For seven years, I’ve been actively involved in research on climate crisis and media, as well as active resistance to fossil fuel pipeline expansion. During my four-week Visiting Canterbury Fellowship, I was delighted to have the chance to participate in the September 27th School strike for the climate here in Christchurch. Below is a slightly revised version of my in-the-moment field report that I posted to my Greening the News blog at rabble.ca.
Fairly or not, Christchurch is reputed to be one of Aotearoa/New Zealand’s more conservative and least diverse cities, and it’s been through a lot in the past decade – devastating earthquakes in 2010/11, killing hundreds and leaving many thousands homeless and traumatized (in many cases, still) and earlier this year, the mosque massacre that occurred on the same Friday as a climate strike.
So notwithstanding the city’s ongoing recovery and its ‘hidden’ history of radical activism, I wasn’t sure what to expect for the September 27th School strike for the climate. My partner Ika and I joined about 300 students and a handful of staff members on the University of Canterbury campus in the morning, to walk towards the downtown square next to the devastated Cathedral (which we understand that, after much debate, is to be rebuilt). Three hundred students I thought – not bad – relative to enrollment, that’s like 600 at my home university – Simon Fraser in Vancouver. We walked en masse through suburban back roads and the peaceful Hagley Park, rivalling my hometown’s Stanley Park in size if not wilderness. Energetic young people set a surprisingly vigorous pace for such a large group, and we supportive seniors brought up the rear.
So when we arrived at the square, the throng was already gathered, and its size was a welcome surprise – about 6,000. One group of students from suburban Lincoln University had started walking at 6 a.m. to cover the 22 kilometres on foot. And more than a smattering of elders, such as the man whose placard displayed two youngsters, presumably his grandchildren.
I made a note of the placards, to see what kinds of claims are being made, what structure of feeling is being mobilized. Some clever ones – “For the Greta good”. Anger and frustration, but also joy at such a coming together. Not a lot of specific policy demands (a few references to divestment or ending oil exploration), and I could not see one sign out of hundreds that referred to a carbon tax. But rather generic environmentalism – “Save the planet”, and demands for drastic action – of some kind – now. “This is survival, not politics” said one sign.
But perhaps it’s a demand for a new kind of politics, which these young people are helping to invent.
On the one hand, demand for rapid and radical action based on principles more far-reaching than most politicians are contemplating. One of the most vocalized chants was for “Climate justice” – not a slogan I’ve heard often at anti-pipeline rallies in BC, which often focus on regional environmental threats and Indigenous rights. I wonder if climate justice is a concept that resonates more down here, perhaps because of the proximity of the disappearing Pacific island nations and their climate refugees?
And on the other hand, a politics that connects social change and personal life choices. Some elements in the crowd did call out specific institutions as a source of emissions – not fossil fuel extraction as in Canada, where it is a major contributor to increasing GHG emissions, but meat-producing animal farming. And the solution offered combined the personal and the political – “Go vegan”. Judging from the t-shirts and pre-printed signs, veganism is a definite movement here.
And it turns out that the (remarkably young) national climate strike organizers do have concrete policy demands. Parliament should declare a climate emergency. All parties should support the Zero Carbon Act. End fossil fuel exploration and extraction. Invest in a just transition to a sustainable economy. Support Pacific island nations and inhabitants by actively honouring Paris climate agreements and providing a dignified pathway for climate refugees.
A trio of aging curmudgeons stared balefully at the crowd, clustered around a sign claiming “Man-made climate change is a hoax”. They were cheerfully ignored. Outnumbered 2,000 to one and doubtless swept away by a tide of reality, they soon left.
Local TV news covered the event sympathetically, as a kind of carnival, emphasizing generic “let’s do it, we’re all in it together” emotion rather than more politically charged claims.
Across New Zealand, in various towns and cities, a reported 170,000 people took part. That’s about 3.5% of the population – one of the largest protests in the country’s history, and proportionately equivalent to the nearly one million Canadians who took to the streets.
Well done on both sides of the Pacific!
Sustained political opposition from just a heavily engaged three percent of the population was sufficient to overthrow authoritarian governments in eastern Europe during the 1980s and 1990s. That was a rather different political and historical context. But a determined and persistent three percent can be a tipping point in the era of planetary emergency – especially if it’s the generation that must bear the brunt of its consequences. As one senior woman said, the youth are no longer the future leaders; they are the leaders.
Simon Fraser University
Visiting Canterbury Fellow, Sept. 2019