Rethinking Climate Activism

By Jared Olson

It was a sense of unease that I couldn’t seem to shake off.

We had gone to St. Augustine’s iteration of the Global Climate Strike last September. Several hundred sign-waving people gathered at the Bridge of Lions to shout volleys of chants denouncing the death of the planet. But I couldn’t get over the fact that, after it was over, once the narcotic exhilaration produced by such events faded, things felt like they slipped back to normalcy.

We’d taken our photos and posted them to social media. And then we walked home and left the fate of the planet to itself. 

It seemed representative of how activism often unfolds in America: the range of influence is limited to protests where little change is seemingly made and the sole purpose is to chant with a sign for a few hours and later post a picture of it on social media.

Several weeks later, several friends and I decided to found Climate Action St. Augustine, a loosely organized climate action group designed to agitate for policy change at the local level. The truth is that then, as much as now, we were swimming in the dark. 

We decided that the concrete thing we could do would be to go to county commission meetings every month and, during the Public Comments section, fill as many people as possible so they could each talk for three minutes about why the commission needed to enact climate-friendly policies and strategies they could follow to do so.

Some of us called it an “environmental filibuster,” though a more honest description might be formalized electoral harassment. They would have to listen to all of us.

Collectively, we would turn ourselves into a human megaphone through which we could communicate our terror at the climate catastrophe befalling the planet, our country, and most intimately, our community, and reiterate the necessity to do something about it.

We went to the meetings—some five of them over two and a half months. We spoke our minds, let forth our anger in a flurry of impassioned speeches. But we soon found ourselves before the glacial, maddening bureaucracy.

Within that legal labyrinth, questions of morality and collective responsibility for our shared environment seemed lost amidst jargon of land codes, planning, and utopian economic vocabularies of “endless development.” We soon realized that, after all our effort, we needed to shift tack in our strategy.

A failed first offensive: on the surface, our initial efforts last fall yielded few tangible successes.

So why bother? Why do it? Why do we still keep coming together for our meetings? Why bother engaging in a struggle that seems doomed? 

There are two opposing poles on the debate over combatting climate catastrophe that each, in their own way, can be paralyzing and counterproductive. 

One is that combatting climate change is reducible a question of individual agency. If individuals, so the argument goes, avoid straws, buy organic, and drive Prius’ the problem will disappear, or can at least be forgotten.

But this naivety ignores the enormity of climate change and the myriad blowback its already been producing. It pretends a quagmire compounded through three centuries of capitalism, fossil fuel usage, and population growth—and which is now exacerbating conflict, causing mass migration, and auguring the onslaught of planetary ecocide—can be done away with once affluent, middle class Americans decide to buy greener products at Target, Walmart, or Whole Foods.

But when people recognize this enormity, people often whiplash to the other, equally problematic pole: they despair.

Gripped with an elephantine sense of impotence before the machinations of the history, they decide to do nothing. They bemoan the catastrophe. They dabble in sci-fi fantasies wherein “green billionaires” like Elon Musk, through sheer virtue of their unassailable wealth and genius, will at the last second rocket them off to a hypothetical Martian colony.

The systems of power which exacerbate climate change remain in place. The flames in the burning house grow higher. 

You have to agitate for systemic change at the local level, because at the end of the day, no matter, it’s one of the few concretely meaningful things you can do.

Facebook rants do little to change structures or alter consciousness of the issue. Doing nothing, especially when you have the time and resources to do something, can be tantamount to complicity in the catastrophe itself. 

From a hypothetical perspective, what the planet needs to be salvaged from the worst case climate models would be a complete reworking of our global geopolitical system, an ecological revolution in which fossil fuel industries are excommunicated from our governments so the biosphere can return, however slowly, to equilibrium.

But until that happens, we can only do what we’re capable of at the local level. By making the jump to organize and seek to accomplish concrete change, we were transcending the toothless cycle of protests in which little gets done once everyone goes home. It might not be enough. But it needs to be done anyways.

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