Last Friday marked a potential milestone in the history of our planet. Thousands of young people marched on the streets of over one hundred countries to protest against climate change, asking their government to take immediate action to stop global warming.
The march was the culmination of a series of protests, strikes, and sit-ins organized through the ‘FridaysForFuture’ movement, championed by Greta Thumberg. The young activist started the campaign by sitting in front of the Swedish Parliament on the 20th of August 2018: from that moment, the movement has become increasingly popular, bringing the young founder to countless manifestations and even to the UN Conference on Climate Change and to the World Economic Forum in Davos, where she gave two powerful speeches, which immediately went viral.
The incredible success of FridaysForFuture signals that the issue of climate change has become unbearable, especially for the young generations, which face a catastrophic future in a planet submerged by plastic and subjected to destructive climatic events as flooding, droughts, and typhoons. The size and ubiquity of the protests suggests that we may be witnessing the birth of a global student movement, as this form of activism is spreading to levels that society didn’t see since 1968. The fight for the environment could represent the next great victory of civil society. FridaysForFuture has indeed all the components that could make it a successful campaign: it addresses a global problem which has become increasingly critical, everyone has the possibility to participate through everyday life gestures, and, it’s inherently pacific in addressing governments and international organizations.
However, these exact characteristics that make it so strong and appealing could, in the long run, determine the failure of the movement.
The heart of the campaign can be summarized in two broad directives:
‘Everyone should make some changes in his lifestyle to prevent climate change.’
‘The government should implement better policies to tackle the issue at a broader level’.
At first glance, these ideas can seem straightforward and easily achievable, and this is the reason why they have been so successful, but an in-depth analysis reveals some structural problems.
Let’s consider the first point, which refers to the necessity to conduct a lifestyle with a minor impact on the environment. According to activists and supporters, there are countless options to do so: adopting a meat-free diet, using public transportation instead of going by car, or reducing our use of plastic — all considered as valid contributions, which have been greatly publicized and supported through various social media campaigns.
However, there is a critical point in this vision, namely that climate change and environmental destruction can be stopped, at least partly, through single actions, and everyone has a personal responsibility to contribute. This vision ignores how profoundly unsustainable our lifestyle is, and offers only partial solutions. Let’s analyse, for example, the ‘meat-free diet’ option: it’s true that by going vegetarian, or even better, vegan, we can greatly reduce our daily emissions. But if we substitute meat with avocados, quinoa, and tofu imported from countries which are hundreds of kilometres away from us and transported to our tables by planes, we are not exactly promoting a sustainable diet. Moreover, according to the WWF, soy plantations are the ‘second larger agricultural driver of deforestation’ (the first one being beef). Not exactly what environmentalists should aim for.
Regarding the use of plastic and public transportation the issue is slightly different but equally problematic. Some people simply don’t have the material possibility to follow these ‘sustainable lifestyles’: either because they don’t have access to public infrastructure and must commute long distances to get to work, or because they don’t have the money or time to shop locally in rare and extremely costly plastic-free local shops. For the medium worker these appealing life choices are simply not attainable.
Demanding that governments implement more efficient policies to reduce emissions and promote renewable energy also raises some concerns. It is a noble and legitimate request, but making it one of the two main points of the campaign sounds a bit naive. Governments have been debating on these issues for more than a decade, and many of the most powerful economies in the world have signed protocols in which they declared their intention to lower CO2 emissions. However, the problem with macro policies like the Kyoto Protocol of 2005 and the Paris Agreement of 2015, is that they simply don’t work. The world’s two biggest emitters, the United States and China, have always failed to maintain the fixed limit, and President Donald Trump has even announced that the US could leave the Paris Agreement. COP24, the most recent UN Congress on climate change also left many open questions. The most striking one is probably related to the objectives themselves: maintaining the current targets, the global temperature could raise up to three degrees above the average, pre-industrial levels, causing our climate to change irreversibly.
Moreover, the FridayForFuture movement completely ignores the impact that multinational businesses have regarding environmental degradation and the powers that they hold. Companies like Shell, Eni, and Standard Oil own so many resources that they can exercise effective political influence over many countries of the world, as their net profits amount to billions of dollars per year. They can easily lobby for more relaxed legislation and even bribe public officials.
In sum, the questions around climate change are much more complex than they initially seem. If the new generations want to stop global warming and save the planet, they must go beyond what has been advocated until now. The real challenge for FridaysForFuture will be to maintain the focus and enthusiasm of young activists as new and more complex concerns are raised, and not to vanish after these first months of triumph.