🗣️It's Time For Prophetic Leadership - Interview

🗣️It's Time For Prophetic Leadership - Interview

This interview was originally published in the Dutch Magazine, De Volkskrant.

Roger Hallam opens the door: 'Ah, the journalist person.'

His living room, in a small apartment in South London, is crammed with a piano, bookshelves, two bicycles, an armchair, and a sofa with duvets and blankets on it – apparently, someone is sleeping there. The curtains hang loosely on one side. Hallam offers water in a tea mug with brown residue. 'How long do you want to talk, by the way? I have an hour.'

An ankle monitor is strapped around one of his ankles because Hallam is under house arrest – he is not allowed to leave his house between midnight and seven in the morning. The arrangement has recently been slightly relaxed; initially, he couldn't leave his house after ten. Nowadays, he can visit his children, who live elsewhere in the United Kingdom. 'A political measure,' Hallam judges. Harassment by the authorities, just like the police raids he experiences every few months. 'They take my devices, interrogate me, all with the aim of putting me behind bars. It's state intimidation.'

Roger with his Ankle Monitor

A week before this interview, it happened again: the activist group Just Stop Oil posted a video of officers ransacking his living room. Hallam cheerfully looks into the camera and gives a thumbs-up before being taken away by the police himself. It has become business as usual. He estimates this to be his thirtieth arrest.

Hallam: 'These raids don't happen because I publicly call for roadblocks. If you've watched my speeches on YouTube, you know I never do that. I point to the science and the absolute necessity to resist. The law is politicised to create repression. You are now talking to me about civil disobedience. Are you also civilly disobedient? Under an authoritarian regime, probably. I'm afraid we are increasingly heading in that direction here in the United Kingdom.'

As a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion and Just Stop Oil, Hallam is one of the most influential environmental activists globally. You could consider him the mastermind behind the Dutch blockades of the A12 in The Hague – 27 days long and resulting in 9,000 arrests. Earlier this year, Hallam spoke several times via video link with Dutch activists, he says. Hallam was the one who said: you have to come back every day. 'They wanted to go to the A12 every month, they said. I said: that's great, but it makes no sense. You have to do it day after day. That's the only coherent strategy.'

Just Stop Oil, founded in 2022, gained global fame after two activists threw soup at Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers (behind glass). But there have been numerous actions, from smearing buildings and glueing themselves to oil pipes to blocking roads. These weeks, 'slow marches' in London, where a group of activists walk slowly across the road, lead to a wave of arrests. Causing traffic disruptions makes Just Stop Oil a favourite target of right-wing politicians and tabloid newspapers, who speak of 'eco-idiots,' 'thugs,' and 'gangs' hindering ordinary citizens and costing millions in taxpayer money.

In recent years, the actions of environmental activists have been increasingly heavily punished. Two Just Stop Oil activists were sentenced to 2 years and 7 months and 3 years in prison, respectively, for climbing a bridge, causing a major traffic artery to be closed for hours. Ian Fry, the UN special rapporteur on climate change and human rights, said he was 'particularly concerned' about the sentences, the highest ever imposed in the UK for nonviolent protest.

Hallam himself spent four months in pretrial detention at the end of last year on suspicion of participating in a conspiracy to disrupt public order. A speech for Just Stop Oil activists had been secretly recorded by a journalist from the tabloid The Sun and leaked to the police, according to the tabloid itself: 'a victory for the people.' The newspaper then photographed the police raid on Hallam's apartment – a one-two, according to Hallam. He was not at home but was later arrested elsewhere.

Hallam: 'Make no mistake, it may seem to you that the Netherlands is friendlier, but we are just a few years ahead of you. It could go the same way for you.' In the 37 seats for the right-wing populist Dutch Party For Freedom, Hallam sees new evidence that a 'real left' story is missing. 'Neoliberal "left" breeds fascism,' Hallam wrote on social media after the Dutch election results because the left refuses to break with capitalism. 'We will only be saved by real left, which declares: "We will tax the rich, and they will pay for the carbon transition."'

In interviews, Hallam often clashes with British journalists, not only with those from the tabloids but also with those from the BBC. Hallam says, "Because they don't want to talk to me about the science. But if you, as a journalist, don't summarise the latest state of science, the public will think: this is just a strange radical saying crazy things to entertain us."

According to the annual greenhouse gas report from UNEP, the United Nations environmental organisation, released at the end of November, the current climate policy is far from sufficient to stay below a 2-degree Celsius increase. According to UN experts, the Earth is expected to warm by 2.5 to 2.9 degrees by the end of this century. Disasters, such as the melting of parts of the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps, are likely to occur, resulting in metres of sea-level rise. The monsoon in Africa could stop, the North Pole could lose its summer ice, and the glaciers in the Alps are likely to melt. According to UNEP, "ruthless mitigation and transformation to low carbon" are necessary, while greenhouse gas emissions rose by 1.2 percent last year, setting a new record.

Due to the climate crisis under the current climate policy, the World Bank estimated that 216 million people would have to relocate. UN chief António Guterres said at the end of September that "humanity has opened the gates of hell" and warned that we are heading towards a "dangerous and unstable world."

Hallam, trained as a sociologist, worked as an organic farmer in South Wales but stopped when prolonged rainfall led to the death of his crops. Hallam believes this is due to climate change. In 2017, he moved to London to pursue a Ph.D. at King's College on civil disobedience, a path he abandoned to focus full-time on his activism.

In 2018, he co-founded Extinction Rebellion with others but distanced himself from the group a year later due to conflicts over leadership and strategy. He wanted to fly drones near Heathrow to force the closure of the airport, but the action faced resistance from other activists due to safety risks. Hallam denies the risks, intending to launch the drones just within the restricted zone but at a safe distance from air traffic. He proceeded and was arrested. A lawsuit related to that action is ongoing.

Hallam also sparked anger among other activists when he described the Holocaust as "just another fuckery" in human history. Several XR chapters publicly distanced themselves from him, including in the Netherlands. Hallam also claims that global warming will lead to civil wars, which, in turn, will lead to, for example, group rapes, mass murder, and cannibalism. He describes these scenes in detail to journalists, stating, "They take your mother, lay her on the table, and rape her, then they grab a stick and gouge out your eyes. That is the reality of the destruction project we are facing."

In early 2022, Hallam founded Just Stop Oil, a movement explicitly focused on disrupting public order. The UK branch of XR, on the other hand, renounced civil disobedience, claiming it would be less effective, though stricter penalties might also play a role. Hallam sees it differently, stating that demonstrations, petitions, and lobbying won't move politics. He claims to know nothing about recent Just Stop Oil actions, deliberately keeping his distance as he feels he's being watched. He says, "I think at a distance about strategy."

You also spoke with Dutch XR activists in preparation for the A12 blockades. Were they a success? "Oh, yes. Well done. Congratulations to the Netherlands, what a great country."

Then, seriously: 'There is overwhelming evidence that large-scale civil disobedience is the fastest mechanism to bring about policy change. Demonstrations that do not disrupt are at best useless and at worst undermining. If you spend your energy making banners and waving flags, that energy cannot go to actions that do make sense. I now see all sorts of demonstrations for Palestine, but they have no impact because there is no disruption."

Does demonstrating only make sense if you break the law? "As a sociologist, I say: there is overwhelming evidence that 'just' protesting has no influence on deeply rooted power because power does not listen to arguments."

The A12 blockades were paused after the Dutch parliament adopted a motion asking the government to develop scenarios for phasing out fossil subsidies. Do you think this is a good reason to stop for now, or should XR have continued?

"I don't know the details, but in general, the biggest mistake of social movements is demobilising before they have won. The authorities may say they have accepted a demand, but nine out of ten times they are lying. That's how power works. They make a vague promise, so it seems like the protest movement has succeeded and they don't have to deal with it anymore, then nothing happens. The danger is that a protest movement is demoralised in this way."

When you spoke to Dutch XR activists, you said, 'Stopping fossil subsidies is not what it's about. There is a 'total fucking disaster' going on, and we have to fight that with everything we have.' Is a campaign focusing on fossil subsidies too narrow?

"Yes. The climate movement is embedded in a white, middle-class, Western, urban, bourgeois framework. I'm not saying that's all bad; it has pros and cons. But in the context of the mass murder project we're in, it's dysfunctional. It doesn't work because the climate problem is not a technical problem caused by an unfortunate set of circumstances. That's a neoliberal pretence – that's how it was sold to us in the '90s, and that's how the system still wants us to see it. What's really going on is that a billion people will die. A rational debate won't lead to a solution. To prevent it, a massive revolution is needed, culturally, socially, and economically. Nothing will change without large-scale civil resistance. The paradigm must shift, even within the climate movement itself."

Has the climate movement failed?

"Yes. Firstly, because there's too little at stake during actions. You have to sit in the city center on the road until you're arrested, and the next day you come back. You don't stop. Secondly, communication needs to change: focused on emotions. It's a Western misconception that you can convince people with arguments. You have to appeal to their values, to what's important to them, their history, traditions. You have to make them feel that our governments are inflicting violence on us. The analogy from my friend Adam McKay, director of 'Don't Look Up,' was that of a meteorite coming to Earth. A good analogy, I think. People see it but do nothing. While everyone understands, watching that movie, that it's crazy and criminal not to do anything."

You're not talking about the climate problem, but a 'mass murder project by the elites.' Can you explain that?

"The climate is only the mechanism that creates death. We also don't talk about the concentration camp problem; we talk about National Socialism, about the Nazis. We don't talk about the lynching problem, but about racists. So we shouldn't talk about the climate problem, but about the elites who want the lives of millions of people destroyed so they can maintain their power."

Why do you use the word 'want'? The intention is not to kill millions of people.

'It is indeed not about premeditated murder, no one is saying: I don't like those people in the global south, so they must die. What is happening is that the elites, and by that, I mean governments and big companies, say: we know that millions of people will die, and yet we consider our profit and power more important. We simply don't care. If you go to someone in the Sahel to explain that it's not about him personally, but that he will die so that you can retain your power, do you think he will understand? I don't think so. The incredible scale, the numbers involved, makes this crime incomprehensible.'

Why does it seem to be difficult to appeal to people's emotions when it comes to the climate problem?

'Most climate activists come from the middle class and are not used to shouting. They think they can solve everything by talking. While shouting is necessary. Suppose your teenage son refuses to help with the dishes. You say something about it, say it again, and he still doesn't do it. At some point, you have to change your strategy. You can, for example, become emotional, shout at him: what the fuck do you think you're doing? You're letting me down, I have to do everything alone! It doesn't always work, and you shouldn't overdo it, but sometimes it's a good strategy. Another strategy is to impose a punishment: if you don't help with the dishes, you're not going out tonight. I guarantee that works. On a societal level, it works the same way: the climate movement is the ineffective parent who keeps talking.'

You also emphasise the importance of sacrifice. You say: we in the Western world have forgotten to give something of ourselves for the greater good.

'The course of the last decades in the Western world deviates extremely from the normal course of history. In the past, people were aware that, occasionally, they had to give their lives for a collective goal, be it their tribe, their ideology, their country, or whatever. We are now in a long period of intense prosperity and stability, a period that may be unique in human experience. As a result, people have forgotten what it takes to ensure the survival of a society when faced with an existential threat. In Western societies, people think, when it comes to the climate crisis, that they can bring about change without sacrifice. That shows a complete lack of historical awareness. It just doesn't work that way.'

A quote from you is: 'For millennia, central to human societies has been the understanding that life is suffering. Through that suffering, you become whole, and wholeness is a deeper and more organic concept than something as superficial as happiness.'

'In our culture, we suffer under a simplistic idea of well-being, it's like accounting, there are costs and benefits. That may be useful if you run a store, but when it comes to human psychology, it's total nonsense. You can also become happy by sacrificing something. When people are arrested for something they do out of ideology, and they enter a cell for the first time, they feel peaceful because they stand for what they believe in. If you don't do what you believe in, you are always under some degree of psychological tension.'

Did you feel peaceful when you entered a cell for the first time?

'I don't remember, honestly. But I am certainly an example of someone with little fear and a high degree of willingness to sacrifice. I am embedded in the Christian tradition; I have read Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. I understand that the purpose of life is not happiness. The purpose of life is to lead a meaningful life, and that means sacrificing yourself for the common good. Whether I am happy about it or not doesn't matter.'

Are you never afraid?

'I am not afraid of my own fear. Naturally, I am quite fearful. I don't like conflict and I’m shy. Of course, I still feel fear, although I must say that, after a few years of civil resistance, I have become calmer. The first time in a cell, you are afraid, the second time less, and by the fifth time, you think: a day off. You know the ropes. Although I must say that when I was in pretrial detention for four months at the end of last year, I found it terrible. Objectively, it was terrible. At the same time, it was a privilege to spend time in a humble way with people deprived of their freedom by society, to see their spiritual resilience. I don't romanticise it - you can have great spiritual resilience and still be willing to kill someone. That's one of the ambiguities of the human condition.'

You often accuse British journalists of being part of the problem because they 'intellectualise' the climate crisis. What should journalists do?

'Get arrested, like everyone else. I'm not provoking; I'm serious. In our culture, we are what we do: our work. That idea is naive and absurd; we all know that what we really are is something else. A mother, daughter, son, father, lover, partner. And, even deeper, a human being, with a sense of existential responsibility. I'm not saying that your daytime activities don't matter, but in a human life, that's the most superficial element. Of course, you need journalists, doctors, photographers, politicians, activists; everyone has their role. That's fine if it's 1995. But it's 2023, and the reality is: we're all gonna die. Those specialties don't matter anymore; it's all hands on deck now.'

Everyone should ask themselves: why am I not in prison?

'Exactly! And that doesn't mean you have to spend all your time in prison. Suppose you participate in civil disobedience once a year, to the point where you have to go to jail. The rest of the time, you can still be a journalist, and if you get fired, you'll find an alternative way to be useful. Only if politicians, lawyers, journalists, doctors, farmers, and priests commit to the climate movement can the movement succeed. But those people are too privileged and too dumb to commit to it.'

And afraid, perhaps?

'They are afraid, yes. But they need to be challenged. When I see these people at my lectures, I say: you have the most to lose if our society collapses due to the climate crisis. Working-class people already have a worthless life. Most of your readers are probably well-educated, employed people. I want to tell them: the choice is not a choice between your current safety and prosperity and the frightening prospect of civil disobedience. The options are: join civil disobedience or passively watch as liberal democracy collapses in the next twenty years.'

They will dismiss it. It will all be fine.

'That's like telling the doctor: you say I have cancer and need chemotherapy, but I don't believe it, so I'll just go on with my life. We are now exceeding 2 degrees of warming, and that means a billion people will die.'

You consider it 'essential' to draw comparisons between the climate crisis and the Holocaust. Why?

'I don't think we have another choice. When I said that the Holocaust was 'just another fuckery' in human history, I didn't say that to trivialise the Holocaust; it is a terrible, terrible fuckery, and the world is full of other fuckeries. I think people know that it's true, if they are honest with themselves. A culture faced with an existential threat cannot survive without a moral framework. And the moral culture in Europe is rooted in the Holocaust. So when I make that comparison, I do it to emotionally involve people in what is happening now.'

Doesn't that comparison lead people to say: I won't listen to you anymore?

'That can happen. Because people feel uncomfortable with the idea that something similar is happening now. But making the comparison is the task of the moral actor in a society, it is the task of the prophet, of the radical. It is necessary to use the immorality of the recent past to expose the immorality of the present. People died back then to fight fascists. Why don't you go out to stop the fascism coming our way due to climate change?'

Going from the climate crisis to future fascism might be a logical step for you, but don't you think you lose a large part of the audience?

'What you're doing now is over-intellectualizing. Politics is about rhetoric, about stories. The collapse of society due to the climate crisis is an objective reality, not my opinion. If you don't put oil in your car and you drive onto the highway, you know your engine will blow up. You don't know exactly when, but you know it will happen. We live in a global society with enormous interconnectedness. If certain elements collapse, it will have consequences for the entire system, as you saw in the COVID-19 pandemic. If the climate deteriorates, we can grow less food, so people will suffer from hunger. There will be mass migration, wars will arise. If there are 200 million refugees in the world, as predicted, it will lead to the collapse of the world economy.'

When you talk about the collapse of society, civil wars, and hunger, do you get the emotional reaction you're looking for?

'No. I am often asked to prove that society is really going to collapse, which is naturally impossible. Asking that question, to me, means that someone is stuck in an intellectual approach, that they don't let it sink in. What works better is to appeal to their guilt: you contribute to this if you do nothing, and your children will suffer. Guilt and shame are powerful motivators. Your rights and ideals are violated, those of your children, those of your parents, those of people in the global south, those of the coming thousand generations. I keep saying it, and many people will read this piece and think: it's not going to work. This still won't activate people. Throughout human history, most people are never activated, right? Only 1 percent of the French population was involved in the French Revolution. There were 1 million people in Tahrir Square, 90 million people were watching soap operas. Do you understand what I mean?'

Does the climate movement need a new charismatic leader?

'Yes. Good strategic, moral, emotional, and charismatic leadership is crucial for success. That leader, or leaders, must be willing to go to jail. Greta Thunberg must be willing to go to jail. Then, when she comes out, she must say: it was fine, now the rest of you must go to jail. A day on the streets with 100,000 people is pointless. Making statements to the UN is pointless. Those days are over. The movement needs prophetic leadership. Not just Greta-like leadership. Someone who is just like me, or even better.'

What is the difference between a prophetic leader and Greta Thunberg?

'A prophetic leader gets upset, a prophetic leader gives emotional speeches, will cry, will shout, will make people feel guilty, will shame people, will become emotional. It is a person of the people, not an intellectual. Someone who speaks the truth. It must be someone willing to suffer and die for the cause.'

Global Q&A and Leadership Zoom - Feb 18th

During 2023 I have recorded over 40 episodes of the Designing the Revolution Podcast and it is finally coming a close.

I thought it would be good to have a live session so that people who have listened to podcast, and those who want to find out more, can come to this international zoom session.

The situation is that we all know (deep down!) the present political regimes are not going to last now that climate breakdown is locked in. So given that revolutions are inevitable how do we design social transformations that are pro-social and save what is left to save? That is the key question I address in this session.

Sign up for nonviolent civil resistance with Just Stop Oil in the UK or via the A22 Network internationally. Alternatively, you can now join for my new project called Humanity which is aiming to build the new world ahead based on deliberative democracy.

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