Changemaker Spotlight: Q&A With Extinction Rebellion's Tom Hoy
Path to activism
Q. What first made you interested in activism?
A. Ever since 2017 I spent about two years avoiding or blocking out any news of the ecological crisis because it was really painful to talk or hear about.
I thought over and over, "I have to do something but what I should I do?" The conclusion is that it's not enough to have a biodynamic farm or do individualized charity work—not that those are bad things at all, those are wonderful things—but the way out of this is through fundamental, structural, worldwide change of how we do things.
Individualized projects can do good on a micro level but this is a macro level problem we’re dealing with. So that led me to the conclusion that you have to change society. That structural change is the name of the game. In articles about climate and ecological breakdown scientists say, "We know the solutions, all that's left is political will." If it’s political will that is required then I guess that's what I must do.
Q. What motivates you to be involved in fighting climate change?
A. It's really the possibility of impending societal collapse due to stressors on the Earth's biosphere and climate. In terms of when you look at history and great moral questions people faced, the question is always, "Why didn't you do something?" I like to consider myself a person of conscience who tries to live the most moral life I can in service of others and in service of making a better world. Given the moral stakes of that I personally had to do something.
Q. How do you see activism building community?
A. Activism is really the act of what I want to give to the world and how I want change the world. It’s the only way I know that's really helped me deal with it on a personal level. There's something very therapeutic about organizing and the actions. It's a powerful experience when so many people still feel isolated.
It builds community because our economy systematically puts us into an autonomous consumer units and makes that our only methods of self expression—which is such an isolating, anxiety-inducing way to live.
Honoring the things that bring us together is really powerful. Functionally, we are social beings, we are social animals. Nurturing and honoring that is a big part of how we have to get through this and change things. We as a collective, as a society, and as a group matter. It's not just about me, it's about us.
Q. Which group(s) are you actively involved with?
A. I’ve mostly been involved with XR NYC. It was pretty intensive so I kept myself busy with it. But I actually started as an activist in late 2018 and did Lobby Days with New York Communities for Change. They passed a bill that was mainly energy efficiency upgrades for buildings in New York City. I spent a couple days standing outside the offices of council members and hounding them on their way inside.
I went to just about every Occupy protest I possibly could but this was the first time where it was a small group of people and I felt like there was some personal stakes or personal risk involved. It was the weirdness of accosting a person on a street but it's like, "No, no he's your council member and you're sort of his boss."
Advice for activists
Q. Do you have any suggestions for activists trying to "find their place" whether it be in a new region or new organization?
A. Really listen and know the lay of the land when you're integrating yourself both into a new group and a new city. What I'm encountering here in Minneapolis-Saint Paul is that a lot of environmental groups know each other. Just today we had a meeting with XR Twin Cities where I proposed doing something called a Heading for Extinction talk (and what to do about it) then explain XR’s solution to it which is nonviolent, direct action.
In New York City it would've been like, "Cool, let's do it. Let's get some people." But in this meeting they asked what other groups are doing the work and immediately the question was, "How do other groups tie into this?" So it’s just different.
When you get integrated with a new group and want to have influence those opportunities are based on interpersonal relationships. You have to build trust and put trust first if you are going to work seriously with any group of people.
Q. Do you think there are pros and cons to this approach? Waiting and seeking additional input versus just going for it?
A. I'm mostly a fan of let’s do something and see how it goes because there's always a reason not to do a direct action or something disruptive—that’s the nature of it. There’s always a downside, always a cost. I say let's do it and learn what we can. But I'm working in the context of another group of people and they know the situation here more than I do.
Q. During the pandemic, many organizers are having to focus on digital activism. What are your best practices when taking activism online?
A. The more involved the outreach, the more high impact it is, the more personal like phone calls and online meetings—like the video call we're doing right now—is what you should be doing. With things being digital, those interactions can be very cheap and easy to ignore because they have very little value.
If anything, with people being physically distanced, I think it's important to make it as personal of a connection as you can. Do the thing that takes longer, that’s more awkward, and a little harder. Digital direct action is also a resource that needs to be done. We need to adapt and do that more but it’s a tough needle to thread.
Activism in tech
Q. Would you tell us more about the work you did organizing groups that called attention to the hypocrisy of the tech industry's contribution to climate change?
A. A lot of what I did in XR NYC was founding a whole group of tech workers. We ended up doing two digital direct actions. We were hosting 30-40 person meetings and I was trying to organize a direct action against Google for funding climate change denial and a bunch of right-wing think tanks.
We were having these big meetings, then COVID-19 hit and everything got wiped off the table immediately. But there was a core group of 10-12 tech workers who stayed involved so we got together and created a website that said, "Google is going to stop funding climate denial" at AGreenerGoogle.com. We managed to fool MarketWatch.com which I thought was really fun. They believed it was a real Google announcement [and so did loads of people on Twitter] .
There was another campaign that I did for XR called Big Tech Loves Big Oil. It was a bunch of web developers and tech folks who built a meme generator about how tech companies are funding the fossil fuel industry. Microsoft, for example, has written AI and software to help extract oil from the Permian Basin.
We were like, "Hey, you're pledging to be carbon neutral but you're one of the reasons the fossil fuel industry is still profitable." And Amazon is saying they'll be carbon neutral by 2040 but they do all the computing for Saudi Aramco. So we published a bunch of memes but it didn't quite have the splash the Google protest had.
Q. Are digital direct actions way of the future?
A. Direct action online is really hard because it's difficult to do something genuinely disruptive online that forces someone, like a bystander, to make a moral choice. There's one approach like the pointed misinformation like AGreenerGoogle.com but I don't know any other online tactics that really do that.
Q. Were you creating your own playbook as you went or did the inspiration for these online actions come from somewhere?
A. The Yes Men are awesome and have been doing this tactic forever. It landed really close to April 1st so we said let's do an April Fool's action because Google actually does an April Fool's prank every year. There's a lot of internal tech activism but they frequently can't make stuff by themselves against their own company. That's kind of dicey for them so we can make a bunch of content that they can circulate that will then animate internal company activism.
A lot of tech companies like to position themselves as being moral actors in society when there's a big credibility gap between what they do and what they don't do. Companies make carbon neutral pledges but it's really like a lot of the structural ways they are tied into the economy hasn't changed and that's the most consequential thing. Sometimes I'm less worried about Exxon than a bunch of companies going carbon neutral and using that as a front to continue doing terrible things. I think greenwashing like that over the next decade is going to be a constant messaging problem.
Q. What insight did you gain from this experience?
A. One thing I realized doing a group with a bunch of tech workers just was how much activists in the movement, in general, could use the skills and capacity from the tech sector. Talent like project management or collaborative skills. Every group I've encountered can use a hand in upping their digital capacity whether it be better websites or ways to sign up. I still query my XR NYC group (they have a huge email list) to ask who can do a project because there's never enough people.
Personal goals and preventing burnout
Q. How do you manage the emotional, mental, and physical toll that constant organizing and actions can take on a person?
A. Activism fatigue is such a big thing. Have a community that can help and delegate because when it's all on one person it's unsustainable. I will say this though from my experiences as an organizer (and my partner, Bill Beckler, was amazing and super experienced) but when you're organizing something, having a specific campaign to engage in takes care of so many things for your organization. It lets people come in and have a sense of belonging and something to move towards.
If someone has a particular skill set, they usually sort themselves into how they can be the most useful. If we say, "Hey everyone, let's do this one thing." Then in my experience, people tend to drift towards things that they are either interested in or really good at.
For an organization to work it has to have that type of movement to it which is why it's difficult when you're caught in the middle because you're on that train going along with it. It can be hard to hop off... then you burn out and can't sustain it. It happened when I was at XR. There were really influential people, working really hard but then they were like, "I just can't do this anymore."
Q. What are your tips of preventing burnout before it happens?
A. Daily self care. I meditate regularly and that is really useful. Just taking care of yourself and prioritizing every day to exercise, eat right, and meditate. With activism, stepping away when you need to because you’re of no use to the movement burnt out. I'm reading this book by a civil rights organizer called,"How We Win: A Guide to Nonviolent Direct Action Campaigning” and in this quote someone is asking an organizer and friend of his in the 1960s,
"What is the single most important thing you've learned about organizing?" And Ray smiled when he said it and I knew it came from a strong pull of years of trying to go at it alone. It only takes three words: "Help is available."
Q. What are your goals for the next year both for your personal activism and the groups you're involved with?
I feel like so many groups took a a big hit during COVID. I just want the climate movement to get moving again. There's COVID, there's the elections, there's the mass reckoning of race and police killings. Our society is fraying at the seams across the world. But there's never going to be a perfect time or way to jump back into this but we have to do it. We just have to do it.
Most activists of any kind really leaned into the protests in the wake of George Floyd's murder. That fight against the dehumanization of Black people is really integral to fighting the climate crisis. This structure that says certain people are disposable and climate change is a big part of that. You don't get those singular moments of activism too often and you have to make the most of them.
Something I thought that was really amazing about the George Floyd protests which made me so hopeful was that millions of people still care. With activism you can feel really disheartened when scientists say we're headed towards mass death and social collapse then everyone's just like, "Okay…" [in a nonchalant voice]. But people care still! As an activist it's our job to connect the dots. You have to connect the dots for people and you have to provide an appropriate outlet.
Q. Is there anything else you would like to add?
A. If there's one thing I could say—a pet peeve of mine—is what people bring to the table when they want to get involved in activism. They get frustrated about their options for organizations that they can connect with. I would tell people: Come to the movement but do not expect movements to come to you.
You have to join on their terms. You are engaging in a collective action with other people who are all volunteers and realize that you're among other people who care and take time to do these things. That is so incredibly rare, so treasuring, the fact that there is anybody.
I had a friend who was really excited about XR but said it was frustrating and just never pursued it. It's not gonna be perfect or what you want it to be. No movement is going to perfectly match your values ever. There is no perfect movement and you have to come to it with the terms that were decided before you got there. You can form your own group but you can't do collective action on individual terms, period. I think that's another extension of our hyper-individualized, capitalistic society and culture where "Everything must match my personal belief systems," which is a recipe to disempower yourself.
This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.