“Have you been to one of our shows lately?” Reverend Billy asked me. The answer was– no, I have not. Not ever. In my chat with the eco-activist, author, and radical preacher who “prays to life on earth,” I was curious to know what in heaven’s name a Reverend was doing on the calendar at a Bushwick DIY venue like Market Hotel. But Billy’s explanation brought everything together for me. “They’re a little like mosh pits,” he explained. “It’s a punk gospel for life. It’s a laboratory for getting going again.”
A teaser like that is hard to turn your back on, and so is the Reverend’s larger environmental message: consumerism and “nation-state allegiances” stand in the way of our relationship with the Earth. As the effects of climate change become increasingly apparent, there’s a new kind of urgency to changing our ways, and Reverend Billy believes that calls for physical, direct action are the only way to foment radical change. But when he’s not putting his body on the line to preach against the further slaughter of the earth, the Reverend is hosting shows like the one happening this weekend at the Market Hotel. “I’m trying to preach here,” he said, exasperated. “And along with the choir, we’re trying to inspire activism in our audience.”
At this point in his career, Reverend Billy (aka Bill Talen)– whose background is in theater, not in divinity school– has published five books, penned a plethora of eco-gospel songs, and made countless appearances at protests and rallies. His activist circle focuses both on raising general awareness about huge problems like global climate change and the inadequacy of government in embarking on radical change, and on very specific battles like their campaign against the spraying of Monsanto’s Roundup, an herbicide product that contains glyphosate. “Just last week we were in front of the Central Park Conservancy singing ‘Monsanto is the Devil,'” Talen recalled.
When it comes to the environment, there are so many issues that it seems like a book would be too slow a thing to capture the immediacy of it all. But Talen’s latest effort, The Earth Wants You, a new book out on Earth Day April 22 (it’s also an album and extensive tour of the same name), offers answers to the larger questions about how to approach the problem of environmental degradation. It’s a philosophical guide to eco-activism rather than a listicle detailing how everything is horrible and we’re all going to drown in rising seawater.
While the new book employs an obvious trope– Uncle Sam beckoning soldiers to join the cause– it does so for what might be a less obvious call to arms. “Shifting the idea of patriotism from nation states to the Earth, we think that’s a great idea,” the Reverend said.
In the new book, Talen argues that the old-hat rhetoric about “saving” the Earth, which implies our planet is a passive victim that needs the help of humans to escape peril, hasn’t worked. “The new approach would be the oldest possible approach, which is to let the Earth itself come into us,” he explained. “And not try to save the Earth by way of electronic petitions, and policies, and litigation, and lawsuits and so forth, but really allow that slimy, dangerous, spiritual life of the Earth itself to come up into us and bring with it an entirely new kind of courage.”
As Talen pointed out, the Earth is powerful, and recognizing it as such is essential to our own continued existence. “That thing that the scientists are demanding– stopping emissions in a radical way– is not being adhered to,” he said. “We have to admit that our representatives are not the government, the Earth is the government. The nation stations have nothing like the power that the Earth has– the Fukushima tsunami was the equivalent of 30,000 atom bombs, there’s no comparison.”
It might sound hippy dippy, but Talen says that by harnessing the power of the Earth, activists can not only renew their strength, but return to a way of living that was more sustainable to begin with. “The idea that the Earth is in us, that we have to listen to it for instructions on what to do, that notion comes from indigenous cultures,” the Reverend explained. “Those are the people that we slaughtered, the Earth cultures, the Native Americans, the First Nations Peoples, the African-Americans. We have to listen to the earth now in the cultures of our victims, because we’re becoming the victims now too, aren’t we?”
As militant and doomsday as all this language may sound, the Reverend is not without a sense of humor, and actually his activist mission is rooted in anti-dogmatic principles. Talen was raised in a hyper-conservative Dutch Calvinist family, and says that everyone in the Stop Shopping Choir has a similar repressive history they’re trying to shake off. “We’re all in recovery from various kinds of fundamentalist systems,” he said. “Consumerism, and its subset militarism, is like a fundamentalist church, it rules our behavior. We’re living an absurd life, sitting in these glass and metal bubbles, sitting there for hours entertained by our dashboard. But at the Church of Stop Shopping we’re trying to invent a way to celebrate life that is outside of the oppression of the old religious systems.” It all makes sense if you add it up– fascism, authoritarian capitalism, totalitarianism, the Catholic Church, are all rigid systems that have led to environmental destruction and genocide.
Reverend Billy has long stood by a message of anti-authoritarianism, direct action, and anti-consumerism, but as we’ve turned a dark corner with climate change, he has renewed all of these aspects of his activism with a new kind of immediacy, particularly since scientists announced this year that they were adjusting their predictions for disastrous climate change and moving the date up precipitously. “My daughter Lina just turned six, and it’s now being reported that these changes will take place within her lifetime,” Talen said. “It didn’t used to be that way, it was always beyond 2100. Remember those days? Now, it’s different. We’re talking 2050, it’s a whole other scale. It’s coming toward us.”
Recently, Billy’s singled out technology for its distracting, numbing capabilities. “I saw this long line the other day, outside of this cupcake company and there were 200 people waiting in line to get cupcakes and every one of them was staring at their iPhones,” he remembered, aghast. “How can you be a planet cryer, running down the street, shouting ‘Our planet’s on fire!” when we’re all staring into the screens glowing in our hands?”
Well, firstly the Reverend believes that it’s important to distinguish between social media experience and actual, lived experience. “Media isn’t real experience, media is the reflection of experience,” he said. “And the line between knowing and doing, that line has become a dazzling, digitized screen, and we’ve become politically captured as a result.”
He admitted that activists need to reexamine themselves. “We’ve become very self-satisfied, at the People’s Climate March, we marched for just one afternoon and spent that time taking selfies and so forth.” Meanwhile, world leaders and corporate heads are inside the Times Square Sheraton Hotel, conceivably looking down on the protestors. “We have to return the route of our parades to go up into the Sheraton and confront these people.” Talen pointed to the relative success of movements like Black Lives Matter in capturing not only the attention of the country’s leaders and public, but in enacting real change. “Social movements have a basic characteristic that the environmental movement does not have,” he said. “You have to have a large number of citizen warriors who are willing to risk life and limb, we don’t have that right now.”
If all this sounds awfully fire-and-brimstone, well, I hate to say it, but the apocalypse really is nigh. But that doesn’t mean you should throw up your hands, quit your job, and get all your friends to throw down on a yacht stocked with 50 years worth of liquor and cocaine and name it “The End of the World”– an exceedingly practical means to say so long to life on solid ground as the seas rise around you. No, as Reverend Billy argues, we simply need to get off our butts.
I wondered if, over the years, he’s found any glimmer of optimism in his own tireless fight against environmental degradation and the hope for evading what for now seems like certain disaster. “Greenpeace women in London climbed the tallest building there, the bridge dangling of Portland, the efforts to save Gezi Park in Istanbul, the man who sailed through the gigantic plastic island of garbage in the Pacific Ocean,” Reverend Billy said, ticking off examples of direct action. “There are hardworking people all around the world– up in the ice, in the deserts, in the wetlands– there are people reporting what’s happening, trying to find a way to communicate with their fellow human beings.” It seems like we just need more of them.
The Earth Wants YOU is out April 22 (Earth Day). Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir play Market Hotel on Sunday April 10 at 7 pm, tickets: $12.