‘We’re facing a societal collapse’: Extinction Rebellion’s Roger Hallam speaks to ACT UP’s Peter Staley about disrupting the world in order to save it

As Extinction Rebellion's two-week ‘International Rebellion’ kicks off, Hallam and Staley tell us why civil disobedience is our most viable tool for survival.

This conversation will appear in Document’s upcoming Fall/Winter 2019 issue, available for pre-order soon.

A little over a year ago, I had a conversation that would change the way I think about climate activism. It was a day so swelteringly hot that the interview I was to give for the Citizens’ Climate Lobby podcast got rescheduled indoors. As Peterson Toscano, the host, and I fell into a deep discussion, I found myself turning the tables on him, asking a string of ever more personal questions. I was beginning a new project about gender and the Antarctic, and I wondered how, for Toscano (a self-proclaimed quirky, queer climate activist), the climate crisis intersected with queer rights. Toscano’s response has stuck with me to this day and is best summed up with a line from his one-man show Everything Is Connected—An Evening of Stories, Most Weird, Many True. He says, “I’m going to tell you the worst-case scenario with climate change, promise me you will not freak out. Promise? Well, we are looking at the potential extinction of the human race…but what other people on the planet have faced potential extinctions and exterminations before? Lots of people. But also LBGTQ+ people…There is a special time in our history when we learned a lot of things that might be applicable today. I’m talking about the HIV/AIDS crisis.” Toscano told me that the activist movements of the 1980s didn’t just change hearts and minds; they changed public policy. It occurred to me then that a cross-movement conversation in the era of climate crisis would bear vital fruit. A few months ago, I had the great pleasure of chatting with Peter Staley, a founding member of ACT UP, and Roger Hallam, a founder of Extinction Rebellion. It’s my hope that this conversation can demystify direct-action activism while helping us think about what comes next.

Elizabeth Rush—This year the climate crisis has risen to the forefront of national discourse. How do you move from consciousness-raising to action? Peter, I would love to hear more about what led to the foundation of ACT UP around 1987, and where the public and political consciousness around the AIDS epidemic was when the group came together. Are there similarities between where the AIDS epidemic was in public consciousness in 1987 and where the climate crisis is today?

Peter Staley—It’s always worth noting that ACT UP was birthed six years into the pandemic. A lot of time was lost, and that was mostly because it was hitting very marginalized communities that were frightened to engage nationally, politically, because of a fear of backlash. We were despised. It took that long to have a crucial number of people who had had enough of the fear and the death and the dying to realize that if something wasn’t done we’d all be wiped out. So, right there I see some parallels with global warming in the sense that the activism has been going on for a while, and yet it has felt like not enough and too late, and now we are getting to the point of no return. We’ve got to really change things fast. That was where ACT UP was in 1987. There was a very homophobic culture in the U.S. and it had gotten worse during the AIDS years, so we had to change the public’s perceptions about the crisis very, very quickly.

Elizabeth—In the years leading up to the formation of ACT UP, was AIDS in the news media?

Peter—We had very little press coverage for the first few years and virtually no government response. We even had a couple years of very mild response within the affected communities. They didn’t know what was going on; we were just as afraid as everyone. And it didn’t really become a major news story until ’85, when the Rock Hudson news happened. It was certainly attention-grabbing, but it was all laced with fear and stigma. It became a very frightening news story. It was a year and a half, two years after that that the activists struck back.

Elizabeth—Roger, are there parallels here to the climate crisis?

Roger Hallam—I’ve been organizing campaigns with different social movements for 35 years, but I’m not a pluralist anymore, in the sense that climate isn’t a movement or an issue; it’s basically the whole bloody thing! If it continues, every single progressive movement since the revolution is going to come to nothing because you’re going to have social collapse and fascism, followed by effective extinction. So I think it’s important to get the framework on what’s actually happening in the world now—We’re not facing climate change; we’re facing a social collapse. There are parallels with the way that ACT UP reframed the debates through the disruption they caused so that people woke up to the idea that this wasn’t just a minor thing. ACT UP really broke a mold of what you might call conformist, conventional, differential campaigning and caused as much disruption and support as necessary to bring about a consciousness of the immorality of allowing people to die. There’s a strong parallel there with what’s happening around the world now, with the explosion of Extinction Rebellion. The main message of Extinction Rebellion is that high-level mass participation civil disobedience bringing about enormous disruption to the everyday lives of people in Western countries is the only, and certainly the most significant, way of bringing about the change that we need. It’s all hands on deck.

“We’re not facing climate change; we’re facing a social collapse.” — Roger Hallam

Elizabeth—Your pushback, Roger, is really interesting—climate change as an issue versus climate change as everything. I don’t disagree with you, but one thing that I’m really conscious of is how exclusionary some environmental activism and discourse has historically been. It’s been the realm of well-heeled white elites who have the time or the energy to project into the future and to imagine civilization in collapse. I think some other activist groups might say, That’s really important, but that’s 20 or 30 or 40 years down the line, and we have these other issues that feel more pressing in an immediate sense. I’m curious if it’s important for either of you, as you frame these movements, to think about expanding the coalition of people who are part of the movement. Peter, was that important for you as ACT UP came together?

Peter—Let me back up. I agree with your framing on the issue that XR is fighting, but it would be an interesting debate to say, What will motivate the largest number of people in the next year, two years, three years? Should we be framing the issue that way now? I am assuming the movement is having a healthy internal discussion about that. But, the differences between ACT UP and XR are probably bigger than the similarities. What we were trying to do was a cakewalk compared to what XR is trying to do. It was a very narrowly focused issue. We were trying to get the country to wake up and react to a specific new pandemic, funding for AIDS research, and treatments that saved our lives. Initially, it looked like an impossible thing to do, but over the course of 10 years, we were able to accomplish a lot with a relatively small number of people. Our largest demonstration might have been 5,000 people, and most of them were well under 1,000. We were not a mass-people movement, which is a big difference with XR. As far as similarities, we tried to become experts in our subject so that our voices would be increasingly influential, and XR has been doing similar things in coalition with scientists. And XR’s adoption of in-your-face civil disobedience is very much in lockstep with ACT UP’s history. We really tried to make waves with our activism and we weren’t afraid of offending people. It was about making sure people were watching and listening. Roger, I’m curious if you are all thinking about this members debate going forward. You had the big action in April—will you be able to maintain those numbers or grow them? And if you can’t, will you start focusing on actions that can be equally spectacular with smaller numbers of people, which was kind of ACT UP’s modus operandi?

Roger—The protest that happened in April was actually triggered by a small group of about 800 people, among the 5,000–8,000 who came to London. But those figures are peanuts compared to an average mass movement demonstration. The point is that it’s not the numbers, it’s what people do. You can bring down a regime with 5,000 people—we just need to use our political imagination. Those eight hundred people, by getting arrested 1,200 times, which is the biggest number of arrests in a single episode of civil disobedience in British history, changed the national conversation in a week. What I’m interested in, as an analyst and strategist for XR, is the possibility, as our protest showed, that you can take five thousand people and change the course of history. That’s not some sort of ideological, naïve assumption. It’s actually well founded in historical sociology. It starts with people standing up for what’s right, and that is what a lot of people forget—Being decent to gay people is not a subjective viewpoint. It’s objectively right in terms of the ethical assumptions of Western society. So is the civil rights movement in the ’60s—It’s objectively right to be decent to black people. And it’s objectively right not to destroy your children’s lives.

So if you’re dealing with an issue like this, the strategy is straightforward—you get the maximum amount of people to cause the maximum amount of disruption and, ideally, be reasonably respectful along the way. The idea is to do it again, in October, but on a larger scale and for longer. People get really complicated about it. [Laughs] But I don’t actually think it’s complicated. You’ve just got to cause a lot of shit and be absolutely courageous and absolutely clear that you’re right and communicate the ferocity of your rage that massive injustice is being committed. Somewhere along the lines, the system cracks, and you get a deal. I studied the civil rights movement’s dynamics quite a bit, and all started off with 20–30 people. Once you get to about 1,000 people in prison, then you’re in the ballpark of something significant. In the autumn, we’re quite likely to close Heathrow airport, and there could be 500 people in prison in a week. My prediction is that will change the course of British history. But I could stand corrected. I’ve been talking to audiences in small towns in the U.K., and like ACT UP and civil rights, it’s all about the elites lying in order to protect what they think they are entitled to. There’s a certain point when people decide that they won’t be lied to anymore and they want to do whatever is necessary to change the course of history. We’re in one of those moments, in my view.

Peter Staley photographed at
his home in Shohola, PA. Photography by Matthew Morrocco.

Elizabeth—As someone who has regularly participated in publicly sanctioned protests, I feel that it doesn’t accomplish much. What is it like to be part of a direct action campaign? Take me into a specific moment in a specific act of civil disobedience. What is it like to be on the front lines?

Peter—I’ll tell the story of my first arrest. I had been in ACT UP for about a year, was still in the closet at work, but, because I had been diagnosed with HIV, I finally went on disability and started to take whatever time I had left and put it towards activism. Within a couple weeks, ACT UP was having its first-anniversary demonstration on Wall Street, so I was very game at that point to get arrested for the first time. Most movements have good structures for training for a demonstration. It’s not something you just show up and do—I wouldn’t recommend that. You need to go through some civil disobedience training, and that’s what I did. What do you do if the police get violent? How do you react and how do you go limp during an arrest? All the mechanics of it—and you’re doing this with many of the people who will be getting arrested along with you, so it becomes a very communal, almost family-like moment, so you don’t feel you’re doing it alone. And when the moment comes, you’re prepared, you’re excited. Your heart’s beating, but you’re also feeling righteous and angry, and then you’re processed through the system together. We were taken to some holding cells at Precinct One in New York, and we all started singing show tunes and whistling at the cute cop. ACT UP was very blessed to have a legal system that was pretty lenient on us because we were viewed as desperate, dying patients. We often just got slaps on the wrist and were able to go out in about six months and get arrested again.

Roger—The question is framed around the idea that the main method of social change is to talk to people and persuade them to engage in action. But that’s probably the most fundamental misunderstanding about how mobilization works—Mobilization works after action, not before. People go out and act because they’re desperate or outraged, and through the sacrifice of their transgressive action—the visual optics and the emotionality of it—other people are inspired to join in. For instance, after our action in April, and the 1,200 arrests, some 50,000 people joined Extinction Rebellion in the U.K. in three weeks. There’s no mobilization strategy that enables you to double in size in three weeks other than mass sacrificial action though breaking the law and getting dragged off. Social change is basically an emotional process. It’s not a cognitive process. The bigger issue that Peter alluded to is—It creates community, and it’s a community feeling of engaging in resistance together that binds people and gives them the strength to carry on. After the April rebellion, a significant number of people came up to me and said that was the best two weeks of their life because there’s nothing like standing together against injustice and suffering for the cause.

Elizabeth—As someone who’s never been in prison, that sounds terrifying in the abstract sense. But being able to hear from someone’s experience, someone who has been through that and found it deeply rewarding, changes my idea of what it is like, so I would love to hear a personal story about how you experienced the rebellion in April.

Roger—As it happens, I spent most of my time in the office pushing bits of paper around, which might sound like a cop-out, but it was actually really important. Just for the record, I have been arrested, I think, ten times in the last few years—twice wrongfully. It’s a run-of-the-mill thing for me. Usually, it involves getting picked up off the roads and put in the police van and filling in some forms. About eight out of 10 times, the police will tell you that they support you because, in Britain at least, the austerity of the last 10 years has destroyed the police’s confidence in the elites as much as anyone else’s. So, I can’t pretend there’s some major sacrifice involved. Obviously, when you do it for the first time, there’s this big adrenaline rush, and it’s always slightly terrifying, sitting in the road, not least because you might get some taxi driver throwing things at you or something. I went to prison several times in my youth. It was quite rough. Nothing physically happened to me, but it was a very interesting and rewarding experience, sociologically and spiritually, coming to terms with what it means to take that step. I was in prison last November, and the embarrassing truth is that I had a fantastic time.

“We were taken to some holding cells at Precinct One in New York, and we all started singing show tunes and whistling at the cute cop.” — Peter Staley

Elizabeth—In what sense? Tell us how prison is fun!

Roger—Well, I have to preface it by saying that obviously if you’re a person of color or you’ve got mental health problems, it can be a scary, or worse, experience, so I’m not trying to generalize. Having said that, I think there is some generality in the idea that going to prison is a deeply emotional and spiritual experience because it exposes you to a different side of life and what it means to sacrifice yourself to a greater cause, and that is a powerful experience. You’re in the cell and you have three naps a day and read your books. For British people, that’s a definition of paradise. I don’t give a toss that the door’s locked or that the food’s not that great. It’s just a rest as far as I’m concerned. [Laughs]. There’s always the possibility someone’s going to beat you up or do something terrible to you. There’s lots of risks involved, and you have to take those into account, but once you’ve moved into a position of resistance towards a society that’s engaged in a genocidal project, the terror and guilt and emotionality of doing nothing trumps the largely illusionary fears you have of sitting in a prison cell for a week or two. There’s a video of the children’s march in the civil rights movement; they’re talking to these black kids, and they’re going, ‘Aren’t you scared about going to prison? You could get hurt. That terrible thing could happen—you know, you’re going to lose out on college,’ and those sorts of things. And then the black kid basically says that they’re going to get hurt anyway, right? ‘We’re black kids in Birmingham, Alabama. It’s not such a great deal anyway, so what does it matter?’ And I’ve been just talking to big crowds of people in northern England, and you get these women. They’re about 55 years old. They’ve had kids. They’ve had a husband. They’ve seen enough of life, and they’re saying, My kids are going to get hurt, my grandchildren are going to die, so the least I can do is fucking spend two weeks sitting in a cell. It’s not going to bother these people. Do you see what I’m saying?


Roger—It’s a privileged position to think that prison is something to be afraid of.

Elizabeth—Yeah. Once you realize what the alternative is, the sacrifice doesn’t feel nearly as grand. Peter, you mentioned the scale of the crisis in terms of the AIDS epidemic is fundamentally different from the climate crisis. It seems to me like some of ACT UP’s success also stems from the fact that once you had successfully moved through a series of direct actions, protests, and events, your organization had a specific set of demands and was very clear about offering a set of solutions. Could you talk about that interplay between direct action protests and direct action activism, and then being ready to offer solutions?

Demonstators from ACT UP, angry with the U.S. government’s response to the AIDS crisis, perform a die-in protest in
front of the Food and Drug Administration’s headquarters
in Rockville, Md., Oct. 11, 1988, effectively shutting it down.
A police officer steps into the group, and by mid-morning about 50 of the protesters were arrested.

Peter—Well, we had two movements melded into one, really. The biggest was changing public opinion on a dime, and getting the country to go from not caring that we were dying to caring that we were dying, and wanting a huge government response. And we actually seemed to accomplish that fairly quickly. The National Institute of Health-based research project started to soar during ACT UP’s first three years, to the point where, by year three, other disease groups were complaining about how much money was being spent on AIDS. And by that point, we had moved into an insider-outsider strategy where we were trying to win many battles on the research front, and on the housing issues, and prevention efforts like needle exchange. It became a ground war after that for many years until major breakthroughs occurred. But it sounds like XR is changing not only the U.K.’s opinions of what’s going on, but the world’s, and growing the movement from there; trying to get everybody to rebel and to say, ‘Enough!’ and demand quick change. That’s why I think their job is far more gargantuan than ours. We were able to change American public opinion fairly easily and fairly quickly, and I think that job is going to be a hell of a lot harder for XR. But maybe not. I mean, maybe we’ll have, next year, so many catastrophic climate events that the world’s just going to explode in anger. We certainly had a rising death toll in the ’80s that kept our emotions going and fueled our movement.

Elizabeth—It’s certainly a double-edged sword—As more people become vulnerable, as storms get stronger, as tides get higher, as heat waves get stronger, the urgency feels more intense. For the Extinction Rebellion, what’s a solution? Or is ‘solution’ the wrong word? What is the desired outcome of the event, aside from gaining media attention?

Roger—I think the dynamics of popular mobilizations are the similarities. I think there’s a certain resonance with what Peter just said. At the beginning, you’re basically doing general disruption to make a general point—You’re going out blocking streets to make the point that people are dying and they shouldn’t be dying. You’re making a really big, obvious, political, humanitarian point and you’re starting the conversation. One of the big mistakes of the climate movement is not to talk about the whole situation and not to do anything disruptive about it. Those are the two fundamental errors, I think. ACT UP blocking the streets in New York doesn’t have that much to do directly with AIDS, but that doesn’t really matter. This is one of the key points about disruptive design. You just go and mess things up. It’s like, This is fucking crap, and we’re going to make a big stink about it, and then it wakes people up and they think it’s real. It’s mainly an emotional process. It’s like, Oh, right, it must be real because there’s disruption. That’s how our minds work. It’s not because someone told us it’s bad. It’s bad because some guy’s blocking the road and I can’t get to work for two hours, and I spend the rest of the day alternating between how mad I am with the situation and feeling vaguely guilty because I know climate change is crap and I should be doing something about it. This is how change happens.

I think we will experience a sea change in attitudes on the climate in a matter of months. I think it will be a massive herding transition. The historical support for that is civil resistance movements. So you’re looking at something that’s scarily fast here, and that’s because it’s all or nothing. Then suddenly everyone’s on our side and can’t understand why it was possible there was a time when there was no funding for AIDS. It becomes the obvious new common sense. So, in two years’ time, it’ll probably be, Why the hell didn’t we ever think that we were going to have to transform the economy? You probably think that’s slightly unbelievable, but I’ve read the literature, so I don’t think it is. It’s a function of mass sacrifice or mass disruption. That’s the point you want to get across to your readers. They’ve got to say, Okay, this isn’t about conferences, it’s not about books, it’s not about lectures; it’s about 10,000 people arrested, in a U.K. context. That’s doable. It’s less than one in 1,000 of the British population standing up and getting themselves in a bit of trouble for a while. It’s not like the people rise up or some romantic revolution. The people never rose up. The research shows that even in the biggest rebellions and uprisings, only 3 percent of the population actually gets out of the house onto the street. Everyone else is still watching TV and being cynical.

“We’ve got a choice. We can tear each other apart through virtuous self-righteousness or we can join together. If we join together, we might survive, and if we don’t, we’re all going to die.” — Roger Hallam

Elizabeth—I completely agree, and I think we might be inside of that moment. It’s becoming increasingly clear that our economies need to move away from fossil fuel dependency. But what that looks like, and the specifics around that transition, are far less clear. And there’s a concern around who then gets control of the subsequent policy decisions. There’s a big difference between greenwashing the present economy and fundamentally changing who has control over how energy is produced at a local, national, global level; how to move towards a more equitable, livable planet. As climate change really gains momentum in the public consciousness, these are battles that are worth being specific about. Part of what ACT UP did really well was have a specific set of demands that the organization put together through expert knowledge that might have seemed wonky to an outsider. How can you be mindful in terms of the actual specific policy demands that follow, to ensure that the energy and momentum is not usurped or put in a direction that’s fundamentally at odds with creating a livable future for everyone, not just for the select few?

Peter—This is the juicy part of the conversation that I was most interested in, because this is something ACT UP stays sturdily on. There were certainly members in the group who felt that the only way we were going to get the society to work on AIDS and lower the death rate was overthrowing various systems, like getting the for-profit pharmaceutical companies out of the business and having it be a government-controlled effort for the research from beginning to end. We didn’t even get to the stage of, Do we need to fight capitalism in general? But these are questions obviously facing XR. In ACT UP, mostly it was the people with HIV who said, Listen, we don’t have time for some of those massive changes. Although Roger may feel very differently about that, ultimately we were a movement that worked very much within the system. We took the structures as they were and bent them to do what we needed them to do as quickly as possible. We did not seek to overthrow any of the structures that were in place. And, if you look at AIDS now, that may have been a mistake. But it also got us to some major victories within 10 years that we may not have otherwise seen. I’m curious what Roger is thinking.

Roger—[Laughs] The embarrassing truth is, there’s literature on how to radically change society. A lot of people think this is enormously complicated, but it actually isn’t. Like most social sciences, there are broad patterns, and some things look quite straightforward. I think the ACT UP strategy was great within the structural social context it found itself in, where capitalism was well embedded. Even if you’re blocking New York for a week, capitalism wasn’t going anywhere, because it was well established. So the correct and realistic strategy was to work within that, and obviously it was successful within those structures. The situation now is—and the evidence gets more exponential by the day—that the Western economic model is about to collapse, and not just because of its extreme inequality dynamics, but also because the Arctic’s about to melt and the weather systems are going into chaos and we can’t grow food. The literature shows that the biggest reason for the overthrow of regimes is because we haven’t got enough to eat. It’s as simple as that. The physical crisis of the state means people don’t get enough money to buy the bread. Although that sounds really fantastical, that’s what’s coming—you can see the signs—and arguably in the next five to ten years. So then we’re in a very different ballpark.

There are probably three models—the Scandinavian-style model, where the society collectively changes its mind and radically transforms the economy. The intermediate model, where there’s a lot of contestation, and a big national citizens’ assembly—and that’s the model XR is promoting—which is selected randomly from the population. Because it’s reflective of the general population, it acquires political legitimacy in the same way as the population accepted rationing in World War II because they knew that the Nazis were at their door and everyone agreed it was a bad idea to let them in. The third option is civil war, and civil wars tend to happen in societies that are very fragmented and have extreme social inequality. The classic example there is South American history, where regimes tend to flip from the extreme right to the extreme left because there are few intermediate institutions, as it were. So the grim message for the United States is, you’re heading into a grotesque civil war in the next ten years if the progressive left doesn’t get its act together. If American progressives don’t get their shit organized, they are going to be sucked into this civil protectory, and I’m totally serious about that. Extremely unequal societies, when they come under stress, turn into a violent mess. So there’s a limited number of years for the American electorate to get this right, and by get it right, I mean two things. They need to combine together and stop arguing about who’s more virtuous and just accept that you’re going to be working with people you don’t particularly like. Then you have to reach out to the general population to get majority support and accept that the general population aren’t terrible just because they don’t speak the same language. So there’s a big choice to be had there, and XR is trying to get groups around the world to talk in town halls to normal people because, after all, it’s normal people who are going to suffer the most here. So that’s the strategy. Good luck!

Peter—Thank you, Roger. We’re totally in agreement on that.

Elizabeth—One thing that fills me with a glimmer of hope is the way that climate change makes us vulnerable. That shared vulnerability creates the opportunity for coalitions among people who, as you say, Roger, aren’t necessarily used to working together. This is an opportunity to understand that that vulnerability is shared and that it can be a strength and can move public opinion towards something that might create a unifying narrative. In that sense, it makes me think that the climate movement is the inheritor of all of these different social justice movements.

Roger—Yeah, but the climate justice movement has miserably failed to actually fulfill its historical mission, which is to build a movement of movements which is tolerant of difference. We’ve got a choice. We can tear each other apart through virtuous self-righteousness or we can join together. If we join together, we might survive, and if we don’t, we’re all going to die. So it’s a time of reckoning in a biblical sense, and there’s not a moment to lose. I haven’t got the words to describe how urgent it is. All I can say is, it’s beyond words. So, I’ll be marching off in September and going to prison probably, and I very much hope that lots of people around the world start making similar decisions.

Editor’s Note: Roger Hallam was, indeed, arrested twice in September, for attempting to fly a drone near Heathrow Airport.