For most of my life I have been a campaigner for global justice. I launched my first campaign when I was 14 years old when I rallied my entire school to sign a petition for peace against the backdrop of impending nuclear annihilation and global warming. I’m not sure how I thought it would save us, but I was a rebel and needed to be heard. As a teenager, I was forever launching campaigns and was embarrassingly dubbed the “school conscience” by the headmaster. Whenever I saw an injustice I wanted to act – to do something to voice my urgent concern about the state of the world. There was a power in standing up together, regardless of the outcome.
That was thirty years ago. Since then, campaigning and advocacy for global justice has become my life. I worked in academia researching the politics and economics of sustainable development. I’ve spent almost two decades leading advocacy and research efforts to bring about positive policy change. I’ve had the honour of meeting many of the great and the good leading campaigns for a more just world. And yet, in all this time, the levels of planetary destruction and climate emissions have continued to rise, and rise, and rise. The upward trend has been relentless. The destruction of the environment and growing inequality has continued unabated.
In those thirty years there have been countless negotiations, rounds of talks, agreements, commitments, promises, targets… There have been some policy changes in favour of ending the destruction such as Sustainable Development Goals. But above all, there has been an awful lot of talking. If all the paper used to write perfectly worded reports could be stacked up, I am sure it would reach the moon and back. As a civil society advocate, I have at times been immersed in the bubble of those who make a living by talking well to save the planet. I did so because I believed in democracy and was convinced that it was better to be inside the room – supporting incremental changes in policies – rather than shouting from the outside. The youthful rebel in me had for the most part put on grown up clothes to pay the bills.
It was only when I had to take a break to have my own children that the reality of what is actually happening really hit me. It came crashing down like a ton of bricks on my comfortable world of cosy conference rooms and polite conversations. I realised that whilst an elite of NGOs felt listened to by ministers, many others plundered. Governments and politicians would talk to us, but they had effectively lost control – or rather ceded control – to vested interests far more powerful than themselves. To take just one clear example: in the face of dire warnings from climate science, how do we explain the fact that governments are still issuing companies with exploration licenses to find more fossil fuels? Burning these fuels will lead to climate meltdown.
The deep dynamics of global capitalism mean that our piecemeal politics and laws have become dangerously out of sync with our planet’s limits. Relentless pursuit of growth, financial profit and greed are now dictating the terms of the debate. The economic system we live by, which relies on tearing up the earth to produce more stuff to consume, is at the heart of the problem. This entire system needs to change and talking alone won’t do it. It has become too deeply embedded in our culture and psyche. The best we can achieve through our talking alone are nice declarations, but their impact is weak or irrelevant. Many times, these declarations have been a distraction which has kept NGO staff busy. They lost us precious time. As Greta Thunberg, a 15 year old climate activist from Sweden said: we simply do not have the laws and policies to challenge the fossil fuel industry and reduce our emissions in time. The rules have to change. No amount of sitting in boardrooms will change this. Something far bigger, far more widespread is required. It requires a planetary movement.
When I returned to work after having my two babies I had changed. Above all, I saw the urgency of changing the course our planet is now on. Not tomorrow – but today. Those emissions graphs pointing relentlessly upwards, that told us we are already out of time, that we need to be going in a completely different direction, went from my head to my heart – they became my story. I developed an intolerance to the polite words I had spent many years perfecting. It is like I came full circle. I feel the time has come again to say things plainly and loudly. To shout loud and say I have had enough, that I’m scared – as I did many years ago. I may not have all the answers – but I need to express my outrage at the way things are. I need to stand up for those who have no voice: for the next generation, for the species becoming extinct at an alarming rate, for those on the margins. I must rebel.