Severe droughts, dust storms and a shortage of water have severely impacted Iran’s economy and sparked protests in dozens of provincial cities across the Islamic republic calling on the government to take action on climate change. The Trump’s administration’s retreat from the Paris climate agreement and its larger rejection of climate policy has spurred angry protesters to march in Washington, DC.
“Sometimes because of my bare feet and the lack of daily contact, I feel like a ghost”, a quote from one of the final entries of a blog diary by Mark Baumer. A Rhode Island man that walked barefoot across the United States to call attention to a grass-roots group that opposes fracking.
These are just a few examples of when environmental issues have brought some protesters into the streets, in part because climate change is now seen as a contributor to inequity and harming the world’s poor. I was excited to be invited by Volonteurope and European Civic Forum as a key speaker, along with the initiator and organizer of the Polish Women’s strike Marta Lempart, at How big is your Active Citizen footprint? Active Citizens: from the local to the global level. The organizers work confronts a wide range of questions associated with the role of social movements, exploring enablers and barriers to active citizenship. Representing Ocean Generation, I thought hard about what should the goal of activism be in the climate space?
Climate change is a daunting and extremely complex challenge. What actors will be effective in swaying policy makers and the public? What mix of tactics and goals are most likely to break political gridlock on the issue and make a difference in everyone’s stated goal: to reduce carbon emissions, other pollutants and single use plastics? These questions are at the center of an impending battle at the heart of the environmental movement, and every actor will need new forms of social capital to solve it. (Or did you mean social capitalism? Not heard of that before, I might be wrong).
Marta’s narrative was every story of active citizenship summed up in one powerful movement. Fed up with women’s rights in Poland; Martha rallied her friends and then a larger national movement through Facebook to stand up to her government against inequality, domestic abuse and anti-abortion laws. Marta is a highly committed woman, full of hope and willing to risk her life not just to pass gender laws but establish a moral reform across Poland. The sense of urgency for women to be treated as equals in Poland, and across the world, has that sense of urgent immediacy, one that the climate movement and narrative often lacks.
The biggest barrier in the active citizenship movement for climate change is the belief that someone else will take action to save our planet. As Elon Musk said “We are running the most dangerous experiment in history right now, which is too see how much carbon dioxide the atmosphere can handle before there is an environmental catastrophe”. This collective failure to create commensurate solutions is what incentivized someone like myself to start Ocean Generation. When asked to share my experiences of growing Ocean Generation from the local to global level, unlike Marta’s story the urgency did not come from my own realm of living. The truth is I was propelled to start OG while interning at the United Nations when they were drafting and introducing the Sustainable Development Agenda. I would attend meetings and listen to island communities tell their stories about having no food because there are not enough fish to catch or severe flooding was washing away homes regularly because of changing weather patterns.
The vision was to start getting people at home to help people on small islands. Building a bridge between both levels has been challenging, why would someone in London or New York care about a family home in Kiribati washing away, when there are causes closer to home they could support? Perhaps then it is the charitable NGO model that needs to evolve in order for people to engage. We are living in an era when Generation Z may not necessarily have money to donate but will partake in experiences. Ultimately, good governance, and being participatory in charity processes can build up active citizenship within the charity space. As we have seen with the latest Oxfam scandal, corruption and lack of good governance also has a strong negative impact on civic engagement and active citizenship as it reduces social trust. When news broke last week about Oxfam staff using prostitutes in Chad and Haiti, it is just a matter of time before this triggers the humanitarian industry’s #MeToo moment.
Fortunately, the climate movement has a very strong generational dynamic, and my generation will be one of the great drivers of both cultural and political change on this topic. We must move away from the idea that aid organizations creating a sense of dependency will solve third world problems. Denial towards climate change is not a policy and the Paris agreement is perhaps the closest universal document we have to supporting policies that will benefit the most affected by climate change. To ensure something like the Paris Agreement is a success we need more social cohesion; the willingness of members of all societies to cooperate with each other in order to survive and prosper.
Ocean Generation is leveraging a lot of its climate activism through social media in order to reach a vast number of people. While of course many argue that online has its limits to effectiveness, we think it may be a new form of untapped social capital. Robert Putnam’s social capital or ‘connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them’ (from his 1995 essay Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital) suggested that social capital is a key component to building and maintaining democracy. Twenty-three years later, the same theory applies using new tools. Social media is low cost, fast and easy for all citizens to get their voice out weather rich or poor. In the near future, Ocean Generation is launching a ‘Donate Your Influence’ program, which aims to activate young people’s social media habits like being on Instagram, but doing it for good.
On the ground, Ocean Generation is including young people from Small Island Developing States within our climate narrative, and working with partner organizations on islands, to make everyone feel like they have, and give them, ownership and say in programs as an act of active citizenship. The 2018 #Dadlihack hosted in Antigua and Barbuda is a great example, rather than bringing over a bunch of multi-national corporations to have a disaster relief hackathon, we had a community development one. Ocean Generation partnered with Silicone Dadli and the local hacking community, and worked with them to develop the sort of event they wanted.
My generation is globally challenging existing active citizenship structures and creating new social capital. In activism we look for problems that can’t be fixed by market or governments. Even breakthrough technology, science and research can’t stop the weather from changing. So the world needs to adapt to what is happening now and for what is coming. The event I spoke at aimed at motivating people to think about the circumstances in their lives that influence their ability to be active citizens, and in doing so help achieve an increase in participation across all activities. Climate change can have a positive role in boosting active citizenship for everybody.