Episode 6

The Power of Communities with Farhana Yamin

Published on: 24th March, 2021

Environmental lawyer Farhana Yamin talks about her childhood experiences after moving to the UK from Pakistan, her academic and professional journeys in the area of climate justice and her major achievement in ensuring the term ‘Net-zero by 2050’ was included in the Paris Climate Agreement. Farhana explains what drove her to take direct climate action by glueing herself to the Shell building, what she thinks the impacts of 2020 will have on our lives in the future and why community is so crucial to solving the social and ecological problems we are facing.

Farhana was a Political Coordinator of Extinction Rebellion from 2018-2019 and was named by the BBC Woman's Hour Power List 2020 as one of the most inspiring women in the UK in the area of the environment and the sustainability of our planet.

This is the local community group Farhana is involved in: www.thinkanddocamden.org.uk

And this is the blog post that Helen wrote in July 2020 inspired by Farhana: www.rudhaglas.com/2020/07/31/6fs-of-eco-living/

The book mentioned in this episode is Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth.

---

Music: Pablito's Way by Paolo Pavan

Transcript
Helen:

So thank you very much, Farhana for agreeing to talk to me today. Thanks for agreeing to talk to us about some of your audacious goals on our AudaciousNess podcast. I know that you've done a lot of audacious and bold things in your life, so I wonder if you could begin by giving us a brief history of yourself, a very brief one, and particularly some of the bold things that you've done in your life. Tell us about yourself.

Farhana:

I'm from Pakistan, I was born in Pakistan. I came to this country when I was about eight. And I think, up until the age of eight, the most audacious thing that happened to me probably was that my mum had my hair cut very, very short, which was quite a radical thing for a young girl, because my hair was very unruly. And when I came to this country everyone thought I was a boy. So starting from then I've always kind of felt I could be whoever I wanted to be. Also I had to find a role or a niche for myself. I was child number three out of four. So I was like, in the middle, I was a bit lost in the middle, I had to fight in the family for a bit of recognition. I worked very, very hard. When I came to this country, I only spoke five words of English when I came: Hello, Thank you, blue, green, and red, when actually, the most useful five words would have been: I am not a boy, which is what I needed to say to all the children in my school who for about two weeks thought I was one. Anway, what did I do that was audacious after that? I think I followed a very traditional trajectory of working very, very hard at school academically, so I could escape. That was my escape valve. And I was very lucky that in London at that time, we had Red Ken, as he's now known, who’d set up a scheme to help inner London schoolchildren get to Oxford, and I was one of the beneficiaries of that special scheme. And I got to Oxford. So the most audacious thing that then happened to me was, because I got this free place at Oxford with a full grant and didn't have to do the assessment test — my parents had to confront the dilemma that their child was going to uni, which was they were very proud of, but she was going to have to live away. And so I was the first child in my family, the first girl in my family to ever go to university. And then I had to actually leave home and my parents had to justify that to the Asian community. And they were able to say, “Farhana’s going to a woman's college, it is a woman's college.” So they were very happy to give reassurance to everyone that I was almost in a nunnery to the Asian community. And the most audacious thing that I did after that, apart from finishing my degree, was then I married a Jew. So that was also quite pathbreaking and unexpected. It's now nearly 31 years ago that we got married. And so mixed heritage, mixed race marriages were very, very unusual at that time, they're much more common especially in London now. So yeah, this is my trajectory and my heritage and my background. And in some senses, I broke barriers. But in other ways, I feel I was very much conforming to the expectations of academic achievement of then becoming a lawyer, of the status and the prestige that goes with it within Asian societies, you know, you become a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant. Those are the three choices. An engineer as well, my dad thought I could do that, but I chose to do law. So I feel like in some ways I've been very conformist, and it's only now, later on, when I'm thinking No, that's actually a pretty conformist thing to have done, to follow the mainstream values of prestige, status, money, in some ways. So yeah, not very audacious at one level.

Helen:

Okay, but the lawyer path that you followed, I mean, you talked about prestige and status and money, but you chose not to take that route. You went more along the environmental route. So what was going on for you then?

Farhana:

Yeah, I think I think I tried to, very early on in my legal training, also during the time when I was still doing voluntary work, I really wanted to use my law to work for social justice. I’d in fact volunteered at the Brixton Law Center, which focused on helping people with housing tenancies, immigration, employment law, people, women who've been sacked, people who have been turfed out. But I had to get funding to do my law course, so I went to a firm called Bates, Wells and Braithwaite, and they had a huge charitable practice. And by chance, I found this charity who were looking for trainee lawyers that specialized in environmental law. So my landing into environmental law was sort of unexpected here, you know, there are chance things in life. And environmental law at that time in 1991, 92, was exploding. We had this huge summit called the Earth Summit in 1992, in Rio, which I was very lucky to go to as part of this work that I was starting to do. So I very quickly decided I would do my law in this area of global environmental justice, because I was working also for vulnerable countries. I was very lucky that the organization I started with was funded mainly by grants, so I never had to work in the private sector, as such. I got funding from foundations and so we were able to offer our support and our advice free to small island states. And that's who I've mainly worked with over the last 29 years now, in 2021, it will be 30 years since I started that work. So that for me really felt comfortable because I feel like the global south is my community, and it also appealed to me, because I'm from the global south. And I was able to participate with a really international cast of characters, which also appealed to me because I felt more at home in the UN than I did in British society at that time. It was very white and very unwilling to look at things in a global way.

Helen:

And is it true that you came up with the concept, well not the concept, but the term ‘Net Zero’?

Farhana:

Well, the term ‘Net Zero’ had been around, but it is my claim. And I'll tell you why I'm making it: Yes, to put ‘Net Zero by 2050’ as a defining central goal in the Paris Agreement. So the concept of netting out emissions has been around but the goal, that we should translate the two degree, 1.5 goal into this more operational target, globally that each country, each company, each individual can also start to define their own trajectory. Yeah, I feel like that is my big idea. It's tricky and I do want, I hope you don't edit this bit out, it's very tricky to claim credit for a huge collective achievement, but I make this claim because women, especially women of color, are often overlooked as big picture thinkers. Their leadership is not seen. So I'm kind of slightly being a little bit provocative. Sometimes to other people, it looks a little bit brash, oh, look at her claiming that she came up with this thing. But I actually did come up with the idea in the negotiations, and got lots and lots of allies in the NGO world and think tanks, and especially developing country governments, to put this idea forward, that as well as the 1.5 degree safety temperature limit that they were saying we shouldn't go above, see it's not a target, it's one we want to stay below. But most people don't understand what 1.5 is. We experience several degrees of temperature change just in the course of a day, when we go from day to night or when we go from winter to summer. So for most people, they just don't get temperature change and the small difference that half a degree between 1.5 and two degrees makes. So I always felt we shouldn't focus as much on temperature, the science should focus on the temperature. But operationally something like laws should base themselves on metrics that people can get their heads around, and which they practically can start to implement in their own life. So various carbon calculators help you, for example, you now know what your carbon emissions are domestically as a household. as an individual. Companies already prepare their accounts and already are starting to report their carbon footprints. So it's better for the world to have a metric which is much more measurable, much more tangible. And that was, I feel, my big contribution to Paris, to say, Let's have this big goal as well. And let's give a date, a sort of global end date, to when we will get rid of these polluting gasses, because we didn't have that you see. Before Paris, we didn't have any kind of end date, even globally agreed. And that sounds surprising maybe, but was a huge, deliberate lacuna. It was a huge deliberate objective of the fossil fuel lobby and the countries dependent on fossil fuels and business as usual, to not put in any targets and timetable. That was their fundamental objection from the early 90s. First of all, to have no treaty. And secondly, to have it very diluted and very weak, and for it to not have any kind of legally binding targets or timetable and even non-legally binding targets and timetables. So my audaciousness has been to work with the small islands, to work with the vulnerable countries, to work with environmental justice champions, to put limits, to put targets, to put timetables, to hold governments and big polluters to account, because then you can measure progress. You can't measure progress against just words. So I do feel, that's something that I'm very proud of. But obviously, what I truly believe is a good idea has many parents and that's very true of this one. It's taken thousands and thousands of people and it's taken a life of its own. And certainly after Paris, I can't claim credit for this, it's gone. It's a good idea that people can get their heads around it.

Helen:

Excellent. Well done. I'd like to still keep on the topic of your environmental activism, and particularly the time when you glued yourself to the Shell building. Could you tell us a little bit about that? I mean, that was a pretty audacious thing to do.

Farhana:

Yeah, it was. It was quite nerve-wracking. So on the day, I had decided that I would get arrested because I'd been part of and was a coordinator, in fact, of Extinction Rebellion’s Political Strategy Group. And in fact, I tried to get arrested a few times before then and failed. It's actually quite difficult to get arrested. And at that time the police were sort of ignoring and they'd said, okay, we've done enough arrests, we're not going to do any. So I decided to glue myself to Shell. And I felt I really had to do it this time. I couldn't mess around. I wanted to honor the work of Polly Higgins, who sadly had just died, I think the week before. And she came up with this concept of ecocide. And I certainly do hold that the largest oil and gas companies are culprits and that I hope that the judicial systems of the world will hold them to account. I'm sorry that it hasn't done it already. But these companies have known for decades how toxic their continued operations are. And they've continued. And they've not only done that, but the actual trigger for my response was that actually, since the Paris Agreement in 2015, a report from Influence Map, which is a think tank, had come out showing that they had spent billions again, since Paris, lobbying against greenwashing, marketing themselves as green, but actually behind the scenes stymieing progress, deliberately, once again, watering down and confusing the public, saying they're green. BP saying they're green, you know, ‘Beyond Petroleum’, lots of green logos everywhere. And I just thought enough is enough, and I felt like, at that time, enough of this lobbying and insider stuff and report writing — I was also an academic — enough of this negotiations, we have not been able to really put a halt on emissions. So I felt this huge frustration, this huge anger and this strategically, which is also the case, I've done a lot of thinking about what strategy is needed to really make Net Zero 1.5, really make the Paris Agreement achievable. And basically, most movements have had to resort to nonviolent direct action, some use violent action, but I certainly believe in nonviolent direct action. So at certain stages, you have to put your body on the line. And also the global south, I feel, are bearing the brunt of environmental injustice, not just in terms of impacts, but in terms of their advocacy, so environmental defenders, nature defenders, in countries like Brazil, in countries like Indonesia, in many, many countries are being killed and tortured and silenced. And I feel that the least I can do as an environmental champion now, with all the privilege, use my voice, my platform, the relative safety that I have in this country, is to really protest and use my body too and not just rely on the traditional legal tools that I'd been using for 25 years, which I felt really hadn't delivered. They still haven't, you know, Helen, I just tweeted out this morning the UN Secretary General's speech yesterday, today's the first of December, he outlined this simple fact that our fossil fuel production needs to be cut by 6% a year. And it’s actually been increasing by two percent a year. So after all this huge diplomatic, legal effort, championing by communities, people doing lifestyle changes, people voting in politicians, including the Tories. You remember when Cameron was voted in saying, “Vote blue if you want to go green.” These politicians, this government that we've had for 10 years who've been very tardy in their implementation, I think a time comes when people have to take to the streets, frankly, and demand real change. And that time I felt had come for me. And Extinction Rebellion, which I joined, I think did a brilliant job in 2019, along with those young people, our student strikers who were inspired by Greta, who realized that the planet is completely being devastated. So I feel like us older people — I'm looking at you, I don't know how old you are — but I felt very much like, it's my generation, it's people like me, I feel my children shouldn't be out protesting, they shouldn't be at this point where they're skipping school thinking of not going to university, having debts, not knowing what kind of planet they'll inherit from us. That's not what happened to me age 21. That’s not what happened to me age 18. I was really fortunate to go into an education system and an economy that was at that time expanding and we thought that by being better off, put it that way, by expanding the economy, we would all be well enough off to afford environmental protection.

Helen:

Yeah, that we would all benefit. Yeah.

Farhana:

Yeah, that was the main model that once you're rich enough, then you can afford to be more conservation-minded, or as a country we can afford to protect our environment more. And that's a really fundamentally flawed model, actually. It really relies on economic growth being the generator of environmental protection, which we now know doesn't work. You just can't have limitless growth. And you can't have the economy which is, at the same time, devastating nature also being the guarantor of that nature. So again, as the Secretary General said, humanity is at war with nature. And I would say it's actually capitalism that's at war. It’s not all of humanity that's creating the situation. It's billions of people who are at the other extreme end of it and who are living very impoverished, very precarious lives and who are now being devastated by floods, by typhoons, by water shortages, food insecurity.

Helen:

So where do you see this going? And do you feel that 2020 has been a pivotal year, given that everything that's happened in 2020? Where do you see us going in 2021?

Farhana:

Well, no one who's alive today will ever forget 2020. So it's been absolutely profound for everyone, whether you're a child or an adult, your life has been turned upside down, you've had to do something very different. But I think it was the year which was earmarked globally as the super year, because we were supposed to agree very deep, transformative targets called Nationally Determined Contribution, you know, national plans under the Paris Agreement. We were supposed to agree a global biodiversity framework and targets under the Biodiversity Convention. We were supposed to renew our commitments to the Sustainable Development Goals. We were supposed to come up with a new global financial framework. So this was called a super year in the UN for many reasons. And a lot of that has all been postponed to 2021 because the preparations weren't able to be completed. But I think in a more profound way than what those summits could deliver, that are now delayed to next year, we've had a huge shutdown of the global economy, which has temporarily put a decline in emissions, temporarily eased up some of the extractivist practices that we were doing, temporarily made us question and hopefully change whether we need a fossil fuel based, commuter driven based approach to modern life, whether that's the ideal that we were going for. And more and more people have felt at home in their localities, they want to live and work more in balance, in nature, you're seeing that reflected. So I think it's been a hugely reflective period. But it has also been a hugely devastating period for those people who've lost their jobs, who have got no way to feed their families whose health has been really affected and the anxiety that it's generated. So I hope that some of that exposure of our inequalities, some of that exposure of how fragile our social fabric is, maybe we'll make people be more compassionate to each other, make each other question, was our economy really delivering health and well being? I don't think it was and COVID actually showed that. It was not delivering well being and health for so many people already, it just made it worse, so I hope that gives us pause for thought and we can build back better as the phrase goes. We don't want to go back to business as usual. That was killing us. The economy last year was on the brink of ecological collapse. We were on the brink of social inequality, that is a sort of societal collapse because just like some statistics, Oxfam published a report recently, 2153 billionaires own more wealth than 4.3 billion people combined. So four and a half billion people roughly have the same wealth as just 2500 people. And that's how extreme our society has become and to also value and have a culture that adores the lifestyles and thinks it's fine to be in that 2153 group. That's what's crazy. That's when revolutions happen is when people think, no, I don't value or like the lifestyle of these people. I think that's obscene. And I think that that is a real wake up call. I hope that that degree of extreme inequality, remembering the French Revolution, which I studied at A level, it's that phrase, Marie Antoinette saying “Let them eat cake” as the Parisians rioted outside her palace. It was, well, no, they don't want cake, they just want bread and a regular standard of life. They don't want to be given luxuries. And I feel like that's what's happening to so many parts of the world, especially the countries that I work with, the vulnerable communities that I've represented, they are facing absolute devastation. When a typhoon or a hurricane hits a small island, you'll read about it maybe once in the newspapers, and then it will vanish out of sight, like the Dominican Republic. Many others, Antigua and Barbuda, 90% of their housing stock, their infrastructure, that means their schools, were devastated. So there's no going back for them and building back when that might happen again is a colossal task. We've lost a few percent of GDP in this country due to COVID and we're already thinking, wow, this is the worst recession that we've had for 300 years. Wwell, those countries have lost 200% of their GDP. Their economies are totally collapsing. So yeah I feel devastated by that and I feel we need to be audacious, all of us, in coming to terms with the need to think and do things differently. So I'm trying to do that in my own personal life and in my campaigning and advocacy work as well.

Helen:

That actually brings me on to something else that I wanted to ask you about, because you do a lot of work in the community, don’t you? So you mentioned a bit about, this year it's taught us how to be compassionate with each other, to be the community, to appreciate the importance of staying at home and being local. Can you say a little bit about the work that you do in your community?

Farhana:

Yeah sure. And I've been doing more and more of that for the last three or four years actually. And some of it came from simply being burnt out and having a kind of depression, a mix of real depression, grieving for my parents. Both my parents and my brother died very suddenly and during the Paris Agreement sessions I couldn't take time off to process it all. So I really had tried to take a year off and spend more time in nature and do some nature connection work, which is inherently local. I also had realized I had totally used up my own carbon footprint many times over, not just for work, but also on lots of holidays. And I felt I wanted to be more grounded in the community. I'd spent usually most years two or three months a year traveling to go to all of these UN meetings. So I felt this intense craving to put down roots, to be part of where I lived. I started convening more local talks through a series that we have called Dartmouth Park talks, where we bring together different speakers who are usually from the community itself to talk about topical issues. And I started to really connect with not just some of the green groups, but also some of the community groups who have been working on social issues for a long time. And we set up in the wake of the climate and ecological emergency, which Camden Council recognized in May of 2019, a citizen's assembly in Camden. And then many of us saw, actually, you need to have these convenings all the time. You can't just come together in the wake of a rebellion, you need to be rebelling every day and taking it urgently every day. And I really believe that we have to bring Paris and the Sustainable Development Goals to our high street. Our high streets have to look different. Our villages have to look different. What is your village shop? I know you're in the Isle of Lewis, but what physically would it mean for you to truly embody and live what are the goals that many of us globally, these global frameworks, what does the circular economy, what does it mean for us as communities to live those values, to live with integrity, authenticity? It can't just be that we all go off and live in a commune far away in some woods and stuff. It has to happen on everyday situations and in communities. So that was the starting point. And that many of the bold solutions require us to work with others. So we can't just all pick up our bikes and cycle. We have to have cycle lanes, we have to redesign traffic flows, we have to have low traffic networks, we have to phase out cars and people want to phase out cars. I have a car, but 50% of Camden doesn't have a car. So actually, there should be some incentives to handing in your car or using your parking space for something else, converting little green ‘parklets’, as we call it. So lots of wonderful experiments and we set up a with the support of Camden Council a year and a bit ago now. In November it opened a disused cafe that had been shut on our high street in Kentish Town. We created a pop up Community Action Hub called Camden Think and Do and the words were deliberate because the idea is that everyone needs to think and do something different, that you're a thinker and a doer, you're a strategist of your own life, your own family, as well as making decisions every day to do things. And we had over 80 webinars, seminars, events, just in six weeks, actually, from November and December, it was pretty exhausting. But it was very exciting. It showed that people wanted to meet and talk to each other and we all came up with lots and lots of ideas, and the council were very supportive. And it created a place where people could get advice and guidance and meet like-minded people and get the support of their council as well, who are not just bureaucrats otherwise in a town, but there every day and lots of the local councilors came by as well. So it's still a living experiment. COVID shut down that cafe in March, eight months ago, but we converted to many online webinars. So the community really welcome that. And we’re trying now to be much more inclusive, radically inclusive, and maybe do a mix of indoor, outdoor, virtual, online and physical sort of events, as will probably become the norm actually. So it's a work in progress, and an experiment that Camden Council have committed to rolling out Think and Do spaces, so maybe, I hope, you'll have one in the Isle of Lewis. And my vision very much for COP 26, which is the summit that will be held in Glasgow, that will bring together all of the countries who signed the Paris Agreement five years ago, I hope that every village, every high street will have a Think and Do space. To imagine what their high street will look like, to imagine what their neighborhood would look like, to imagine what the world will look like if we’re successful.

Helen:

So if people listening to this are thinking, Okay, what can I do? What concrete thing can I do in my local area? Whether they live in a rural area, or they live in a big city. Is there one piece of advice which you can give to say, this is something concrete that you can do immediately?

Farhana:

I think, yes, set up a Think and Do place first, because you need allies and friends to figure out and keep you sustained and nourished and going. So I feel I’ve moved from just saying, Oh, stop eating meat or don't buy fast fashion or don't take flights. Sure, you should be doing that, you should be moving your financing, your funding, all of those things personally. But I feel the more important thing to do is set up the machinery, the tools and the machinery that you need. And for that you need lots of allies. So invite your friends, your councilors, people who oppose you. Invite them to think and do things with you differently, ask them what their solution is for many of the problems, especially the people who don't think there is a problem in the first place. That's the starting point, for us to educate ourselves, inform ourselves to go forward together. So that's my mission at the moment is actually create the places and the spaces and then action will follow and be more sustainable in the long term because you've built your community of support. And you're more likely then to succeed when you decide, well, here are 10 things we can do beyond my individual consumer decisions, here are the things that we can do as a community. And pester and then lobby your council or pester and lobby your MP, pester and lobby all of the actors, companies, your supply chains, you can do that collectively. And that comes very much from my strategy part as a lawyer and thinker. You can't just mandate all of this reimagining and all of this action to diplomats and ministers alone. We've been doing that for a long time. What we now need is everyone in society, a whole of society approach

Helen:

And I recall, I think the first time I met you online, there was something that stood out for me was you talked about the five F's of things that you can do. And the food and fashion and finance you've talked about already. And one of the ones that you said were most important was friendships. That we can't do this alone. We have to do it together.

Farhana:

Yeah. And your family. And your concept of your family will expand to include not just your blood family, the family of humanity around you as you meet and greet and talk and chat together. And also, that's what's been a really huge part of what people have missed and maybe what COVID has taught us again, it's actually friends and families and relationships that really, really matter in your life. And stuff doesn't matter as much, the stuff that we think we all want to buy doesn't in the end matter as much as getting together for Christmas, or weekends or for walks. And so I feel friendship and family are really key, and maybe starting with those will help you get and keep on the right path, and then shifting to a plant based diet is more… In my household, we have still actually arguments with my teenage sons of how much meat we should eat. I want to go fully plant based, but they are at different speeds. So we have to compromise it. Yeah, friends and family, in having them come with you is very, very important for us in the long run.

Helen:

Definitely. Farhana, this has been a fascinating and a very, very interesting discussion. There's one question I want to ask at the very end, and this has to do with the name of our podcast, which is AudaciousNess. And the ‘ness’ actually means a spit of land which juts out into the sea. And no matter what nature and the weather is throwing at this bit of land, it stays grounded and it stays where it is. And so my final question to you is, what is it that gives you this grounding and this solidity to continue with your audacious goals, despite everything that life might be throwing at you?

Farhana:

Well first of all, I definitely have wobbles. I feel like it's really important to accept and acknowledge that there will be difficult moments, not just day to day, but months and years where you can't do this work. But what keeps me going and what keeps me grounded is my family and my friends and nature. I'm very fortunate, I'm sitting looking out the window at my garden, it's raining, I'm seeing lots of parakeets actually flying back and forth. I feel when I've become disconnected with those things, disconnected from nature, disconnected from my family, I'm diminished. And my little energy center just doesn't work. So making space for friendships, for family, for nature, whether it's a walk for 15 minutes, an hour, sitting in your garden if you're lucky to have one, just losing yourself in nature and really being kind and nurturing your friends and friendships, who then can nurture you, is what keeps me going, that center of stability and able to be more audacious.

Helen:

Fantastic advice there to end with as well, Farhana. Thank you so much for this interview. I've thoroughly enjoyed it. I won't keep you for much more of your time. I just wish you all the best of luck and continue with your audacious goals in the future. It's been such a pleasure talking to you.

Farhana:

Thank you. Thank you so much. And thank you to everyone who's working on this podcast series with you. I look forward to it. And maybe I'll get to the Isle of Lewis one day.

Helen:

I hope so.

Next Episode All Episodes Previous Episode

Listen for free

Show artwork for AudaciousNess

About the Podcast

AudaciousNess
A solid grounding on which to practice your audacity.
AudaciousNess showcases individuals who have set themselves bold, audacious goals and have worked to achieve them. Our purpose is to inspire people to act with the courage to create a positive impact in the world.

Through interviewing 'regular people' about their audacious goals, we highlight the fact that role models are everywhere. Each and every one of us can have an impact in some way. Our goal is to enable a courageous community that honours their genius and lives their calling.

The name 'AudaciousNess' has two components: audacious, meaning 'bold', and ness, meaning 'a strip of land projecting into a body of water'. We believe having a solid grounding on which to practice your audacity is crucial, or, in the words of the great philosopher king Marcus Aurelius (Meditations, 4.49):

"Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it."

About your hosts

Maribel Ortega

Profile picture for Maribel Ortega
I help women find their worth and be confident so that they can use their voice, speak up, take new opportunities and ultimately lead fulfilled lives.

Helen Strong

Profile picture for Helen Strong
I run an eco-friendly, vegan B&B in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. This is just one of the many audacious goals I've pursued in my lifetime.