21 Oct 2023

'We have to make a huge shift': climate activist and actor Fehinti Balogun

From Saturday Morning, 8:25 am on 21 October 2023

British actor Fehinti Balogun isn't just angry about climate inaction – he's furious.

While anger is essential for mobilising people to address the climate crisis, he says, as a "six-foot-one, quite big black guy" it's something he has to be very strategic with.

"I have to be strategic about how I talk to people, when I talk to people, what I'm talking to them about – and that's exhausting but that's also part of the movement.

"Even now, I'm still a little bit scared [to speak up] to be honest, but also realise I have to because otherwise what will we have left?"

Photo: David Hewitt

Fehinti Balogun is making a digital appearance at the Nelson Arts Festival this weekend with Can I Live? - an hour-long spoken word and hip-hop show exploring environmental activism. He has previously presented at the UN COP26 climate summit, the Scottish Parliament, Cambridge University, and the YouTube Creator Summit.

For effective action, strong emotions need to be backed up with a strong strategy, Balogun tells Kim Hill.

"Sometimes we do things individually that work but, for the most part, everything that has an effect has been planned out, has been designed… and I think we forget because we react emotionally, we react very quickly emotionally.

"If something is sad or bad, we need to get out of that sad or bad to make ourselves feel better but [change] is a longer process than that.

"It's just pushing forward with that emotion, with that anger, with finding your group and planning how you're going to [effect change]. I think that's when direct action works.

"We have to plan to make sure that we are doing things as effectively as they can be done."

In the past, Balogun has worked with the UK-founded environmental action group Extinction Rebellion, but this year he is focused on work with the performing arts trade union group Equity and some other grassroots movements.

Equity's new Green Rider Campaign will make a huge difference to practices within the entertainment industry, he says.

"When I talk to actors, they're terrified that they're going to get blacklisted, replaced, unpopular, cancelled… because they're standing up for something that is inherently anti-capitalist."

The Green Rider gives actors the right to request that productions take into account the current climate emergency, he says, and will set an example for other industries.

"Everything in how film is made mirrors how business runs, mirrors how the government runs, and you suddenly change something that in society is a huge part of its economic resources… suddenly you're not just changing the industry you work in but you're changing the world you live in by designing a different way it can be done."

To decelerate climate change, the world's population needs to live more communally and develop circular economies, Balogun says, and these are changes we can demand and fight for.

Civil rights and gay marriage seemed impossible before they became commonly accepted, he points out.

"We've changed so much already, we've achieved so much by asking and demanding – we take it for granted.

"We're all part of this narrative and we just have to take a step outside what we think we're capable of in order to make a huge shift."

With an awareness that it sounds "so hippie", Balogun says his activism is motivated by a love for the planet, but also by the wake-up call of realising the world he was promised as a kid was not a reality.

"They basically told me I was going to have everything my parents didn't have and more ... I was going to get the same world, opportunities, big old house and a garden, I'd be able to have a massive family and explore the world and the natural world would just keep growing and being beautiful and everything would be the same but more.

"I bought [that dream] and I wanted it and I loved it and I craved it. I loved being in nature and all of those promises. And then I was told that they were lies. And the grief of having that version of my future ripped away from me is unbelievably painful.

"I want to be able to have those things for myself and my family and everyone I know who deserves that as well.

"I'm angry at the situation that I've been put in, that we've all been put in, that we're having to fight people who constantly gaslight us into thinking that we shouldn't be fighting, that we should just continue on as we're going."