To Protest or Not To Protest? The Environmentalist's Dilemma

Thousands are taking to the streets around the world to voice their concerns over the climate. How do you know when you're ready to join them?

Justin Lennon
Conservation Guide

London, UK

A Short History Of Protesting

Peaceful protest is a right (or at least should be) for anyone anywhere in the world. Protest has resulted in some of the greatest changes our global democracy has ever seen. In the 1930’s Mahatma Gandhi led a protest against British taxation that saw him walk more than 240 miles to the coast of India to collect his own salt, an act illegal under crown law. Martin Luther Kings ' I have a dream’ speech was given during a 1963 rally to promote racial equality in the United States, a protest which pressured the then president John J Kennedy to draw up firm civil rights legislation. On the 9th on November 1989 the concrete division that separated East and West Berlin for 28 years came down after growing public protests forced the East German government to finally open the gates. All of these protests have one common denominator: they were peaceful.

The Facts

Unfortunately the time has passed to be having sympathetic conversations about the state of our environment. The burdening effects of anthropogenic influence on our planet and its constituent ecosystems are conclusive and indisputable.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2019  "The climate and ecological crises pose an imminent threat to life on Earth”. Over the last 4 years we have seen the hottest temperatures on record. Since 1990, winter temperatures in the Arctic have risen by 3°C and yet with all this information available to us carbon emissions have continued to increase every year with no intention of slowing. Furthermore, according to the IPCC report, the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been conclusively carbon dated as originating from the burning of fossil fuels.

Warming stripes showing annual global temperatures from 1850-2017 - Climate Lab Book

In 2108 WWF released the 12th edition of their Living Planet report, a flagship publication released every 2 years providing a comprehensive study of trends in global biodiversity and the health of the planet. This edition made for some stark reading. Between 1970 and 2014 the average size of vertebrate populations (that’s mammals, fish, birds & reptiles) had declined by 60%. According to the UN, climate change was the third greatest contributor to this loss after changes in land and sea use and the over exploitation of resources.

My Personal Stake

As a biologist, I have been fortunate enough to work on some of our planet's most diverse ecosystems, coral reefs. The wonder and marvel of these critically important ecosystems has been the catalyst for my choice of career and knowing they are perhaps the most vulnerable of all ocean ecosystems to our ignorant, careless approach to environmental sustainability fills me with great sadness.

The fate of our Coral Reefs however are by no means an isolated case. Ecosystems all over the planet, whether marine or terrestrial, are feeling the strain of continual human pressures. From sea grass, to jungles, arctic tundra to rivers, all of our planet's ecosystems are suffering from continual human negligence. 

Photo Credit - Marek Okon

What To Do?

For humans as a collective to enact the necessary actions required to halt and even reverse the growing effects of climate change invoking both institutional (top down) and lifestyle (bottom up) changes are required.

A Bottom Up Approach

We all need to make changes to our lifestyle if we are to feel content that our actions are for the good of the planet. Without making personal sacrifices to the way we live, we open ourselves to the suggestion of hypocrisy. However, even if ample sacrifices are made at the individual level this will not be enough in itself to combat climate change whilst fossil fuel consumption remains the mainstay of our economic system. If you are interested in making sustainable changes to the way you live, have a look here at things you can do.

A Top Down Approach

Protesting is an effective way of making governments listen. Without public scrutiny, governments and big business will carry on, business as usual, spouting rhetoric about the importance of economic growth whilst our natural environments fall at the wayside. Enough evidence has been accumulated over the last decade (and beyond) that shows our current trajectory is nowhere near where it needs to be if we are to take a hold of this climate crisis. 

In the UK for example, the global environmental movement Extinction Rebellion have put forward three demands to the government in their ‘Climate and Ecological Emergency’ Bill. The demands include;

  1. Declaring a climate and ecological emergency 
  2. Specify a 2025 target date for net 0 greenhouse gas emissions and halt the extinction of species.
  3. Create a citizens assembly that will help lead the government on matters of climate and ecological justice.

To find out more about Extinction Rebellion and how citizen assemblies have worked in other countries around the world, have a look here.

Keep It Peaceful

Protests by their very nature have a tendency to amplify emotions and unfortunately for those who adhere to the principles of peaceful protest, there will always be breakaway factions that cross the line. Those who decide to stretch the boundaries risk undermining the very cause they claim to stand for, albeit unintentionally, but nevertheless compromising the very morals and values they claim to uphold. It is these factions that risk alienating the very people they look too galvanise.

When protesting, it is important to remember that with growing support comes a greater ability to make yourself heard. Fostering the principles of peaceful protest is more likely to inspire those who are unsure of their position, further adding to the cohort of voices that speak out for the protection of our natural environment.

Is Protesting The Answer?

If you are considering joining a march, protest or rally in your local area then make sure you are doing it for the right reasons. Peaceful protest is a powerful tool for enacting change and anyone who suggests taking that away from you is anti democratic.

If you feel the points raised here are mere conjecture, take heed of the 400 eminent scientists from around the world that agreed peaceful civil disobedience is one of our only options left if we are to achieve the necessary actions required to stem the spiralling climate crises. Too much is at stake for us to sit in the dark, hoping that the climate problem passes. Too many present and future generations hang in the balance, reliant on the actions we decide to take now as a collective.

We had the power to create this problem, we have the power to reverse it.

Photo credit - Jonathan Kemper

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