Whether it’s the eradication of slavery, labour rights, the civil rights movement, or women’s suffrage, activism has played a powerful part in bringing about systemic changes that are fundamental in our societies today.
History is full of heroic individuals who dedicated their lives to fighting for causes they believed in. Take women’s suffrage as an example. This was a powerful activist movement that successfully changed laws across the globe.
The movement was preceded by centuries of fighting for women's rights, resulting in a targeted activist movement that finally achieved voting rights for women in many countries, with many other countries following in the “early adopters’” footsteps.
For such changes to happen in society there has to be a collective of citizens who are willing to dedicate their time and energy, and sometimes their lives, to making it happen. These are the activists.
“The foundations of what we today call civilization were laid long ago by dreamers who marched to the beat of their own drummers." - Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists.
The changing shape of activism
Activism can take many forms, especially in modern times where there are more levers to pull.
Contemporary forms of activism include not only physical demonstrations but also consumer activism, for example boycotting certain products and businesses, and digital activism like social media campaigns.
Whatever form it takes, the most important part is that multiple voices are united under a common cause. This can be easier said than done, as even within activist movements there can be quite a bit of discord regarding what to campaign for and how to best represent themselves.
Is there a most powerful form of activism? Hard to say, but physical protests are commonly regarded as extremely impactful forms of activism, especially in the early stages. It's hard to ignore someone when they're right on your doorstep. That and becoming the change you wish to see in the world.
Reaching critical mass to overcoming resistance
As any physicist will tell you there is always a resistance to change and enacting change is rarely straightforward, generally requiring a great deal of effort.
There will always be those who favour the status quo, and who resist change as a threat to their way of life. This is, of course, the classic struggle between the activist and the established norm.
Activist movements often start small and radical and diffuse throughout the rest of society until they’re powerful enough to bring about the change required.
Would you call them tree-huggers today?
Looking back on climate activism throughout the decades, it has typically been associated with people chaining themselves to trees (condescendingly called tree-huggers) and hunger-strikes.
Since the 1970s, scientists and educated citizens have been warning people about the possible effects of increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Public opinion has evolved alongside scientific debate, which has raged back and forth between acceptance, skeptics and deniers—the latter inevitably being backed by those with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
In recent times the climate movement has started to gain serious traction, in part due to scientific consensus but also very real climatic and ecological events that have led to the tragic loss of lives and livelihoods. Nature adding its own voice to the movement.
Did we achieved anything with global climate strikes?
In 2019, for a week in September, a record 7.6 million people from 185 countries took to the streets in a Global Climate strike to protest against climate change inaction. 2019 was also the year of the Youth Climate Strike, which saw students from 47 countries boycotting school to demand action on climate change.
Yet movements like these are still ignored or even met with ridicule. Despite action from its citizens the US is pulling out of the 2015 Paris agreement, with its president publicly denying that climate change is an issue.*
In Uganda, one young climate activist shares how his activism has resulted in him losing friends and becoming isolated.
Clearly, there's still a way to go. But, on a more optimistic note, it looks as if the people who we need to wake up most, governments, are finally starting to get the message. 2020 saw a raft of climate pledges from the likes of China, Japan, Korea, the US (under a new administration), Europe and the UK. These are still just promises, however, it's up to us to make sure they're kept.
On the right side of history
As individuals, we can contribute by living differently and exercising the political rights previous generations fought for to spread the message and win hearts and minds.
Individual leading to collective climate action. Let's be on the right side of history people!
We have more tools available than ever to unite people around the globe. If we want to preserve our beautiful world for future generations, then we’re all going to have to take responsibility. We all have to become activists.
For further motivation make sure to read our interview with human rights and environmental activist of 66 years, Satish Kumar. As a young man, Satish walked across the world with no money to meet world leaders and campaign for nuclear disarmament. Along the way he relied on the generosity of normal people, and met eminent figures like Bertrand Russell and Martin Luther King. Now 84, his fire still burns as brightly as ever. A warm and inspiring interview!
*Update 15th January 2021. Wonderfully, President-elect Joe Biden has stated that rejoining the Paris Accord to be one of the first acts of his administration. Win!
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