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Climate protest is existential



A backpacked middle-aged man stood staring at a high school girl while she waited for her train to pull into Footscray station. 'You know there's more ice in Antarctica now than there was ten years ago, don't you?' he barked. 

Protestors lead chants from the summit of a tram stop shelter on Bourke Street in Melbourne during the Strike 4 Climate rally on 20 September 2019. (Credit: Tim Kroenert)The girl was on her way to Melbourne's climate strike and carrying a placard that read: 'CONVERSATION STARTED: CLIMATE CHANGE — IT'S A REAL ICEBREAKER.' 

She responded, saying something about climate change being real; another commuter intervened to tell the guy to 'get lost' and he stormed away — visibly angry — muttering to himself about (I assume) young people these days. 

Anyone at Friday's climate strike couldn't help but notice just how much the terms of the debate have shifted in recent years. The crisis is one of being. That's why any opposition to the strike — complaints about the inconvenience caused or that kids ought to be in school, for example — seems petty. Climate change denialism isn't simply a political position anymore. To deny the science is to embrace nihilism; it is to be complicit in one's own extinction. 

Never before has social-movement politics had to confront such a crisis. Indeed, the overwhelming, totalising scale of the current situation can, for obvious reasons, provoke a sense of paralysis. 

In a recent essay for the New Yorker, Jonathan Franzen wrote: 

'If you care about the planet, and about the people and animals who live on it, there are two ways to think about this. You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable, and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world's inaction. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.'


"Those who marched recognise that any effort to avert disaster must be collective."


But the climate strike presented a third option: the reality of the situation is not being denied or downplayed, but, whereas Franzen maps out a series of individual responses, those who marched recognise that any effort to avert disaster must be collective. 

When I told some friends at dinner on Friday night that I found the strike life-affirming in a way that I'd never experienced at any other demonstration they accused me of sentimentality. I was, they said, still caught up in the moment. But it's a feeling that's stayed with me days later. For as long as I can remember I've struggled to think, talk and act in a constructive way when it comes to climate change. For those of us inclined to pessimism and cynical about the limits of individual action, the climate strike provided a much-needed antidote. 

It will also be an important event in many of the students' political formation. One of the criticisms often leveled at young people is that they're too focused on single issues. But, in a sense, there can be no other issue beyond climate change — the crisis is existential. Because of this, today's youth will be shaped by profoundly different political and cultural forces than those of previous generations. 

Unsurprisingly, growing up in the shadow of an impending apocalypse can be anxiety-inducing. Indeed, such a response seems perfectly rational. The idea that this anxiety is, in the eyes of some conservative commentators, a result of 'alarmist rhetoric' and not the threat itself is absurd. 

The risk is that this anxiety becomes so debilitating that it leads to a sense of resignation — that the struggle is futile. The challenge is turning this anxiety into a productive force that acknowledges the urgency of the crisis without becoming overwhelmed by it.     

There is always an inevitable lull after an event of such impact and scale; frustration can quickly set in when change doesn't happen as quickly and radically as many hoped. But the singularity of the issue in the minds of many young people — the fact that it is not just one issue among others — will ensure the momentum created by Friday's strike will continue to build.



Tim RobertsonTim Robertson is an independent journalist and writer. He tweets @timrobertson12

Main image: Protestors lead chants from the summit of a tram stop shelter on Bourke Street in Melbourne during the Strike 4 Climate rally on 20 September 2019. (Credit: Tim Kroenert)

Topic tags: Tim Robertson, climate change, strike 4 climate, covering climate now



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Existing comments

Thanks Tim, I, too, marched with kids from the two high schools and a few from the primary school with their dads in our small Western plains town. It was wonderful to see the kids organised, passionate and realistic. I swing between despair, hope and the sheer frustration of this message being our there for the last thirty or so years and largely ignored. If enough of us stand up and march and keep marching the swell will hopefully make change happen. It is not sentimentality. It is the groundswell of a collective will that we don't want the catastrophe.

Jorie Ryan | 24 September 2019  

Tim's intimation that his friends belittled "sentimentality" reminds me of the struggle I had with Rai Gaita's philosophical analysis of it, which sounded odd to me, next to his defence of moral imperatives' being set by our common humanity. Eventually I learned that Gaita is far from minimising the role of affect in moral behaviour, but warning against trivilialising our feelings by turning them into a form of escape from moral choice. What does this have to do with the climate protests? We have to defend our emotions and their role in collective repentance as much as confront the waste and irreversible damage we are causing via our present consumerist set-up. "Sentimentality" or, better, sentiment, is not the refuge of wishy-washy lefties, in contrast with the clear-eyed (?) muscular Christianity of a Morrison (or an Abbott or indeed a Pell) but the empowering force for real metanoia: not simply economic and technocratic at the problem-mitigating (if not -solving) level but personal within the collective. Think globally, act locally. Thank you, Tim.

Fred Green | 24 September 2019  

If the march had been at the weekend, it would end the thought that it's a day to wag school. We are a very wasteful society. Our buildings are generally poorly designed, people want and need air conditioning and heating, family cars are getting bigger, yet families are smaller. We cut down trees and don't plant and replenish "green". The streets are polluted with throw away rubbish from wrappers to large items as nobody fixes things anymore, just buy new and the life of appliances is so much shorter. Catch any public transport and notice how almost everyone is playing with their devices, just how many times a day do you have to check your emails. How much polluting material is used to manufacture these devices and to keep them charged. Who has a compost heap and is trying to improve the soil. By the way I haven't used heating in my house for two winters now, it's the cost to the planet rather than the financial one. Close the curtains at night, put a woolly jumper on. I too am concerned about this beautiful little planet of ours, but it seems to be much easier to have a march than take much personal responsibility for our huge wastage.

Jane | 24 September 2019  

"When I told some friends at dinner on Friday night that I found the strike life-affirming in a way that I'd never experienced at any other demonstration they accused me of sentimentality." That's because (I assume) they weren't there.

Paul Smith | 24 September 2019  

I have switched from a study of local climatology trends to looking at Climate Change after four decades routinely compiling data . I attended, with thousands, the Climate Change Rally . Like the Vietnam Moratoriums , which mostly were young people protesting the exploitation of conscripts being sent to war, young people today are protesting at the prospect of their lives being turned into chaos as Global Warming passes a trigger point in their lifetimes. Jorie, like you, I also swing between hope and despair. Watching Scott Morrison's performance in the U.S. was so frustrating. How bad does it have to get before they get it?

Gavin A. O'Brien | 26 September 2019  

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