The latest in our series on the environment explores ways that we, as citizens, can take a more radical approach to effecting change.
“Avoiding meat and dairy is the ‘single biggest way’ to reduce your impact on Earth”, a Guardian headline from last year stated. The newspaper articles, blog posts, and Youtube videos on how to minimize your own carbon footprint are endless. Skipping straws, recycling, going vegan: all of these suggestions paint an encouraging, but at the same time terrifying picture. The good news is that as consumers, we are capable of making a difference by choosing to change our own behaviour. The bad news is that if we don’t, because we’re unable to go to work by bike, or if we need to use straws for medical reasons, or can’t afford to buy regional, seasonal, organic produce, then climate change and plastic pollution would be our fault.
Whilst I am certainly the first one to lecture anyone who does or does not care about ethical consumerism, the truth is that it is just simply not that straightforward. As consumers, we have a responsibility, but even as a vegan, cycling, zero-waste aficionado, it is difficult to keep within the range of a sustainable carbon footprint. There are several reasons for this, among them definitely the rise in the world population and structural changes in society which make a self-sufficient, sustainable lifestyle almost impossible. It would be simply untrue to say that living a sustainable lifestyle in a society such as ours is easy, and wide-ranging structural change is needed to actually enable consumers to make sustainable choices for the planet.
However, this absolution of the consumer only works to a certain degree: we could agree that sustainable living in our current society is impossible and that the responsibility to effect change lies with the powerful and the politicians. But if those politicians don’t do enough, it is then our responsibility as citizens in a democracy to take collective action, to pressure the powerful and our elected representatives into affecting systemic change.
The movement to save our planet is, thankfully, growing and environmental concerns seem to finally be catching on with the general public. A movement that has made the headlines recently is a group called Extinction Rebellion. Last November, the self-proclaimed rebels engaged in acts of mass civil disobedience in London, demanding immediate action from the government concerning climate change. Since then, the movement has spread and now also has supporters on the campus of the University of Glasgow. Despite the movement encouraging civil disobedience, they have stated in conversation with the Glasgow Guardian that joining the movement can suit everyone.
Extinction Rebellion is engaged in organizing protests and according to a spokesperson has already achieved real progress, both in the growth of the movement and in councils declaring climate emergencies. The group has announced a youth strike in front of the Glasgow City Chambers on the 15th of February, in collaboration with the by growing movement of Youth Strike for Climate, where they want to encourage Glasgow City Council to declare a climate emergency and to influence the climate bill currently going through Parliament.
They have also stated a need for increased education on the matter of sustainability: “I don't think our student body or our uni is engaged enough. There are a lot of issues on campus. One of our main focuses is to put sustainability into all curriculums so that everyone is educated on how to be sustainable in their own field. It is important to encourage skills and practices that will not harm our planet and can lead to future prosperity.“ When asked about the time commitment that comes with engagement with Extinction Rebellion, they stated that it is a group that you can commit to “as much as you want to.” This commitment can range from simply joining protests to organizing or coordinating them oneself.
The youth strike organized by Extinction Rebellion follows the model of the 16 year old Swedish High School student Greta Thunberg who proves that you don’t need influence or experience to start a movement. Since August 2018, at which time she was still fifteen, Greta has been skipping school on Fridays to protest in front of the Swedish parliament, actively protesting the government’s inactivity concerning climate change. She has gone on to speak in front of the UN Climate Conference in Katowice, as well as most recently in front of the World Economic Forum in Davos, urging them to act against climate change. Thunberg’s school strike took place despite being criticized by parents and teachers. However, since then, her activism has spread, initially in Sweden and then past the borders where it has now reached the UK and Glasgow. The movement can be found on social media under the hashtag #fridaysforfuture and it is increasingly gaining momentum across Europe.
But even those unable to actively be present in protests and demonstrations can join the collective action. One example would be an boycott of particular companies. In October 2018, Greenpeace published a list of the corporations that are contributing the most towards plastic pollution and encouraged a boycott of these companies. CocaCola was identified to be the worst polluter, followed by Pepsi and Nestlé. Furthermore, they suggested that we hold brands accountable, for example by publishing photos of plastic waste in the environment on social media, tagging the brand and using the hashtag #isthisyours.
Taking direct action can even be as simple as starting a birthday fundraiser on Facebook and donating the money to an organization committed to environmental sustainability, or simply signing online petitions to give support to environmentalist movements.
Ultimately, effecting change in society has to come from both a change in our behavior as consumers, and a structural change. As Extinction Rebellion states, “At its core, the climate crisis is something which we cannot afford to not give time too. After reading the most recent IPCC report, it became very clear that we have no time left. This is our last chance to change our course for the better. I hope that we succeed but even if we fail it is far better to have tried and failed, than to not have tried at all.“