Awakening the Activist: Right Here, Right Now

As I write this, teen climate change activist, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, has just set sail on a yacht, her lengthy journey taking her from the shores of Plymouth to New York, where she will attend the Climate Action Summit on September 23 and the UN Climate Conference in Santiago in December. It will take her two weeks to get there, and her travels will produce zero carbon emissions. Her yacht, manned by her, her father and a two-man crew, is powered only by solar energy. Thunberg could’ve just jumped on an aeroplane, as almost everyone else would (including yours truly). But by not opting for convenience, Thunberg’s message is clear – there isn’t time left for hypocrisy. There isn’t time to theoretically care about the natural world but not make sacrifices to remit its suffering. There isn’t time to be anything else but embody what it means to be a revolutionary, right now.

Thunberg’s fast rise to a figurehead of the global environment movement is revealing, heralding a shift in collective consciousness around the role of personal activism. The teenager inspires us, through her targeted protestation and unwavering dedication to addressing and defeating humanity’s greatest moral challenge. Famously telling the leaders attending this year’s World Economic Forum that she doesn’t want them to be hopeful, she wants them to panic, and then to act, Thunberg speaks to the fact that our instincts may be indicating for us to do the opposite in the face of such overwhelming catastrophe – to carry on as normal, to keep safe in our homes, to take shelter, keep cosy, comfortable and warm and hand the reins over to those in charge. Thunberg, as I write and as you read, has abandoned her personal comfort and literal shelter. She eats long-life vegan food and travels the rocky seas, to front her young self up to Trump’s America, to speak the truth to power. I wonder if this is precisely what resonates with us about Thunberg, who in many respects is an unlikely candidate as the poster child of the climate movement. She doesn’t entertain anything else but the most stark and important fact: we are toast unless we change.

Her focus, undeterrable, is her strength. She can bypass cruel and personal tweets made by pro-right politicians because again, her mission is mightier than cyber bullying from men who should know better. Much mightier. They are obliterated into insignificance as her focus is so clear and so important. She doesn’t bicker or debate. She embodies her mission, and that is all. She is an emblem for many of us stuck in the quagmire of what to think, how to act, what to read, in the face of this ecological catastrophe, for the many of us in a static state of retreat rather than in a mindset of determination.

Those receptive to social and cultural shifts may feel there is a renewed sense, globally, in the power of protest, in individual and collective action, in the face of increased media attention on the rapidity of global heating. There is a discernible atmosphere of action, upheaval, a discussion and understanding of the necessitation of civil disobedience, of going above and beyond government, in the face of literal atmospheric changes. If the 90s were defined by slacker culture, being too cool to care, this decade is comparatively sincere; it is about woke-ness, being informed, a shrug of the shoulders and an apathetic mindset no longer cool, but dangerously uncool. It is as if the current and impending environmental devastation we face as a species is bringing out the best in many of us, galvanising our potential – both technological and moral – to first care deeply about the world outside our doors and then to act, not for short term individual gain, but because it is simply right, and too important not to.

In an interesting reflection in the Guardian earlier this year, former UK government advisor, Steve Melia, writes of his transition from respectable taxpayer towing the line to lavishing in a police cell after being arrested protesting at the first of Extinction Rebellion’s actions in April. He opens with a rather revealing anecdote: ‘Just before my 57th birthday, after a lifetime of professional work, paying my taxes and obeying the law, I found myself in a police cell with a single blanket and a hard shelf to sit or lie on. The sergeant who had booked me in leaned towards me and said: “You do realise we’re all with you on climate change?” Melia goes on to briefly discuss the current necessity for protest and activism. As an expert advisor on the transport sector and its effect on carbon emissions in the UK, he has been on the front line for many years, reviewing troubling data, advising the relevant lawmakers on changes needed, which, he says are ‘… accepted when they call for targets in the future, ignored when they call for action to meet those targets’. He has come to conclude that our only method for mobilising the kind of drastic changes needed to address ecological catastrophe and the corresponding potential extinction of humanity is to ignite what may be fundamental to human nature when push comes to shove – the marrying of our ideals and our actions – our willingness not to follow instructions if the instructions are wrong, to step off the path if the path is sending us off a cliff. As Melia concludes: ‘…I have heard from insiders how attitudes within government are shifting, despite the distractions of Brexit. I have also heard lots of excuses: “What’s the point? The Chinese are never going to change,” some people say. Maybe. But even if we ultimately fail and humanity succeeds in wiping itself out, I’ve often thought: how would I want to have behaved? If you have ever felt the same way, we are a broad movement and our doors are always open.’

Georgina Reid, the editor of The Planthunter, has reminded us of the great spectrum of the movement Melia invites us to join in her personal essay this month. While Greta Thunberg exemplifies the power of direct and strategic protest, reminding us not to hide in our homes and wait for someone else, anyone else, to save the planet, there too is a power, a deep and important energetic shift, in reconnecting with the natural world at our doorstep and beyond. To sit in a forest or a garden, or at the foot of a solitary tree, to tend to the soil and interact with plants, to nurture their growth, to watch them bloom and die, is not only a hobby, a pleasant and aesthetically driven pastime. It is, in many respects, at the core of activism in the context of a world increasingly disconnected from such a pursuit. As Georgina writes: ‘To be a gardener is to give a fuck. To be a gardener is to be invested in a place—to know it, to protect it, and to be present. How can we protect and heal ourselves and our planet if we’re not willing to step into, and value, the role of the gardener?’ However we choose to front up to the threat to our world, no action is less brave, no individual feat, overt or private, lacks impact. Indeed it is the very thinking of the gardener that contains the philosophical (and of course, physical) approach we may need to conceptualise our great task as citizens of a planet on the brink, the famous Greek proverb, ‘A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they will never sit in’ articulating this so perfectly.

As I finish writing this, I come across Richard Flanagan’s rousing op ed in The Guardian. The wordsmith confronts our country’s failure thus far in addressing climate change, typified by our Prime Minister’s treatment of our neighbours in the Pacific Islands, pressuring the geographically vulnerable to abandon their latest diplomatic efforts to address the rapid effects of climate change on their region. Flanagan writes:

‘Like so many Australians, I have felt powerless watching the climate crisis unfold in our country. Last week’s events brought home to me how the most powerful in our country seemed to be those that would ensure the very worst future eventuates in their craven service to the fossil fuel industry and its propagandists, thereby ensuring we exacerbate the climate emergency rather than seek to limit its damage. The question of the age is how. In the face of a human-induced change that threatens the future of our species how to act? How to live? How to be? In seeking the answer we find ourselves alone in the universe without illusions. There are no leaders, no parties, no nation, no gods that will save us. We discover at this terrible moment a shocking truth: we only have ourselves. And each of us finds within ourselves only failure, cowardice, timidity, in short, a despair at our general weakness. This sense of futility haunts us all. And yet within that failure is hope. Having only ourselves we finally discover bedrock: ourselves.

May we be galvanised, rather than stupefied, in the face of this realisation, just like a certain 16-year-old currently battling the high seas of the Atlantic and just like the old men and women tending to their gardens so their grandchildren may find shelter underneath the shrubs which will one day become great trees.