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Céline Zahno | What To Do with the Antipathy for Climate Activism?

Céline Zahno,
30 juni 2023 - 10:24

The criticism that climate activists meet at disruptive protests sometimes seems to overshadow their cause. Even though critique is justified, relating to the people who are behind the protest can give us a different insight into their activism.

The Roeterseiland building was occupied, and I stood on the stairs of the main hall to watch the activists. I was comfortable in the role of the quiet observer. Seeing the circumventing paths that many students took around the activist stalls showed me that I was not alone. Later at the coffee machine, I stood in line behind a student with a little red flag clipped to his shirt – distributed by the activists. As his friends joined him and saw it, they asked: “Are you one of those activists now?” He quickly denies.

I never met much sympathy for their actions, and something also prevents me from wanting to put myself in the same pot as them

This was by far not the last dismissive comment I overheard about the activists, who demanded a fossil free university amongst other things. Even my friends, who were initially enthusiastic about joining the occupation, sat on the stairs a little further away, nitpicking about some of the activists’ choices.


Hostility for public disruption

What causes the air of apprehension? Why do climate activists face so much criticism? This is not only the case for student activism but also for other kinds of public disruption – where people glue themselves to a highway or throw tomatoes at paintings. The activists’ will to mobilize and support their cause impresses me, at least on paper. Their arguments are important, the hot political topic of a whole generation. Yet, I never met much sympathy for their actions, and something also prevents me from wanting to put myself in the same pot as them.


We like it when the oppressed fight back. Women fighting for their basic reproductive rights, underpaid nurses demanding higher wages, movements like Black Lives Matter – these are sympathetic heroic acts. The typical demographic of climate activists is different – they barely appeal to our sense of moral righteousness. Nothing about them looks oppressed. The anti-capitalist narrative that many activists employ does not suit them so well when they are situated on capitalism’s winning end.


Their idealism leaves little room for deliberation about practicalities. When activists argue for instant system change, I often ask them how they envision the onboarding of the other side of the political spectrum into that system. A concrete answer is rarely provided.

But maybe weighing up arguments is not the activist’s main task after all. It is to get things on the agenda. Since they did that already a while ago with the mass mobilization of the Fridays for Future movement, progress has been so much slower than what they asked for. Expressing impatience through urgent activism might be the only adequate response to that.

It is easy to forget the people behind a protest and mainly remember how we are feeling about it ourselves

Irritating methods

It is the ways through which some climate activists convey their frustration that I find sort of irritating. Smearing sunflowers with soup does not do much more than annoy people who care about culture and are probably on the activists side already, at least until they saw their favorite Van Gogh painting endangered. Similarly, blocking roads causes resentment – people need to get to work, they have things to do and families to feed.


I cannot think of much to say to defend their methods, yet my intuitive reaction is to do just that. I could probably point out that they change the cost-benefit analysis for implementing some policies over others or that bad publicity is better than no publicity at all. I am not all that convinced myself, though.


The people behind

What switched the flip for the way I think about these kinds of protests is to consider the personal lives of those who stage it. It is easy to forget the people behind a protest and mainly remember how we are feeling about it ourselves. There is an immense personal cost that comes with mobilizing. The activists have their faces spread all over the news and so much of their time and energy is dedicated to doing something about a problem that is not solely theirs but that of us all. Every time I remember that my conceited anger gives way to admiration.


In the end, I am everything what climate activists are, too. I have a lot already, I care about climate change, I think we need to change our ways. Yet, I do nothing, and I am even slightly annoyed by some activists – but also at least as much at myself. Is that the activists’ job maybe, and their main achievement? To get us to feel a little bit guilty, remind us of how much we are supposed to care?


It is convenient to criticize methods when you enjoy a lesser, but unwarrantedly so, degree of desperation. We should get off our high horses and into the same boat with the activists – because that is where we belong.


Céline Zahno is a Political Science student at the UvA. She is from Switzerland.