The first time I came across an environmental activist was in a novel and his character was described as a “tree hugger”. This was a derogatory term often used back in the day to describe eco activists who would chain themselves to trees in a bid to prevent logging; long before the era of social media and at a time when deforestation seemed to be the biggest threat. Most members of the society regarded these activists as an annoying set of people who were anti-development and I grew up with the notion that if you wanted to protect the environment, you had to be active about it, perhaps even radical.
As climate change and other threats to the environment grew, eco activists gradually became more acceptable and protests against environmental ill grew more mainstream. And thus, it came to pass that the present eco-movement was born. Like most other concepts that catch the public eye, environmental activism underwent a necessary change in approach and tactics. Concern for the environment became more of a lifestyle choice than an actual battle to save the planet.
In more recent times, the world has seen an upsurge in offline activism for a better environment. From the school strike inspired by the Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg to the protests in London by Extinction Rebellion, the climate action movement seems to have woken up to the reality that online activism alone can only do so much. There is an inalienable need to put our “boots on the ground” (or “glue on the ground” as was the case with the London protests) if any actual change is to be achieved as far as climate change goes.
In the wake of the amazing feats of the Extinction Rebellion protesters, the United Kingdom government declared a Climate Emergency. The protest was carried out on the streets by concerned citizens, but the actual decision was made in Parliament by politicians many of whom took no part in the street protests. Now I would like to attribute this success (the declaration of a climate emergency by the UK Parliament) to the pressure of the protests and the concern of the politicians for the environment, but we all know that politicians more often than not, vote in their political interests.
As far as I’m concerned, the foregoing passes a strong lesson across: activism alone, once again, is not enough. You see, you and I may tweet a storm about climate action or protest for it, but the decisions as to what can and cannot happen are still taken in oak-lined offices; and the eco-activism needs a voice in those rooms.
Now that we have the attention of the world, it is time to coalesce the public desire for climate action into a potent political force because believe it or not, governments and political actions are needed for victory in this fight for the environment. In the upcoming Australian elections, for instance, climate policies have been tipped to be one of the main deciding factors in the election and this demonstrates the immense power that the climate and sustainable community can wield politically. A review of the climate views and policies of the political parties and an analysis of the country’s election landscape however, shows that despite the groundswell of popularity, the party with the best climate change policies is still the least likely to win the election.
This has been a reccurring theme in governments and economies across the globe for some time. While popular opinion and rhetoric might state one thing, the real action states quite another. For instance, while the World Bank presidents, past and present, have shown their commitment to the environment and climate action, the bank’s dollars have not. It still lends more to fossil fuels than renewable energy.
A leaf can be borrowed here from the NRA and the American gun lobby establishment. The issues surrounding gun control are literally matters of human life or death so that it seems reasonable to expect that everyone would be in support of gun control laws, right? Wrong. You see, while the average gun owners in the US may be characterized as conservative gun nuts by many an aggrieved American, they have still managed to thwart all efforts towards the improved regulation of guns so far. This is because in addition to their demonstrations on the streets, they also run one of the most efficient lobbying machines in America.
In my view, this is the most effective approach for climate action. It is incredible that the good people of the Extinction Rebellion has drawn attention to the impending danger and that young people put pressure on the politicians, but it is also imperative that the green movement put pressure on the pockets and politics of politicians and businesses. From investment funds and lobby groups, down to political parties, trade unions and other interest groups, the government and the political class needs to know that the green movement demands change and are prepared to pay for it.
Of course, a lot of what I talked about here is already in place, they just aren’t loud or powerful enough yet. The organisations to spearhead the rebirth of the eco-movement, I think, would be green companies. I do not say this out of a belief in their altruism, but because their businesses stand the chance to benefit the most from favorable sustainability-focussed policies. A move such as a reduction in fossil fuels more or less translates directly to higher profits for them and while these organizations may not be run by the best of persons, they are unarguably the most likely to achieve results, because in this case, their profits are directly aligned with the wellbeing of the planet.
According to the United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, the political will to fight climate change is fading. I for one, fear that the will may continue to fade. A quote attributed to Upton Sinclair says, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”. We may never realise the will needed to fight climate change as long as the governments are funded and controlled by those who benefit the most from the status quo.
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Feature image of protest by Extinction Rebellion in Melbourne April 2019. Credit: Julian Meehan via Flickr.