Climate Crisis Is a Crisis of Classes, Says British Actor

In the play 'Can I Live?', Fehinti Balogun, with spoken word, rap, theatre, animation and scientific facts presents the colonization and exploration of African countries as central for this discussion

Cristiane Fontes

It was in 2017, while preparing for the Royal Shakespeare Company's play "Myth", a climactic parable, that artist Fehinti Balogun realized the gravity of the climate crisis.

"After doing a lot of things, I got my first lead role in a play in London's West End. It was the hottest year ever", recalls the British actor and playwright. "And, for the first time, I realized that the plantations were dying, the fields were dry. I started to develop a kind of anxiety that I never had before", he says.

"I had the job I'd always dreamed of, something I'd studied to do, and suddenly it didn't mean anything."

Balogun joined the activist group Extinction Rebellion, participated in several protests and organized a lecture on the topic. This journey led him to the production of a theatrical play that, during the pandemic, was turned into a film.

Balogun's mother, a Nigerian immigrant, was the one who inspired the creation of the text, asking hard questions to her son, which he secretly recorded to listen again and think about them afterwards.

"Why are you sacrificing your career to be part of these groups?", she used to ask him.

Even though he disagreed with her, the son recognized in his mother's indignation a very important point: the climate discussion became elitist and white and was not yet able to include the poorest segments of the population.

"Can I Live?", on the contrary, proposes not only to bring the author's personal dilemmas, which are mixed with world problems and scientific data, but also didactic and creative in explaining, for example, the greenhouse effect in the form of rap music. Created with the British theater company Complicité, the performance is woven with animation, poetry and music.

"The goal is to blatantly criticize the system, without blaming a specific person. It's not about shaming people, but about educating them and connecting with them", defines Balogun.

After an online tour, the film was shown at events such as COP26 (UN climate change conference held in 2021 in Glasgow) and the London Climate Action Week.

The idea, says Balogun, is to make "Can I Live?", which has not yet been released in Brazil, reach grassroots movements, to stimulate conversations about the climate crisis among those who are not used to connecting with the subject.

When asked about the climate agenda in the UK, the author is categorical: "We have a government that is not taking this as seriously as it should and that has never taken racism as seriously as it should. We have an entire economy based on a history of slavery. that is not debated. So, inside the schools, we erase this history. What we learn in this country is not even close to what it should be."

Fehinti Balogun in London, Oct. 29, 2021. (Tom Jamieson/The New York Times) - NYT

When did you get involved with the climate crisis agenda? I get my first lead part in a West End show. And it is the hottest year in history after being the hottest year in history after being the last year in history. And I see it for the first time, I see dead food crops across the continent and grass. And I start developing a kind of anxiety, which I've never had before.

And imagine it, you know, I'm doing my dream job, what I trained to do, and all of a sudden it doesn't really mean anything because I can't enjoy it. So then I started trying to take up different projects and things for myself. And then I joined XR (Extinction Rebellion) after I was doing a play in Bath, and there was a talk there, and we went to this talk, and I thought, wow, this is amazing. And I did lots of organising with them.

And then I got to argue with my mom because I went off to do a film and when I got back from the film, my mom was like, "Why are you sacrificing your career to be part of these people?". And I thought, "Oh, no, that's the one thing I'm doing".

What's important is that we argued, we argued, we argued. And then at the end of the argument, I recorded all of what she said secretly on my phone I had put under my pillow. And then I listened back to those recordings. I thought, "God dammit, she has a lot of good points".

So then I took those points, those recordings, and formed a climate lecture because I saw my part of this as being able to use my privilege from acting, my privilege from having these different backgrounds. And I'm not from a particularly wealthy background and kind of like, you know, council house kid and there's lots of stuff that I now have because of acting. Connexions I had. People I know and all these different perspectives and it's like, "Wow, I can really use that to bridge the gap and try and bring these people together through the thing I trained in, which is communication and entertainment".

So I put together this sort of lecture, which is more like a TED Talk. I use my mum's voice recordings and then yeah, that kind of took off. One thing led to another. We started working on a play and then it became a film. And then that's kind of how my climate journey kind of suddenly took over my life.

Your mother is the real star of the film. What were the good points she was raising? So many good points. One of the good points is just the way of what it means to resist authority when you are minoritized. Statistically. And what that means for you upbringing and not just, not your future, but not just your future, the mindset that has been given to people like my mom, to my aunties, my uncles, or like the good immigrant.

And how we inherit those things and how it feels like. And this is something that you tell me explicitly, but something I intuited from everything she was telling me is like it feels like the government do something and then you just get on with it. Like you don't; you aren't able to engage because you're lucky to have what you have. Right?

And she was just like, "There are people that are waiting to get into the country. There are people that are waiting for their citizenships. And you think they're going to resist the very country that tells them that they can't be there in the first place".

For those in Brazil who were not able to watch the film yet, how would you describe it? Basically the film is an explanation of climate change beyond the typical and from the perspective of a person of colour. It is aimed to be on unashamedly critical of the government, whilst also not blaming any single one person. I think it's all true and it's all from my personal experience.

I didn't want anybody to feel shame when watching the film. It's not about shame, that's also a part of the culture of kindness. It is not about shaming people, it's about educating people and connecting with people.

I want people to watch and see parts of themselves, whether it's in all of it or some bits, or they see their mom or they grandma or their friends in these conversations.

The film was aiming at doing that, with taking you through that whole journey in history and then getting to where we are now and starting to gear people up for what to do and more, to finding whether their useful, what their capacity is.

And we put it out online. It was pay what you can. So it was, you know, trying to make it as open to everybody, really. So it wasn't just "hey, we made a piece of art!" and then no one can watch it because no one can afford it, or "hey, we made a piece of art!" and it is set in this really swaky theatre that makes most people feel uncomfortable, and it's very hard to get to.

It's about decentralising this piece of art and put it out to as many people as possible, and giving it to separate groups, so these grassroots movements can put screenings on and then have conversations from that, and bring people in that they didn't used to connect to. Just a springboard for conversation.

What is most important to connect and engage people who are struggling to make a living? I think the biggest thing I've learnt in communicating with anybody is that you have to meet them where they're at. You can't go up to someone expecting them to be at your enthusiasm level or your level of anger or disgust, disdain, because everybody's got something going on in their lives.

And what we have in the system is we're constantly being told that we individually have to fix something and that it is our individual fault. It's the fact that you're experiencing so much food insecurity is either because you didn't work hard enough or you're not doing this, or 20 years ago you didn't save that or you did that. And if you'd done all those things, you'd be fine and it's your fault and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

So then you have to look at it structurally. I think it's got to be structural and spiritual. And I mean spiritual in a sense of: I can spew all of my stuff about structure and activism stuff but at the end of the day: if your plate is full your plate is full; your plate full your plate is full.

We have this term called parachute activism in the UK and it's when you go into a community, you tell them what's important and then you fly away and you leave them with all these things and expect them to fix that, the thing. It's so much deeper than that and it's so lonely and difficult being told that you have loads of problems you need to fix. And at the end, at the heart of it really is community. I think the opposite to individualism is community and organising in that sense.

How would you describe the climate crisis debate here in the UK at the moment? That is a hard question! So right now in the UK we have a government that isn't taking this as seriously as it should, has never taken racism as seriously as it should. We have a whole economy that is based off the history of slavery that isn't discussed. And then within schools we embrace that history. What we're taught in this country it's nowhere near where it should be, actually.

But if we're talking about, like the thoughts and feelings about climate change, it is there, people know. But most people just don't know what to do.

You were with Brazilian Indigenous artists and activists at COP26 last year. How have resonated with you what you heard from them? COP is a disappointing event, as a rule. It didn't inspire me in the least. What was inspiring was all the activists that were there and a different people from all these different countries doing all these amazing things and talking about, like, gosh!

I mean, it's just such a strong, like, community, gosh! Is such an overused or underused to like, like, it's so strong that I got such a sense of, like, family. And um, it's really hard in the U.K., especially in London, because you move every two years, you move around. So how can you have that strength of community in bonds when you are never in one place for very long?

And then the whole Britishness, like, patriotism, but patriotism is quite a hard thing to dissect, because in this country at least you never talk about the bad aspects of it. Never talk about where, where all that money came from. You ever talk about that history and never criticise the heroes, so patriotism is just connected with one ideological, um, imperial viewpoint of the world that says, "I'm superior to you". And so when it comes back to, like, "Why learn from that different Brazilian activist?" It was the complete opposite of that, it was there "This is us! And let's share this with you! Let's save this for future generations!".

How to strengthen the global climate justice movement, considering the current global and Brazilian political context? Part of the civil rights movement was education, education, education, education on the mass scale and very specifically to different communities. So we're not working with fear, we're working through fear onto the other side of that thing. So yeah, so massively in order to strengthen the movement, mass education and very specifically in different zones, and then it needs to be all of these different grassroots movements coming together.

So in terms of narrative shift, what strategies you consider the most important and urgent for us? Great capitalism isn't as great as people think it is. And listen, I'm bougie. Don't get it twisted, I am bougie. I love a nice wine, like, I love a nice hotel, I love a holiday. And I'm not trying to chew at individualistic people. Like, I know, as an individual, that there are things that, you know, aren't helpful. And that's not what I made such.

I mean, to say that whenever we go about fixing climate changes is that we go, "Oh, let's recycle! Oh, let's do this thing!", and we don't go "This company's taking up however many resources of this thing", or "These, like, commercial flights are more than anything that any of us have ever done", because we live in a carbon economy, we live in a carbon economy, like, but I can't erase that from my life.

But you can't equate the petrol of a farmer getting from their farm to a store, or for someone from a low income to be able to drive to work, to a billionaire taking an eight minute journey on a private jet every, like, you can't equate those two things.

And so my thinking is: get away from the narrative of the individual, get away from, like, we're all going to have the wealthiest life and we all deserve it. Obviously, we all deserve that. But it's not going to be like that paid and it obviously isn't going to feed us the way that we think it's going to feed us, is, is just a massive thing.

Change the narrative about wealth and ownership. And we really need to understand the climate crisis is a class crisis really, and it's a global class crisis, and within those class crisis intersectionality, very racist. So, like, very simply understanding those things I think will really help that, it's really hard, because within the capitalist ideal, it only really works if you lack something. You can only be sold make up if you think you need make up. And that's not me saying that people shouldn't wear makeup, but that's me saying, like, you could only be sold something if you think you need something.

So, obviously, they're gonna tell us we shouldn't grow these things, and we shouldn't do these things, because otherwise they won't make money. So it's these changing of narratives, of what we think we need, and actually what we need.

To be able to have the space to discover that. And then like radical kindness in the sense of, like, um, we're not a very forgiving culture.

Could you describe the idea of radical kindness? What I mean by being radically kind is not just like being radically kind to the person with the opposite opinions, but also being radically kind to yourself. Sometimes these conversations don't serve you.

Why am I trying to get someone who fundamentally hates me to like me? How does that serve me or serve the other person? Because at the end of the day, regardless of whether or not they said they liked me or didn't like me, they can walk away and I'm left with this thing.

And the only way you can deal with that thing is you have a community behind you that's willing to share that thing.

I always talk about, when I talk to people, "You have to make a choice when you talk to someone, especially someone with an opposite opinion today, especially someone with an opposite opinion to you who has no stake in it". For instance, racism, sexism, or even climate change when they are not affected emotionally, physically and practically by the thing and they argue against you.

You have to make the choice of "Can I do this today?", "How far do I want to go?", "Do I have people looking after me when I finish this conversation?", "Is there somewhere?". 'Cause you cannot sustain that constant. So the radical kindness isn't just having a space for this other person, it is for yourself.


Fehinti Balogun

British Nigerian actor, playwright, writer and painter born in Greenwich, London. In addition to "Can I Live?", he participated in plays such as "Myth" and "The Importance of Being Earnest" and "Whose Planet Are You On?", films such as "Juliet, naked and raw", "Dune" and "Walden " and series like "I May Destroy You", "Informer" and "O Filho Bastardo do Diabo", whose first season premieres at the end of October on Netflix in Brazil.


Planeta em Transe (Entranced Planet) is a series of reports and interviews with new players and experts on climate change in Brazil and around the world. This special coverage will also focus on the responses to the climate crisis during the 2022 general elections in Brazil and at COP27 (UN Climate Conference to take place in Egypt in November 2022). This project is supported by the Open Society Foundations.