It was a sight to behold: merely two weeks after hundreds of St Andrews students formed a front against a climate change, united in unanimous acknowledgment that we, the human species, are killing almost everything we can, already they are derided. Not simply derided by local newspapers but by an online publication run by fellow students. Unanimous I think not.
‘Climate (In)Action’, an article with a title full of wit but a substantive case composed near entirely of harmful cynicism, puts forward the view that ecological activism on the scale of student organised protest and petition is pointless, simply unneeded. The writer’s first argument is to ask, ‘what’s the point?’ They claim that, in a week of large-scale Extinction Rebellion protests and Thunberg speaking directly to world leaders in the US, there is really no purpose in the petition for the university to declare a climate emergency. The lack of awareness in this notion is staggering. True enough, other activists are reaching high levels of publicity and even making strong headway with their movements (the article notes that the UK has gone a fortnight using no coal-generated electricity) but how do you think they got there? Greta Thunberg didn’t spring from the Hudson in a wash of foam and seashells; XR didn’t drop out of the sky in their hundreds upon Trafalgar Square; and the UK definitely didn’t reach this point in its electricity generation overnight. These are all grass roots movements that only exist on the scale they do today because at some point an individual with no power decided that enough was enough. This is one of the most important aspects of the climate action movement that is so often glossed over or insulted by its opponents: it is truly a movement of the people. It is a movement powered by those who realised that their individual agency in combination with the agency of every individual around them was enough to fight back against the faceless, corporate superpowers that currently hold our whole species hostage.
But so what? That still doesn’t mean that a couple hundred St Andrews students standing on a beach, or signing a petition which – as is so astutely pointed out – is only actually publicised by a minority of signatories, could have any real impact. Look out your window! Maybe you, like the article’s writer, can see rubbish littering the ground! No line in the sand or declaration from the university can pick all that litter up. This, in fairness, is an important point to remember; words are wind, but activists and bystanders cannot forget to actually do their part, no matter how small, to make sure we keep the planet clean.
However, I’ve been picking up litter and using a bag for life for ten years now and for some reason climate change isn’t over yet. Perhaps this is because the individual acts of making sure you refill your water bottle and sorting this into that bin and that into this one (regardless of the fact that Fife council dumps it all in the same place anyway), that we have been told are our ecological duty by governments and organisations, actually have little effect on the real issues. Sharon putting her Combini bowl in the recycling bin does sweet fuck all against the companies and nations pouring inconceivable amounts of waste into our oceans, land, and atmosphere. This enemy cannot be fought with a bin bag and litter picker, that is the old lie whispered by those in power who wish to appease the masses without compromising their own comfortable positions. Who would have thought that the bag for life and plastic recycling bin would become the bread and circuses of our time?
So how do we fight this greater enemy? We act. We remember that we have the majority and those holding back cannot stop all of us. We react to the fact that our brothers and sisters in less developed countries are already having to deal with the effects of climate change and realise that soon such scenes will not be reserved for our tv sets or facebook feeds. We draw a line in the sand and let them know that we aren’t going to take it anymore. Why should you sign this paltry petition? Because it’s time the university proved that they care about and listen to the voices of its students. Why does it matter that the university declare a climate emergency? Because an ancient and respected institution taking this crisis seriously speaks untold volumes to sceptics. Why should you act, even in this tiny town? Because the Bubble is a part of the world that exists outside of it and each affects the other.
Symbolism is the word of the day and if you look at the discussion already coming from the world wide climate strike you can see just how powerful it is. Of course standing on a beach isn’t going to magically lower the temperature, it’s about what it means. What it means for 1200 people to line up on a beach and show that they aren’t afraid to say that they are afraid; for their futures, for their loved ones, for their home. If that isn’t powerful enough all you have to do is take a step back and realise that this was just one of countless protests across the entire globe. This was our species knocking down walls and fighting side by side against those who would keep us apart, this was our species becoming self-aware.
So how dare you bandy terms like ‘slacktivism’ about. How dare you play down the impact these activists have. How dare you slander the courageous individuals who are willing to stand up not just for themselves but for you. Cynicism is a slow and insidious killer and change is coming.