I love Greta Thunberg as much as the next person. Her message is provocative and rousing; she takes public speaking in her stride with incredible poise and conviction; and her deeds-not-words agenda has motivated young people in many countries to take a stand and start demanding change. In fact, adolescents appear to be more engaged in activism and politics than ever before. But somewhere down the line, the core ethos of the movement has been jeopardised.
When defending the strikes, many participants will point to Thunberg’s meeting with politicians including Vince Cable (Lib Dem), Ian Blackford (SNP), Caroline Lucas (Green) and Ed Miliband (Labour). This is undoubtedly a triumphant step forward as the younger generation’s voices are heard, but how constructive has it been? It seems that the Conservative party, who have the most power as the current government (at least, they have some power at time of writing), was the most significant party not in attendance. This casts serious doubt over whether any eco-friendly legislation will be passed, or is even seen as priority to our government, especially in the face of Brexit and the ubiquitous leadership elections.
But while the movement’s leader is at least making inroads, many supporters are becoming hypocritical, and the strikes are starting to negatively impact their own cause. Protesters habitually litter in the streets, and food, so generously handed out on single-use paper plates, is frequently left uneaten. In a year, the UK creates up to 7.3 million tonnes of food waste. This excess material is decomposed in landfill sites by microbes, increasing levels of methane and carbon dioxide which insulate our earth. As for plastic pollution, sixteen million plastic bottles go unrecycled every day in this country. Need I say more? Furthermore, while the wickedly witty signs are certainly amusing, using glue and sellotape renders the cardboard unfit for recycling.
Protests often block roads in city centers, and the slow crawl through bottlenecks and diversions only increases fuel emissions. The carbon dioxide in exhaust gas contributes to the greenhouse effect, and Sulphur impurities in petrol condense in the atmosphere, forming acid rain. Farcically, actress Emma Thompson flew 5500 miles from Los Angeles to London to support the Extinction Rebellion protests. In order to neutralize the Carbon emissions from that flight within a year, 68 trees would need to be planted.
So what is the motivation behind the march? Clearly, some attendees are campaigning ethically out of genuine concern for the environment, but many strikers are acting with damaging thoughtlessness and hypocrisy. But they are hard to condemn. Haven’t we all felt the allure of the camaraderie that the chanting mass presents? The admiration of those who seem adult and mature in voicing a political opinion or staring down a policeman? There’s an addictive validation in discovering your voice is heard by politicians and media outlets- even if you’re not really listening to it anymore. And a similar validation is found on social media. It goes without saying that to a degree, posting about strikes and such can raise awareness. But many young people give the impression of shamelessly virtue signaling online without prioritizing that ethos in real life. It bears a similarity to the recent surge of fake ‘nature accounts’, capitalizing on the viral posts that pledged to plant a tree/donate a dollar/save a bee for every like by posting similar promises simply to gain followers.
I wouldn’t want to discourage strikers wholeheartedly: throughout history, many protests have been instrumental in bringing about social change. Despite some questionable grounds for participation, the movement’s heart is clearly in the right place, and when you hear Greta Thunberg say she wants you to panic like the house is on fire, it’s pretty difficult not to run screaming down the street. But please remember that while the most drastic improvements to our dire ecological situation come through corporations and governments changing their substandard behavior, we are also responsible for our planet.