On a national and international level, political action on climate change has been slow-moving and absurdly, fatally bureaucratic. The largest emitters, both currently and historically, continue to emit amounts of carbon that will condemn our planet to a future of unmitigated warming and climatic disaster if something is not done very, very soon. Unfortunately, most politicians are trying to maintain their popularity and be re-elected in the short-term, and the economic pain and social change that will necessarily accompany action on climate change is antithetical to these goals. Action will have to come from the people.
There are many dedicated environmental activists currently working, but there are also significant challenges facing them. According to Lucy Turton, an UMSU environment department office bearer, “climate activism in so-called Australia is basically a lot of the same people taking on a lot of the work.” There is a widespread reluctance to become deeply involved in activist movements, which Turton believes is caused by “a combination of factors: lack of training, lack of time, lack of willingness or understanding about campaign strategy and direct action.” Additionally, she points out, “the negative press from the media and government regarding activism definitely doesn’t help people feel compelled to stand up and get in the way.” Too often, activists are portrayed as overly aggressive or unreasonably discontented. This perhaps explains why, as Turton suggests, “it’s usually people who are already vilified or discriminated against who are the ones doing this work… First Nations people, queer people, young people, People of Colour, retirees and the elderly.” They already know that when activists yell and throw things, they are not overreacting—it is what must be done in defence of innocent lives.
Of course, it is not only negative media portrayals that drive people away from radical activism—it is also, undeniably, more difficult than engaging in other ways. “It’s 10 times easier to get solar panels and use public transport than it is to get people together, organise, plan, and undertake mass civil disobedience,” Turton says. She argues that there has been an exerted effort to push people who want to see change towards “individual micro-change”; that “corporate interests and the politicians who benefit from [them]… have convinced a lot of people to put their energy into lifestyle change by putting the burden of change onto individuals rather than corrupt structures,” with the result that “even a lot of activists… remain convinced that ‘change from within’, which is basically having some rallies and asking nicely, is enough to fix plenty of big systemic problems.”
We need to see a change in our attitudes towards disruptive action—to stop seeing passionate activists as rude or pushy. We need to see them and admire their willingness
to stand up and fight for what they believe in, for this kind of passionate engagement to be something we aspire to rather than shy away from. Turton believes that “activism is becoming kind of ‘cool’ in a hollow way, like … with Stop Adani’s media presence getting to the point that wearing badges or buying earrings that say ‘Stop Adani’ is seen as trendy.” This could lead to a watered-down form of political engagement in which performativity passes for activism; however, Turton thinks “trading off the current ‘trendiness’ of self-identifying as an activist could be used to our advantage, so long as we meet that with actually training people in campaign strategy, community organising, and an awareness of tactics.” If activism is sexy now, this could help in breaking down negative perceptions—the idea of environmental activists as “dirty hippies”, for example.
But attracting more people to the movement is not enough. “I think the issue isn’t so much about quantifying the amount of people involved in action on climate change, but rather the quality of engagement and the strategic value of that work,” Turton says. “It can be heartening to see millions of consumers using KeepCups or governments finally banning single-use plastic bags, or even large turnouts at rallies like the People’s Climate March … but as far as radical and long-term change-making goes … what needs to happen is more radical action that really gets in the way of business as usual.”
In the end, the necessary changes won’t come from polite, government-approved marches. It will come from direct action—disruptive, confrontational, and often deeply uncomfortable for people raised to respect authority and not inconvenience others (as most of us are). We must remember that rudeness and rowdiness are not the greatest crimes
we can commit, not by a long way. Future generations won’t remember activists as impolite or angry. They will remember them as the ones who made all the difference—or who tried to.