Pete the Temp’s remarkable ‘spoken word’ show is challenging, inspiring, terrifying and amusing audiences across Britain. But it’s performance with a purpose – to engage people in a positive fight to protect the Earth from catastrophic climate change. And so far, it seems to be working …
‘Multi-talented’ doesn’t do environmental activist and spoken word performer Pete ‘the Temp’ Bearder justice.The 33 year old Oxford lad has a background of charity work, campaigning, pulling amazing stunts at demonstrations, investigating the mining industry in Colombia, teaching, writing, poetry and comedy.
When he’s not on stage or teaching at a primary school in Newham, Pete can be seen performing direct activism stunts such as oil orgies (more on this later) or taking charge of the megaphone at fracking protests around the UK, during which he has at times been chased by armed police and dogs.
“And occasionally I get arrested,” he tells me as we meet to talk about his new ‘spoken word’ – or ‘performance poetry’ as it’s also called – show which is currently touring the country: Pete ‘the Temp’ vs. Climate Change.
Non-violent – but highly confrontational
Pete describes his performance – backed by the Arts Council, Occupy London, UK Tar Sands Network and Fuel Poverty Action – as a“one-man spoken word multimedia stage show” in which he “single-handedly attempts to defeat climate change using only his mouth.”
“As you can tell by the title, it’s got a comic theme to it. It’s a light-hearted way to discuss climate change and, more specifically, direct action, which is one of the main ideas.”
He uses his history of direct action, or as he explains it “non-violent confrontational direct actions” and campaigning and performing against climate change to entertain and at the same time communicate these issues to a new audience.
“It’s basically me telling the only story I’m qualified to tell, which is what I have done. My story of how I have engaged with the issue of climate change.”
It was his charity work that gave him the nickname ‘the Temp’, also his stage name. Like many arts degree graduates, Pete spent most of his twenties doing temping jobs. But the name is also a mark of solidarity with the underdog, he explains.
And he’s got plenty of that after his time in Colombia – doing human rights work, and investigating extractive industries, British coal mining multinationals in particular. “There, privatisation is really cut-throat and entire industries can be privatised overnight and tens of thousands of people are immediately turned into temps.”
‘Terrified and inspired’
Awareness of climate change is increasingly driving the arts and entertainment industry, says Pete, and we will see even more of this in the future. As the issues become increasingly relevant to our lives, yet the changes we need aren’t happening, people get creative.
“My show is just one way of planting the seed in peoples’ heads of some of the ways that people can be creative. And it’s part of something global, which is globalising in the same way the extractive and financial industries globalise as well. It has been described as the global compassionate revolution.”
He uses humour as a way to make dark subjects more light hearted. He also likes to dress up as a policeman, often making the police at the demo laugh as much as the other campaigners.
Off stage he comes across as a reflective and calm character who, though confident in delivering his thoughts, thinks before he speaks. He’s the first to point out that using humour and stunts is just one way of drawing attention to these issues.
“I try to keep it humble and I do take the Mickey out of myself. I say, ‘Look, I do have a big mouth. This is the way I move through the world. This is my form of creativity: being able to stand up in front of people and be an exhibitionist. Many of you may not want to do the same things, but what is your creativity? What can you give to this movement?'”
And he’s pleased with the response he has had so far. “I had some feedback in Brighton. Somebody said that he was ‘terrified and inspired’, which is a nice range of emotions.”
Have you heard the one about mass extinction?
It’s not all fun and games, however, and Pete stresses the importance of addressing the darker side of these issues as well as developing creative responses.
And you have to have a little bit of levity in communicating climate issues: “A mass extinction, let’s face it, is pretty depressing.” He says that on the one hand we are working towards a better world, and that can be inspiring, compelling, fun to be a part of, and that should be celebrated.
But on the other hand, looking at the darker issues and really “going to that place” is important too – though not everyone agrees. “There is this debate within the movement. Many people would say to keep it positive. We don’t want people to balk against this. We don’t want people to despair.
“But one thing that’s motivated me, at least, is looking at just how brutal, how all-encompassing and just how serious collapse is. We are living through fast-rate collapse mass extinction and it’s happening within our lifetime.
“And you can’t hammer that over people’s heads for too long. But there are parts of the show where I actually look at that and unapologetically go to some dark places.”
Reviving our ancient fireside tradition
Is performance like this the best way to get people engaged? “I think we have to employ a whole range of ways to get our message across, because we’re not winning at the moment. Culture is one very fertile ground for communicating and re-telling these narratives that we are being told by the people in power.
“Spoken word is a particularly good art form for that. It’s all about the intimacy of live performance.”
And this goes for the young as well as the old. Bearder works as a part-time ‘spoken word educator’ at a primary school in Newham, using poetry to get children to discuss challenging issues as part of a national educational programme involving War on Want and Southbank Centre.
“You are liberating voice through creative dialogue, using poetry to show young people that their voice is important.”
Words are powerful, he says, and spoken word has become popular in recent years. “It’s very much a renaissance of the live spoken word tradition, the ancient fireside tradition, as I like to call it.
“These are really exciting times. I think more and more people are seeing the utility of spoken word, especially when it comes to things like this, in capturing people’s hearts and minds.”
To take back the power, we have to break boundaries
So does this work? Yes, he says. People have responded positively to his show, and as a result he has invited local action groups to be on hand for anyone who would like to get involved afterwards.
He says that in the age of online petitions and social media campaigns there’s no substitute for face-to-face activity and going beyond the boundaries of the people in power – the ways and the spaces which they say are acceptable for us to show our anger and our discontent.
He points out that if you look at every successful social movement – anti-slavery, the right to assemble in public places, the right to join a trade union, and the Suffragettes – “you’ll see that they all went beyond the boundaries in terms of what they were allowed to do and the ways and spaces in which they could protest.”
“There’s a very strong case to be made that we in the environmental movement need to be looking more to direct action.
“I’m not able to go into the legislative chamber and write a document, but I can do a stunt such as going into an oil conference, getting it filmed, doing something ridiculous like getting dragged out of a BP Annual General Meeting pretending to be dead.
“The overwhelming majority of people know that climate change is man-made and it’s here. They want to switch to renewable energy and they know that the energy sector is screwing everybody over, but they feel disempowered.”
Bearder says that while recycling, giving money to NGOs, and changing your energy supplier are all ‘good things’, they bore him and even make him feel disempowered.
“Because power structures work on the complicity of people’s obedience to them. But when you can, symbolically, even just for a moment, show that those social norms can be undermined, then it shows everybody that they can do the same, and that’s part of the process of building a social movement.”
Fracking movement bringing communities together
A frequent participant at fracking protests, Pete has seen people from all backgrounds join forces in the fight against fracking.
“Reclaim the Power, I think, is one of the most exciting things happening at the moment, because you’ve got the biggest ever grassroots mobilisation against the fossil fuel industry that Britain has ever seen, and it’s happening across class boundaries and age boundaries and political persuasions.”
“There are mass demos in rural Sussex and so-called ‘nanarchists’, elderly women in wheelchairs, locking themselves to the gates of fracking companies. I have been facing police lines holding arms with middle-aged ladies from the Shires, who you never expect to see facing policemen.”
One of Pete’s most famous stunts was a collaboration with the UK Tar Sands Network in 2011 to expose the “inappropriate” relationship between the UK and Canadian governments on tar sands at a UK-Canada energy summit in London.
“We went in there with fake identities pretending to be oil delegates. There were people like the CEO from Shell and Total in there and the high commissioner of Canada and all these bigwigs. We snuck in there with our fake oil and we stripped our clothes off, jumped on the table and started snogging and having a big loud and dirty oil orgy until they dragged us out.”
The video has now had over a million hits online and he says it inspired other activists to do similar stunts around the world.
“That’s the beauty with direct action: you don’t know what might happen. Even just going out on the streets with a megaphone, just making some noise and making your opinion heard. I know what effect that has in the hearts and minds of people. I think that’s a really beautiful thing that we don’t get it when we are online.”
“Four hundred years ago in this country you could be arrested for not going to church on Sunday. And that didn’t get stopped by people writing letters and signing petitions.
“Direct action doesn’t necessarily mean smashing windows and getting arrested. It can be something else – something that can be fun.”
I interviewed Pete Bearder for The Ecologist in October 2014.