Lena Andres stood on top of the Legislative Building steps, watching students and adults carrying anti-pipeline protest signs and chanting, “there is no Planet B!” The seventeen-year-old climate activist hoped a thousand people would show up to the Sept. 27 #FridaysForFuture protest in Winnipeg. The crowd crammed in, filling the space from the Legislative Building’s front steps to the edge of Broadway, and wrapped around the building. She and the other organizers whispered to each other, trying to figure out how many people came out. When she realized somewhere between 12 to 15 thousand people were there, she felt a mix of pride for her city and a growing sense of dread.
“I felt quite a bit of sadness that day, which I wasn’t expecting to feel. It was a very emotional day,” Andres said. “It devastates me that that 12,000 people felt the need to walk off the job or school for this cause.”
Andres is an organizer for Manitoba Youth for Climate Action (MYCA), an environmental activist group on Treaty 1 land. The group of high school and university students have planned strikes every Friday since March 2019. Before Sept. 27, MYCA’s largest strike was around 800 people, so getting 12,000 people to turn up at the Legislative Building felt like a massive win. But MYCA’s top priority isn’t to spread awareness or to get attention — it’s to pressure politicians into taking action against climate change.
Greta Thunberg, a 17-year-old climate activist from Sweden, inspired MYCA’s Friday strikes. Thunberg began striking every Friday in front of the Swedish Parliament in 2018, demanding that her government do more to prevent an impending climate catastrophe. She quickly gained international attention on social media when photos of Thunberg sitting by herself with a “strike for climate” sign went viral. She has amassed over four million followers on Twitter, was named the TIME’s 2019 Person of the Year and inspired a movement called #FridaysForFuture, where students all over the world have walked out of their classrooms to protest their governments inaction.
It’s strange that young people are leading the fight against climate change. Young people are the least likely to engage in politics. In 2013, Statistics Canada found only 47 per cent of 15-to-19-year-olds and 61 per cent of 20-to-24-year-olds said they were very likely to vote in the next election, while 84 per cent of 65-to-74-year-olds said the same. Yet this issue, and Thunberg’s movement, has seemingly united young people all over the world to not only post about climate change online but to take tangible action.
On top of being politically disengaged, op-ed writers have accused young people of “slacktivism,” posting or tweeting about an issue to spread awareness without ever getting off their couches. Movements like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge or the YouTube documentary Kony 2012 are perfect examples of slacktivism. In both cases, these campaigns set out to “spread awareness,” but people knowing about an issue rarely translates into change.
Malcolm Gladwell, author, podcast host, and journalist for The New Yorker, said creating change on online platforms is hard.
In 2010, Gladwell wrote an article titled “Small Change,” where he identified two major factors needed in a successful activist campaign: high risks and strong ties. He used the example of the 1960s sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina, in which four black men sat at the counter of a “whites only” restaurant, ordered coffee, and waited for days to be served. Students began sit-ins all over the South that winter. Throughout the demonstrations, protestors were threatened, spat on, and screamed at.
Gladwell asserted this campaign was successful because students formed strong friendships with one another and were willing to jeopardize their safety for the cause. He argued Twitter and Instagram only superficially connect us. We can’t form strong ties the way students in the ’60s did by chatting over Facebook or posting on Twitter.
Yet Thunberg, whose impassioned speech at the United Nations has over five million views on YouTube, has encouraged students like Andres to stand up for their future. The #FridaysForFuture movement uses hashtags and videos to inspire and inform people, but it has transcended being just a social media campaign. After seeing someone their age take a stand, young people around the world started to follow suit.
#FridaysForFuture’s largest demonstration to date was a week of action from Sept. 20 to 27 in 2019. According to the news site Vox, it was the largest climate protest ever. An estimated four million people walked out of school or work across the globe to demand their government take action against climate change on Sept. 27.
MYCA was one of the thousands of student-led groups across the world that was inspired by Thunberg to begin striking as early as December 2018. The first strike was led by seventh-graders from École River Heights School who marched to MP Jim Carr’s office, holding signs and chanting after being inspired by Thunberg’s protests. The young students delivered a petition demanding the MP do more to prevent a climate catastrophe.
MYCA has shifted into mostly high school and university students like Andres and Sunny Enkin-Lewis. They were both in grade 12 when they started organizing with MYCA. For most high school students, the thought of organizing a protest would be overwhelming, but seeing Thunberg fight for a cause she believed in motivated the two students to act.
Thunberg may have pushed Enkin-Lewis to start protesting for the climate, but she caught the activism bug early from her parents.
“[My] rebellious nature was never discouraged,” said the 18-year-old University of Winnipeg student.
Growing up, her parents didn’t shy away from discussing politics at the dinner table. They brought their daughter along to Pride parades, marches, and protests, instilling the idea you should fight for what you believe in. Enkin-Lewis doesn’t remember when she went to her first protest but remembers the desire for change was palpable around her.
It was Enkin-Lewis’ mom who first told her about climate strikes and encouraged her to get involved. Both her parents plan on working with the adult counterpart to MYCA, Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition (MEJC), when they get back from a different protest in Toronto.
When Enkin-Lewis began organizing, she tried to get students from her high school to come out to MYCA’s bigger strikes on March 15 and May 3, 2019. She got around 10 of her classmates to come. Most of them didn’t feel as strongly about climate action as Enkin-Lewis and weren’t interested in skipping school to protest.
Andres considers her first foray into activism “late in the game,” although she was only 15 when she went to her first protest, an anti-fascist march called “Winnipeg Unites Against Hate.”
“It wasn’t something I realized I could do until I saw people my age doing it,” she said. “It helped me realize that youth do have power.”
But when she tried harnessing that power and rallying students at her high school to join a #FridaysForFuture strike, she was met with the same indifference as Enkin-Lewis. She considers her high school, River East Collegiate, to be fairly conservative. Going to protests wasn’t part of the culture.
Enkin-Lewis and Andres found the community they were looking for with MYCA. Composed of students across the city, MYCA organizers spend two to four evenings a week in meetings together. Gladwell suggests campaigns that begin online can’t connect people the way activism did in the past because social media connections are built on “weak ties” as opposed to the “strong ties” we build in person. But the #FridaysForFuture campaign brought together students willing to work together toward tangible change.
“We’ve created an amazing community of people who are so dedicated to this stuff, that’s what keeps me going and excites me about all this work,” said Andres.
Without inspiration from Thunberg, these students may have never got involved in climate activism or formed a tight-knit group of friends. Now, MYCA is trying to inspire students the same way those activists inspired them.
They are posting photos of their Friday strikes, sharing videos from their larger protests, answering messages from interested students about how to get involved, and reminding their followers that meetings are open for anyone to join. They know an Instagram page won’t lead to revolutionary change, but it does allow students to reach out and ask questions about how they can get involved.
Enkin-Lewis hates the term “slacktivist.” While she would prefer if everyone who came out to the climate strike was committed to the movement; she thinks it helped their cause that striking is considered “Instagrammable.” She thinks even if students only came out to the Sept. 27 protest to take a photo — it’s better than them not coming at all.
“It’s not as good as if everyone was wholeheartedly in this movement, but they still showed up, and they still learned about it, and this is still something that people care about,” she said. “Whether they’re putting their lives on the line or whether they’re sharing an Instagram post, this is important to people.”
MYCA is part of Climate Strike Canada. The overarching group organizes dates of bigger strikes, creates graphics, and discusses ideas for how activists can make a greater impact. MYCA keeps in contact with Climate Strike Canada through apps like Slack and Skype, since activists are spread across the country. The geographical distance isn’t easy, but online platforms help activists work together on national campaigns like stopping the Trans Mountain Expansion (TMX) project.
Rebecca Wolf Gage, a 13-year-old climate activist from Victoria, B.C., used Climate Strike Canada’s Slack channel to get in touch with climate activists willing to sue the federal government over the TMX project. The TMX is a pipeline that would carry 890,000 barrels of oil per day. Three other students in the Slack line joined her, including Andres. Their case argues that building the pipeline is a violation of their Charter rights to life, liberty, and security of person as well as equality on the basis of age.
Their case hit obstacles at every turn. First, the Federal Court of Appeal dismissed the case. Then they appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada and learned they needed $15,000 to continue.
“We were like, okay, this is kind of impossible, but we need to do it,” Andres said.
The activists had an emergency Skype call with environmental activist groups Greenpeace Canada and Our Children’s Trust. The students shared a GoFundMe page across platforms and managed to raise $17,000 in five days, according to Andres. This feat would have likely been impossible without Climate Strike Canada’s online network of activists around the country.
Online connections gave students from all over Canada a chance to send in letters to the Slack channel detailing how climate change has already hurt them, including heat exhaustion from heatwaves, flooding, and breathing in air pollution from Alberta and B.C. wildfires. The teenagers also got in touch with a NASA-backed scientist who has written a report detailing how carbon emissions from the finished pipeline will harm youth in the future.
The letters from the students and the scientist will be used as evidence in the upcoming Supreme Court of Canada case.
Shawn Kettner, a member of MEJC, has seen how online platforms like Slack have changed the way activists organize and communicate firsthand. She became an activist in the late ’80s when she and a group of concerned parents fought against administering standardized testing at her kids’ school.
Overall, she said what they did in the ’80s is the same as what MYCA is doing now: marching to the Legislative Building, calling press conferences, and meeting with politicians.
The biggest difference Kettner has noticed is constant and immediate communication. She said there were fewer meetings and fewer updates from colleagues back then. When she was campaigning against standardized testing, the most advanced communication technology they had was a relay-style system called phone trees. Activists would compile a list of people they wanted to reach, phone five names on the list, and give each person they called five new names to phone.
“Now I’ve got six platforms that I’m trying to keep track of and way more interference in my off hours,” said Kettner, whose phone rang three times in the first ten minutes of our interview.
She thinks the benefits of online platforms for activists outweigh any negatives from slacktivism. While working with MEJC, she has Skyped with environmentalists in the United States about tactics they use to oppose pipelines. Online platforms have made her feel like MEJC is part of the international fight against climate change — especially when she sees MYCA working with other young activists through Climate Strike Canada.
She thinks online platforms are especially beneficial for spreading information that may not be accessible otherwise.
“Now we can see what’s happening all over the world. You are much more politically savvy because of the internet. It’s not like people don’t know what’s happening in Australia. Before, you might have had a few stations reporting on it. The news is slanted, so is the internet, but you have access to a much broader scope,” she said. “That’s what’s empowered the youth to move forward and kicked our butts to get us going.”
In her opinion, slacktivism isn’t new. Posting a status isn’t much different than wearing a ribbon. The only difference is, in her opinion being an activist is becoming more inclusive. Information is more widely accessible, you can easily talk to organizers, and yes, people can repost to spread awareness, but that’s just the start.
“Yes, people can post things and think they’re done,” said Kettner. “But on the other hand, you can sign a petition or send a letter, that’s easy too. If people weren’t doing that, they’d be doing less. Maybe that’s step one, and that’s not a bad thing.”
While she thinks online resources have helped the environmental campaign, she admits working through a screen doesn’t compare to being in the same room with other activists.
“When you get down to it, you need to be in the same room to get a feel for where everyone is. And if you’re doing activism, you need to take care of each other because activism is hard work,” said Kettner.
There will always be people who do very little for activist causes who feel good about themselves for wearing a ribbon or using a hashtag. That’s not distinctive of social media. What is new is the small group of people getting deeply involved, going above and beyond working for change now have a way to work with one another.
In Gladwell’s article, he says activists have to be willing to put something on the line. If they aren’t making sacrifices for the cause, they haven’t committed. Nothing is keeping them from packing up and heading home at the drop of a hat.
Although Thunberg’s movement started online, she is asking students to disobey their teachers and parents and miss out on class every Friday. It’s a big ask from someone whom students have never met, yet students all over the world are listening.
Cam Beers, a 17-year-old high school senior, is willing to give up their education for the climate strike movement. Beers is on credit probation at their high school due to missing classes every Friday. Their administration has told them that if their attendance doesn’t improve, they won’t be eligible for graduation in June. That hasn’t stopped them from going to every Friday strike.
For Beers, missing school and even missing their graduation is worth it. They want their teachers and peers to see how important this movement is to them, and they want to know they did everything they could to protect the climate. If that means giving up their education, that’s what they’ll do. A large part of why they feel so strongly about this cause is the open-minded community of activists they have found with MYCA.
“When I first joined, I thought like this is one of the best atmospheres that I’ve ever joined,” said Beers.
Beers will stop striking when the government makes dealing with climate change their first priority. Until then, they will be on the steps of the Legislative Building every Friday, demanding politicians listen.
It’s not just school MYCA organizers are missing either. It’s free time they could be spending at their part-time jobs, playing sports, or spending time with their friends. Free time they’re choosing to give up because they feel politicians are not acting in their best interest.
Enkin-Lewis spent her summer vacation after graduating high school securing permits for the Sep. 27 strike, talking to city officials, and sending hundreds of emails to different organizations asking for support. She met with MEJC, MYCA, and Climate Strike Canada to iron out the details for Sept. 27. It’s been nerve-wracking, time-consuming, but most of all, she said it’s been worth it. Striking every Friday, spending time with other activists, and planning protests gives her a sense of accomplishment. It feels like it’s the only thing she can do to quell her anxiety about the future.
“Sometimes I do it out of anger. I want to yell at politicians. Sometimes I do it out of sadness and needing community. Sometimes I do it to show our followers that there are people willing to do this work,” said Enkin-Lewis.
Not only are they sacrificing their free time in their teens, but some young Canadian environmentalists are deciding to give up having a family in the future.
Andres has taken the No Future Pledge, a vow not to have children unless the Canadian government makes significant changes ensuring the Earth will be a safe place for future generations to live. Emma Lim, an 18-year-old McGill University student, started the pledge after reading the IPCC report. As of February, there are 5,392 signatures on her online pledge.
The pledge is a big sacrifice for Andres. While at an art build, painting a sign with the slogan “eyes on the front lines, feet on the street,” she and Enkin-Lewis talk about how one day they will both be great moms, bringing their kids to protests and teaching them to stand up for what’s right. But she’s willing to give that up until she knows her kids will have a safe place to live.
“When I think about winning this, I think about being 80 with my activist friends and our kids, looking out at the ocean that we saved together,” said Andres.
The internet is one more tool at an activists’ fingertips. Tools themselves don’t create change, hardworking, driven people using them do. MYCA is using the internet to connect with other dedicated activists who want change, to inspire students like themselves to speak up for what they believe in, and to spread their vision of a sustainable future.