The Global Climate Strikes – Performative Activism and the Politically Disaffected Youth
For a week last month, the world saw a remarkable thing – the rallying cry of one teenage girl putting in motion the largest and most widespread climate change activism ever seen. It is thought that over 7.6 million people joined a protest at some point all over the world from Friday 20th until Friday 27th September 2019. The protests started in New Zealand and took place the world over; from Canada to South Korea, from Afghanistan to Brazil. It is clear that Greta Thunberg’s activism has had an astounding effect on young people everywhere. She has made many youngsters, including myself, sit up, listen and take action, underlining how lax we as a society have become with regard to climate change. Initiatives like council-run recycling have been around for so long now that we have all become complacent, yet the threat has only become worse.
The question is, however, what effect have the protests had at a governmental level? There are certainly Members both of parliament in Westminster and of the Scottish Parliament who are trying to enact change in their own little corner of the world. For instance, both our MP Stephen Gethins (who is vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group APPCCG) and our MSP Willie Rennie spoke at the climate march in St Andrews on Friday 20th September. They understand that climate change is an important issue for many of their constituents and that people here want to see effective change occurring. The problem is that these men are not in the government. They are both members of opposition parties and while they can lobby and garner support for change, the cabinet in Westminster is trapped in its own Brexit spiral. The government can barely keep its head above water, let alone focus on important climate change policy. All anyone can do at the moment is make promises. There is no parliamentary time in Westminster to discuss very much else and Brexit is constantly taking the media spotlight. As a result, those who do make grand gestures, promises and declarations of a climate emergency are arguably only doing it for political brownie points. The Scottish National Party (SNP), for example, were the first to declare such an emergency. A more cynical person might suggest they did so simply for the chance to say they were the first and, as is ever the case with the SNP, to be able to criticise the Westminster government for not having done it yet, never mind the fact that they have the almighty task of delivering Brexit. One could argue, however, that the Scottish government’s motives don’t even matter as long as the declaration has been made and they act upon it. The real problem comes when a government, having declared a climate emergency and promised that they will act upon said declaration, enacts no concrete policies. People have such little faith in the government now that many simply won’t believe promises to cut down emissions unless they can see tangible and drastic changes. This is partly why the climate change protests are still happening. If people believed the government would act upon its promises without the pressure of weekly protests, they would have stopped campaigning in May when Westminster declared the emergency.
With the dramatic increase in the popularity of the climate protests, it makes one wonder whether some people are simply protesting in order to be able to say they were there and to post about it on social media, rather than because they truly and wholeheartedly believe in the cause. If these accusations of performative activism are true and the only reason young people have come out in force is for likes on social media, it would prove right all those who ever said that the younger generations were shallow and self-involved. While this does leave a rather sour taste in the mouth, does it negate the good done by the protests? Does it matter why people are protesting as long as the numbers keep increasing and the pressure on the government keeps growing? It depends which you think is more important and effective; the integrity of the campaigners or the number of people campaigning. After all, it won’t be the protesters who sit down with national leaders, it will be the organisers and figureheads of the movement who do. As long as their motives are genuine it doesn’t really matter what motivates the individual protesters. While it may show young people in an unflattering light, climate change is such an important issue that if sheer numbers are what will effect serious change in our society, then we can overlook a handful of shallow minded people for the greater good of the planet. Anyone who could be described as a performative activist probably does believe in the cause anyway and the hope for likes on social media is likely a subconscious one as is so often the case with internet popularity. In reality the vast majority of protesters do believe in the cause and accusations of performative activism don’t define or detract from the achievements of the movement as a whole.
The public continues to push for politicians to move on from Brexit and focus on other vital issues but the government, both in its dialogue with the EU and within Westminster is stuck sounding like a broken record. It is often said that the reason young people don’t get involved in politics is because they don’t understand it or are too self-involved to put in the time to find out about it but here we have a whole movement of young people all across every nation in the United Kingdom, and all across the world which is shouting its opinions from the roof tops. It is the governments who are trapped in their own repetitive cycles, unable to enact any substantial, tangible and immediate change. You cannot say that these young people are politically unaware. They are doing their utmost to exercise their democratic rights to protest and petition the government, yet they are still not being heard properly. If this is what happens when young people get involved and start utilising their democratic rights, it is surely no wonder that they ordinarily feel politically disaffected.