Rise in Climate Activism
By Maddie Graf
There is nothing new about climate change protests, no matter how much they seem to be ‘trending’ lately. While it is true that there has been an increase in environmental protests during the past decade, this has largely been exacerbated by social media—something past generations did not have. The existence of social media activism has only put a spotlight on the rise in climate demonstrations, making it easier to organize massive protests. In order to understand this recent uptick in protests, however, it is important to understand some of the history of environmental protests in the US.
The first major US environmental protest was on April 22nd, 1970—the first Earth Day. This was the largest environmental protest at the time in the United States, with approximately twenty million participants across the nation and about twelve thousand individual demonstrations, according to the Washington Post. It was organized initially by a Wisconsin senator named Gaylord Nelson, who was fueled by the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, in which 35 miles of the ocean were covered in oil from a spilled rig, and by the photos taken of the earth from the Apollo 10 during its journey to the moon.
In reality, the climate crisis already existed by this point. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, environmental disasters were typical. Smog blanketed most major cities as industrialization and urbanization increased. At the time, there was no drive to protest this treatment of the environment. However, the 1960s brought about a massive wave of political protest and activism in the US, with the civil rights movement, women’s rights movement, and anti-war protests all becoming more popular. Nelson used these movements as a framework for his own, specifically the anti-war and civil rights movements. Initially, his plan was a series of teach-ins across the nation, but college activists soon joined his plan and expanded it into a national protest. Unfortunately, the day of protest was not the focus of the news for very long–during the weeks after, the US invaded Cambodia, and the Kent State shooting occurred, drawing national attention away from the Earth Day protests.
What was so vital about Earth Day, 1970 was the fact that it was not professionally organized. While Nelson is credited with creating the idea, it was truly the youth organizers who made the event what it was. This protest was in no means perfect—it was led, largely, by white, upper-middle class, college educated males, and conveyed the impacts of climate change through the eyes of the white middle class. Despite the major flaws in the organization of this protest, its grassroots origins and the cause it supported served to inspire millions. In fact, Congress was adjourned for the day due to the high number of Congressman who participated in the marches, according to BBC. This does not mean that the protest was universally well-regarded; many believed that the Earth Day movement was a distraction from the civil rights movement, functioning as a means to re-center the focus of policy on the white middle-class student. In reality, it took decades for the civil rights movement and the environmental community to come together as they have now.
Still, environmental protests were not seen as particularly politically divisive at this time; those from all parts of the political spectrum wanted a healthier planet and therefore took part in the protests. The goal was political reform, not driven by a dislike for any current policy, but out of a need to create policy in general.
Earth Day was successful in its attempts to create reform–the same year, the EPA was created, and the Clean Air Act was passed. Only two years later, the Clean Water Act was passed, with the Endangered Species Act being signed in 1973. These acts were not considered partisan by the government or the citizens. They were simply fueled by the increasing public outcry for a cleaner environment. Climate reform bills were passed by republican and democratic presidents alike, from Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to Jimmy Carter. The bills signed at the time were still, unfortunately, reflective of the most vocal class: white, middle-class males, meaning that the policy still allowed for the environmental racism that we see today. Many of the bills that were passed at this time segregated Native Americans and Black people, as well as other people of color, who were left out of political reform and discourse for decades. These bills were far from perfect, but they were spurred by the Earth Day protests.
In the modern age, environmental protests are much more diverse, and many call for reforms to be enacted which take into account those of differing races, classes, and backgrounds to minimize the impacts of environmental racism. As movements have become more diverse, they have also spread across the globe, leading to the Earth Day we know now—a global day of environmental action with billions of participants.
Most modern protests are youth-led, which is one of the elements of the original Earth Day protests that has carried over to the present. Today, however, youth organizers have the benefit of social media as an organizational tool. According to the Pew Research Center, Gen Z and Millennials in the US are more likely to want climate action taken than other generations, and Gen Z say that addressing climate change is their top personal concern–more than any other generation. The same study also states that Gen Z and Millennial social media users have more exposure to climate change and climate activism content online than older generations do. These trends carry over to other countries as well; according to the British government, nearly 50% of those in the UK between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four are ‘very concerned’ about climate change, compared to only 24% of those who are above sixty-five.
Overall, climate change movements are led by younger activists, even when compared to the ages of the activists who led the 1970 Earth Day protests. Activists like Greta Thunberg gained traction through both social and traditional media attention, with Gen Z and Millennials being the most receptive to her efforts. Thunberg is just one example of social media organization in the modern age; without a platform, it seems nearly impossible that she could have created the Fridays for Future campaign.
Many other environmental movements, such as Extinction Rebellion (XR), Insulate Britain, and the Campaign Against Climate Change all also have large youth followings. In fact, during the string of climate strikes in the spring of 2019, the median age of protest organizers was eighteen, according to Lauren J. Young of Science Fridays. Now, with the adoption of social media activism, and given the number of celebrities who take part in climate activism, it seems a bit like a “trend”. Clearly, this is far from the truth.
The modern environmental protest owes a lot to the initial Earth Day protest in 1970, as well as the number of protest-based movements that came before it. There are many similarities between the recent wave of activism and the rise of environmentalism in the 1970s, specifically in the youth and student-led nature of the movements. The key difference, however, is traction: modern protests have the benefit of increased structure and audiences through social media.
The legacy of Earth Day has changed over time, but hopefully it will not be forgotten. In a book written by Senator Nelson, the initial organizer of the event, he stated that the modern Earth Day, headlined by the co-opting of the Earth Day brand by corporations, is not in the true spirit of the protests, a sentiment reflected by many of today’s youth activists. The future of the environmentalism movement is yet to be seen, but there is no doubt that the recent wave of protesting shows some mirroring of the protests that came before.
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