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Tackling climate disaster starts in our communities

Joshua Neicho interviews Extinction Rebellion founder Clare Farrell at Middlesex University

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Clare Farrell
By Joshua Neicho 07 December 2021

The urgent threat from climate change pulsates through Extinction Rebellion (XR) co-founder Clare Farrell’s public speaking – but her vision is never entirely bleak.

At a “mini-COP” at Middlesex University before the UN climate conference, Farrell – slight and strikingly dressed with her hair dyed in pastel colours – raged against “a self-terminating system [of ] industrialised violence... disembowelling our mother earth”. But she also gave nuanced reflections about interdisciplinary thinking, differences of opinion with fellow activists, and how business might look beyond the profit motive.

Speaking to her afterwards, asking whether fear or hope should drive environmental activism, she told me:

“For a long time the perceived wisdom of the climate space was you had to give people hope. [XR] at the beginning had a phrase that I liked very much: ‘Hope dies, action begins’.

“You can look at the truth, feel fearful and understand hope is dwindling, take collective action and that can restore people’s hope and faith in one another.”

What does she think of Boris Johnson? Does the PM’s enthusiasm for Net Zero mean he’s an important ally for the activist movement?

“Ideally, in a time of deep crisis you want cross-party co-operation,” she said. “I’m not convinced our current government are open to that in the way we might hope. I think Johnson said something like the UK should be the cleanest, greenest nation on earth. If he’s serious there’s a long way to go.

But nonetheless, that gives you something to leverage as a citizen, to demand they live up to that”.

In XR, “a lot of the original thinking was about participation design,” she said. “There’s a lot of wisdom in the world. I welcome every attempt to lift up more voices, because I think our culture is very individualised and increasingly partisan and it’s very isolating”.

This is one reason why, during her speech, she urged young audience members to be “as annoying as possible” in the cause of the climate which means also “honouring the quiet voices”.

One of XR’s demands is for a Citizens’ Assembly on climate justice. Farrell mentioned the BBC documentary The People vs Climate Change (available on iPlayer) about an experiment with just such an Assembly: “a large group, lots very uninformed about the crisis”.

“People who want to understand how Citizens Assemblies work should watch. You will see a group of ordinary citizens from across a spectrum of ages, backgrounds, genders, races, come together and find resolutions about what they think should be done. It’s really fascinating to watch how people come to like each other”.

One group of non-activists Farrell has engaged with are contemporaries on her Fashion course at Middlesex in the early 2000s. Feeling that no one was very interested in her studies on the textile industry’s environmental impact:

“I put signs up around the department about some of the most shocking facts, so everybody would have to see them”. Years later, she noted, a good number of contemporaries she is still in touch with are interested in sustainable materials and the social impacts of manufacturing.

There’s a tension where young activists want to forge connections and see the world but the climate costs of travel are offputting. Farrell said there’s reason to be optimistic -

“there’s lots of means of building community both by taking trains, working out who you can reach in person, and a massive opportunity for youth networking”. She’s excited to see what the new global Youth Affinity Network will achieve by bringing together groups inside and outside XR.

Getting in touch with Farrell for an update after COP, her reflections on the decisions taken in Glasgow are that:

“the context is dire because nations have confirmed they refuse to help stop a global mass death event which will be the legacy of this decisive decade”.

“This moment shows us (again) that this is now down to civil society... We need to make sure councils who have declared a climate emergency [74% nationwide – Barnet isn’t one of them] hold the government to account, to support civil society, protest and resistance groups and demand they are not blocked but supported”.

A nightmarish task and landscape then – but in Farrell’s interpretation, with plenty of community spirit to get us through.