Greta Thunberg will not save the planet, and nor will Sir David Attenborough. Climate activists are frequently criticised for not offering solutions, but that is not their role. That role is to protest, make a noise, send a message through to that silent majority who will never pick up a placard or type an angry blog. The climate crisis will be solved by the engineers, the economists, the industrialists and their financial backers when the people who wield the power recognize that it is in their interests for it to happen and the silent majority concur.
Protest achieves little if the message is wrong or if its time has not come or there is not enough incentive for the people who wield the power to make a change. Consider the well organised, heavily attended, high profile ‘ban the bomb marches’ of the 1950s and onwards. The bomb has not been banned. Democratic governments may be sensitive to voter pressure but much of the world’s population survives under communist regimes, corrupt oligarchies and dictatorships.
We’ve been demonstrating about the environment since the sixties but only when a preponderance of scientists started to agree with the hippies was the issue taken seriously. Individuals and nations are largely selfish, which makes it easy to pick off any green initiatives that cause inconvenience or cost money. However, the planet does not need saving, it is human civilisation that is most at threat. Earth will get along fine without us, so preventing climatic catastrophe in reality is a ‘save the humans’ campaign.
It is in all our best interests to avoid ecosystem collapse, widespread famine, displacement of populations and resource wars. Modern civilisation is immensely complex and interlinked as the covid pandemic has demonstrated. It is no longer the case of saving polar bears, but the whole global economic and social order.
So, the time is right because ‘doing nothing’ is not maintaining the status quo but guaranteeing an increasing slide into problems. The message of the protestors is, broadly, correct. There is consistent scientific evidence that global warming is happening and the arguments are now over the detail and the solutions rather than the general trend. People in power now have the incentives to do something, as democratic governments want to stay in step with voter sentiment and even autocrats should realise their power base will be threatened by the ramifications of climate change. Big business is the ultimate self-interested group, but they too are now sniffing the wind. There is opportunity to make money in green industries, and who wants to be the last company building diesel engines, or the last investor holding oil stocks?
Perhaps this means the climate protestors have won and should shut up and go home? Perhaps not. Protest serves to nudge opinions in the direction history is moving. It can also pull support away from regressive policies, and encourage those in power to articulate alternative strategies knowing they already have cheerleaders. However, by attending that demo don’t kid yourself that it is all you need to do to save the polar bears, the whales or humanity.
It is very difficult to persuade other people that they must alter their behaviour, but much easier to drive things through if you hold the power and the means to make it happen. Those young people out protesting should take note that radical change may be founded on idealism but needs solid, hard-nosed delivery. Change is ultimately achieved from within the tent, not by making noise outside.
Archaeologists tend to be a radical bunch very critical of men in suits, but in my first year at university one of our lecturers advised us to aspire to wear those suits. Only by becoming the directors of museums or archaeological units, senior civil servants and policy makers could we improve matters. Whingeing from the trenches would achieve nothing.
So, my message to those young protestors wanting to make an impact is to get inside whatever tent the decision-makers occupy. We need passionate environmentalists to become scientists, engineers, agriculturists, ecologists, economists, financiers, industrialists and join mainstream political parties. It’s not “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”; more “If you want to beat ’em; infiltrate ’em”.
Cover image: ‘Deluge’, copyright Peter le Vasseur 2021. ‘Peter Le Vasseur – A Brush With Life’ will be published by Lutterworth in summer 2022.
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Protest movements are a key element in democratic societies. They don’t all fail to achieve their objectives. I did not know anything about protests when I lived in rural Devonshire in the 1950 and first came across a protest group on a shopping trip in central Bristol in 1960. University students were urging shoppers not to buy South African products because of the racist apartheid policies in that country.
My parents told me that I don’t not need to worry about what they were saying and brushed the matter aside.
However, the issue grew to be a mainstream concern, especially when Peter Haines targeted the South African cricket tour. Eventually change happened.
The history of the anti slavery protests and votes for women each also took a very long time to achieve change, but change has happened and the role of protestors in achieving change is now widely acknowledged.
We need young people and older folk to look critically at what is happening, they should challenge the status quo, they must continue to occupy the streets, wave placards, organise marches, vigils, etc.
Miscarriages of justice occur. Think about the football fans who died at Hillsborough and the protest for better communication systems in trawlers lead by Hul fishermens wives and partners.
I agree the CND protests of the 1950s have still not banned the bomb, but Scotland is now much closer to getting rid of nuclear submarines than it was.
Protest movements take time, often several generations must persistently irritate government and neighbours before real change occurs.
We live in a country widely respected for tolerating people of all religions and none. This is a country which was led for centuries by an aristocracy and monarchy that believed wholeheartedly in the ‘Divine right of Kings’.
It is only because of the persistent efforts of free thinking protestors, young and old, that religious freedoms are enshrined in British Law.
As I look at our society with its extremes of poverty and deprivation, with the vile displays of wealth and uneven opportunities for children and young people, there remains much that requires protest.
Wear a suit if you like, wear dreadlocks if you prefer, but find an issue that you care about, join with others and protest.
Perhaps it’s time for me to get out my CND badge and organise a protest.
Thanks for your thoughts. This is part of what was originally a longer essay, and part II will come later in the year when I’m considering protest, social change and the arrow of history.