Why the Protest?

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.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Bleak-Future-S-edited.jpg
Bleak Future, copyright Peter Le Vasseur 2018

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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