‘The climate crisis is a liberationary struggle’

‘The climate crisis is a liberationary struggle’

Gearing up for the release of her first book, climate activist Mikaela Loach talks standing up to authority and building a more inclusive movement.

“There are so many of them!” Mikaela Loach squeals with delight as she runs into a clearing and dives to the ground. The 24-year-old climate activist pops her head above the ferns after a couple of minutes, returning with her bounty. 

“I get quite emotional about mushrooms,” she half jokes as she fills our photographerʼs reflector bag with handfuls of what she thinks are bright orange chanterelle. Weʼre deep in the woods near her family home in the south of England, without signal and no way of verifying her hunch. 

“Iʼve been really trying to get into foraging,” she says as she ducks down again after finding another big patch – her Afro and signature pink coat dart up and down between the foliage as she talks and exclaims with delight. She cites TikTok creator Alexis Nikole Nelson as an inspiration before reciting the Black Ohio foragersʼ signature catch phrase: “Happy snacking, donʼt die!” she laughs as she pours more mushrooms into the bag. “Loads of my friends have mushroom tattoos. Maybe itʼs a climate thing?” she says as she vows to ask one of them to verify that her haul will in fact make for happy snacking and not death. Later on, as I drive away from the shoot, I get a text from Loach: ‘I think itʼs very possible these arenʼt chanterelles LOOOL.’ The photographer and I screech with laughter as she goes on to explain that theyʼre actually a highly poisonous variety. Tears of laughter stream down my face as I punch back the words: ‘Not us doing a whole photoshoot with deadly shrooms’ into my phone. 

Iʼve known Loach for just over a year, after she bounded up to me at a migrant rights demo at the Labour Party Conference in Brighton in 2021 and, in her words, made me become friends with her. At the time she had just started a year out from medical school in Edinburgh to focus more on the climate activism that had become a huge part of her life. Loach was born in Jamaica, which is where her mother is from and her maternal grandmother still lives. Itʼs this heritage that in many ways set the ground for her entry into activism: “As a kid I was always the one that organised the fundraisers or awareness campaigns at school because I thought that was how you changed things.”

As she got older, she began to understand the limits of those methods and began to care more about climate from a “lifestyle perspective”. “I went vegan and stopped buying fast fashion, etcetra. Around the same time the Jungle [migrant] camp in Calais was in the news and that picture of the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach was on the front page of newspapers and it had a huge impact on me.” Loachʼs family moved from Jamaica to the UK when she was around the same age. “The only reason we could do that was because I happened to be born with a British passport because I had a British father. It was privilege and chance,” she says. “I didn’t see myself as being wildly different from people experiencing violence at the border and I wanted to do something about it.” Loach began to attend protests and volunteered at the warehouses distributing support to those camped in Calais and Dunkirk. 

Once at university, still doing much of the lifestyle-based campaigning, she discovered the concept of climate justice. “It made me realise that climate crisis, migrant justice, white supremacy and all of these other issues that I cared about were connected, and that it was only through a liberatory struggle that we can, not only stop the climate crisis getting worse, but also make a better world for all of us, which is really exciting!” 

She joined Extinction Rebellion Scotland and began organising with the media team – helping with social media, press releases and attending spokesperson training. “My first big action was in the October Rebellion in 2019 where a couple of hundred of us came down from Scotland and occupied the road outside the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in the heart of Westminster, just by the Abbey.” The group occupied the road for five days, using it as a launch site for actions that targeted BEIS and other government buildings. Loach had not intended to get arrested, though admits her presence there, camping on a road in the heart of the city, put her at risk. Instead she was part of the social media team, capturing, live streaming and documenting actions. The camp, which included a kitchen and a stage, also played host to a selection of speeches including a reading of the IPCC report, which spelled out the need for urgent action in the years up to 2030 to avoid irreversible climate destruction. Loach was one of those who read out a section. “I read a part about corals and coral reefs and it got me really emotional,” she tells me. “It hit me like a tonne of bricks – the state and extent of the climate crisis and the fact we have a government whose promises at the time meant we had a 50:50 chance of staying below 1.5 degrees of warming.” 

“You wouldnʼt put your kids in a car with only a fifty-fifty chance of getting to its destination so, I thought, why are politicians doing that with our lives?” It was a profound moment of anger, frustration and sadness that led Loach to take action – locking onto infrastructure in the camp to try and stop the police clearing it as they moved in a few hours later. “Immediately after I locked on I got really emotional and was crying a lot. Everything hit me all over again but also out of fear. I just remember being like, ‘Fuck, Iʼm just fully putting myself at the mercy of the police.’” 

Loach was locked on for around eight hours in the end, until around 1am. For the final few hours it was just five activists surrounded by a police cordon. “The police gave me a lecture on why the police arenʼt racist – which was a lot. I didnʼt end up getting arrested because they let us walk. Iʼm glad because I was not in the mental headspace for that – I was not well prepared for it.” 

From there, Loachʼs involvement in direct action continued. She was one of a few activists who occupied the UK government building in Edinburgh to protest against the development of the Cambo oil field just off the coast of Shetland. “We also did actions where we went to Scottish Oil Club dinners that were open to the public and disrupted them. Weʼd go and theyʼd be saying things like, ‘Itʼs not easy being green’ and put a picture of Kermit the Frog up on the screen while talking about the need to extract as much oil and gas from the ground before 2050.” 

In a short time, Loach has become one of the foremost voices in a generation of activists fighting to prevent the devastation of climate change. She took the government to court over subsidies paid to oil and gas companies, alongside two other activists in the Paid to Pollute case, which unfortunately they lost. She has amassed 150,000 Instagram followers and regularly appears in the media and on panels across the world arguing for change. This year she was invited by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to speak at the GoalKeepers 2030 event in New York. In a clip that went viral, Loach took to the stage and said “I think billionaires shouldnʼt exist” before going on to say, “I think the climate crisis was caused by capitalism, and inequality and oppression are not an accident.” Loach donated her fee from the event to Indigenous Land Defenders in Mexico and admits, as we wander around the woods she spent much of her childhood in, that she was extremely nervous. “I didnʼt know how it was going to be received and I didnʼt realise how far the video would travel.”

Her intervention, which received tepid applause in the room but has been celebrated by many across the world, speaks to the heart of her politics and the interconnectivity of struggles that led her to activism. “As someone who is racialised as Black and is part of a diaspora community, I care so much about my family back home in Jamaica and I realise theyʼre more vulnerable to the climate crisis than my family in the UK because of colonialism and geography and imperialism and power dynamics globally.” Loach is, by her own description middle-class, which she says has shielded her from lots of the structural elements of racism, but growing up in an all-white area, at a school where she was regularly the only non-white person, she has experienced “a lot of interpersonal racism”. She has, on occasion, been told to go back to where she comes from on the streets of the area she grew up in. This experience of racism did not stop when she started getting involved in the climate movement.

“Like any Black activist within the UKʼs climate movement – because it is a very white movement – I have experienced a huge amount of racism, though that is changing now.” She muses on how, especially during her time in Extinction Rebellion, she was told not to talk about racism and how doing so would dilute the message. “In many ways it had the opposite effect on me and actually pushed me to want to talk about how the climate crisis connects to racial injustice is so deeply important. Itʼs our only way out. Seeing the climate crisis as a liberationary struggle is the only way weʼre actually going to see it for what it is rather than just picking off the symptoms of it.” 

Taking a climate activist to a wood for a photoshoot and interview could, in some circumstances, be seen as clichéd. Shooting pictures of them embedded in the nature theyʼre so desperate to protect, hugging trees to drive home the point is almost passé, but this shoot was different. When we were setting up this feature I asked Loach to pick somewhere that had meaning for her. 

These woods – where she grew up – were a place that her family would go often. As we walk around them, she jokes about how, every weekend, rain or shine, her family would be out on a walk somewhere. 

As a child, she was often bored and uninspired by it all. Now, as an adult, the woods offer an opportunity for quiet reflection. “I recently went on this nature meditation walk which I was very sceptical of, thinking it was all just white people shit,” she laughs as she poses for photos in front of a backdrop weʼve erected in a clearing, “but it really taught me to listen and pay attention. Even now Iʼm stood here, feeling this leaf and really concentrating on it and the structures that make it.” 

For Loach, her connection to this wood, and to nature as a whole, goes far beyond a “white people” hippy out-look. It can, she proffers as we walk, offer inspirations for how we should build and work together. She cites Adrienne Maree Brownʼs book Emergent Strategy. “She talks a lot about how our movements can mirror how nature and ecologies work. She says she wants us to be like mycelium in how we see our connections to each other and how we are resilient, or be like trees and make sure our movements have roots,” says Loach. “I think that idea is really powerful and also really beautiful because it reminds me to look beyond humans and see us as an interconnected part of other things as well.” 

It’s this desire to build inclusive, resilient movements, that are open to all that spurred Loach on to write her first book Itʼs Not That Radical: Climate Action To Transform Our World. She describes the book as an accessible entry point into climate justice, liberatory ideas that go beyond white enviromentalism, to tackle capitalism more broadly. “I just realised that there are a lot of things Iʼve had the privilege of being able to learn by being in these spaces for so long, and I wished I could condense it down into a book to recommend to one of the many people who message and ask for help getting started.” The aim of the book, Loach tells me, is to try and shift the narrative on climate. “So many climate books are brilliant but theyʼre either not super accessible or theyʼre like, ‘The climate crisis is going to kill us all!’ My book is about hope. Itʼs a book about what we can do. About how we can change the world. About how transformation is actually possible, and itʼs not just about making the same world green, but going to the roots and changing those.” 

It’s Not That Radical: Climate Action to Transform Our World is now available to pre-order

Ben Smoke is Huck’s Commissioning Editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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