Last week, an Australian climate protester, who blocked a lane of traffic on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, was sentenced to up to 15 months in prison under a new anti-protest law. It was one of many recent disruptive climate protests that seem to do little else than annoy and inconvenience everyone.
Our knee-jerk reaction to seeing someone throw soup at art or glue themselves to trains is usually contempt and anger. But I think when teenagers, grannies and scientists participate in activism that puts them at risk of going to jail and becoming the target of public scorn, it’s worth digging a little deeper.
First, we should remember that civil disobedience has long been a major tactic of nonviolent action. Whether in colonised Africa and India, in the American civil rights movement, or in the many labour, anti-war, social and racial justice movements, civil disobedience was used to provoke the government of the day, set a moral example and prompt broader discourse. It was also often loathed by much of the public because of its disruptive, divisive nature.
Most environmental movements have been around for a while. After decades of protests and marches, emissions are still going up, biodiversity loss is accelerating and hundreds of millions of people face an unlivable future. When the United Nations can issue a ‘code red for humanity’ and it’s only the third most important headline of the day, how effective is another courteous sit-in? When most of us have become numb to the daily shock and outrage in the news, how can activism cut through? Well, through theatrical, controversial actions.
But attention is not the only point. Our reaction to this sort of ‘performance activism’ also highlights a pretty major dissonance. We seem to be much more outraged about a defaced piece of art than a system that continues to trash and destroy the natural world we all depend on. The inconvenience of a delayed rush-hour commute infuriates us in ways that the prospect of frequent catastrophic ‘natural disasters’ does not. In reaction to the sentencing of the Sydney Harbour Bridge protester, the state’s conservative political leader said: “If protesters want to put our way of life at risk, they should have the book thrown at them.” It begs the question: who is putting our way of life at risk?
History tells us that harsher punishments do not stop activists. Considering what’s at stake today, I doubt it will this time. In the meantime, we can prepare for more disruption, keep the controversy in perspective, and think about where to channel our outrage. Like many protesters point out: if this kind of activism seems overly disruptive, we’ll be shocked to find out what climate change has in store for us. – KaiSource: Dense Discovery
I admit I’m the first one getting annoyed at these protests when it impacts me — because I already try to do my part, and am well aware of what’s at stake. We should disrupt the industries and politicians over regular people.
But having it put in that way, and comparing it to previous protests, I agree we likely have little choice, and it has worked in the past, and will work again now.
At least, until everyone is aware and starts doing their part.