How has the environmental movement changed over the last generation? What motivates people to get involved? What strategies are needed to create change?
Eight Fellows, all aged under 35, recently joined a roundtable, chaired by the RSA’s Senior Fellowship Development Manager, Kirby Fullerton, to talk it out.
Kirby Fullerton: What compelled you to get involved in taking action against the climate crisis?
Yemi: I was born in northern Nigeria, and moved to the UK when I was six. Every other year, we’d go back to reconnect with family who are from the south originally. Every time, we’d stop off in the north, and there would probably be a drought. Then we’d go to the south and it would be flooded. That made me realise that there’s a lot of ‘environmental impunity’ – the exercise and abuse of power without accountability by governments. For example, the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement or the UK scrapping its environmental aid investment targets disproportionately impacts developing countries.
Dominique: What sparked my journey was the impact of air pollution on where I was living in South London. I spoke to people in my area, including parents who were very worried about their children breathing in toxic air. I saw that many environmental issues are linked to social issues. I learnt about how minorities are disproportionately impacted. I am Jamaican and American, as well as British, and on my visits to Jamaica I learnt about the impact of rising sea levels. I strongly felt the injustice that was placed upon those who had done the least to cause the climate crisis but were suffering the most.
Nathan: My work as an expedition doctor has taken me to some remote communities around the world. In my mid-20s, I saw first-hand some of the effects of climate change: entire villages that had been displaced from their homes due to melting glaciers, which they relied upon for farming, and the sheer scale of plastic pollution. I felt driven to use my position as a doctor to take action. As the World Health Organization put it, climate change is the single biggest health threat facing humanity. And yet, it didn’t feel like people were treating it as a crisis – I mean, look how we responded to COVID-19.
Kirby: It seems that, for a lot of people, the catalyst for action is that lived experience of extreme climate change as real, not as something far away or abstract that can be ignored.
Anna: I have a product design engineering background and, during my master’s, I saw a documentary about how a couple of manufacturers had decided, “let’s make our light bulbs in a way that they will break because otherwise we will stop selling them”. I asked myself, “Am I going to be one of those who design for obsolescence?”
Initially, I focused on designing products with less environmental impact. But I soon discovered that’s not enough, it’s about having fewer products in the first place. And the products that are there should be designed to be shared, repaired, circular or even regenerative. Our entire economy, its legal structures, are completely optimised for linearity. Trying to make them circular is a vast and wicked problem. I get excited by a challenge like that. Luckily, excitement is a potent motivator for change.
Lucien: I also had a ‘light bulb moment’ that actually involved light bulbs! Straight after university, I was working for a retail business in London. One slow day, I was just counting the number of 100-watt halogen light bulbs that were on all day. Some are on all night. What an immense waste of resources. I thought there must be a life out there that involves trying to solve these problems. We’re at the stage where it’s about trying to work out what your skill is, what you’re good at, and how that can be part of the solution.
Kirby: Earlier this year Extinction Rebellion (XR) announced that it was prioritising attendance over arrest and relationships over roadblocks. What does that shift signal?
Yemi: Direct action was drawing attention to a really important problem, but it was also leading to political polarisation. If you look at the news, they focus on actions rather than the underlying issue. XR’s shift to relationship-building was around trying to broaden the mass appeal of environmental issues, to people who may not necessarily want to engage in civil disobedience or potentially get arrested, which – especially if you’re a minority – can have serious implications.
Ben: There are loads of purposes of protest; it might be to put something at the top of the news agenda, it might be to build community, it might be to create a scene, or to get out some anger, to process sadness and grief. I don’t want to play into a media narrative that this isn’t getting mainstream support and therefore it’s not productive, because there are lots of ways to be productive.
Wilson: Any human society over an extended amount of time tries to improve living outcomes and will always come up against risks and hurdles. People centuries ago faced different hurdles that felt existential. But, typically, we overestimate what we can do in a year and underestimate what we can do in 10 years. That type of thinking fosters helplessness and is one of the things that underpinned why people felt the urge to protest. They may feel it is the only thing they can do and may not have faith in the possibilities of technology to deliver change.
We overestimate what we can do in a year and underestimate what we can do in 10 years
Nathan: Civil disobedience and protest are sometimes necessary and do generate media attention. However, partly thanks to social media, there’s often a polarisation of views and there are a lot of people who support tackling the climate crisis who also feel that civil disobedience isn’t for them. Perhaps XR realised this gap, and that meaningful change relies on having a big community and a mass movement. This doesn’t mean direct action is going to stop altogether but, for XR, it’s about welcoming a broader number of people into the movement.
Laurence: I’d add two things. One, it’s incredibly useful to have people at the vanguard saying the world is on fire. It’s not going to convince everyone, but it is going to make someone say “we need an action” and that’s extremely valuable. I am hugely respectful of the people who take direct action today. In some ways, what they’re doing is incredibly rational and, in 100 years, we’ll look back and ask why weren’t we all protesting?
Second, there are vested interests in the form of huge corporations, companies or states. We know about the lobbying effort and billions spent over the years, and all the cover-ups about climate. Those organisations are fighting as hard as they can to suppress these [environmental] movements. It’s helpful to have that mindset from civil society that says we need to be aggressive about calling out things. If we just say, “well, if only we get enough community action”, then we’re always going to be outmanoeuvred.
Lucien: There has never been the level of interest in the policy arena, or within companies on taking action on climate as there is today. That is partly because of this kind of coalition; there was a huge amount of public protest and action from groups like XR in the lead-up to COP26. There was also support from the government at the time. They wanted to make progress at those negotiations because they wanted the UK to be seen as a leader. They worked with businesses and the finance sector, to get them to make commitments.
Now, we’re in a different phase, where we need to do things and that’s where coalition-building and common agreement help to find where these different issues touch each other. While these big companies are in some ways part of the problem, they’re made up of individuals, many of whom are trying to do things differently.
Kirby: A lot of people, particularly young people, are facing feelings of intense depression around the future. What keeps you optimistic?
Anna: Some of my friends decided against having children due to their climate concerns. That made me philosophise about my sphere of control, influence and concern. I realised my sphere of concern had grown much larger than my spheres of influence and control, making me stressed.
I started to play around with my sphere of concern — extending or shrinking it. It turned out that stretching it too far (think, far into the universe) made me care less. The big issues of the world only matter because we know and feel they are tied to the ‘small’. We know they impact our own lives, our friends, family or neighbourhood. That makes the ‘small’ more important, like an anchor for the big.
Yemi: How many people get up every morning thinking, how can I change the world? Most people either can’t do that or don’t do that. So the opportunity to be able to make change is a gift. I stay optimistic by imagining what success looks like. To me that would be a sustainable, healthy environment – a world where our kids are breathing fresh air, where we work together to make sure that biodiversity is protected and enhanced.
Dominique: I wouldn’t be doing what I do now if I didn’t have hope that we can avert the worst of the climate crisis. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be an activist. That hope does really come from speaking to people and engaging with communities who are doing so much, using so much power and energy into really shifting things. This is a rational response to what’s going on and so, instead of trying to individualise solutions, I focus on collective energy and community, and how I can be part of creating change.
I wouldn’t be doing what I do now if I didn’t have hope that we can avert the worst of the climate crisis
Kirby: What key action or change in your area of expertise do you think will make the biggest impact?
Nathan: One of my aims is to create a mindset within the healthcare community that climate change is a global health crisis and social justice catastrophe, and not a purely environmental issue. As such, I believe that we healthcare professionals have a moral and professional duty to take action. I am also interested in sustainable healthcare and would love to see NHS hospitals shift towards a predominantly whole food, plant-based diet. This would have countless health benefits and has the potential to create a significant butterfly effect.
Laurence: In our work, we are trying to tackle the 14% of UK emissions that come from heating people’s homes. We want to make it easier for people who have the means to invest in their property and reduce energy demand. But there’s a lot that government could do even for free. Today, if you get a heat pump installed, it will probably make energy performance certificates go backwards, due to the design. That’s extremely unhelpful. There are targets around bringing up the standard of homes for private landlords, but there’s no target or regulatory pressure for homeowners. We need to be retrofitting millions of homes a year.
Ben: We are telling the wrong stories, or often not telling the best stories about this subject. I reject both dystopian and utopian visions of the future. For me, when we look at 2050, we don’t want to live in a world that is the same in every way. When we’re at net zero, what else can we challenge ourselves to do? Also, there are so many people who want to start integrating climate work and activism into their careers. But, in the context of economic, job and housing insecurity, how can we build sustainable careers, both for ourselves and for the planet?
Lucien: When it comes to corporate climate action, or carbon credits and markets, we need common agreements about what good looks like. Nobody is out there trying to do the wrong thing, but they need to have a very clear picture of what good looks like, and how they measure and report progress. That would unlock a lot of interest in taking action, but there is hesitancy around doing the wrong thing.
Yemi: An important piece is to build on the momentum provided by the Greater London Authority, the Welsh government and the UK parliament all declaring climate emergencies. There’s political space to formulate policies that can achieve cross-party consensus.
There has also never been a better time to engage the private sector in environmental sustainability. In the last three to five years, shareholders have been voting with their money, and not investing in companies that are ploughing their money into fossil fuels. That provides a clear opportunity to work in coalition with the private sector.
Anna: As Lucien said, these corporations are made of people. Even though some of these claims or net-zero pledges may be close to greenwashing, they provide people that work in those organisations an excuse to bring their personal passion into their workplace. I invite people to talk about this at work. This transition goes across all professions and should be incorporated into everything.
Wilson: It looks like we’re heading towards a future where fewer people will be required to work. What does that look like? How do you adjust education to be mindful of that? How does that play into the way that humans live? And what type of impact does that have on the world around them?
Dominique: First, we need to engage more people but, more importantly, empower those who have skills and experiences to be part of it. Second, we need to shake up philanthropy; get resources and capacity-building out to young people so they don’t end up burning out. Third, we need to stop the Rosebank oil and gas field. It is the biggest proposed oil and gas field in the North Sea and would release the CO2 emissions of more than the combined annual CO2 emissions of all 28 low-income countries in the world.
Kirby: The RSA has a regenerative mission but what do you think, as young Fellows, the RSA’s role could be in addressing climate change?
Yemi: A big reason why I joined the Fellowship Council, and the Board, was because I felt that the RSA, like many large organisations, has a lot of resources that it doesn’t put where needed. The RSA Catalyst Grant Committee allocates around £100,000 annually to Fellows’ social impact projects. I worked with a team of financial counsellors to try to increase funding of Fellows’ projects linked to the environment. The environment is intrinsic to all of the other issues that the RSA is involved in because it impacts future generations.
Nathan: Many organisations refrain from doing the right thing, because they’re scared of how it might impact on shareholders, trustees and public perception. A simple example is that we’ve got meat and fish sandwiches here today, when all the evidence suggests we should be moving towards a plant-based diet. I’d love to hear the RSA be bold and say, “let’s just make this all plant-based, let’s make a statement”.
Targets, goals and data are vital, but every day we delay, more people start to suffer. There is so much complexity and nuance in the climate debate, but when you bring it back to compassion, a lot of the time the right path becomes obvious. I’d like to see more conversation on that within the RSA, and for it to become a trailblazer, leading others down the right path as we navigate the climate crisis.
- Kirby Fullerton - RSA Senior Fellowship Development Manager
- Yemi Adeola - Social intrapreneur and former RSA Board member
- Lucien Georgeson - Policy analyst and researcher
- Nathan Hudson-Peacock - Expedition doctor and Founder of Eco Medics
- Wilson Oryema - Artist, writer and researcher
- Dominique Palmer - Climate activist, speaker and writer
- Anna van der Togt - Lead Service Designer, Livework Studio
- Laurence Watson - Co-Founder and Chief Product and Technology Officer, Furbnow
- Ben Weaver-Hincks - Producer, creative consultant, researcher and writer
Artwork by Nicolas Burrows for the RSA. Nicolas is a visual artist who uses collage-based processes; he is also a director of Nous Vous — a group of artists working together since 2007 on graphic design, illustration, publishing, performance and educational projects.
This article first appeared in RSA Journal Issue 3 2023.