do things to change local politics, or we can do something that keeps our hospital open, or library, or whatever.” Those small things that people can do on local level are really important for getting people to feel like participation is a good thing.
People get politicized through the act of doing collective work. We have a group called Trust the People in the UK who are trying to do that, set up people's assemblies in local areas. They don't have to be about the climate, they can be about anything, but just helping people to get assemblies on the go, where people meet local people, and they go, "Yeah, let's do something about that.” And then they collect together to do a campaign or to push for some change from the local council or whatever it is. And if people start to feel some agency, then that is a step out of basically where they want you, which is feeling isolated, and lonely, and powerless, and afraid. And without participation and people feeling agency, the climate crisis will continue to make people more and more afraid.
And I think that is the scary thing. When people say, “Oh, no, you're being too scary, Clare, stop saying how scary it is,” it's like, “I don't think I should have to meet to the truth.” I think we need to get people out of feeling fearful and alone. And then they can hear it like grownups. [laughs]
YANCEY: Two years ago, you spoke at Oxford, and you challenged an audience there—quoting you—to “liberate yourself from hope, and let go of the fantasy of hope.” This is you. This is Claire Farrell. So, have you liberated yourself from hope? What is on the other side of not-hope?
CLARE: I guess it's quite personal for me, because I had quite a traumatic childhood, and I think I always associated hope with being quite miserable. [laughs] So probably I’ve had quite a good useful grounding in that way. But in seriousness, I think that hope for me feels like the opposite of admitting that you have to do it. [laughs] So, “I hope that like 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.” And that's a disaster. People need to be confronting reality in a grounded way, and then saying, “Okay, how do we live together? What are we going to do? What do we want?” Stephen Jenkinson, I don't know if you've heard of him, he said, “Hope is a four letter word.” [laughs] So I found that quite amusing. But it feels to me like it's offsetting something that you actually could try and take responsibility for.
YANCEY: So 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, and it felt like that was the spirit of it: “We're fucked. Let's do something.” And it's interesting that, I think in a way, maybe people do need to be totally fucked before they do anything. It certainly looks that way, anyway. But I think [when] people get to a breaking point where they say, “I'm not going to fucking take this anymore,” then they act. People [are] diagnosed with terminal cancer, then they give up smoking. We know that this is how people go on.
I did an interview the other day with this scientist Mayer Hillman. He's nearly 90. And he's got a very bleak outlook. And that was his thing, 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.” And I thought that was extremely useful, actually, if you can face it, because there's a liberation in thinking that this culture is just so fucked in terms of consumerism and the rampant destructive, extractive, exploitative nature of it. It’s over, because it's omnicidal. So it's either going to disappear because it destroys itself, or it's going to disappear because we're going to do something good. But either way, it's possible to view it as an irrelevance, if you see it like that. And then you can go, “Okay, well, then that opens up a big space,” and you can think about things. Or it gives you a blank sheet to go, “Okay, well, let's wipe that out of the way. Now, what do I think?” Have a think about it like that. It allows you the space to think.
YANCEY: This is where you and Gail and Roger, you’ve all spoken about the difference between learning the facts of “the science is bad, the science is seemingly impossible to turn around,” and moving beyond that intellectual acceptance to an emotional acceptance—you all talk about grief a lot. This is part of, “When you get to that, then you are you're open to action, you will change your behavior, you will do something.”
CLARE: Yeah, and I think that was one of the most important things that we were able to do when we emerged, to encourage people to feel how it really feels. And all of the educated, repressed, quite privileged people who are working in environment and sustainability movements and stuff—quite often it just lacked an emotional honesty, which is, when you really go there, “This is this is heartbreaking.” I feel like shit when I really think about it, and 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. I think it's healthy to engage with it in that way. I've always said that, having experienced a decent amount of grief myself 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. And if it's necessary for us to transform ourselves whilst we face up to this, which I think is probably my feeling, then a life-changing emotional experience is no bad thing for us to collectively go through together.
So going into that emotionality of it has been really important, I think. And especially in terms of saying, “I'm going to destroy my own employment prospects, and I'm gonna make it so that I can't travel to certain places for the rest of my life, and I'm going to get some shit off my family who might stop talking to me.” Lots of people have had all these different considerations, depending who they are, in terms of doing this work. I think it takes the recognition of some sense of being liberated from your “responsibilities.” I think it's interesting, because it looks and sounds, in certain circles now, because we're in a much later stage, that if you're privileged enough to be able to throw your career in the bin and just go and do activism, well, then you're just privileged, right? But in fact, there's a whole load of people that I know in this movement who have made their lives markedly harder, really precarious, thrown themselves into all kinds of uncertainty and unknowns, aside from going to jail: not knowing where they're gonna live, not knowing how they're going to get paid. Loads and loads of difficult stuff that goes on in people's personal lives in relation to that, and it's not just a bunch of rich people who find that easy. It's quite a serious kind of decision to take to say, “I’m going to do this work.” I don't think you can do that unless you really feel quite emotionally connected to the purpose of it.
YANCEY: I have just a few more questions. So 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 basic ideas. And the idea is that the climate crisis is so urgent that you can't wait for a committee to approve an action. It needs to be action-oriented, not deliberation-oriented. How has that played out in practice? How do you feel about that structure now, two, three years in?
CLARE: I feel quite proud of the thinking behind it, which wasn't mine, by the way, but I feel quite proud of the people who came up with it. Because now I think we're in a place where people are trying to work out how to make everything more democratic, and how to make things more accountable. There are quite major issues with governance if you're going to go out and say, “We’re post-consensus, so everyone, just go and do whatever you want.” And in some ways, I think we didn't really understand some of the things that we were trying to do. We said decentralized, but actually, some of the work is much better organized in a distributed model than a decentralized model. And for that, you have a certain amount of centralized teams doing certain things. So in some ways, if we'd have understood what was going to happen—which are there probably is no way that we could have done—we could have said, “Okay, we operate on a national group structure, which is distributed, and on an international basis that's decentralized.” So for me, that feels like that would be a sensible way to work it.
That said, I'm not saying it's definitely correct, because there is also something very, very resilient about the decentralized nature of things. And 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. But if we can't even map it, they can't shut it down, right? So if we were facing much greater state repression, I think that our systems being being this dispersed would actually be a strength. It's definitely something that, I think, in a repressive scenario, is probably 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]
But I think there's something interesting that's gone on with us not understanding, always, how to design participation well, or how to have the conversation about how you design participation, because there [are] some things we've done that have worked really well, but actually educating some people in the movement about thinking about it in that way—are we designing a participatory process here that works well, or are we designing something that's going to just end up being dysfunctional, and end up relying on people going, “Well, I think consensus is fair, so let's do some consensus?” I actually think that, in the back of our minds, there's a thing that says consensus is good and fair. And so people want to go there, they sort of want to go there all the time. And sometimes it is good, but not always. And there's some nuance around some of this stuff that I think we've really found it difficult to have the 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 at one point, every time we redesigned something so it could hold more people, it ballooned again, and then it wasn't right again. And we were just running to keep up. So again, it's another thing that I think, Yancey, 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: Yes. I think that, for instance, some standardization would be nice; even as it's great to have decentralization, some standardization actually would be really helpful, so we have some similar language. In some ways, you all are a first experiment in going full on with this model, so absolutely it seems like someone should be able to look at the three years of what you've gone through and been like, “Okay, the version two of this, we're going to try to account for these things that we've discovered are challenging in practice.” The same way that this model, you were learning from theories other people have tried and built. I think that is how we collectively figure out how to do these things. So I feel like the governance experiment that you are still a part of, especially if you do write about it or try to record what happens, I think it'd be really valuable to social movements, but [also] just institutions that want to be more democratic. Which I agree, bringing the democratic principles of the internet to the real world should be a real focus. That’s a governance strategy that is defensible. And I feel like what you all have done could be a meaningful step in getting there.
Your background is as a designer in fashion, and you're behind the XR logo, part of the name, the brand. I wonder how you think about the power of design, of identity, of all those things in culture. What were you thinking about in making those things and what do they represent, what [do] they do for XR now?
CLARE: That’s a good question. Somebody paid me a very big compliment the other day and said, reflecting on the birth of the movement, that what emerged was an identity–and I think they meant a personal identity, not a brand identity, although the team did a great job of that—but an identity that you could align with, which says, “Compassionate response is the most intelligent response.” And I thought, “Wow, that's great that that actually was what emerged,” because it was what we were going for, and that means that that was successful in that way. In terms of graphic design, the symbol isn't ours, that belongs to an artist, we borrow it, it's non-commercial use only. That's a nice problem to have, in my opinion. When we said we were going to come up with the name, lots and lots of people were trying to come up with a name, people I didn't even really know. And at some point, it was not really getting decided, and Gail said, “Just give it to the art department, get the art team to do it.” And so we came up with Extinction Rebellion, and it was really obvious to me that it was the right name. And then we took it out to a bunch of people, and some of them were like, “Oh, no, it's really harsh, it sounds really difficult. We don't know, people won't like it, they won't be drawn to it.” Now bear in mind, some of these people wanted to give it really super hippie names, which were really friendly and fluffy, or the kind of name where you have a picture of an owl and the moon and a wolf or something, you know what I mean? [laughs] There were some people that definitely would have pushed it in a much more new age-feeling direction. And we were like, “No, it has to be hard and technical. It's a rebellion. It's technical rebellion. That's the name of what it is. It's what we're gonna do. And, it's really simple. And then that makes sense. And we've got the symbol that this guy made, and we can use that they've said yes.” So it kind of all came together. And then Clive said, “Let's make a font.” And I said, “Oh, you don't have to do that, that's a lot of work, isn't it?” And he was like, “Oh, it'll only take me a few weeks.” And actually, that's been one of the most critical resources, I think, in terms of having a means of communication that everyone can hang their work off, which gives you a sense of unity. So the design program, when it started to go around the world in 2019, was really a major thing, I think, that helped to be the glue that that held people together. And now if people see the font, I think they broadly recognize it and go, “Oh, that's an XR sign.” So it's very valuable. And in terms of thinking about the colors, and the linocuts, which are all the illustrations done by my friend Miles, we wanted it to be existential. It's not about polar bears, it’s [about] skulls and bones. [laughs]
We've tried to diversify the graphics a little bit recently in thinking about what’s a cool thing that's manmade. And I thought, “This is quite an interesting challenge to think about, because a lot of what we've got is relating to the natural world. And whilst I think that that's important, and that we have to become more centered on life itself, collectively, in order to do what we need to do, there's also something that gets greatly overlooked by the green movement at large, I think, and that is what human beings have achieved, and what they can do.” And then it becomes really difficult to think of what the things are that you want to celebrate, because you're like, “What have we done that's really clever? Planes? Cars? Ships?” There's loads of stuff that people love—TVs, phones—you go immediately into this place where you're struggling to think of something that's not a bicycle, basically. You’re like, “What's clever, that's not really damaging to the environment…bike?”
But we started thinking about things like cameras, and cooking utensils, and drawing pictures of food. Miles spent about a year trying to draw bread, and driving himself insane, trying to draw loaves of bread. It’s really hard to draw them with linocut. [laughs] But in the end, he did some great loaves of bread, and actually trying to think about what are symbolically important things that we can celebrate or lift up? What do you want to put on a flag? And I think that's a fascinating space for further exploration because the skulls and the bones are important, and the flowers and the butterflies are important. But I think there's something really wonderfully challenging about trying to think about the manmade that we can celebrate and say, “Hey, look, the reason we should save humanity is because we're really good! We are, really! Look!” [laughs]
YANCEY: I like that I'm walking away from this conversation with a newfound belief in civil disobedience and fonts. [laughs] Fonts is the other big one that is left out from here. There are so many things I wanted to get to but didn’t. But my last question: in that Oxford talk, you said, “Thinking about the future and where we are now, what's missing are new stories we can tell.” And I wonder, what are those new stories? What’s a new story you would like for us to be telling?
CLARE: I think something about not having winners and losers is very helpful. Again, it's like, “How can we tune into things that are more interesting, and not binary, and not reinforcing a sense of being stuck in a win-lose game.” I think there's also stories that center on compassion and empathy and love; stories that celebrate people properly, for being real people, not for being some sort of superhuman caricature of somebody who's really great all the time and totally infallible, and wins everything, gets the best girl, gets the most money or whatever. [laughs] Those kinds of stories are really repetitive and quite boring.
But I also think there's a lot of this “We need new stories, we need new stories.” And actually, something I've been thinking about just recently is that maybe we just need to find the really cool stories that exist that people are not talking about. So one of the ideas that I've had for something I'd like to do this year, partly because I've been on lockdown, and I'm really sick of being on Zoom and trying to organize things from my kitchen or whatever, and I really want to go out and see people again: I had this idea to go out and travel around the UK. And I think it would be really, really interesting to go out and find stories that are out there. Because everybody at the moment is talking a lot about recognizing our history, reckoning with colonialism, reckoning with racism, reckoning with the roots of all of that, which is so deeply ingrained in our culture, and it's so deeply ingrained in a culture that props up the elites, that props up Westminster, that legitimizes the fact that we've got basically a bunch of posh schoolboys running the country as if they're still in Hogwarts or something. I's super embarrassing, to put it politely. And actually, this country has a really rich tradition of rebellion and disobedience and people acting in virtue, people living their values and their morality. And that is not a history that we tell to children. It's not a history that people talk about when they talk about the past. And so I feel like there's a political power to this as well, because at the moment, we can tell that some of the people in the elites in this country are getting very concerned about the fact that people want to damage statues or pull them down and throw them in the water or whatever. And the new Crime and Sentencing bill, there’s a piece in it about damaging statues, and they want to put a ten-year maximum prison sentence for defacing a memorial. So if you spray paint Winston Churchill one more time, they want to be able to have the sentencing option of a ten-year sentence, which is immense, right? It's twice as long as the average rape convict gets. It's insane. But they're so worried about these structural monuments to the past that legitimizes their presence. I think there is a real strength in saying, “Okay, if we can write some of our own history and tune into that, then I think it's going to enable us better to write our own future.” And they know that, which is why they don't want you pulling down statues and throwing them in the pond, right?
So there's something really interesting for me happening in my imagination about what I could do in terms of going around and meeting people in our local groups and people all over this country, and finding out about their local heritage of goodness and resistance and brilliant people acting in conscience. I'm pretty sure that there's gonna be loads of it to find. And those stories can be a starting point, I guess, for us to be able to imagine that there's different ones ahead of us than what we get told is ahead of us, which sounds pretty bleak and boring.
YANCEY: That sounded almost like hope, Clare, be careful. [laughs] The artist Hank Willis Thomas just mentioned to me the other day this quote from George Orwell, who says, “Who controls the past controls the future, and who controls the present controls the past.” So I think the idea of telling stories that exist, telling stories that have happened, is maybe what makes those next stories happen, perhaps. So I think the instinct of, “What are amazing things that good people have done together that we don’t think of, we don't see, because it's not the Great Man?” Who isn't open to a story like that right now? Who wouldn't love to hear that they could be the hero? Because there aren't that many Great Men and Great Women. A whole lot of just regular us, and stories that let regular us have an impact, I think they're going to speak to that desire we have.
CLARE: Yeah, I think the other thing that's important to mention here, I think it was in a Rebecca Solnit book, maybe, where I read this, but to remember that some of the things we need to celebrate are things that didn't happen. And it's really difficult to celebrate “Hey, remember when that road didn't get built? Or do you remember when that mine didn't get opened?” How can we commemorate things that actually don't happen, but which would have if there wasn't such good, positive resistance? That's a creative challenge as well.
YANCEY: Let’s hope the destruction of the world to climate change is one of those things that also doesn't happen.
CLARE: [laughs] I hope so.
YANCEY: Clare, it's great to be with you, as always, and hopefully we'll see each other in London in the next year. Who knows. Fingers crossed.
CLARE: I hope so.