By Chris Hedges / Real News Network
Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international body of UN scientists, delivered a “final warning” to drastically cut global emissions in order to prevent the heating of the planet past 1.5 degrees Celsius. As the exponentially accelerating effects of the climate crisis have become more apparent in recent years, so too has activism to demand urgent action from governments. In the UK, a movement known as Extinction Rebellion (XR) first emerged in 2018, and then proliferated around the globe. XR has helped popularize the spread of civil disobedience tactics in the contemporary environmental movement. But what is the movement’s theory of change? How does XR seek to proceed from direct action tactics to systems change on a timescale that matches the rapidly degrading state of our the earth’s ecological systems? Roger Hallam, co-founder of XR and leader of the activist organization Just Stop Oil, joins The Chris Hedges Report for a conversation on tactics and strategy to save the planet, which ultimately requires transforming the system.
Chris Hedges: Roger Hallam, the co-founder in 2018 of Extinction Rebellion, was recently released after nearly four months in jail. He was in prison for making a 20-minute speech on Zoom. He was arrested and jailed because he called for civil disobedience by climate activists, specifically the blocking of major road networks in London.
Hallam is one of the most important and fearless leaders in the climate movement. He was arrested in 2017 after spray painting King’s College London’s Great Hall. He was charged with criminal damage and fined £500. He was later cleared after a court ruled his actions were an appropriate response to the climate crisis. He led the occupation of a number of public sites in London in April 2019, and sit-down protests on major UK highways in the fall of 2021.
Activists from his group Just Stop Oil glued their hands to the wall after throwing tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers, which was covered by protective glass, at the National Gallery in London. Just Stop Oil activists have also spray painted a number of landmarks, including the Home Office, the Bank of England, an Aston Martin showroom, and the rotating sign outside Scotland Yard. Two supporters of Just Stop Oil were arrested recently at the Herbert Museum in Coventry, demanding that the government stop all new UK fossil fuel projects and calling on employees and directors of UK cultural institutions to join in civil resistance against the government’s genocidal policies.
Hallam has carried out two hunger strikes and been in prison three times in the past three years. The Metropolitan Police in his latest arrest accused Hallam and Just Stop Oil of planning “reckless and serious public disruption.” The British High Court, in an effort to prevent further acts of civil disobedience, has issued an injunction to prevent Just Stop Oil protestors disrupting the flow of traffic. Blocking traffic, or assisting anyone who blocks traffic, now means activists can be held in contempt of court and face imprisonment, an unlimited fine, and the seizure of assets.
But as Hallam and Just Stop Oil warns, “Humanity is at risk of extinction and so is everything we have ever created: our works of art, our favorite novels, our historical buildings and artifacts, our traditions. We’re terrifyingly close to losing everything we value and love. We cannot rely on our criminal government or our cherished institutions to save us. Our government knows that new oil and gas means a death sentence for billions. Yet, they are continuing with plans to license over one hundred new fossil fuel projects. This means more heat waves, more crop failure, and more death. It is criminal, an act of genocide against billions of people in the poorest countries on Earth and an act of war against the young. Either you are actively supporting civil resistance,” Hallam goes on, “fighting for life, or you are complicit with genocide.”
Joining me to discuss the climate emergency and what we must do to save our species and most other species on the planet is Roger Hallam.
So, Roger, I don’t want to tick off climate statistics, but just briefly, you have often made the point that since the first COP was convened in 1992, carbon emissions have steadily gone up, I think, by over 40%. The statistical evidence is clear that the ruling elites have failed to address the climate crisis. So before we go into our discussion, just lay out where we are.
Roger Hallam: Well, thanks for having a chat with me, and hello, everyone. Yes, I think we’re 30 years down the line, aren’t we? Those of us who are in our 50s have known this all our adult lives, that scientists told us in, what, 1990 in no uncertain terms that civilization was going to collapse if we carried on putting carbon into the atmosphere. Since 1990, it’s actually over a 60% increase in carbon emissions globally, and every year that goes by, we get more and more information on it. So at this stage of the game in 2023, we now have locked in catastrophic social unrest and suffering on an unimaginable scale. We can have a rather obscene intellectual argument about exactly how much suffering and when and where. But, as we were just saying before, I think at this stage, the issue is what we need to do about it as human beings and as members of our communities and of our traditions, and we know enough to make some serious decisions, I suppose.
Chris Hedges: Before we begin with what we should do, let’s talk a little bit about the ruling elites and their response, because it really breaks down into two camps: one, climate denial, that there is a crisis, or that we can somehow adapt.
Roger Hallam: Well, I think actually the division is between, to put it classically, between reformism and revolution. To give a precise definition of that, reformism believes that you can make changes in an existing social and political system to ensure that life carries on in a reasonable way. The revolutionary position is that the system itself is incapable of fulfilling the most basic requirements of human society, and it’s either going to collapse and/or it needs to be changed as a system in itself.
I think it’s important at this stage to make clear that it’s not a project about the climate. The whole framing of this around the climate is really a way of being duped by the corporate class. The corporate class invented this phrase “climate change,” “global warming,” and all the rest of it. This framing has led the progressive class and the radical left and all the rest of it down this rabbit hole of thinking, we’re dealing here with some technicality. We’re not. What we’re dealing with here is a project of murder by the elites of the most vulnerable and marginalized people on the planet, and the nature of that murder is that they believe that they have a right to continue the enactment of their power and their privilege. If millions and potentially billions of people die, then that’s an acceptable cost in order for them to maintain the status quo. As we all know, elites throughout history have engaged in this gambit, as it were, and they regularly kill people en masse in order to maintain their regime and their power.
In other words, how we need to frame this is not some unique episode which has a technical solution, as the NGOs would like to say. How we need to frame this is, in a 2,000-year history, maybe longer than that, of elites manipulating societies to extract power and materials and prestige, and as a byproduct of that, enslaving, killing, raping, all the rest of it, millions of people in order to maintain their system. As we know, this is a big cycle. At the beginning of an elite cycle, the elites are arguably quite good at ruling. Then they get lazy, and then they get arrogant, and then they become suicidally stupid. Then there’s a big revolutionary episode, a series of wars, social breakdown, and then the process starts again.
The big uniqueness of this situation we’re in today is not that this is something unique in the sense that the elites are trying to destroy civilization. It’s that this is now global. In other words, that’s not situated in America or in Africa or in the Middle East. It’s the whole world. If we get this wrong and we allow the elites to continue, then we are looking at effective human extinction or absolute human extinction. We really, I think, do not need to enter into this obscene discussion, intellectual discussion about at what point and what the probability is that we’re heading for extinction. All we need to know is that it’s a real and substantive possibility. And as I say, the next question is, how do we actually respond to this on many different levels?
Chris Hedges: You’ve been very critical of environmental GEOs and nonprofits that have confronted this issue, climate activists. I think you started out as part of a mainstream climate activist. Explain your critique of the traditional groups, Greenpeace and all these other groups, that purport to deal with this issue.
Roger Hallam: Well, let me say first of all, I’m primarily a scholar and an analyst. I’m not particularly ideologically pro- or anti-revolution or reform. I’m trying to make a structural argument that for certain periods of history, the reformist logic makes sense. The 1990s, arguably, there wasn’t a chance in hell of there being a revolution in the Western world because this system was sustaining itself, for all intents and purposes, quite well in its own terms. But in the 2020s, we’re in a fundamentally different structural situation that we’re looking at a coincidence of massive ecological crises all coming together and compounding together. And that the system itself is not moving fast enough and is incapable of moving fast enough because it has a reformist logic.
Now, once you’ve made that analysis, then it becomes clear that the whole environmentalist frame is rooted in a reformist logic. In other words, what the environmentalist orientation is saying is there’s an environment out there which is separate from society, and it’s got a few problems and a few issues, and we should have a campaign about it. We’ll remove this bit of pollution, or we’ll remove these people killing a species or what have you. That’s all well and good in a reformist period. But in a revolutionary period that we’re in now, the whole approach is at best deluded, and at worst a complete betrayal of the moral emergency that we’re in. It’s analytically stupid, if you see what I mean. It’s like, this is no longer the issue. The center of our analysis has to be the political structures which have enabled this catastrophe to happen and how we’re going to remove that.
This is why I’ve never called myself an environmentalist, and I’m not involved in a campaign as such. What we’re involved with here is a series of collective moves that are going to come together to produce a completely new physical and social regime. Not because we’re mad idealists or romantic revolutionaries, because we’re realists and we know that if we don’t sort this out in a holistic sense – Politically, socially, spiritually, we’re simply not going to sort anything out. I think this is a realization that is exponentially increasing around the Western world and globally, which is there’s no point doing a little thing here and a little thing there because it’s all fucked. It has to all change, otherwise nothing’s going to change. People were saying this 10, 20 years ago, but it’s self-evidently obvious at this moment in time.
Chris Hedges: Let’s talk about confronting this system, and I want you to address two points. When you are effective, and I think many of the actions you’ve taken have been effective at disrupting the system, the system becomes more draconian in terms of its forms of repression, which is why you were put in jail for about four months for a Zoom meeting. Then talk about the tactics themselves, what works.
Roger Hallam: Well, the first thing to understand in my view is that the state always responds to a challenge, I mean a real material challenge with repression. This is the logic of the state. It’s not an ideological point, it’s not if it’s a liberal state or an authoritarian state. All states have a regime, and that regime will move towards repression if it’s materially challenged. This comes as a surprise to many people, because they have this rather naïve idea that in a liberal democratic state, the state won’t move towards an authoritarian orientation when the shit hits the fan, as you might say.
We see this very clearly in the UK at the present time, that the British government has now been structurally challenged by mass civil disobedience now, since 2019. In the last year, there’s been over 2,000 arrests. This is in a country of 50 million population, so if you’re thinking about the US, you’re looking at 10,000 arrests or something like that, and 150 people have been to prison. More people have been to prison for political activities, you might say, than any time since the suffragettes in the early 20th century.
In response to that, the government has introduced legislation which is not dissimilar to Belarus. You can’t have a demonstration in the UK now without permission, and they’re not going to give permission a lot of the time, so they can arrest you just for having a march. If you go on a Zoom call and say you’re going to organize a march, you can be arrested for conspiracy. If you stand up in court and say, I want to mention the words “climate change”, then you can be accused and convicted of contempt of court.
A colleague of mine was imprisoned for 10 weeks for saying to the jury that he wanted to tell them about the climate. A woman the other day was sent to the Old Bailey, the biggest court in the UK, simply for having a placard telling a jury that they have a constitutional right to overrule the judge, which is a fundamental characteristic of a liberal judiciary. She is being referred up to one of the top courts in the country and will be potentially given a jail sentence. All of that has changed in four years. What we know, of course, is that the state will engage in even more draconian activity. So that’s the first analytical point to make.
The second point to make is that this is not necessarily, on an analytical level, a bad thing. Obviously, morally and politically it’s an outrage. But in terms of designing social change, radical social change, we have to understand that political change works because of repression, not despite it. In other words, what repression does is radicalizes a population. For instance, since I’ve got out, I’ve become a lot more well-known, I’ve been on some chat shows, and there’s been hundreds of people getting involved. It’s not putting people off. If anything, it’s making it more clear to people that there’s a binary choice. You’re either going to sit there waiting to die and be miserable, or you’re going to enter into resistance space and what will be will be. You just need to look at the history of resistance struggles to see this dynamic happening again and again.
Now, I want to be clear that it doesn’t mean that it’s deterministically the case that we’re going to win. That’s simply not the case. What we’re saying is that repression itself is a key mechanism through which political change often happens – Not always, because it’s a complex system out there. So we should be more nuanced in our analysis of the dynamics of repression. The critical challenge is not to just sit there and be miserable about it or criticize it, important as criticism is. What we have to do is design how we can create this backfiring effect whereby more and more people make that decision that they won’t stand by and allow ourselves to descend into authoritarianism.
Chris Hedges: Yet, under totalitarian systems: Stalinism, fascism, you can employ mechanisms of oppression that effectively quash all attempts at dissent.
Roger Hallam: Well, that’s not historically accurate.
Chris Hedges: Okay.
Roger Hallam: The key word in your sentence is “all”. If you want to be historically accurate, you can say “often.” There’s a big difference between often and all. This is the point I’m making is we should not fall into this rather self-serving leftist defeatism that the state and the capitalist regime is all-powerful. No, it’s powerful. You shouldn’t put the “all” word in, because that’s not how human societies work. Human societies are fundamentally indeterministic in the sense that you simply don’t know. You simply don’t know what’s going to happen, which means you simply don’t know you’re going to win, but you simply also don’t know you’re going to lose.
As I said to Aaron in my Novara interview – Which you might want to watch – Is the name of the game is to shake the dice. The more often that you can confront the state and the repression of the state, the more often that the state has to shake the dice on whether it’s going to win or lose. And that’s the project. As we all well know, authoritarian regimes regularly are subjected to uprisings and civil resistance and revolutions. So it’s just basically historically inaccurate to say all authoritarian regimes make civil resistance impossible, because it simply isn’t the case.
Chris Hedges: Okay, I stand corrected. That’s a good point [Roger laughs]. Let’s talk about tactics. What do we have to do?
Roger Hallam: Well, as I said, I’ve sort of reframed this discussion a bit, but what we’re looking at here is a fusion of the democratic critique, the social critique, and the ecological critique. Over the last 30 years, there’s been various different elements of the progressive left space, and they’ve tended to be siloed into those three areas. Some people criticize how undemocratic the regime is, some people are concerned about the tremendous inequality that’s developed, and other people obviously are pointing to the climate catastrophe.
Now, analytically, at this point in time, it’s no longer useful or analytically correct to separate those three different things, because they’re massively coincidental. In other words, for instance, the reason why we’re not dealing with the climate catastrophe is primarily because we don’t have effective democracies. The reason we don’t have effective democracies is because we have elites, and one of the reasons we have suicidal elites is because we have extreme inequality. You can spend all day making connections between those three elements. It’s not like one is foundational, necessarily.
But in terms of creating a revolutionary coalition, as it were, the framing of the project has to synthesize those three different elements into a single program and a single logic and a single vision. That’s not really my area of expertise, as you might say, but it’s a project that people like yourself, Chris, and other people that frame the problems need to move towards. I know you’ve done a lot of that yourself, and other individuals have. Well, this needs to become the new common sense of the left and ordinary people, as you might say.
In terms of what I am more of an expert in, in so much as I’m an expert in anything, is in the mobilization design. Now, the big issue here, Chris, as we were talking before I came on, is that the left generally is concerned about things which have very little practical relevance. All successful radical structural social change projects are based upon the notion of praxis. In other words, our theoretical discussion has to be rooted in the dynamics of mobilization, the practical struggle.
We don’t want to be talking about China. We don’t want to be talking about what happened in 1970. What we need to be talking about is, how do we get a hundred thousand people on the street in a disciplined, revolutionary, non-violent, ease of access way in the US to make a substantial, organized confrontation with the American regime? I’m not saying for me that’s the end of the story, but it’s like a project. It’s concrete. It has different elements in it.
The interesting thing is that, across the Western world now, there’s been a transition from a horizontalist dogma towards what you might call a functional hierarchy. In other words, organizational forms, which hark back to what you might call the democratic socialism before 1989. What we’ve done in the UK, growing out of Extinction Rebellion, is create civil disobedience projects that have central teams which are self-consciously ethical and also have executive power of mobilization.
Now, this is one of the biggest design challenges we have in Western society at the moment, is to make this transition. What I would argue is this new form of organizational model, which doesn’t revert to some archaic Leninist nonsense, but doesn’t endlessly regress into the chaos of horizontalist confusion, is the best of all worlds. No one’s pretending it’s perfect. If someone’s got a perfect organizational model, I’d love to hear from it. But what this has produced, interestingly, over the last 24 months, is the biggest civil resistance episodes, the biggest climate campaigns, as you might call them, in Germany, France, Italy, the UK, and Sweden, and substantial campaigns in several of the Western democracies. All this has been produced over 12 months.
Now, I’m not saying for a moment that these are the campaigns that are going to lead this transformation, but they’re interesting iterations because they point to solving probably the single biggest problem, which is how to create a coherent, strategic formation in a postmodernist, individualized, depressed, alienated society that we have in the Western world. The good news is – And this is the good news, Chris – Is we now have concrete methodologies to do this. No doubt they can be improved, and what have you. What I would suggest is we need to build upon these social formations and create more of them and have synergistic relationships between them, and learning relationships, so that they can piggy-jump over each other, and sooner or later one of them will be in a position to actually challenge a Western regime in the next two or three years. That’s the project.
Chris Hedges: Just to close, the goal is to carry out acts of civil disobedience that disrupt the system enough – That’s why you block roads – To essentially weaken and cripple it. Is that correct?
Roger Hallam: That’s an initial iteration. What we have to reinvestigate is the classical mechanism of revolutionary episodes in Western societies over the last 200 years, not because we want to replicate them exactly, because obviously history never exactly repeats itself, but because there’s certain patterns of strategy and organization which can be learned from. The key learning, I think, is the synergy between a street movement and alternative governmental organizations. In other words, like an assembly structure and a street movement that protects that assembly.
What we’re moving towards, I think, in several Western democracies at the moment is instead of asking the state to set up a citizens’ assembly to deal with the climate or social questions, is to say to the regime, we are going to set up our own citizens’ assembly as a permanent parallel institution selected by sortition, randomly from the population. The demands of that assembly will become the program for a civil resistance organization that has people’s strikes and labor strikes around, so that we’re not at this point moving towards a single issue. What we’re looking at is a programmatic approach. That program hasn’t been put together by some small group of activists. It’s come bottom-up from ordinary people in a well-organized citizens’ assembly.
There’s variations on the theme, of course, but you can see this is a major move towards what you might call more serious revolutionary politics. There’s many, many details to be sorted out, but that’s what I believe is the next step in the Western world, is moving away from the climate corporate agenda, as it were, and moving towards this fusion of street movements, civil resistance, and the assemblies.
Chris Hedges: Great. I want to thank the Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granadino, Adam Coley, Dwayne Gladden, David Hebden, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at chrishedges.substack.com.