One of the most defining images of the global climate movement in recent history was of Greta Thunberg demonstrating outside the Swedish parliament. The young girl in the yellow coat, lugging around a cardboard placard that read ‘Skolstrejk för klimatet’ (School strike for climate).
The first time I came to know of her, which was sometime in the second year of my undergraduate degree, she was already a global icon. Her pictures and thoughts were plastered in many of the major international news titles. The New York Times ran an article titled “Becoming Greta: ‘Invisible Girl’ to Global Climate Activist…”. The Guardian called her “climate change warrior”. She came to represent everything that the political leaders were not in their response to climate change: determined, head strong and passionate. I remember feeling incredibly enthused just reading about her.
This happened to coincide with me coming across the book by David Wallace-Wells titled ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’. The book, though written simply and brilliantly, was an extremely difficult read. It is chapter after chapter of how climate change would inevitably lead to horrific circumstances; how these effects would be somewhat less horrific if we started taking serious action now (or well, then: in 2019 when the book was published). I particularly remember Wallace-Wells questioning if it was still ethical to have children, given the world they would inherit would be one ridden with major climate catastrophes. To think that being born itself guaranteed suffering to the extent that it led to contemplation of the ethicality of the act of giving birth, that was a major warning bell.
That period, the summer of 2019 (marked by a combination of Greta, the uninhabitable earth and sweeping of youth activism), I had an awakening so to speak. I became incredibly conscious of everything I did as well as everything we humans did as a collective. Climate change consumed my mind so much that when I returned to college after the summer, I rallied some like-minded students and started a climate change committee in college.
For many months, I was extremely prickly about buying anything that was wrapped in plastic. And I vividly remember one afternoon when me and a friend staged an impromptu demonstration in our college canteen. We screamed our throats out pleading people to stop using plastic cups and straws and instead get their own reusable mugs. We jumped around like possessed clowns and people looked at us like we were chanting spells in a language they did not comprehend. We were angry at the state of things; most others were unbothered; some were annoyed at being disturbed during what was otherwise chill time; some laughed at us; and a small minority cheered us on.
By the end of that year, I had two major unsurprising takeaways: changing individual behaviour is extremely hard, and that guilt-tripping the average person about their climate-unfriendly behaviour is not very helpful and not very fair given it is larger corporations and richer nations that are disproportionately responsible for the crisis in the first place. The issue is very much present at the individual level, but is also systemic and highly linked to how we design our societies, economic models and political structures, and organise our communities. Looked at from another dimension, the problem is not just the micro, but is as macro as it gets with us humans. The problem is global.
In recent years, there is growing consensus that this global threat would also require global solutions and efforts. The climate movements have therefore become incredibly international and large scale. That also has to do with the rise of digital technologies that have enabled newer forms of networked societies to thrive. Climate groups like 360.org, FridaysForFuture and Extinction Rebellion have chapters and members in countries all around the world. And many of these organisations and youth activists are proponents of the notion of climate and global justice. With the concept of justice there is acknowledgement of the inequality that exists across the globe. There is active consideration of the fact that some regions and communities would suffer more than others from the effects of climate change.
While the global-ness of climate change is undeniable, and the momentum built by the global movements and strikes is of much significance, we should also not lose sight of the local. Some of the best ways to effect change is at the grassroots level. While the climate movement should be unabashedly global, the solutions ought to be locally-oriented: taking into account the realities of people who live and belong to those regions. The danger with a global dictate is that it might end up mimicking the existing power structures of the world, where the richer and developed nations (who’ve in the first place majorly contributed to the issue) design and orchestrate changes in a way that suits them best, putting others down below in the power hierarchy at a disadvantage. Another risk one runs from a big global messaging is the loss of nuance in the understanding of the various issues that fall under the huge umbrella of climate change.
Climate change is really an amalgamation of several things. And its manifestations are very different across regions too. Like any and all matters that we as social beings deal with, it is layered too. We need the global to understand and bridge the inequality across nations; and to coordinate and cooperate on issues like climate migration. We need the local since that allows us to understand the intricacies, and practically, strategically implement climate-friendly practices. We also need the personal since first-hand experience makes for a great driver of change.
For me, my personal experience engaging in climate action handed me a hard lesson about the resistance people have when it comes to changing habits. It was also illuminating to understand how even small practical inconveniences stop people from changing. All this taken into account, it also showed me that there were people who did also care and affected change. And conversations with such like-minded people has led me to adopt a hopeful attitude despite all the gloom talk. So yes, the personal, even though it is about the one person, can become the key to further local and global change. Therefore we must, as collectives and individuals, find ways to nurture the personal, the local and the global in the fight against climate change.