A protest is often categorised by placards, people and marching. But, in essence, it is the expression of disapproval. While today’s digitally-defined world is full of such, be it via social media or the sharing of satirical memes, the rise of online petitions and ease of organising mass action means protesting is more accessible than ever. This has seen rise to fickle engagement, with petitions emerging as the go-to resource for expressing dissatisfaction about almost anything.
Currently, there are 2,116 open petitions on the UK’s official petition site, 25 of which with just six signatures, the lowest current count. The most signed petition, ‘Do not prorogue Parliament’, has 1,724,467 signatures. The government must respond to petitions on the site with over 10,000 signatures, while those over 100,000 will be considered for debate in parliament. This seems like a more effective way of influencing policy change, although it is also an official record of civil dissidence. Petitions are undoubtedly great tools for gauging the public feeling, due to vast participation, and are more inclusive than marches, which have a complex culture.
Screen Shot spoke to animal rights activist Leigh Venus, who suggested petitions are “a more acceptable form of activism for the more buttoned-down and pearl-clutchy in the crowd.” Though generally ineffective in directly influencing policy, petitions are now an embedded feature in the process, where opting not to sign may be used to counter the motion, as a claim of non-support.
Clare Josa, who co-led the EU VAT Action Campaign that changed EU law, told Screen Shot, “Petitions are effective at highlighting an issue, but what counts for policy change is letters and surgery visits to MPs. The danger is that most people sign a petition and think that’s their job done. It isn’t. You also need to write to or visit your MP. The number of letters an MP receives on a topic is tallied up and used to judge how important it is.”
Petitions do, however, offer a gateway to change; a foundation for greater action. “While the problem of clicktivism and people feeling like they are making a difference by mashing a like button is a biggie, the rise of social media has no doubt amplified the reach of campaigns and protests and, wielded with caution, is an incredible force for good,” Venus said. “Clicktivism got me going onto the streets for a start.”
Venus admitted he does not seek petitions out but he signs them when they “come through email from organisations I follow,” a sign that shows petitions and marches are intertwined and support a bigger issue. His wife, Laura, who is also an activist, signs petitions as well, but doesn’t expect mind-blowing changes: “If their aims are to end up in front of the government I don’t hold out much hope—the government is a complete mess,” she said.
Jonathan Cable, author of Protest Campaigns, Media and Political Opportunities agreed with Laura Venus: “The revoke Article 50 had over 6 million signatories, but what those in power do with that information is something else entirely.”
Meanwhile, attendance of climate rallies has increased, Extinction Rebellion is truly revolting. There have been nine major Brexit marches, with many more at a regional level. And yet, the outcome of Brexit has not changed, nor did climate change policy. Marches rarely bring about direct change. This is why Alex Lockwood, lecturer at Sunderland University, was put off marching for 15 years after his first time. “It was the march against the Iraq War. When it didn’t change anything, I thought, what’s the point?” he said.
Mr Cable argues marches aren’t completely ineffective, but they demonstrate the strength of feeling about an issue. “Marches in the run up to the Iraq War didn’t stop that war, but probably prevented a future one against Iran, or Syria,” he explained.
Any form of protest must be used strategically, and history shows direct action plays an important role in this strategy. The Suffragettes marched but also endured hunger strikes. Civil disobedience won women the right to vote. The power of the people was also a significant factor in the fall of communist governments and the Berlin Wall. Today, a familiar situation has emerged in Hong Kong.
However, while direct action is effective in getting headlines, it isolates marchers seeking peaceful protest and casts a negative light onto the cause and activism more generally, resulting in many activist groups branding themselves as non-violent.
Instead, protesters can achieve media coverage surpassing the ‘regular’ headlines through inclusivity. For example, newlyweds Leigh and Laura Venus marched in their wedding outfits, causing the pair to go viral. “Humour gets clicks,” Laura Venus shared. “We wanted to have fun and show that being a vegan activist isn’t just black T-shirts and seriousness. Our friend became a cow with a sign saying ‘leave my tits alone’, which was a featured photo in a news article.”
Perhaps petitions and marches are not for the government, but for the people—for fellow activists who crave solidarity, to know they are not alone. Public protest has long played an integral role in increasing and maximising coverage of a cause and support the public’s understanding of politics. “Marches set off ripples of change. The visibility of marches leads people who may have been on the sidelines to get involved, as they see their friends and neighbours marching,” said Elizabeth Sawin, co-director of Climate Interactive. This is evident in climate activism swaying public opinion in the US.
Mr Lockwood, who began marching again in August 2019 as a volunteer for Animal Rebellion, witnessed the change that marches have undergone in the last few years: “My sense of what a march is for has changed. I now see that marches are about shows of solidarity and community.”
While petitions and marches may not be effective tools for policy change in isolation, their collective action inspires further action. Mass participation cannot be ignored. And that’s the true goal of protest, to push a cause into the public debate and into the minds of politicians.
When do marches and petitions become more than just a collective action and actually work and change things? One of the first major milestones for climate action was in 2007, when communities across America came together under the Step It Up banner. A decade later, it is only now just being recognised as an emergency—while a climate change denier sits as the leader of ‘the free world’.
But hope is not lost, and maybe the time has finally come. Sawin summarised: “It’s like a snowball rolling downhill. It starts small, but once it gets going the pace of change picks up dramatically.” So get ready for a change of pace, because Extinction Rebellion definitely is.
Therapy is no place for a lie, so I had better begin with truth. The new year will demand that the media output is accordingly hopeful. The first theme of this inexpert climate therapy column was supposed to be “hope”. New year, old problems but with a chipper twist of enthusiasm for wrenching out our bad habits and saving the planet. In 2019 you will be met with a screen full of tips for wellness and newness. Few column inches will be consecrated to the fact that last year you did not solve the environmental challenges humanity faces. Few media outlets will remind you in the first fortnight of 2019 about the problems we didn’t leave behind in 2018.
I tried to start the new year on a positive note like the rest of them but I’ve a drone in my bonnet. The week before Christmas some pesky, “brainless” (The Sun), “eco-warrior lone-wolf” (The Sun again), “fat idiot” (WTF, Jeremy Clarkson) was zipping around the fringes of Gatwick airport. My family was scheduled to fly out and join me in Norway for Christmas, so we collectively held our breath for the lone-wolf to stop driving through the sky (drone, not Santa) in time for Christmas.
While the cat and mouse palaver unfolded, I happened to be on the phone to Liam Geary Baulch, an Action Coordinator at Extinction Rebellion. Extinction Rebellion is an activist organisation which practices non-violent civil disobedience to protest inefficient government action against climate change. Geary Baulch is an artist and activist who focuses his research on the mental health of activists and climate scientists. He was pleased to talk to me about the feelings that climate change brings up but which we push deep down and have allowed to fester beneath our social conscience for decades.
Climate scientists and activists have written in the press for a number of years about their climate change related distress, and yet little has been done in the way of a public therapy session. Geary Baulch and I talked about the trauma of losing our planet’s biodiversity. We discussed hope and how to mobilise the public through emotive campaigns. I wondered if it was fair to condemn one group of people for deploying emotionally charged public speech and praise the other when it suits my agenda.
And then I asked, “it’s not you guys behind the drones is it?” A selfish question to a person already carrying the weight of emotional labour for another. Geary Baulch graciously corrected me, letting me know that Extinction Rebellion puts their name to their actions. Extinction Rebellion did have reporters ring in that day with the same question, though. Doing something is more hopeful than sitting ducks. A tale of hope and action is attractive.
People find Extinction Rebellion’s emotive language and approach to climate action comforting. Geary Baulch explains that the Extinction Rebellion talks across the country have created crucial support systems for members of the public who need to talk about their emotional responses to climate fear. “That human, emotional level of dealing with this is how we have grown. Whenever we’re doing actions physically on the ground, with people on the streets, that’s when our reach expands massively. I think there is something inspiring about it.”
On April 15 of 2019, Extinction Rebellion will stage their International Rebellion Week. I hope this year the media will make more space to cheer on a growing number of climate activists demanding systemic changes against climate inaction.
Phone call with climate activist over. Try to write about hope. Drink a beer and take a nap because it’s December 20 and no one else is replying to emails. Most of my writing takes on shape in the moment between wakefulness and napfulness anyway.
The image of the drone followed me into my lull. Was an “eco-warrior” out there making a stand against people like my family who were pumping carbon into the air to join me for a Christian festival of pretending? Still now the drone mystery has not been settled, but people were excited at the prospect of someone taking radical action against polluting infrastructures. It is like an arty b-list film where the plot is never resolved and instead it is the unfolding of the protagonist’s self-awareness which takes centre-stage.
I could not write about hope without addressing the reality that I have not changed my consumer habits enough this year. I still take planes, buy plastic, recycle sloppily, eat meat and fund H&M’s natural resource depletion. I feel the familiar dredge of guilt rather than a wave of fresh hope.
Guilt can root itself so deeply in ourselves and our relations that we barely notice it is there, and this prevents the actions for change that we urgently need to take. We are caught in our own systems and things and systems of things. Is it unreasonable to expect us to identify that beneath the noise, we feel desperately guilty about our environmental inertia? Lots of us are not doing enough, aside from refusing a plastic straw in our gin and tonic, to prevent the climate catastrophe rearing up on us.
We feel guilty before we achieve change. Guilty for not quitting, or starting, something we should. We do feel calmer once we start our homework, our tax return or begin an overdue, difficult conversation. Until we talk about our collective and individual culpability we cannot begin to dig up the insidious guilt that steels us against progress. We should begin the new year backwards, by addressing the old lies we tell ourselves: that it will be ok, that science will solve it and that the human disposition for pretence has nothing to do with solving the climate crisis.
Humans made this mess, some humans more than others. A human approach to understanding the emotional complexity of inaction is worth a run. My top 2019 tip: a novel public resolution to solve a sticky problem is all the newness we need this year.