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Students march through the streets of Wellington during the climate strike. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Students march through the streets of Wellington during the climate strike. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

SocietyMay 24, 2019

How to protest about climate change when you don’t actually like protesting

Students march through the streets of Wellington during the climate strike. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)
Students march through the streets of Wellington during the climate strike. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

If you’re put off by the concept of protests, you’re not alone. Josh Drummond explains why you should bite the bullet and go along to today’s climate protests anyway.

Argh, protests! They make me cringe.

Here’s the big secret: protests make nearly everyone cringe. Most people feel a bit goofy going along to a protest, especially if it’s their first time. For those who tend to be a bit more introverted, or for those on the ASD spectrum, they can be particularly intimidating. Chants and marches can alienate some, even as they include others. But I can guarantee that even as you feel out-of-place, so will a very large proportion of the people around you

It’s OK to feel like this. If it makes it easier, treat it like a party. Or if that makes you less comfortable, treat it like a really big work lunch. If you’re a bit more on the introverted side, like I often am, make sure you take your mates along. There’s nothing worse than not knowing anyone at a party, and protests are exactly the same. I’ve heard from people who find rowdy environments difficult that noise-cancelling headphones are an absolute lifesaver. For those who absolutely can’t attend protests for any reason, there are alternatives. The important thing is to involve others, either physically or remotely. For example, a friend of mine is organising a group meditation to take place on the same day of the protest in solidarity.

However, if it’s only your inner sense of squareness preventing you from going, you can envelope yourself with a protective aura of irony. You’re not really there to protest. Perhaps you’re there to document it. Treat yourself to an inner monologue along the lines of ‘I’m kind of better than these people because I’m less vocally enthused about the issues than they are thanks to a deep and rich scepticism from my extensive life experience, and I’m leery about the simple nature of protest as it overlooks the many nuances and realpolitik implications of the situation at hand’. That’s what I do when I go to protestors alone. But at least I’m there.

Ugh! Protests! Their demands are always so unrealistic and/or non-specific.

This might not be the problem you think it is, but we’ll get to that. First, I’ll point out that the climate breakdown and extinction protests planned for May 24 actually have quite specific and entirely achievable demands. All too often, the media reporting on the strikes doesn’t mention this rather important fact, while news pundits lambast the strikers for their lack of specificity. It’s lazy journalism, but fortunately, a moment’s Googling can tell you exactly what the demands actually are.

The second point is that making precise demands often isn’t the point of protest. It isn’t a requirement to be an expert on climate change policy (or any other protestable issue) before you can earn some mythical protest licence. All that’s necessary is for you to listen to the actual experts who haven’t been shy about warning the world about the many present dangers of climate change, biodiversity loss, and mass extinction. As for unrealistic: the only unrealism is to expect that your life will carry on in its current comfy trajectory in a world wracked by climate breakdown. We can either pay now or pay much more later.

People who say climate protesters need to sharpen up their demands, that their requests are unrealistic, or that students don’t know what they’re protesting about are spreading disinformation because they fundamentally disagree that anything is actually wrong. They’re quite comfortable with their current place in it. Ignore these people. The time of deniers has passed; they just haven’t quite realised it yet.  

Pretty straight to the point (Photo: Getty Images)

I’m worried the protest will be hijacked by special interests groups that I oppose. What if there are *whispers* communists?

This is… kind of inevitable. Any group of people numbering more than two will contain points of view with which you’ll probably disagree with. This is just the nature of humanity, but the inclusive nature of protest can, ironically, tend to make ideological differences more visible. So it’s very important that you show up so you can represent what you think is important. If you’re not there to argue for what you consider to be, for example, the best and fairest way to deal with climate change at a local, national or international scale, then your voice is missing, and others will dominate the narrative by default. And, honestly, even communists don’t like communists, and I dare you to find a communist that won’t agree with that assessment at some level. So you’re in good company no matter what.

I’m worried it will annoy people.

Protests in New Zealand tend to be strenuously non-violent and polite, so it’s easy to remember that pissing off the right people is pretty much the point of a protest. Protesters are trying to annoy the governments of the world to the point of taking action. As stupid as this sounds, it’s often the only thing that works. All forms of government (as both history and Game of Thrones have exhaustively taught us) are ultimately beholden to their subjects. When it comes to climate change, we’ve gotten to where we are because, despite repeated and increasingly dire warnings from experts in the field, governments have weighed competing interests and found climate change mitigation wanting. The only thing that will change this is reminding those in charge of who put them there – and who can remove them – if necessary.

But will it actually make a difference?

Yes. If enough people (by which I mean you) actually show up. Mass protest is one of the only levers of change that we know actually works. The spectre of millions gathering for a common cause is almost impossible for rulers to ignore. Governments and industries do so at their peril. Over the years, protest has toppled dictators, removed despotic regimes, and created lasting and beneficial change across nearly every facet of life. We owe much of what is good in our lives today to protest. And when democratic and inclusive climate change mitigation is a reality, we’ll owe that to protest too.

School Strikes 4 Climate

I’m gainfully employed. How do I get time off work?

There’s a very good reason why most protests occur at lunchtime, on a weekend, or in this case, a Friday. Protests often run for a while, but they’re geared for maximum inclusivity so feel free to show up at any point and hang around as long as you can. It’s not like work: you don’t have to be there from start to finish. Just don’t rely on other people to show up for you. Protesting is like voting: it only works if enough people do it. So weigh up your priorities. What’s more important? That meeting that’s been impertinently scheduled for 12 pm by someone who doesn’t understand the concept of “lunch”, or the opportunity to have your voice heard on the most important issue of all time? When you think about the fact that a lot of New Zealand offices knock off around 4pm on a Friday for beersies, it’s even more obvious that the meeting can wait. Rescheduling is a thing and beersies can always be had in town after the protest. The local bars will thank you.

How do I get my workplace on board?

This will depend on the workplace, but many people in the upper echelons of business are secretly just as worried about climate change as you are and are also longing for real action. You may find unexpected support there. If you think they’ll be supportive, you could try sending an email to your boss or workmates that goes something along the lines of:

Hi [boss] / [workmates]

As you know, the world’s foremost scientific experts have told us that we are in an unprecedented climate emergency and biodiversity crisis. But these same experts have told us that it’s possible for the worst effects of this crisis to be avoided if we act now. I believe this issue is too important for me to stay silent, so I’m joining the [protest] at [place], [time], to demand immediate action on this issue.

I’d love to represent the fact our workplace has a progressive, inclusive stance on this issue and will give it the priority it requires.

There are a few of us going along, so if you also think that this issue is important and want your voice to be heard, let us know if you’d like to join.

I’m convinced, but how do I make a cool, witty sign?

All you really need is a bit of A3 paper and a permanent marker. But if you want to get serious, it’s time to recycle. Liberate a real-estate sign or any similarly durable, flat surface from the trash, add a handle, and write something on it. If you’re a designer type who can’t stand the thought of bad protest-sign kerning, look into something like tiled printing. When it comes to wit, feel free to gratuitously remix the best sign ideas from the internet, or just mine your own store of wisdom. You may find there’s more there than you thought.

Wellington students take the climate strike to parliament. Photo: Rebekah Parsons-Green for RNZ

Is there some kind of protest etiquette I should know about?

Glad you asked and yes, there is. Given that it’s a climate change protest, it makes sense to take public transport, walk, or bike to the event. Carpooling is an option, but you do run the risk of getting stuck in traffic as protests and traffic jams are like peas and carrots. Of course, littering is off the menu. Just don’t do it. The best protest is a zero-waste protest, or even better, a negative-waste protest (try and put some rubbish in bins as you’re roaming the streets).

Other points: respect the bodily autonomy of others. If you’re tall, give shorter people space. If you are able-bodied, keep an eye out for people with disabilities.

Emotions can run high at protests. Feel free to feel angry but don’t let your anger spill out into any kind of threat or violence. What might surprise you, though, is that among the righteous anger of a generation let down on climate change, there’s a great deal of joy and hope for meaningful change. Most climate change protests are more like festivals. Embrace this and smile, laugh and be kind to everyone. Say ‘kia ora’ and ‘gidday’ to people you might only see once, or who might become new friends.

Still, why bother?

In many ways, things have never been better for humans. Almost all of these gains have come to us courtesy of the wholesale destruction of the natural world. But we don’t really need to drive this point home. You probably already know that the natural world is on fire. What makes things even worse is being worried to the point of despair about climate breakdown and mass extinction.

Most people are desperate to be able to do something meaningful about it, but the issue seems too big. If that sounds like you, then you’re in luck: protest is something meaningful, and it’s proven – if it’s big enough, and disruptive enough – to make a huge difference. And all that takes is a stroll in your local town centre around lunchtime on a Friday. You can do that. So can your mates. Take them along.

Have we impinged your cringe? Are you feeling just a bit keen? You can see all the locations of the planned protests here. Hit that RSVP and get amongst it.

Keep going!