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One Warm Day in September: the Climate Strike and Its Meaning for Activism

Photograph Source: Marcus Coblyn – CC BY 2.0

Last Friday was a beautiful fall day. The air was crisp and the sun was hot as I marched with friends and around 10,000 Nova Scotians who understand that we, as a species, are in deep trouble. Catastrophic climate change, which I have been writing about for years, stands to threaten our species, as well as every other species on earth, with extinction. This is not hyperbole, it is based on the current scientific consensus. But on that day indigenous, people of colour, people of all faiths and none, families, the elderly, working people, LGBTQ. All of us put aside any differences and came together.

The most wonderful moment for me was the prayer song by Mi’kmaq women. For several moments the massive crowd was silent, simply raising a clenched fist in the air in solidarity and in defiance of the global economic and political order that has brought us to this point. To the edge of the cliff.

Among the speakers was Darlene Gilbert, a Mi’kmaq grandmother who was arrested for protecting the water from the polluter of Alton Gas. She also courageously confronted Justin Trudeau about his abysmal environmental policies, treatment of First Nations in Canada, and support of pipelines and the cancerous, visible from space, lesion on the face of the planet, the Alberta Tar Sands. Her daughter also spoke with passion about her cultural and sacred heritage of protecting the earth. Every indigenous person I have ever met understands that climate change is real because it is altering, in terrible ways, the ecosystems they revere and depend on.

But what struck me most was to see and hear thousands of young people. To witness their anger at a system that has robbed them, and the global south, of any meaningful future. Many spoke of the short lives they have been granted thanks to a biosphere under attack for the profit of a few. Some decried militarism and colonialism of the poorest nations on the planet. But all of them were present because they understood, on some level, that this is a collective, existential crisis.

In the past I had moments of skepticism. I still do. Not for these young people. Not for the millions of people who gathered in cities around the world to express their anger, but for the corporate, political and military institutions and financial interests who have been trying to greenwash their crimes since the first Earth Day. The ones who see our climate crisis as an opportunity to save capitalism from itself. The tragic thing about this skepticism, though, is that it can often lead to cynicism. A belief that everyone is either out for themselves, or being duped by those who are only out for themselves. And this misanthropic impulse only encourages inaction and apathy.

We can see some of this in the manner Greta Thunberg has been treated. I have read and heard incredibly vile things about the teenager, mostly from the far right, but sadly some coming from people on the left. There is an odd obsession with her, and this has the effect of eclipsing a much broader movement that is beyond the NGOs and corporate greenwashers. And so it says a lot about our political moment. Many of the people I’ve seen with the most vitriol do not seem to be engaging with anyone else in the movement. They aren’t out on the streets listening to the young or to indigenous peoples who are on the front lines of a war against the biosphere. They are more concerned that Greta Thunberg may be fronting for financial interests rather than understanding that scores of people are actively attempting to shift this narrative against capitalism.

Now, the left can and should be critical of the forces of capital which seek to co-opt any movement for social, economic or environmental justice. I have expressed this in the past and will continue to so with the hope that people like Greta or the millions of other young activists around the world, will understand these forces and thwart their influence. And we should continue to have the needed conversation with everyone involved in the movement. We should demand an end to imperialism, racism, colonialism, militarism and war, because they are all major contributors to ecological devastation and climate change, as well as enormously destructive to civil liberties and whole societies. But if we fail to engage in a manner that builds solidarity, all of our criticism will merely become talking points for the far right. A successful divide and conquer tactic. And if that happens, everyone, including our fragile and failing biosphere, will lose.

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Kenn Orphan is an artist, sociologist, radical nature lover and weary, but committed activist. He can be reached at kennorphan.com.

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