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 society 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 managed to change laws across the globe.
The movement was preceded by centuries of fighting for the cause which resulted in a targeted activist movement that in turn brought about voting rights for women in many countries, with many other countries following in the “early adopters’” footsteps.
For the record, the fight for universal suffrage is still ongoing in several countries, but the women’s suffrage movement managed to change society in a systemic way.
Looking at examples throughout history, these ideas are typically brought about by a collective of citizens who recognise that change needs to occur and push for it. 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 of course 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.
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 been associated with people chaining themselves to trees (condescendingly called tree-huggers) and hunger-strikes.
Since the 1970’s, scientists and educated members of the public have been warning people about the possible effects of 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 gained traction, in part due to scientific advances and consensus, but also very real climatic and ecological events.
What can we achieve with global climate strikes?
In 2019, for a week in September, a record 7.6million people from 185 countries took to the streets in a Global Climate strike to protest against 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 climate change is an issue.
In Uganda, one climate activist shares how his activism has resulted in him losing friends and becoming isolated. Clearly, further effort is needed so that all those dedicating their lives to the cause of saving our planet are willing to keep fighting.
We've seen the changes in our own backyard
Now, with the climate crisis apparent for all but the most oblivious to see, we just had the hottest January on record by the way, it’s time for activism on the largest scale the world has ever seen.
What makes the climate issue so hard to tackle is the breadth of the changes required on so many levels. Never before has humanity met with a problem on such a grand scale, where the extent of the issue is not yet fully understood.
Finally, there is consensus regarding the fact that we need collective action before it’s too late and global warming hits dangerous levels. Otherwise, we face being on the wrong side of a historical (in)decision that could well spell the end for humanity.
On the right side of history
There’s still hope, though. Science, coupled with international action by governments, organisations and individuals alike, can overcome the challenges before us. 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 climate action. Let's be on the right side of history people!
We have more tools available than ever. 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.