It all started with a girl.
In August 2018, when she was only 15 years old, Greta Thunberg protested outside Swedish parliament for stronger government action on climate. Over a year later, the “Fridays for Future” movement sees millions of school students around the world leave school for the day to strike for climate action.
And it’s not just kids any more. Parents have been supporting them, hundreds of companies give time off work and other adults have just been inspired to come along, bringing together voices from all walks of life.
These voices are being heard. While climate awareness has been growing for years, movements such as this have brought the climate crisis to the forefront of every political assembly, media outlet and water-cooler discussion.
But has all this talk translated into action? Have millions of people around the world uniting under one banner had a tangible outcome? Based on the latest UN climate summit, despite a moving speech by the icon herself, it doesn’t look like it.
How could this be - that seemingly so much support amounts to so little? It’s because unfortunately protests aren’t perfect and they actually bring along with them a few key problems.
One of the biggest issues with protests is their purpose - not that they don’t have any but that they have too much! More often than not, the purpose for many protests is incredibly high-level, spanning across multiple and massive environmental, economic and social issues.
The climate action protests in Australia were for axing the Adani coal mine and a transition to 100% renewable energy by 2030. While these are very admirable and needed goals, they don’t provide any mechanisms as to how to achieve them.
Greta often says “don’t listen to us, listen to the scientists” for these mechanisms. She’s right of course but effective solutions don’t just rely on science. They need social buy-in, value compromise and countless other nuances to enact long-term, economical change.
These solutions don’t tend to fit well into a protest slogan.
Another problem is that protests have the nasty effect of antagonising people, which can be particularly bad when it’s people in power. Oftentimes it isn’t necessarily the exact message or theme of the protest, it’s the act itself. Unless they are a strong supporter of the cause, many people actually take direct action as a personal slight, infringement on their lives or even just an inconvenience.
In addition, there has been a growing number of people who support climate action but have been preventing themselves from acting on it, so as to not be associated with the most extreme direct action being taken.
This has the incredibly negative effect of splitting society into those who do and do not protest, driving a wedge between the two. We need bipartisan, society-wide support to enact effective climate action but protesting can drive those fence-sitters into opposition and those in opposition to even worse.
The last big problem with protests is the sense of complacency they create. How many people who attended the protest drove home? How many people stopped in at a fast-fashion shop on the way to pick up a new outfit or other unneeded consumer goods? How many ate a dinner of red meat and exotic, imported produce, shipped across the world and wrapped in layers of plastic?
Many respond to this with arguments against individual action, claiming that we can’t achieve the climate action needed with major government intervention and industry changes. We do need these systemic changes but without behavioural changes at the individual level, there will be no motivation by these large players to follow through.
As history has shown, no matter how massive, street protests can be ignored. What can’t be ignored though is a quarterly drop in sales or an increase in public transport commuters. Protesting can be just as, if not more, effective if done with small everyday actions.
Ultimately, protests these days seem to simply be a public opinion poll, albeit an extremely loud one but, despite those negative reasons above, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
While they may not deliver a 10-step guide to solving the climate crisis, protests reinforce that there is a crisis. At a time of so little climate action, this is desperately needed. The ongoing public discontent, embodied in these global marches and led by a 15 year old girl, ensure that climate action is not leaving the political or economic agenda any time soon, despite so many people trying to push it off.
Next time you take to the streets though, just make sure you’re being the best possible protester by having a specific purpose, addressing all of society and following through on your words.
To keep up with everything we get around, from hot topic issues to sustainability to a whole lot of compost, make sure you’ve subscribed and are following our socials - Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn.