Everyone remembers soup being thrown onto Van Gogh’s painting. Despite it causing quite a stir amongst non-environmentalists and environmentalists alike, the outcome was as close as it could have been to what the climate activists had wished for: worldwide attention. This is clearly reflective of today’s dire climate situation, where climate activism has decided to put its reputation on hold, grasping at every straw to get people to shift their focus onto environmental matters. But was climate activism this relentless 50 years ago? How has it changed throughout the years?
April 22nd, 1970 – the first “Earth Day”. On that date, just over 50 years ago, around 20 million protesters flooded the streets in the United States to speak up against environmental destruction and raise awareness about its consequences. While this wasn’t the start of environmentalist movements, it sure was the first time they had taken on this sort of scale. Earth Day has now become an annual event to support the climate change movement, in hopes that people will ultimately “make every day Earth Day”. Climate protests therefore grew to become an increasingly successful form of lobbying and change in social and legal policy matters, allowing the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency to take shape by the end of 1970.
Just over 50 years ago, around 20 million protesters flooded the streets in the United States to speak up against environmental destruction and raise awareness about its consequences.
In the late 1980s, environmental organisations gained prominence and cooperation increased amongst them. The Climate Action Network (abbreviated to CAN), convened nonprofit, non-governmental organisations advocating for transnational environmental advocacy, such as Friends of the Earth, WWF (World Wildlife Fund), Greenpeace, amongst others. The network allowed climate lobbying to increase its scope to international scales. In the mid-2000s, “Camp for Climate Action” allowed members of communities to gather in environmentally friendly spaces and raise awareness about climate change in venues operating on sustainable means. More marches were organized, such as the one leading up to the UNFCCC summit in 2009, which saw between 40,000 and 10,000 protesters rallying and demonstrating in a Copenhagen square. Climate activism therefore was swiftly defined by congregations of people advocating for the same values and principles, whether it be in nationally and internationally recognized groups or organized events and activities on a local scale.
As common street protests maintain a stronghold in climate activism, new pressure groups have flourished in the 2010s, resorting to increasingly coercive and disruptive means, hoping that mass deviance would be the push needed to revitalise climate action. In 2019, members of Extinction Rebellion, a highly controversial climate pressure group, poured fake blood down Downing Street as a way to represent the fate that awaits future generations facing global heating. A major shift in climate activism has hence occurred with the use of civil disobedience as a means to ignite a sense of urgency. By causing “trouble”, climate disobedience aims, in some sense, to make people choose between enduring further public disruption or acknowledging climate change and engaging in environmentalist discourse. With the use of intense and vigorous language, these new forms of climate activism have resorted to threatening measures, aiming to trigger existential fear and guilt trip the general public into climate action. Extinction Rebellion, on its website, warns its readers: “The clock is ticking, and if we don’t succeed in uniting to protect our planet, everyone will be impacted – you, your family, everyone and everything you hold dear…”
A major shift in climate activism has hence occurred with the use of civil disobedience as a means to ignite a sense of urgency.
Greta Thunberg is no stranger to militant forms of activism and has been criticized for her unrelenting conviction to climate action. At 15 years old, she ignited a new age of climate activism during her speech at the 2018 COP24 in Poland: “You say you love your children, but you are still robbing them of the future”. Fridays for Future took the world by storm. With schoolchildren skipping classes on Fridays, Greta Thunberg has allowed the world to witness the rising conviction of youth activism. It’s safe to say she deserves some credit for an inter-generational shift in attitude towards climate change. According to a survey conducted in 2021, Gen Z and Millennials are a lot more engaged in climate activism than older generations are. This shift is undeniably exacerbated through the omnipresence of social media and the pervasiveness of online discourse.
Activism has never been easier: infographics, tweets, reposts, A-list celebrities rallying their fans to send a letter to the EU regarding environmental laws and to stand #together4forests. As activism has become increasingly accessible, requiring a mere click of a “post” or “share” button as opposed to the commitment of participating in a march, climate concerns have reached the majority of social media users, a part of which are swayed into engaging in it themselves. However, this oversaturation of information may generate counterproductive effects, such as performative activism and greenwashing. Participating in online environmentalist discourse may, for some people, serve as a “moral license”, allowing them to boost their self-perception in the eyes of others, the same way companies seek to gain public approval by deceitfully claiming eco-friendly goals and principles.
Climate concerns have reached the majority of social media users, a part of which are swayed into engaging in it themselves.
As we enter a new era of climate activism, reminiscing on its evolution in the past few decades therefore allows us to beg the question: in the current climate emergency, is any form of activism, whether negative or positive, better than no activism at all? Do its benefits, if any, outweigh its setbacks?