Standing in the middle of a crowd of passionate, determined, hollering young people, I feel a fascinating shiver of déjà vu. I’ve been to rallies before, but they’re distant memories, tucked away into the woven stories of my childhood. Most distinct are the anti-war protests, where I don’t remember the place or the people so much as I remember wearing a comical sombrero with a baubled brim so gargantuan that it gave me personal space in the tight crowd. That was what I noticed as a kid, the little quirks; it was hard to see the bigger picture when I didn’t have an understanding of the wider world or an appreciation of political consequences. An understanding of the wider world takes a while to develop but it also requires you to be interested in, aware of, and I would argue critical towards, what happens around you. An appreciation of political consequences is a more elusive achievement – it takes a lot to come to terms with the idea that you can actually make a difference. It’s counterintuitive. It’s the old light bulb analogy again: how many environmentalists turning off their light bulbs does it take to change the world?
Yet imagine you’re a young person in Western Sydney right now, and you write a letter to Kevin Rudd personally telling him how scared you are that boat people are going to take your job and it’s his responsibility to stop that from happening. Or rather, imagine you’re Kevin Rudd and you get that letter. It tips into the notion already formed, from polls, from media, from your advisors and PR army, that Western Sydney holds the key seats for you to win this election. If a personal message reaches you and taps into your political instinct, that one person, that single voice, can have an enormous impact – because it’s part of something bigger. There is movement, and this voice is the ripple on the surface that tells the captain of the swell underneath.
Political action is driven by what? My cynical self would say, playing for votes. Think how many politicians can truthfully be said to display any lasting integrity. But even shrouded in cynicism the point is that if politicians are convinced that acting on climate change will get them the votes they need, that’s inevitably what they’ll do. Which is where an appreciation of political consequences comes into it.
At Powershift 2013, more than 1200 young people came to the summit in Melbourne to hear and learn about taking action against climate change, about how to build a movement, and about what we can do to affect political action, because political action is one thing that needs to happen to make change.
And it feels strange to be standing here in this crowd, having just stamped and chanted our way from Melbourne’s grand Town Hall to the parliamentary offices. We’re here at the culmination of Powershift, having just conducted Australia’s first Youth Climate Cabinet, where we presented the following legislation: Our future, politicians, is your mandate. The climate crisis impacts the world’s most vulnerable. To fix this we must limit global warming to less than 1.5°C. Move beyond coal and gas. Strengthen the price on pollution. And transition to 100% renewable energy. This draft legislation that we produced was more to make a point than anything: start making real, effective policies, or we’ll have to get up there and do it ourselves.
The rally that followed was something like 1800 people. We had the trams stopped, a police escort, and gave ourselves the almighty thrill of public rallying, the kind of thrill I didn’t get when I did it at ten years old peering out from my sombrero. Over the weekend summit, we also trended twice on Twitter (w00t!), left a 1500-person voicemail message on Kevin Rudd’s answering machine, and got media coverage all over the place, something like 19 times that weekend, including ABC tv and Triple J.
Think about Brazil, where in June this year, some 20,000 protesters stormed the streets in the largest protests in twenty years. The trigger – a rise in bus fares of 20c. But the real reason? A culmination of deteriorating social conditions, that drove people to raise their voices and demand more.
The lasting legacy of the Howard years was that even with the many thousand-strong throngs of opponents to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the public was treated less than elegantly with a blatant disregard for their message: Do not invade. We do not want to go to war. Being ignored takes its toll. Whilst we can spout about the importance of democracy, when it fails, it falls.
A remarkable thought strikes me. For many of the people here, this is probably their first rally. Some of these protesters are maybe fifteen, and it’s taken the imminence and scale of the climate change disaster to bring them here. Overall we, the youth of Australia, have forgotten how to protest. When do we raise our voices? When was the last time you truly cried out about something you cared about, to more than your friends, or relatives, or maybe your RF?
But there’s something different here, something powerful. Young people, at least some of us, are beginning to realise that we do in fact have a voice.
And it doesn’t have to be taking to the streets. We speak in all our actions – in the political parties we vote for, in the media and information that we do or do not consume, in the words and ideas we bandy about with our friends, in the criticalness we apply and in each and every thing we choose to give a shit about. We speak through the world we see around us and the way we respond to it.
As the rally falls to a close, we dissipate for lunch with the appearance of nonchalance. But we’re enlivened by what we have just done: in the streets we moved, and began to stir others. Where now we walk the pavement, half an hour ago we took the street itself. We began to push against the resistance of apathy. The momentum of movement, for us, some of us for the first time, began.
- Sarita Perston