Fixing climate change within capitalism?: An interview with Extinction Rebellion activist Rosanna Lilley
Platypus Review 125 | April 2020
Maria Kaminska: You are a member of the Green Party and Extinction Rebellion, as well as Amnesty International and Liberty. How and when did you get involved in green politics? What is the nature of your work with these organizations?
Rosanna Lilley: My involvement in politics was really sudden. I always cared about politics and was always interested, but I could never keep track of the happenings in politics today. I would speak about it and think about it in a more abstract sense, more about the human condition than the actual politics. My mental health was bad, and then I had this treatment. The cognitive effects of depression, the fog of not being able to retain information, those at least were lifted. It was incredible. I had no idea how compromised I was before, until I had that ability. That is when I realized I could properly retain information. I was able to apply that interest I had always had to politics as it was happening now and keep track of it. I had all this free time. I was not at university. I have never worked full-time. I became too ill. I worked part-time at a bar and I saw what working life is like. It is busy. People are too busy for you. I found it impossible to imagine that there was any way that anybody who lives a normal life with normal life pressures could adequately inform themselves. So I decided to use that time for something socially useful. It is very easy to feel quite useless as somebody who cannot work. I hoped I would be useful as a voice for these politics, because I am a very empathetic person. I feel things very strongly. Like Greta Thunberg, I am autistic as well. Obviously autistic people are very different from each other and other people, but I think that something about seeing the way she felt woke other people up to her feelings. Maybe talking politics on a more emotional level has its benefits. Particularly for me, there is no filter. I was always sort of confessional. In terms of "the personal is political," I was always political. I stood up for people who were misunderstood, like myself, people who had been through assaults, and people who could not understand why you remain vulnerable.
MK: Where do politics fit into this?
RL: They came in with world politics. I was always interested in the environment as a kid. I think the books I read that were transformative were Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything and The Shock Doctrine, as well as Christian Parenti’s Tropics of Chaos, which is a record of how climate change and environmental issues lead to human conflict. It opens with a description of a raid. These are happening more and more often between tribes with historical animosity that are pushed together. There is one water well. Before, with other wells, the groups used to stay out of each other’s way, but they have drained. Now they are fighting more. We also know that heat generally makes people angrier quicker. The science behind it is amazing. It makes us turn to violence. I thought it was a very sensitive book. It did not in any way present the idea that these countries are having these problems because they are these countries. It is just that these countries are the ones being impacted. We are not faced with these difficult choices. That is why we can feel civilized and up on our high horses.
MK: I remember you criticized Extinction Rebellion (XR) for its “beyond politics” approach, but you then came to terms with it. What did that approach mean and what were your criticisms? What do you think about it now?
RL: With this [Conservative] government, it is hard for us to be beyond politics. I railed against that phrase then in the same way that a lot of people did. There are lots of people on the Left and in Extinction Rebellion who do see the political issues that have led to this. At the same time, the last thing we need is to feed the already-growing narrative that this is a leftist Trojan horse. And we are not really being straight, are we, if we say that we are beyond politics? A lot of the members of the [Conservative] cabinet are ex-lobbyists who would hold their position if not for Boris Johnson. He has created a whole cabinet of yes-men who owe him their careers. He says himself that he does not get the green issues. That is a bit of a fucking problem, mate. “Beyond politics” is more difficult now that we have this government. One of the great things is that there is a lot of thinking in XR, tossing and turning, because this is not easy. That is why I am sitting here saying, “maybe it is good; maybe it is bad.”
MK: Do you think that the climate crisis can be addressed without politics?
RL: No. The climate crisis is politics. It is the result of politics. Therefore, the only thing that can conclude it is politics. We cannot separate them. I think the attempts to do so from the Right are not useful.
MK: Groups on the Left often pose an opposition between electoral politics and extra-parliamentary activism. How do you understand that relationship?
RL: That is interesting. Extra-parliamentary activism is what we are left with during this parliament. We are engaging with a different institution, particularly in its relationships with other institutions. We have extra-parliamentary politics in the policy being made with the extensive powers the government now have.
MK: What do you mean by extra-parliamentary policy?
RL: Basically, in the Brexit Withdrawal Bill, they gave themselves insane powers called Henry VIII powers. What happened was a material diminution of parliamentary democracy. They have also allowed lower courts to diverge from higher courts, which messes up our hierarchy of courts. Lawyers are claiming this will drag them into politics, which is a bit ironic considering the government has criticized judicial activism, which is just us asserting our rights in court. All of this is public information. Anybody can understand it, so why do people not know about it? We live in a deluge of information. If the media does not pluck something out of that swirly mass, we will not see it. I am making posters which go back to classic attempts at communication. I am doing an essay on Ai Weiwei's “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors”, and he combined things like sculptures with classical awareness-raising posters with a bit of text and an image. I think that this does have a role, particularly if you are doing a wide-ranging project that includes social engagement. I have an idea for some posters that could be quite fun, taking the aesthetics of propaganda, the font, the text, the style, but just having the word “Think”. You are not telling someone what to think, just to think. As a member of the Green Party, I never expect a Green government. I am not banking on electoral politics to get me where I want to be, but I know that Caroline Lucas has such an impact as an MP. She has chased this government so hard. If just one or two Green Party members can actually have such an influence, which they have been shown to do because they are tenacious and they keep going, then it is worth the engagement in parliamentary democracy. I am more interested in trying to redress the balance of powers now. It has been changed fundamentally. It really matters how much parliament can do on its own and how much the government can do on its own. When they talk about parliament trashing the constitution by legislating itself, it is not an aberration. The aberration is what the government has done. They have been exceptionally good at convincing people otherwise. It is the question of thinking that I am really interested in. I do not think that people who believe them are stupid. I think that you can be made pretty stupid by the way you are spoken to and the way government treats you. In other words, when you give up critical thinking, you accept things without questioning. It does not take long to find a fault in something if you just stop and think. I do not know how to get people to do that. My “Think” poster was just an idea that I thought was quite fun. Does it change anything? I do not know.
MK: Would you say the issue here is democracy?
RL: And a groomed public. We have one. I fundamentally think that targeted political advertising should be banned. I would rather live in a country with TV political advertising where everybody saw the same thing rather than everybody getting secret messages of their own with different promises for different people. That to me is the antithesis of an informed vote. It is shocking and interesting that social media has mobilized in response to coronavirus fake news, given that it failed to do so during the elections, around democracy.
MK: Let’s say we have a democratic government that can introduce reforms to stop or mitigate the climate crisis, do you think it can be solved within capitalism? If not, what are the circumstances that make it impossible?
RL: If you want my honest answer, I cannot be sure, but I doubt it. I doubt that green capitalism is really doing much for us. I doubt that capitalism in this form could ever address it.
MK: Would you say capitalism in a different form, albeit still capitalism, could address it? Is that the Green New Deal, or something else?
RL: Potentially. Perhaps a hybrid economy kind of thing like in that book by Clayton and Heinzekehr, Organic Marxism: An Alternative to Capitalism and Ecological Catastrophe.We already have hybrid economies. It is just that we could slant it more away from the profit-motive ruling all.
MK: What would a green hybrid economy mean?
RL: I have always been very attracted to the ideas of the Left. I was always asking, what does a socialist economy look like? I wanted to believe in that. I do believe in it as possible now, but it is still hard to describe. Even if you look at things that could be done under some form of capitalism that would make life more equitable, right now we need to engender receptiveness in people towards green and economic reforms. There are always people mobilizing. There are always organizers. It is just a matter of what is politically viable. You do not need everyone to be inspired to action. You just need them to be inspired to accept a new reform. On changing the language around what people need to do, it is not that you should cut yourself off from everything. You need to open your mind to the fact that things need to change.
MK: But let’s say everyone does that and we come up with some kind of Green New Deal. Do you think this could be a solution to the climate crisis? Do you think there is a solution?
RL: Currently that looks like the only solution on the horizon and something to work for or at least something to hang our point on. We can say, “this may not be perfect, but we need to change things.” The thing that people are not appreciating is if people have such a fucking issue with migrants, then they better sort out the climate crisis because it is going to be the biggest cause of movement seen since the First World War. At the moment the people being displaced have farms that will not provide them food anymore. There is always a question of economic rights being human rights. Therefore, if someone cannot live in a country and support their family and fear they will die, does that count as a reason to flee? I was watching some American douche talk about the migrants from Greece, that they were “coming from a broken country to break ours too,” as if they did that to their society.
MK: On social justice, what are your thoughts on the fourth demand of XR? Can it address economic inequality in the face of the climate crisis and claim to be apolitical at the same time?
RL: You cannot call for anything without really being political. It is interesting that XR is doing this, because usually it is the Right that does not think politics covers as much as we do. For them it is essentially economics and logistics. For the Left it is about social justice and freedom from discrimination or desperation. That is why I have distanced myself from the “beyond politics” line. I will still support them and say what they do is a good thing, but on my YouTube channel I do not advertise myself as a voice for XR. It would not be fair to speak for them, but I do support them as a member. But my views are not unanimous in XR.
MK: What do you think about their belief in direct democracy, citizen assemblies to introduce radical transformation of the economy and transition to carbon net zero? XR sees citizen assemblies as a way to circumvent current democratic institutions, which are considered structurally unable to carry about radical transformation. This recalls earlier moments on the Left, e.g. the anti-globalization movement, Occupy Wall Street, the anti-austerity People’s Assembly, etc. How do you understand the relationship of XR to earlier movements that championed direct democracy?
RL: Naomi Klein was very involved in Occupy Wall Street. Direct democracy is a funny thing, because we have seen that Brexit was not a great idea. All the time people do things against their own interests. I believe in democracy—I want to sustain it and improve it—as long as there is real expert contribution. XR has never been super specific about what expert advice would be available to the citizen assembly. Obviously, they would not make the decisions, but they would explain the consequences. I see that as far more valuable and legitimate. Once XR blocked London for a few days, they were invited into a select committee room to talk to the Treasury Secretary, so they understood there was an economic necessity to this and that it would require economic policy to address it. But just getting someone to turn up is very different from getting them to actually do anything about it. Meeting with XR was mostly optics. I think we have a real problem with this government. They have a double economic problem now with the coronavirus potentially causing a recession, and they know they will have an economic hit from Brexit. Even with the many estimates that saying “greening” the economy will not negatively affect it, there is still the prevailing belief that it will cost us and that it is not worth it.
MK: You also have the conservative standpoint, which would say there is no need to panic because there will be profit from solving the climate crisis. Trump says we will get the best experts and create jobs.
RL: That is the bit of green capitalism that is not working for us. Off-setting has not worked. It has just kept things still without reversing any damage. If you have to do it within capitalism, if that cannot be dismantled or changed significantly, then the Green New Deal is probably the best route. That is the context we are stuck in. I do not see that context changing with this government. In the future, it could be possible beyond capitalism, but it is impossible with this government.
MK: What if we had a Labour Party government?
RL: Things could change, but we have five years of this government, and we have so little time left to avoid tipping points. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is quite conservative with its estimations, because it’s “consensus-based”, so countries that are more skeptical won’t agree to forecasts that are more extreme.
MK: So, would you say there is a need for an international solution?
RL: Yeah, I mean I think that international cooperation is the only way to do this.
MK: And how
could we address that within capitalism?
RL: Even if we are in capitalism, we need to reassess our motives and what is worth what. There are imbalances to address before some countries will be able to adjust. We’ve not been helping Africa. Countries that are still not depending on fossil fuels would be better off not building up fossil fuels, and just transitioning.
MK: But is that possible in capitalism?
RL: It’s only possible if we are generous, transfer technology and give rather than trade and sell. Yes, we can still be in capitalism but choose not to demand money for things sometimes. Donations from rich countries will be necessary.
MK: You think a more charitable capitalism would be a solution.
RL: I suppose that would have to be the direction that things go in. It would be impossible to redress every example where reparations were arguably morally due, but there are imbalances. The European Union, which is a collection of ex-colonial countries, and then Britain — many countries have been colonial in the past and we need to recognize the responsibility of all of us that have histories like this. The global south is in the state it is in because of us, because it has been used for extraction of workers, minerals, and oil. All of the oil has already been discovered; we already know everything. We need to leave 80% of that in the ground. Why are we still looking for more? That costs money, but then we are not willing to give money to another country when we are spending it on something we can never use. It seems absurd. I probably sound too idealistic.
MK: Given that idea, your opposition to the Tory government and calling yourself a leftist, would you say what you are describing is a leftist position?
RL: I think it would be considered a leftist position.
MK: But what is the Left for you?
RL: The Left for me is an unknown quantity. I was always attracted to the ideals and ideas. I don’t think my parents voted Tory last time and they have become more engaged since I have had more engagement with the benefits system and they saw what it is really like, but I grew up in a Conservative area. A lot of us were indoctrinated into thinking there is no alternative to capitalism. I am pretty sure I thought that for a while. I identified for a while as a Social Democrat, which I understood to be somebody with socialist values operating within the context of democracy and capitalism.
MK: What made you change your mind?
RL: It was probably Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. I just saw how fucked up it is and that there needs to be fundamental change, if not a dismantling. But I don’t know, honestly, what would replace it. I think I still am looking for things to help me feel confident that the solutions I am thinking of are at all viable. I have only spent three years engaged in the actual politics of the moment, rather than being political in a more philosophical sense. Looking at the nitty gritty requires you to separate out the problems and try and find something that works.
MK: Would you say there is something that is lost from that philosophical perspective with this immediate, practical approach?
RL: Yes, I think we need to do the thinking. Whatever action you are going to take you need to think of the reception that is going to have and preempt the presumptions, maybe, or preempt skepticism around particular areas you know will be problematic for people. I have always been fascinated by what I observe, that people find it so easy to look away from what is uncomfortable. One person might find it absolutely necessary to believe that I did something wrong that led to me being raped, because that means their daughter or wife isn’t at the same risk, because they wouldn’t do that thing wrong, so they’re safe. The idea that it could happen to anybody is so terrifying — that somebody you love could get hurt — that it is easier to be cruel to somebody. That sounds disconnected but that “looking away” and the motivations for looking away is what you need to look at when thinking about how to communicate what you want people to understand.
MK: How does a more practical, immediate approach, and what you called, a more philosophical one, translate in Extinction Rebellion?
RL: I think that they’re stages. You do have to do the thinking first. Working blindly, you could waste time on an avenue that people are not going to be receptive to. And it is receptiveness that is needed at the moment. I mean, at the moment we’ve got this ridiculous culture war that is really defining what the Left is for many people. If Boris Johnson is called a racist, it riles up his base, because everybody gets defensive about themselves. But at the same time, what else are you meant to do? You can’t not call out racism. It’s a difficult one. I wonder if that does more damage than good.
MK: Maybe one way to address that question — what we should do in this situation where the Left is perceived as the Twitter “call-out” Left — is to think about what the Left was originally and what the objectives of the Left were in the beginning. Coming back to the climate crisis, traditionally the Left sought to realize freedom in society, through the potential of the industrial revolution, including through control over our natural environment. In that context, do you think climate is an issue of the Left today at all?
RL: Well, most of the Left is very awake to the reality that it is the biggest issue facing the world. I would say that there is more of an awareness on the Left as a whole. When you say control over the natural environment, would that imply the government’s role in ensuring the wellbeing of the environment, in order to ensure the wellbeing of the people? I mean that could be an interpretation of it.
MK: I think in a socialist society it wouldn’t necessarily be the government as we perceive it today, but rather the realization of freedom in society, and if that means controlling something, then that’s fine. But that is opposed to what a lot of environmentalists’ critique of capitalism is, namely the idea that you have to sort of go back to a pre-modern state.
RL: Yeah, that’s not a viable way of addressing this.
MK: But it is a common sentiment.
RL: It’s definitely present in portions of the Left. I agree with you there. And to a degree, I think there is something to be learned from indigenous people that live more in tune with nature. But that doesn’t mean that we emulate the way they live exactly. I mean, if you read Tim Morton’s Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World, a lot of the observations he makes have been made many times by indigenous writers and critical theorists who aren’t read as much. One critique of XR has been that they don’t let indigenous voices lead, but I actually think they do try.
MK: But do you think this is important in tackling the climate crisis and why?
RL: I think it is relevant and worth discussion. XR is doing a good enough job to elevate these voices. A lot of the critique of XR is that we don’t really think through what we are talking about, but we do. We all care seriously about this. It isn’t a hobby. Noone wants to sit around contemplating these awful consequences, which we know will come if inaction persists. But if nobody does it…
I often have conversations with people who say, “yeah but what can you do about it?” I suppose you could do nothing, if you wanted, but I don’t see the point in giving up. Life isn’t fair. There are some things we can’t make fairer through politics. But there are some things we can make fairer. Fairness is the aim of my politics—fairness where possible. I have a very strong awareness that life is not fair, and it can be cruel. But we have the capacity to aid and support and lessen suffering.
MK: Would you say that is a leftist perspective?
RL: Yes. People on the Right don’t really think that is politics. They think politics is just managing the economy and the logistics of people going to work and going home. For us, the idea of a social security net, of looking after people, is a fundamentally more leftist belief. I mean you do get a bit of it in the Tory party, but nowhere near as much. And then there is the aspect of the Right that actually sees this view as sinister. I read some more about the Koch brothers. They literally want to dismantle government. The only thing they want government to do is to protect property rights, not even human rights. The amount of money going into trying to achieve that aim is pretty incredible. And in our Tory party, there are people who see government intervention in personal life as a negative thing. They see it as coddling or as not pushing people to rise above, pull themselves up by their bootstraps and nonsense like that. Portions of the Right who don’t like the issue of climate change, who don’t believe in climate change, say we are just inflating this issue, so we can sneak in socialist politics. By saying “we are beyond politics”, when actually everybody knows a lot of people in XR are pretty sure of their politics, looks disingenuous and does kind of aid that perspective.
MK: Speaking on a panel that Platypus hosted at the London School of Economics, “After the election, what’s left?” Neil Faulkner, co-founder of activist group Mutiny, said that striking school children could provide the vanguard for a new revolutionary politics. That’s sort of the flip side of what you just said. What do you think about this idea? Traditionally, Marxists thought that the working class could be the revolutionary subject.
RL: But maybe it’s kids!
MK: Could the climate crisis be an issue of the working class?
RL: I would love for the working class to see it like that, because it is in their interest to do something about this. But a lot of people have been convinced that certain things that would be in their interest are not, and certain things that aren’t, are. On the Left, we see people being convinced that somehow our ideas are dangerous or irresponsible.
MK: The presumption is that the Left is dangerous? Where does that come from? Is it Stalinophobia?
RL: I would say it is a result of the fact that capitalism has not had to account for its atrocities in the way the way that Socialism has. Terrible things have been done in the name of capitalism. There’s a book called Late Victorian Holocausts, which catalogues famines in the British Empire. These were terrible things. And terrible things obviously happened in some socialist regimes. But the terrible things that have happened in socialist situations hang on us, and are baggage that we carry around, but the capitalists and the Right do not carry around baggage, even though they actually have it, they are not held to it, they are not reminded of it.
MK: So, would you say it is disadvantageous to self-identify as Left?
RL: Potentially, but at the same time liberalism is hypocritical at its center. It has always been about making exemptions. “Liberty for all…except those people.” The Lib Dems need to establish whether they are economic liberals as well as social liberals. I don’t think they are. I wonder if it is going to be possible to get people to coalesce around one big opposition party of Greens, Liberals, and Labour. I think that would be the strongest way to oppose this government. It would be hard to do. There would be things to reconcile in the ideologies between parties, but I don’t actually think they are as far apart as people think from the outside. The Lib Dems have a messaging problem. Anyone on the Left understands what a liberal economy is, and it is not a good thing. I see the aims of the party as admirable, but I don’t think they have a good grip on what the means of achieving them are.
MK: And what do you think about Labour?
RL: I have considered joining Labour and I have talked to people from Labour. The media did a number on Corbyn before the election. The Tories win because they are ruthless with their leaders. I think the Left was too sentimental around Corbyn. They liked him too much. They wanted to give him another chance, but the public were not ready to do that. Even if you really support Corbyn and you totally disagree with all the criticisms, you just had to go, well, unfortunately, he has been successfully painted in a negative, dangerous way. They had plenty of time to replace him and I think it was a mistake that they didn’t. I hope they have learned from it.
Labour have certainly become more environmentally conscious in the last three to four years. I think it was good they tried to put together their own Green industrial revolution idea. I watched an interview with John McDonnell. His level of consciousness about the environmental crisis I hope is something that is maintained in future leadership. If I am honest, I have quite a lot of hope. I have been trying to say for some time we should get over the differences and join for some time because I really don’t think the differences are that big. And I think we are hurting ourselves by staying fractured, especially now, with this [Conservative] majority.
We need an organization or a statement from parties from all over the world saying, “we are on this”. This would put pressure on their national governments because there would be international support.
MK: Does this point to things like the Second International, or the communist internationals in general? They were global conglomerates of parties which came together.
RL: Yes. maybe that’s something we need to revisit and think about, because this is an international problem. We need international solidarity, whether from leftist parties or liberal parties. Where leftist or liberal parties are gathering in places — obviously not now, because of coronavirus — to discuss a global approach in each of their countries. If a conservative party wants to join and endorse that statement, then great, you know? Because we are in the position of opposition, in many countries, the environmental lobby has not won out yet and so it is about how we build the best collective opposition.| P
 Extinction Rebellion’s “fourth demand” is: “We demand a just transition that prioritizes the most vulnerable people and indigenous sovereignty; establishes reparations and remediation led by and for Black people, Indigenous people, people of color and poor communities for years of environmental injustice, establishes legal rights for ecosystems to thrive and regenerate in perpetuity, and repairs the effects of ongoing ecocide to prevent extinction of human and all species, in order to maintain a livable, just planet for all.”