Meet Reverend Billy, preacher of the climate apocalypse

With his Broadway-infused Stop Shopping Choir, Billy Talen takes the drama of global warming to the streets

Billy in full flow at the British Museum (Kristian Buus/BP)

Rev Billy in full flow at the British Museum (Kristian Buus/BP or not BP)

By Megan Darby

“The place where the crucial issues are discussed with the drama they deserve is on the streets.”

Reverend Billy Talen is talking about Tahrir Square. He is talking about #blacklivesmatter. He is talking about climate change.

With the zeal of a televangelist and the Broadway-infused backing of his Stop Shopping Choir, Talen certainly brings the drama.

A performer and activist rather than an ordained minister, he is in London touring the show “Faster! Monsanto Die! Die!” with a 3-piece band and a dozen singers.

Talen meets RTCC in a Camden café to explain how he is reclaiming climate change from the technocrats with his unique brand of apocalyptic preaching.

Cultural reaction

He took to the soapbox around 15 years ago in a reaction against consumer culture.

“I was overwhelmed by TV and advertising and sports,” he says. “I didn’t want to tear off my clothes and run into the middle of the forest – I’m a city person, I’m a New Yorker. I started shouting about it.”

Talen became known for his theatrical protests in public places, casting “demons” out of cash registers in Asda and Walmart.

“Our complaint about consumerism is it makes us stupid, it makes us do the wrong things, it makes us lead dull lives.

“Consumerism is a key ingredient to the recipe of the end of the world. Consumption based on fossil fuel is eating the planet alive.”

Narrative battle

Globally, the dominant climate narrative is of green growth: shaped by the New Climate Economy project, it holds that countries do not need to choose between economic growth and climate action.

This is seen as critical to get emerging economies like China and Brazil on board with emissions cuts – as well as challenging sceptics in developed countries like the US.

At the same time a more radical left-wing movement, always present in the debate, has gained fresh impetus with the growth of fossil fuel divestment.

Spearheaded by the likes of Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben, this segment is suspicious of the willingness of profit-driven companies to cut emissions.

It makes a moral case for action through grassroots networks, particularly from the richer parts of the world.

Talen falls firmly within this camp. Most of his clothes are from thrift stores and he admits anti-consumerism can be “a difficult message for the striving middle classes”.

But with their vibrant creativity, his band of activists aim to show a low carbon lifestyle is not all self-denial: “We believe that sustainable living can be comfortable living.”


Dressed in a white suit, black shirt and dog collar, Talen adopts a televangelist persona.

He even has a book, melodramatically entitled “THE END OF THE WORLD” and available – like his concert tickets – for a donation. RTCC gets a free copy, signed with “Earthalujah!”

It contains sermons, poems and colourful descriptions of actions, like the time 80 activists – led by Talen’s partner Savitri D – stripped naked, wept and smeared themselves with coal in Deutsche Bank to protest mountaintop removal.

In London, the group teams up with BP or not BP for an impromptu performance at the British Museum, in protest at oil company sponsorship.

It is a feature of their tours that they stay with local activists and lend their vocal talents to diverse causes.

While non-violent, this confrontational mode of expression has got Talen arrested “50 or 60 times”.

Brought up in the Dutch Calvinist Church (“we invented apartheid – a very wicked little cult”), he has little fondness for the religion of his youth.

The character “allows me to distance myself from abusive Christianity, make fun of it, satirise it,” he says.

Yet Talen has ironically found himself taking on a pastoral role towards a “congregation” of thousands – a development he says took him by surprise.

There have been weddings, funerals and the odd divorce party among the New York community drawn to the message of love for life on Earth.

With a distrust of corporations, the self-described “wild anti-consumerist gospel shouters” are big on personal connection.

“We are not praying to the ‘big daddy god’,” says Talen, but “we don’t swing over to atheism. We continue to be fascinated with the mysteries of life.”

At times of crisis like the 9/11 attacks, the pseudo-church has provided a space for people to share their grief and horror.

“We had thousands and thousands of people after 9/11 coming to our concerts, holding hands and in tears. They trusted us.”

Storming the house

And in 2012, Hurricane Sandy brought home the threat of climate change.

“Climate changed me, when it tore off my roof,” croons musical director Nehemiah Luckett in a bluesy number at Saturday night’s concert.

It is a full house at Wilton’s Music Hall. For this radical band, it is an unpromising location: midway between the towering multinational headquarters of Canary Wharf and the City.

Inside, though, the dome-roofed auditorium strung with fairy lights is fittingly churchlike.

From the choir’s belligerent entrance (chanting “Monsanto is the devil. Cast. Him. Out”) to its final song of gratitude, the audience is captivated.

(Kristian Buus/BP)

Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir (Kristian Buus/BP or not BP)

The singers dramatise the plight of the honeybee disoriented by neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides subject to an ongoing battle between regulators and industry.

They rap about deforestation.

In “I can’t breathe,” they recite the names of black people killed by police officers in the US.

Talen invites on stage “Saint” David Graeber, a leading figure of the Occupy Wall Street movement, for a moment of adulation.

The subject matter may be unconventional, but the emotional pull and musicality is equal to any Broadway show – or gospel service. Each tune is an affirmation of the right of living creatures to live.

Fear and denial

When it gets to Reverend Billy’s sermon, the choir drops its volume to a background hum.

In a spirited and wide-ranging spiel, he speaks of fear, denial and telling new stories.

Professionals “closing ranks” are the villains; Pussy Riot, Edward Snowden and Native Americans resisting tar sands the heroes.

Members of the audience get into the ecclesiastical spirit, shouting out the odd “Amen” or “Praise be”.

It is all very un-British, RTCC’s friend remarks. Not being a climate activist or churchgoer, she finds the preaching “scary”. The overall verdict is “cool and weird”.

From the rest of the crowd, which no doubt includes some of the activists that are hosting the choir, the joy is palpable.

For the final song, every single person is on their feet, clapping.

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