Why Communities Can Protest Climate Change… but Social Media Can’t
Becca Wells, Foreign Correspondent in Australia, analyses Climate Change Protests in Melbourne and argues community, not social media, can make a difference.
The official start of Australian summer is still over two months away, however on September 20th, young strikers battle the heat by fanning themselves with their cardboard placards. At home, millions more members of the internet generation are thinking that behind their computers, they are also saving the world.
People from every corner of the city gathered outside Melbourne’s Parliament building. Indigenous landowners, Quakers, environmentalist groups, school trips, the elderly, even dogs with coats were seen poking fun at Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison. They are following in the footsteps of 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg.
People don’t have this kind of power online. As far as social media is concerned, “it’s an advertising tool. Past that, I’m not sure how much notice politicians take notice of it…Ali Griffin, environmental artist
The message is well and truly out. Professor of Sustainability at Deakin University, Sue Noy, tells me how “a few years ago, I couldn’t even get [students] to sign a petition”. But is it worth it? Noy follows up her claim with the opinion that “in a particular political climate like we have in Australia, [protests are] not useful for getting the government to pay attention”. Friday’s strike saw over 300,000 people take to the streets across Australia, with nearly half of this number from Melbourne. These figures seem to undermine Noy’s claim, until we remember where our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, was on Friday. Having dinner with Trump in Washington, the pair “talked of military, talked trade, talked about everything you can talk about,” Trump told the press inside the White House. The leaders’ voices seem to silence the hundreds of thousands of pleas from the public to put the economy second. Morrison favours his and ally Trump’s “passion for jobs” over the health of the planet.
Dr. Brendan Barrett, former lecturer at RMIT University, Melbourne, scorns Morrison. “I think the one message that Greta Thunberg says which is really powerful is ‘listen to the science’ and the message that Extinction Rebellion have which is very powerful is ‘’tell the truth’, and in both of those aspects Scott Morrison fails,” he says. But in an era in which information is channelled through to us in so many different ways, what is the truth? Barrett is sceptical of social media. “I think that right now, the way that social media is designed is counterproductive for making an environmental difference,” he says. “It’s actually undermining truth”. Barrett tries to offer an alternative way of communicating the climate crisis in a more productive way than using social media. “I’m not sure I’ve really got the answer”, he laments, “but you really have to think about story-telling and engaging people with their ideas”.
Artist and activist Nicky Minus has also renounced social media, perturbed by the influence of the “evil powers that be,” she confessed at an environmentalist art talk during Melbourne Writer’s Festival earlier this month. “Art-making made me stop being depressed and panicky,” she added. Minus promoted a new way of dealing with the fear of the apocalypse. In a personal tour of her mental state she unpacked what artists can do that climate scientists and social media users can’t. In particular, she believes that “solidarity isn’t just a word to pepper into your tweets and Instagram posts to get some cultural capital from some stupid hipsters, it’s an action.” She continued ‘And as a creatively-minded person, I’ve come to notice that artists have a unique set of skills that they can offer outside of doing regular grunt work that goes along with activism.” Minus argued that artists have this unique skill of being able to “… take the boring facts and figures that people tune out of and find ways to express that in accessible new ways”.
Environmental artist and Black Saturday Bush Fire survivor Ali Griffin tells me the same thing over a cup of tea at her gorgeous home in Healesville. “One person in particular came in to see my artwork with his wife, so he wasn’t really there on his own accord, and he said to me, ‘I’m starting to see where you’re coming from, you’re making us look at this at a different level and I’m really thankful you’ve done that’,” she remembers. “He wasn’t a greenie, he wasn’t an obviously left- thinking person, he was just a guy who came in with his wife, and I didn’t expect to touch him, but I had”.
The sustainability of the planet relies on the few who see above and beyond liking a picture of an orangutan on Facebook.
Obviously concerned with the state of our planet, Griffin regrets that she wasn’t able to go to Friday’s climate strike, but upon remembering the feeling of being involved in previous large-scale protests, she suddenly breaks eye contact. “I’m feeling quite emotional just thinking about it,” she confesses. “It’s when people band together and do something wonderful. In such a huge number of people it’s just…”. She breaks off, puffs out her cheeks and exhales, speechless. “I think politicians and people in power need to see the physicality of people getting together and demanding that something changes and saying ‘you know what? I’m going to strike’”. People don’t have this kind of power online. As far as social media is concerned, “it’s an advertising tool. Past that, I’m not sure how much notice politicians take notice of it,” Griffin says.
Both Minus and Griffin are aware of the capitalistic approach governments and social media companies are working under. But the vast majority of teen and adolescent social media users aren’t. The sustainability of the planet relies on the few who see above and beyond liking a picture of an orangutan on Facebook. It relies on solidarity and communal visions which are reachable only when we ditch the screens.