Protests. Demonstrations. Civil disobedience of all kinds. There has been a lot of it over the past year, beginning last December with the Middle East’s “Arab Spring,” and it’s been coming closer to home in recent weeks, especially for those of us in North America.
This past summer, more than 1000 people were arrested in front of the White House, protesting against the construction of the $7 billion Keystone XL oil pipeline. In September, dozens more were arrested further north on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, during a similar protest against the pipeline expansion. Only the other day, more than 700 people were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge as part of the Occupy Wall Street movement, a demonstration fighting against corporate power, social inequality and environmental destruction, among other issues. The movement has even spread to a number of other US and Canadian cities, with solidarity demonstrations and occupations announced in Boston, San Francisco and Vancouver, among others.
Some of those environmentalists arrested in front of the White House included NASA scientist James Hansen, activist Naomi Klein, and founder of climate change campaign 350.org, Bill McKibben. All have advocated for greater public participation in such events. In fact, a public letter – signed by 11 veteran US and Canadian scientists, environmentalists, and activists – published in June of this year, issued a cross continent call-out for people to join in the peaceful sit-ins at the White House. Indeed, both in print and during an April 9 lecture at my own university, McKibben has urged the need for environmental activists to be more confrontational.
Such statements are a more aggressive change of tone than is usually present in mainstream environmental dialogue. Why? From my impression of the current reasoning (and McKibben’s lecture), it’s the last available option. Softer awareness campaigns promoting ideas to “think global, act local,” and other local policy shifts haven’t made the needed impact to reduce global carbon emissions. 2009’s international climate summit in Copenhagen was a failure. It seems that climate change action within current institutional limits, both domestic and international, is simply not working, and activists of all stripes seem to be coming to the same conclusion. Change isn’t coming, and if it is, it is coming too slowly. We must be prepared to do more.
It’s a step that many individuals (many of whom were students) have taken already this summer. But it’s a rather daunting proposition for others, myself included. Though I’ve participated in many a demonstration before, the thought of being arrested brings a queasy feeling to my stomach. Which leaves me in a rather difficult bind should civil disobedience – as it seems to be – become an increasingly more common political statement to make.
As it stands, my student lifestyle is car-free, meat-free, and (relatively) low-consumption. I write letters to the editor, volunteer, and have gone to school in my efforts towards making a more sustainable world. Up until now, I have always felt that to be enough.
Nonetheless, I continue to wonder – at what point will the strength of my convictions require a more political statement?
Will that time come?
And will I be up to the task?
Darlene Seto is pursuing her master’s degree at the Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. A keen student of environment policy and governance, her current graduate work revolves around diversity and engagement in alternative food systems.