Preaching Against Extinction

Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir are back, and this time they want to save the Earth.
Rev. Billy Talen of the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir addresses a rally in New York City. (Photo: Andy Katz/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
May 2, 2016· 3 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Rev. Billy Talen entered the room like a bolt of lightning.

With his stark white suit, priest’s collar, unkempt pompadour and booming voice, he looked and sounded like an old-school televangelist after two shots of espresso. The audience responded as if they were in church instead of in the events room at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. As soon as he appeared and began his sermon-like presentation, everyone started clapping, shouting “Amen,” and calling back in response to his calls for salvation.

The thing is, though, Talen isn’t really a priest, and he isn’t out to save souls. He’s a social activist known for protesting rampant consumer culture. With his Stop Shopping Choir, Talen and his team have been jailed more than 50 times across the country for everything from marching in Disneyland to performing a song about the extinction of the Central American golden toad inside a JPMorgan Chase bank.

That’s the crux of Talen’s latest crusade. He’s still targeting consumerism, but now he wants to save something bigger: Earth itself.

Actually, he wants us to do the saving. He even wrote a book about it: The Earth Wants You, which he’s touring across the country to support. There’s also an accompanying album from the Stop Shopping Choir (available free on Spotify) containing such instant-classic songs as “Climate Change Blues,” “Shopocalypse,” and “Monsanto Is the Devil.”

Standing at the book-shaped Powell’s pulpit, Talen preached this Earth-saving message to the attentive audience. “The Earth—the life systems are going out,” he proclaimed. “Mountain tops are disappearing. Hundreds of species are just fading out. We’re on an accelerating curve toward the sixth extinction!”

Talen knew this wasn’t news to anyone in the audience. “You’ve heard it before,” he said, “but let me shout it at you again.” He then decried the consumer culture that pushes all those things from our minds, whether it’s the “little glowing boxes” we all hold in our hands or the blockbuster Marvel Comics movies that “leave us staggering out of the theater, satisfied, purged in some way. These are the forces weighing on us and keeping us passive.”

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Speaking earlier that night in a nearby coffee shop—not a Starbucks, as Talen has a habit of protesting the chain—the reverend told me the evolution of his anti-consumer message started more than 10 years ago with hurricanes Katrina and Rita. “Those storms were so amazingly articulate,” he said, decked out in his televangelist outfit but speaking in a more subdued, thoughtful manner. “It was like art installations by a political person pushing over those oil derricks.”

Later, they were buoyed further by Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, movements that embody the Church of Stop Shopping’s commitments to the First Amendment (Talen sang about it twice that night), the politics of interruption, and disruptive trespassing. “We’ve found there’s a strange amplification of your voice that can take place if you take back public spaces,” he said.

He’s also a firm believer that the arts can make a difference. “When I hear the Stop Shopping Choir singing in six-part harmony about toads’ extinction, that’s beauty,” he said.

Savitri Durkee, who cofounded the Church of Stop Shopping with Talen and directs their protests and music, said that’s the point of the new book. “It’s a call to action,” she said. However, Durkee, who is married to Talen, declined to answer my question about what action they’d like people to take. “I think it has to be something with their body and the public space,” she said. “It has to be past their comfort line. To some degree, people have to find out exactly what that means for them.”

Durkee added that many people want to take action, but they want to be told exactly the one or two things they should do. “That’s the consumer mind-set,” she said. “That passivity—‘You tell me what to do, and I’ll do it right now’—we’re trying to disengage from that.”

Aside from direct action, the Church of Stop Shopping has started a new form of outreach. After protesting Monsanto’s glyphosate so many times over the years, it decided to make the threat more visible. “We’ve started mapping all of the schoolyards and parks around the country where glyphosate is sprayed,” Talen said. Portland’s map alone looks like a sea of red skulls. The group has also mapped out New York City and San Francisco and has other metropolitan areas in the works.

Talen said this is about visualizing something that can’t normally be seen. “We’re always interested in the sermon in the song,” he said. “There’s this commonness which is just beyond the ability of our senses. If this paralyzing consumerism and its subset militarism are keeping us in our chairs, unable to represent our life in a strong way, we’re wondering if revealing these invisible aggressions would make us more aware of the air around us in some way.”

It’s working, he said. Within days of the Portland map going online, it had been viewed more than 10,000 times.

Talen called this “making the environment vivid around us.” He said most people’s senses are dulled by the constant bombardment of marketing messages. He wants to break through that. “People aren’t feeling the elk in the boreal forests. They’re not feeling the salamanders in the local stream. But what if we felt the air in close proximity to us? That’s something we can all be more conscious about.”

Hallelujah.

Or, as Talen puts it, “Earthelujah.”