Environment

Slaves to Our Stuff: A Creative Vision to Break Away From Consumer Culture's Destructive Grip

Billy Talen, known as Reverend Billy, talks about his new book and says, "We need to be honest with ourselves about the danger we are all in with the natural world."

Photo Credit: John Quilty

This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.

Need a creative way to fight fears of our planetary demise? A new book by Billy Talen prophetically titled, The End of the World (OR Books), may be just the trick. Talen, also known as Reverend Billy, and his Church of Stop Shopping, exposes the socio-political structure of consumerism and the commoditization of the earth with songs, impassioned preaching and theater events. Talen has been arrested 70 times along with members of the Church for their acts of civil disobedience in banks and other places of corporate mediation. Their decade-long collaboration, under the direction of Savitri D, has brought them to communities throughout the U.S. and internationally where they have built a performance institution of communities of action with songs and uplifting protest spectacle on the streets and in concert halls. Talen and the Church’s inspiring and engaging performances ask us to take action on behalf of our home on our rapidly dying planet.

The End of the World is being promoted with the launch of the internationalRevolt of the Golden Toad tour, which began in San Francisco on April 22. The End of the World is a poetic cry of sermons to wake people up about the climate crisis, destruction of biodiversity, and catastrophic consumption orchestrated by global capitalism. 

Talen spoke with AlterNet about his new book and what motivates his creative actions.

Sabrina Artel: How did this book project come about?

Billy Talen: Because of my growing feeling that human beings are losing. We’re losing ground to the corporations and the big banks, and the earth movement is losing. The big bank system needs to multiply their products and keep us in a state of consumption. Consumerism needs to be defeated. 

As I started watching the sack of diapers next to [my daughter] Lena when she was born in the hospital at St. Vincent’s they were covered by Mickey Mouse faces. Here in NY we have high pressure tests confronting first-graders. The Church of Stop Shopping and I have been active in the movement to stop paying back student debt because it’s reached a trillion dollars so that young people can’t defend the earth; young people can’t be politicized because they are saddled with debt along with their marching orders to become consumers. Climate change kills people every day. It’s dangerous. Certainly it certainly kills people who don’t have the resources to defend themselves. It’s a conscious class war. 

SA: Why did you title your book, The End of the World?

BT: We decided to name the book The End of the World because we won’t survive unless we understand the level of danger we are in now. We’re not registering the emergency. We don’t have a planet crier. There’s no leader standing up for the earth. I think people know it in their souls but we don’t know what to do because we’ve been consumers for so long. The consumer position is passive. Consumers are not active. They are not political. We believe you have to be pessimistic enough to be optimistic.  

SA: How is your tour addressing the environmental crisis that we face? You write, “There is a direct relationship between each additional minute that we are separated and every pound of CO2 we put in the air.”

BT: With our campaign that begins in the Bay Area this week, we are taking an extinct animal and crashing into the hushed cathedrals of finance. We are trying to get at the genitals of the system. The consumer environment we’ve concocted culturally is one where we aren’t afraid even when "the town is on fire." What kind of culture do we live in? You don’t have a normal world when you’re being hit with advertising constantly. That mediation is dangerous and disconnects us from each other. Right now in the world there are 80 coal fired plants in either planning stages or under construction. 

SA: In your book you write about censorship and how addressing climate change is avoided and even focusing on the planet earth, our home is being strategically denied. You state, “This is an apocalypse of accumulating silence.” What are the consequences of this?

BT: The products surround us, instruct us, and order us. The product life that we are a part of, inside these gadgets, inside our cars, our homes, inside our lives, inside these choreographies; it has become so phenomenalized all day long that we don’t realize these products give us a story, they give us a version of events and it cannot include life on earth. The story that the products are programmed to repeat again and again until we think it is reality is the story of consumerism.

SA: How has becoming a parent and having a toddler impacted your work?

BT: Well, my earth radicalism has certainly intensified by some order of magnitude because of my daughter. I feel myself free of the consumerism of the arts. Thousands of tourists get off buses and jets to go to Broadway and Broadway has had hundreds and hundreds of plays that don’t mention the earth. We’re theater people, that’s the art form that [Savitri D and I] come from. The people in the Church of Stop Shopping are painters, dancers, a couple of lawyers, one banker, healers -- people from many art forms and walks of life. For the arts to continue not to express the crisis of the earth means the arts have become increasingly provincial and increasingly out of touch with the big story, the earth story.

SA: Why can’t this story of consumerism include the planet that we inhabit?

BT: The story of earth is the story of generosity, of evolving together in community, of being together as fellow creatures. It’s not about making products that you engineer to over-supply to be scarce to get the highest price. It’s an absurd way to distribute what we need to live. Finally, consumerism at the end of the day is not just absurd, it’s deadly.

SA: What is the story you want to share with the public with your book of sermons?

BT: One thing that we turn to again and again is the fundamentalism that we face, the devil as we call it that is the fundamentalism of consumer society. It constantly schools us by apparent democratic properties, the apparent freedom with instantaneous information, with high-speed electronics and media. Actually the computer era has its promise, things of course that are amazing about it but this earth emergency isn’t really reaching people the announcement of it by way of pixelation -- by way of the screen culture. 

I think that lots of people are beginning to understand that. There is a leveling of the emergency by computer technology. We actually have to break through to each other. We need the computer to plan in person meetings. I’m not a Luddite, but finally we have to wake up to the fact that an online petition never got us anywhere. Seeing life die on the computer isn’t enough. We have to reach each other in the flesh. Barbara Ehrenreich calls it “collective joy dancing in the streets.” We have to finally get up from our computers and go back to public space in our bodies. Going into JPMorgan Chase with extinct Golden Toads is finally an effort to meet each other again in the flesh, personally and intimately.

SA: What destruction have you seen and experienced that compelled you to write the book and resurrect extinct and dying animals?

BT: I think of preaching in Times Square last week. I preached a sermon called Golden Toad for Christ [laughing] — the golden toad is the new Christ. I was in the middle of a huge crowd there and up on the side of a skyscraper was a super diamond-vision movie of the Grand Tetons. I was standing on the sidewalk in my white polyester suit and Elvis hair and I was from the point of view of the camera, flying above, an eagle’s view as people were transported into the image of nature but not nature itself. 

It was again the pixelation of nature being delivered to us as a product. A product. That is the riddle we need to break out of. We have to find our way past that imagery and get to the natural world. We need to be honest with ourselves about the danger we are all in with the natural world. That’s going to be tough and we have to do it together. This a good place for me to preach because this is idolatry. This is not church. This is a deadly riddle of destruction. 

There is a quiet revolution taking place right now. It’s a hell of a challenge. Forestry scientists know that we are experiencing a worldwide die-off of trees. Forests store 40 percent of the CO2 on land. They are the great cleaners of the air because the greenhouse gases are held inside trees. The forests all over the world are dying and the scientists do not know how to tell people they are stuck with that big false beautiful movie of the forest. To reconstitute the forests and the sea we will have to make the big banks back down. They are decimating us by industrial agriculture, financing five massive hydroelectric dams like in Chile near the Pascua and Baker Rivers. That development that destroys the forests and the planet earth must be stopped. Hallelujah. Amen. 

SA: What is the earth radicalism you’re practicing as you confront extreme fossil fuel extraction and the acceleration of climate change?

BT: The Stop Shopping singing activists have been active in resisting mountaintop removal, the tar sands; we went to Tate Modern Museum in London and were taken there by the Tar Sands Coalition among other groups because the museum accepts money from British Petroleum. We’ve worked in many different areas — hydro dams with activists in Iceland, many of the different fracking fuel areas, fracking in upstate NY, we were in Albany a few weeks ago preaching; Kayford Mountain, WV; Washington, DC where we were arrested with the Earth Quakers from Swarthmore and George Lakey. 

We’ve taken on many of these issues but I think with the Extinction/Resurrection Campaign, we are admitting to ourselves as earth activists that we all have to be better radicals. It’s time to rise up like we have risen up in the past in this country. We’ve abolished slavery. I think of the social revolutionary movements, from the labor movement, the civil rights, the peace movement, the women’s, the gender rights movement, we have done extraordinary things. Right now we’re just wobbling, we’re consumerized and we’re having trouble rising to the movement that is demanded of us at this time. We’re having trouble getting out of our homes and being in the commons and making our demands. We need another way of life.

SA: What is the Extinction/Resurrection Campaign?

BT: The haunting of big banks by extinct animals. We’re adopting one of the oldest stories of human culture, the resurrection. Virtually all cultures have a resurrection story and we are coming back from beyond death as the extinct animals that have been killed by climate change and by over-consumption. The first species that has adopted us is the golden toad. The last individual was seen in 1989 in Central America in the tropical cloud forests. A brilliant bright-colored creature from the cloud forests in Central America killed by drought in its mountain home, in its habitat.

Later in the summer we’ll be adopted by the honey bee and then in the fall, we’re thinking about the Siberian tiger. 

SA: How are these animals choosing you?

BT: The Church of Stop Shopping is a group of about 80 to 90 singers and musicians, earth radicals and we make these decisions in our conversations and at rehearsals. We’ve come to this intuitive decision really to resurrect these dead animals because we don’t believe that they are gone. We think that they are in us and we think that people feel this mass extinction. We feel it. It’s true that it’s not getting any press. 

Scientists, of course are apoplectic about it, trying to figure out how to make it news. It’s like the end of the world. How do you make it news? How do you get past the $400 million blockbuster movie that depicts the end of the world? How do we get past the consumer item to address the people in the theater seats to say, you know what this is actually happening? This is going to confront you when you leave this theater, it’s in the street outside this theater, the weather, the air -- we’re in it. But people on some level do know because we are the earth, we are earth in this form of the human being. Our secular church has made an intuitive choice that the resurrection of these dead and dying animals is a part of how we will make our miracles.

SA: You did lots of environmental research for your book. What did you learn from the Dr. Tony Barnosky study from UC Berkeley?

BT: Barnosky’s conclusion is that the earth is a single living thing. He’s saying there is a grand ecosystem here, an earth system and it can experience a catastrophic collapse. His worldwide team of natural scientists from around the world concludes that this more general collapse is imminent. The fact is that we cannot survive without other life. 

The basic understanding of the Industrial revolution, of the Enlightenment and modern corporate accounting, where the earth is "off the books," that it’s an externality, is false. The belief is that we can exist alone. This is the operative belief of our nation’s systems, our religious systems and our military systems. Clearly the deadly evidence is that yes, we can keep ecosystems in pocket parks off of highways or a little museum of existing creatures of an otherwise extinct species standing there in a little zoo but that scenario is a prescription for death for all of us. Humans certainly. We can’t survive that. People have a sense of wanting life. The psychological construction of the average person is much different from that of a corporation. We want to live and we’re looking for a way to live.

Watch the "Golden Toad for Christ" with the Reverend Billy preaching on Times Square in NYC at JP Morgan Chase bank:

Sabrina Artel is the creator and host of Trailer Talk, a weekly radio show. To find out more about Trailer Talk's Frack Talk Marcellus Shale Water Project visit Trailer Talk.