On 6th September 2018, nearly 55 weeks ago, Greta Thunberg posted an Instagram story of 6 youngsters sitting on the road with banners and posters. Her caption read, “The Netherlands” and included a tag that directed you to Pink Politiek, a political youth organization in the Netherlands. Over a year later, on 27th September 2019, 35,000 protesters, including me, occupied the roads of Den Haag, marching past the town hall, various ministries and back, chanting energetically, enthusiastically and without tiring, “What do we want? Climate Justice! When do we want it? Now!” This massive turn-out is more than just a testament to young Ms. Thunberg’s environmental revolution — it reflects the whole spectrum of emotions that have been so rightly triggered in all of us. Climate change, its dangers, and complacent political regimes have frustrated us and younger generations so much that it is hardly surprising that we took it upon ourselves to openly and stridently demand a system change.
As I walked along with protesters capturing the various slogans and the overall mood on my Instagram, I noticed that although it appeared to be a giant, homogenous people-snake from above, weaving through the city center, every pocket of the movement had its color and charisma — one that was absolutely unique yet blended beautifully with the purpose that had brought us all together on that humid afternoon. I watched as young children waved flags in my face, eager to be heard. A geriatric but dynamic activist smiled for my lens peeking behind his miniature slogan: a tiny cardboard piece glued to a toothpick that announced, “Save the Planet! Save Paper!”
All of the voices wanted to say just one thing: We want climate justice, and we want it now!
A loud and prominent Ben & Jerry’s float with a melting marble of blue-green ice cream on a cone was accompanied by several members dancing to the beat of a tambourine. A little further on, I spied a group of anti-noise protesters — a small and silent group sitting in a circle meditating amidst the chaos while the posters on their laps did the speaking for them. Some banners questioned protesters themselves, “How many of you here still eat meat tho?” it accused. Yet others wrote slogans on vegetables like leeks and waved them above their heads. Buoyed by the sheer size of the crowd, many attendees scrambled to make last-minute posters leaning against the train station walls or on the ground, scribbling away furiously. I spied posters in Italian, Spanish, English, German, Dutch of course, and some even in meme formats. In all these different languages and all these myriad ways, all of the costumes, and all of the voices wanted to say just one thing: We want climate justice, and we want it now!
Many of us who had attended the protest from TU Delft experienced a lot of feelings especially on seeing the volume of the crowd, the variety of the slogans as well as the simplicity and honesty of the chant. After going back home, I asked some of my friends and colleagues to share what they felt. Miki (recent graduate, MSc Environmental Engineering), who walked with me clicking photographs of the movement with her camera (a more permanent record) remarked how surprising and also inspiring it was to “see so many people sing and make a party out of a strike about a tragic topic.” She figured it was important to keep the positivity. For Mythili (MSc Life Sciences & Technology), the sight of so many people explicitly taking the time to attend the strike made her feel less alone. She pointed out the importance of having such an intergenerational crowd — young children, their parents, and elders all walking hand in hand. Just expecting the youth rising to take responsibility is categorically insufficient, she says. Sarah (MSc Water Management) echoes the same sentiment. She tells me, “When I saw 10-year-old children shouting on the street, I thought how did we get to a point where children have to go to the street? Because the people in power don’t understand the urgency. Children should not have to do this.”
Both Sarah and Mythili illustrate an important point that many young activists around the world also underline in their interviews. Greta, when on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, pleaded to the general public to push for change by using the power of democracy. Those of us with a capacity to vote for a change must do so, she implores. At 16, her valiant efforts to make the world sit up and notice have garnered international press but her fear that this movement remains limited to the streets and does not translate into policy and system changes is legitimate. As much as it is our duty to turn up for a strike, it is our duty to turn up and exercise our vote. In spite of her accusations, Ms. Thunberg reserves some optimism for those currently in power. “Because if you really understood the situation and kept on failing to act, then you would be evil. And I refuse to believe that”, she says.
‘How did we get to a point where children have to go to the street?’
Regardless of the overwhelming and supportive crowd offline, the online world is a harsh place filled with trolls and skeptics. One internet user leaves a comment on a video of her speech at the 2019 United Nations General Assembly saying, “too young, too simple, too emotional, lacks rigor”. The internet itself teaches us not to attend to any of these ‘haters’ that inhabit it, but it is still extremely demoralizing. I think to myself; this was not targeted at me and yet I am upset, how is Greta Thunberg able to handle it, that too at 16?
On the opposite corner of the same internet, there is a choropleth map showing the September climate protest attendee numbers across the world in varying shades of green (darker shades indicating larger numbers). The world looks like a carpet of algae — all across the world from Montreal to Australia, from Iceland to Antarctica — yes, even Antarctica (a small group of researchers stationed there joined the strike!), people marched for climate justice. The numbers are astounding, stirring and exceptional: 6 million people globally joined forces according to a Guardian report. In a poetic happenstance, 27th September also marked the anniversary of the book, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson that jumpstarted the environmental movement in 1962. As Carson writes in her most seminal work, “We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.” I am sure Greta Thunberg would agree.
At the climate strike, I climbed on a ledge to get a bird’s eye view of the crowd. Several journalists climbed up after me to take pictures from such a coveted spot and much later this included some passersby. In particular, a white-haired old lady was terribly excited to get on top but was having great difficulty in doing so. “I am very old” she wheezed happily. I helped hoist her on to the ledge and watched as she took several pictures of the marching crowd. “It’s amazing isn’t it?” she asked, her voice full of hope and wonder. I smiled back at her and felt a renewed sense of mobility and possibility. Together, in small increments, we may just change the world.
Pooja Ramakrishnan is studying MSc Environmental Engineering and is part of the Delta team as book and podcast pundit.