Systemic capitalism, rather than the actions of individuals, is the root of the disproportionate climate change. The apparent insatiability of markets and the relentless strive for ever-growing wealth obscure the chances of voluntary sustainable behaviour of firms and civilians alike. As economist Milton Friedman famously put it, the social responsibility of businesses is to increase their profits. Taking care of negative values such as CO2 emissions, sewage or waste arising as by-products of the businesses’ profit-increasing cannot be turned into profits by these firms or even cost them money. Thus, there is little motivation to keep these negative values under control if that means losses for the firm. This neglect of climate issues has been ignored for the longest time and has led to increasingly curious forms of protests.
In a free market, any issue not threatening short- and middle-term surpluses will rarely be addressed, leading to unsustainable business practices to persist through their more “competitive” prices. As a result, governing bodies are needed as advocates for the people to protect them from their own economic choices. An insatiable market needs boundaries, allowing a future society to live in a prosperous world. This prosperity can be measured but is hard to convey as it does not concern surplus values. Subsequently, the very same negative values are ignored by profit-oriented firms. Most irritatingly, at the same time, greenwashing however is on every corner.
The Last Straw
NGOs such as Last Generation Austria are calling for governments to fulfil their environmental commitments regarding CO2e and are speaking out against the practice of policy-makers and international companies hunting for greenwashed loopholes. In recent months, the Austrian division of Last Generation has stirred up local political and public nuisance with a form of protest aiming for disturbance: nonviolent civil resistance. This appears to be the last straw for the climate activists, feeling unheard and ignored by policy-makers. There have been several occasions of climate activists gluing themselves on streets during rush hour in Vienna, drawing the ire of the obstructed drivers and those sympathising with the motorists. Yet, activists and non-supporters alike agree that civil society will not change through mere moral certainty. Last Generation Austria takes this as a motivation to expressively state they are not aiming to get public approval or change. They believe serious change can only be reached with national and international policies, and the group emphasises that “Civil resistance is no popularity contest” on their website letztegeneration.at. Therefore, some do not want to change and the others are certain that they will not change their modus operandi, posing the question of why climate activists protest in a way that adversely affects civic society?
The organisation explains, they believe the majority of society supports their agenda, “but despite this majority, politicians do not act because they prefer to listen to the fossil fuel lobby”. However, when considering media attention, the public neither sympathises with the goals nor the means of the climate activists. This ambiguous outcome raises some questions: if their voters do not revolt and the economy grows, why would a politician stop listening to a lobby? Whose politics will be promoted by the protests – those of supporters or opponents of sustainable political decisions? Last Generation Austria refers to Erica Chenoweth’s assumption that a 3.5% participation in protest is enough to achieve societal transformation. Civil Resistance, as referred to in Chenoweth’s paper, is known to be successful in countries experiencing radical political change, especially when lacking rule of law and infringing human rights. Now, it is used in the context of climate protests – but to what extent does this success of minority groups apply in a politically stable country bound to capitalism? For the Last Generation’s cause, the answer is yet to be found. However, why the organisation is adopting this hard-line stance, despite backlash and pushbacks – both figuratively and literally – is explained easily: what other choice do they have left?
The Camel’s Back
While the protests do not appear to be of much efficiency regarding policy changes, they certainly are efficient in gathering the attention the topic sought so desperately while paying with a crumbling social cohesion as a price. The cumulative emotional and mental burden that political polarisation has imposed on each person in the last years is both barely noted and presented as statistically insignificant; something to grin about and bear with. As long as the world keeps turning faster and everyone needs to keep pace, there will be steadily less consideration and grace. As long as this is a fight of the ones against the others, a solution can hardly be found. As long as there is a demand for harmful unsustainable goods and as long as the Tragedy of the Commons persists, we will still have a long way to go until we return to mutual consideration and appreciation, unattached to values and opinions.
Polarisation, hatred and latently erupting aggression increasingly shaped online behaviour over the last couple of years. With open displays of civil resistance, these behaviours appear to have manifested in the offline world. Street-blocking activists were insulted, dragged, beaten and kicked by civilians. In online forums, these physical and verbal assaults are mostly either endorsed, celebrated or judged to be not violent enough, sometimes even insinuating running over the activists. The missing indignation, more so even schadenfreude, about open brutality is nothing to disregard: in our increasingly divided society, there is little sympathy for alternate opinions. The culmination of major events in recent human history seems to have heightened the propensity to use violence in thought, word, and deed. While climate action is so desperately needed on a material level, the social level is deeply damaged. With societal interaction already on the verge of collapse, this last straw the activists are clinging on to broke the proverbial camel’s back. There is only so much a human can deal with before failing to control their anger and aggressions. For climate activists to have crossed this red line indicates that social propriety and its normative value has been eroded immensely, indicating a trend of more radical and public demonstrations for social movements in the years to come.
Written by Judith Bauer; Edited by Leander Kränzle
Art credit to Julia Drössler