Tim Shieff, 27, is strong, incredibly strong. He’s been on TV shows American and UK Ninja Warrior, and MTV’s Ultimate Parkour Challenge. He’s famous in the freerunning community for his one-armed handstand. And he’s been known to scale buildings in London in the name of activism.
In the People’s Climate March last September, Shieff chose to protest from above the street, jumping building to building, eventually landing on a listed building that led to him being arrested. Two months later he was photographed climbing on, leaping through and dangling off prestigious London architecture – stark naked – to raise money for Jamie Oliver’s food education campaign. But in this interview, Shieff didn’t want to talk about his job.
“Freerunning is fun, it’s a living for me, and it’s a way to get people to listen,” he said. “But beyond that I’m just one kid jumping around, when there are animals dying and there’s a planet being polluted. Those are real problems.”
Shieff speaks about his own personal cause – animal rights – and how this generation is already making an environmental change just in what they choose to buy and eat.
When did you start freerunning, and start to mix that with activism?
I started freerunning when I was 16. It just felt like an evolution of what I always wanted to do as a child: be creative, climb on things. It let me apply an adult mentality to that playfulness.
Then I was introduced to veganism. And from there, I found out that the biggest percentage of pollution on the planet comes from animal agriculture. Once I discovered that, it became my calling.
I think we all have something to contribute; we just have to look at the bigger picture and ask, “With what we’ve been given, what message can we promote that helps the greater good?”
What is your environmental case for vegetarianism and veganism?
So 13% of emissions come from global transport, but 51% come from animal agriculture. [The UN Food and Agricultural Organisation reports that 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from global livestock, but one study by WorldWatch claims that livestock and their byproducts actually make up as much as 51%.]
You vote with your money for what you want to support. If you buy less meat and support the animal agriculture industry less, they’ll change. Tesco and Sainsbury’s won’t buy as much, more farmland will be producing crops which will save more land and cause less pollution, and the price of healthy food will go down. If you’re an environmentalist and you want to help the planet for our future, start buying more vegetables and fewer products that come from animals.
When you’re trying to get that message across, I imagine it’s a hard one for people to embrace?
Yeah, you have to choose your audience. Different people respond to different approaches. Now, I’m done with being passive. If I was on a train and I saw a guy hit a girl, I could sit there and think to myself, I’m not a guy that hits girls, I’m alright. Or I could stand up and stop the guy.
But that’s my approach – just speaking the truth bluntly. I work a lot with Jamie Oliver, and he’s got a whole different audience: the masses. And if he went at too fast a pace, he would lose his message completely and no one would listen to him anymore. So he’s doing a real slow, big pull approach.
But yes, diet is a tough one for people. People would rather change religion than change diet. It’s an addiction; we’ve been programmed three times a day to eat a certain way. And to tell someone that maybe that’s been harming others, it’s hard work.
Some people say, “What? No, but humans have always done it for survival!” and other excuses that we tell ourselves. Bullshit. If everyone in England had to physically kill animals to eat them, they wouldn’t do it. If I was in the street and I grabbed a pigeon and started biting its neck off, everyone would think I was crazed. So I just want to be in people’s faces a little bit to force them to face these facts.
I’ve been asking a lot of young people why they think it’s hard for people to engage with things like climate change, and their answers tend to match yours: because we can’t see it.
That’s what it comes down to. If you see videos of people flying over factory farms, the size of them is unreal – but we never travel past those areas of land. It’s unscalable in our heads. We don’t really grasp it.
I think the environment is the best way to get people to understand the magnitude of this. People have already accepted that animals die, and they don’t really care – which still surprises me. And I don’t like using health, because doing things for your health is seen as sort of selfish. But everyone reasonable agrees that we should look after the environment.
Do you feel hopeful about the future?
Yeah. It’s a matter of time. Injustices can’t go on forever, and we’re in the midst of a massive shift. 20% of 16- to 25-year-olds are now vegetarian or vegan [in the UK], compared with 12% of the country. This generation really gets it. And they’re only going to grow older, and new generations will be more sensitive and more proactive. Kids understand why they shouldn’t eat animals. So as they grow up, in the next 20 to 30 years, I think we’ll get kids saying, “Mummy, Daddy, I can’t believe you used to eat animals. Why!?” It’s only a matter of time. In 20 years, I think you’ll get countries declaring themselves vegetarian.
20% of 16- to 25-year-olds are now vegetarian, compared with 12% of the country. This generation really gets it.
That is so hard to imagine.
Maybe, but only in the past century has society really accepted that black people deserve all the same rights white people do, and that women deserve the rights men do. One philosopher [Arthur Schopenhauer] said that every truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Then, it’s violently opposed. Then it’s accepted as truth. Now we’re at the ridicule stage. People still make jokes about vegans. Next step, I imagine you’ll get some violent opposition.
So how do kids who want to go vegetarian or vegan respond to that ridicule?
Laugh it off, man. Lions don’t concern themselves with the opinions of sheep. This is about caring about the environment. This is the empathetic side. If you’re against empathy, then you’re on the wrong side.