THE PEOPLE’S CLIMATE MARCH, LONDON: AN ACCOUNT

by Rowan Gavin

Climate change is the defining issue of our time. For once I’m resisting the philosopher’s urge to insert the word ‘arguably’ into that sentence, because right now I really believe it. My inspiration arose from the People’s Climate March which took place around the world on Sunday the 21st of August, and the creativity, commitment and love of the people involved.

Some months ago a coalition of climate activist groups announced their intent to organise the biggest climate change protest ever, centred around a massive march in New York. Certainly, as became apparent over the following weeks, they were creating the biggest publicity campaign for such an event that I personally had ever heard of. Inspiring videos and statements came flooding in from people all over the globe, from those whose lives were most threatened by climate change, to some of today’s most prolific and successful climate activists, and to those many compassionate individuals who simply felt they had to do something. Reasons to march, tales of previous protest actions, and reports of new additions to the movement sparked across the internet, in a slow but steady growth of solidarity and support.

Before I went to bed on Saturday night, reports and images from marches in time zones ahead of mine began to trickle in − tens of thousands were turning out in Australia, India, various pacific nations, and elsewhere. At 12.30 GMT+1 it was to be London’s turn.

I got up at 7am (tough for an arts student) to  join the University of East Anglia (UEA) contingent at Norwich train station. A few hours travel later, we found ourselves outside King’s College London SU, and ducked under a ‘virtual’ barrier of tape to enter the hub of activity therein. We would be joining the Fossil Free campaign’s section of the march, as one of the universities that hosts a branch of the campaign, and this was their meeting point.

Excited looking organisers rushed around, painting faces, writing chants, inflating symbolic carbon bubbles, and handing out flags and banners splashed with the bright orange of the Fossil Free brand. In a moment of genius, a student from UEA had brought with her some orange jumpsuits left over from her time as part of the Jamnesty protest band, so we could truly show our colours as Fossil Free supporters. All suited up, we headed outside to see that a street-filling crowd was forming. We waited for the march to begin as chants were practiced and banners and flags were raised aloft, some bearing slogans such as, ‘Action Not Words’, ‘Don’t be Fossil Fools’, and ‘For the love of Gorillas, do something about Climate Change’. Then, without any particular signal, the crowd started to flow slowly down the street. A great cheer went up, a samba band started playing, and we were on our way.

(© Laura Lean/PA)

Our movement was slow at first, but between the samba, the sunshine, and the variety of extraordinary costumes on display, the march was never boring. In fact, I would defy anyone to feel bored on such an occasion. Being present in such a large group of people who are all fully engaged in and passionate about what they’re doing, is completely captivating. It’s like being in the crowd at a massive festival gig or a big sports event, except that you’ve not had to pay for the privilege, and you know you’re doing some good in the world just by being there.

And yes, I do believe that. I’m familiar with the standard cynical arguments against these kinds of actions: ‘The politicians will never listen to you anyway’, ‘What’s a bunch of people walking someplace going to achieve?’, ‘One more person won’t make a difference’; that kind of thing. To address the first one first, yes it’s quite possible that the actions of hundreds of thousands won’t cause the few at the top to change their ways. They may not listen to us, even though some of them are us – notably, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon joined the march in New York. But if we’re loud enough, as we were this weekend, they can’t help but hear us, and just knowing that we are around will influence their decisions in one way or another. And this is why one more person will always make a difference. The more people we have, the more noise we can make, literally and figuratively. Plus, people don’t exist in a vacuum, so for every one more first-time protester who joins in, there’s a whole network of family and friends who will hear about their participation and start to take an interest. We may each be only one drop in a huge ocean, but what is an ocean except a multitude of drops? As for walking seeming trivial, again I beg to differ. It is symbolic in many ways that are beneficial to the climate movement – it represents progress, it demonstrates that the small actions of many people can be amazing in combination, and it shows our belief that the slow and natural way is often better than the fast, energy-intensive way.

The 40,000 strong London march was organised by Avaaz, 350.org, UKYCC, People & Planet, Operation Noah, Wake Up London, Oxfam, Art Not Oil, BP or not BP, CAFOD, UCL Students’ Union, Greenpeace UK, Rising Tide, and it wended its way along the Thames, down Whitehall, and into Parliament Square, with chants and cheers and songs echoing off the old stone walls. Although we were denied access to the square itself, we filled the street in front of parliament as we gradually came to a halt. At the front, by a big screen, celebrities and activists made speeches that we couldn’t really hear, but the crowd around us was so engaging that there was no sense of anti-climax. We chatted with each other and with passers-by about the march and the related issues, and everyone seemed to agree that it had been A Good Thing. I spotted my favourite banner of the day, which simply asked politicians to ‘Just Stop Fucking Everything Up’.

The UEA contingent’s final act of the day was to take some pictures for the Fossil Free campaign to use in the coming term, so we duly formed a bright orange human pyramid to hold aloft our placards. After that I had to leave, so my account ends here, but I encourage you to go looking for some of the footage of the People’s Climate Marches around the world. It was a truly inspiring thing to be a part of.

If you’re feeling inspired as well, then get out and give some climate activism a go. You could try signing petitions on Avaaz  or 38degrees, dressing up and climbing on things with Greenpeace, or joining in with your university’s Fossil Free campaign or finding some kind of local grassroots group to get involved with (there will be one; grass grows everywhere). We are creatures of nature after all, and just as in the ecosystems we are trying to save, every small action makes a difference.

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