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  • Ian McClellan

Week 21: I will participate in my own way.

Updated: Jul 28, 2020


I was reading this week, about the day that 10 million people took to the streets in the US in collective action against climate change. Young people led the movement, to protest their passion for the planet, and demonstrate against what was described as the foul skies, filthy waters, and the littered earth. Young people took to state capitals, schools turned a blind eye to absence, streets were filled with bicycles and were treated to spontaneous litter picks.


Campaigners suggested the planet was in a moment of crisis, and that citizens should work together, for the future of life on Earth. Media outlets suggested it was a day of mixed success, and that the participants were involved were mainly young, were demographically similar, and were somehow behaving with the frivolity of youth, or in a way that fell short of the serious tone of the message.


If this sounds familiar, it is not because it happened a few months ago, or last year. It was not a response to a government summit, or organised and coordinated through social media.


This was the coverage from the very first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970.


There is so much interesting to take from this historical snapshot. That it was half a century ago, but sounds so familiar. That many of the messages of crisis and hope were the same, and many of the fears are the same today. That it did create action and contributed to legislation still in place in the US at least for now, but that it then took twenty further years to become recognised as a global day of action in 1990. That is has been a day in the calendar for all of my life, but one that I have not paid too much attention to, if I am honest with myself.


There are also many ironies that are not lost in reflections taken from the day, and perhaps others moments like it at the time. The older generation, suggesting that the young were being disruptive and carefree rather than being a serious about their cause. Suggestions of darker political motives, or that the tone of the day did not represent that of the whole nation but a privileged few. That it was the young people who made up the majority share of participants, and it was the older generation that reported on it with an air of slight disdain.


The young people of the past, are now the older generation, the university students of the past are the pensioners of today, and the trend and the cycle continues. The young people look at the older generation, as the one who has failed them, just like the older generation did to those before them. The older generation in turn finds holes in the value of any action, and finds negative energy in a positive movement, just as the older generation of their day did. There is mud thrown at the mirror of the past, and the mirror of the future. Fear and blame, frustration and anger. The past is picked over, and robs us of unity in the present, and progress for the future. Proportion is lost, and instead we find heroes and villains to validate our own thoughts and feelings.


My own reflection, is that I feel somewhere in between the extremes. It is Earth Day next Wednesday on 22 April, and although most of the activities will be digital in nature given travel restrictions, this year especially I feel that I should participate. If we are trying to make planetwise changes to our lives, then there is no better flagship than the oldest civic movement for the planet. The day when we all come together, and we all promise to pay more attention, and make changes for the betterment of our generation, those who have gone before, and those to come. A big moment, a flagship opportunity to participate and share ideas and encourage others to reject inaction, and demand change.


If I dig deeper, I'm a bit scared of what to do and how to best represent Earth Day. I'm not really an activist, and so I don't truly feel angry. I feel change is required, but I am very unlikely to take to the streets to demand it. I believe change is required, but I am not expert or passionate enough to hold an audience with credibility. I want to spread positive motion and make connections, but I am not a journalist and my social following is in single digits at best, not seven digits.


I want to take this moment to create a planetwise habit around the theme of Earth Day, but at the same time I am scared about what the expectations might be. I think perhaps I am scared of committing, and scared of failing. I think of contributing the climate change movements, and in my head I see crowds in the streets, packed TED Talks, influencers gaining thousands of 'likes'. I feel that anything I do will be a bit of a let down. I understand the responsibility that we have, and with my own personal pledges this year, I don't want to fall short, I want to do something really meaningful.


The dilemma also I have, perhaps comes from the fact that I am old enough to identify and be complicit with the past, but young enough to feel motivated to change the future. This inspired me to begin to read up on Earth Day, and about what I could do, but with this slight sense of anxiety. I want to help, but I don't want to fail. I want to help, but I don't want to preach, or make false claims. I want to commit, but I am aware that for many years, I did not.


My perceptions do not necessarily come from real facts, but rather headlines, and the naturally disruptive language that influencers and activists need to use, to gain attention. Extreme words that deliberately create emotion, in those that read them. Words that create expectations around Earth Day, that many of us will feel we cannot fulfil. Even words that make me feel a bit skeptical, and that I don't think reflect me, and how I communicate. Perhaps even words and evidence that I don't trust, that gnaw away at my sense of logic, that A really does mean B, and that we are trying to weaponise climate change to fit dramatic scenarios, and hope it scares people into action.

When reading up on Earth Day on the official site however, this all changed. I realised this was pressure that I have created, on myself. I had built myself up to perhaps having to sign and publically sign registers, or to share messages of urgency and drama, or host discussion groups. This was my perception of what action meant.


It was inspirational, and at the same time was humbling to feel the dogged determination of those who have organised and participated over the many years. When you break down the perception and see past headlines, you can see that what those in the Earth Day Network are trying to achieve is really hard. You sense the maturity of the movement, and that they have come through emotion to create a movement that is not without emotion, but is grounded and accessible.


I also hope this sounds familiar to many, and if so then the best change that I can make to be planetwise, is to see past my perceptions. To face doubt by engaging with facts. To see past the pressure, and share what you believe in and not count the 'likes'. To share with the planetwise belief that we are all connected, and that individual action can make positive change, even without a celebrity following. To put ourselves in the shoes of those who are really leading the changes, and to empathise with the pressure they must be feeling too.


Starting this week, I will be less afraid to engage, and share when something moves me.


This is also the reason I would encourage everyone to read about Earth Day, its history, and how we can contribute (https://www.earthday.org/).

They have likely been many years, where many of us have not listened, and that rarely has Earth Day been central to the zeitgeist of current environmental culture in the way we might think it has. I put my pin in the map, and was only the 150th person to do so in the World. I could individually read what others are doing, rather than feeling swept up by a homogenous wave of protest. Rather than a sense of needing to conform to my own self-created stereotype of a climate activist, instead I felt a connection to those who give up their time and their energy to make a change. I felt a deep sense of belief from the cause, and how it is trying to connect the whole spectrum of society and culture with meaningful action.


It also made me realise that I approached the day in the wrong direction. It is not about the past history of the event, or the day itself, the moment of Earth Day. It is about the future. It is about how I would like to feel in fifty years time, if I am lucky enough to be around at the ripe age of 93. It is about having a chat with our little boy, who would be a relative youngster in fifty years time at the age of 54, and for him to feel proud of his parents, and what we did to help the planet. What we consistently contributed, what we taught him, and how we lived together. What we did every day, to live responsibly, and to take the best bits of everything we learned and apply them humbly and consistently.


What I read also energised me, because it shared the principles of the pledge that I have made, to make little changes to be better, compared to myself rather than others. It shared the ethos that we are all connected, and that we can all spread positive change. That behind the important messaging of direct action, there was more subtle yet equally important suggestions that show the maturity of the movement, and show the passion and commitment of those who are committing their life to this change. For example, there is a page of suggestions, that we could all achieve in some way, that you can read here: https://www.earthday.org/earth-day-challenge/. There is information and resources on science, information on conservation projects, and even video statements from government officials from around the world, so you can hear from others directly what is happening.


By looking beyond the pressure of the day itself, and beyond my perception that you had to create a placard, and then wave it about in front of anyone who will listen - it has made me less afraid and re-energised me to engage in participation. It has made me less afraid to share positive stories and content from organisations such as the Earth Day network, because I trust them and because I feel more understanding of how hard it is to be heard.


It has taught me that even if what we share is not engaged with in large numbers, then we should not give up, but remain consistent to the belief. We should be less afraid, and continue to share positive news and action about the planet or whatever cause we feel passionate about. And when we do, we remember how hard it was to create that content in the first place, and how hard it is to be consistently and positively behind a cause. We can all help each other to stay strong, and be vessels to the great ideas of others, large and small.


Every action counts.


There is also hope, that we are at a crossroads of perception. The reaction to coronavirus has shattered my perception of how we behave when faced with a human crisis of the scale we have, where the normal structure and routine of life has been abruptly upended.


Truly, by this point I thought the waves of kindness would have worn off, and we would have returned to more of a sense of individualism. I thought that over time, we would grow tired of random acts of kindness, and there might also have been a return to blame and frustration, perhaps even worse I thought there might be the beginnings of a rejection of the rules. That we would have forgotten we are a world community experiencing adversity together, and returned to thinking about how it impacts me, and how it is not fair to me, and how someone is being selfish not because they are in fact being selfish, but because I am not getting what I want from them.


I had fear that fingers might be pointed at governments, or that economic pressures might have boiled over into unrest. I had visions of public shaming of others for trying to go about their days in perhaps a way we didn't agree with, without the understanding of who they are or what their personal pressures might be. That we would start to believe that I deserve something more, something different, and something for free. Even if receiving that something for free, means that someone else bears the burden. That we began to expect our support networks to give us whatever we want for free, and then berate them if decsions go against our view of the world, instead of continuing to understand that we are all experiencing the unknown, and making it up the best we can as we go.


However, as time has gone on, it feels more and more like we have begun to see the future as it could be, if we continue to work together. That we are beginning to understand how connected we are, and how what we do to help each other, and help those who we don't even know, can help us as well. Either directly through shared errands, or indirectly through a feeling of happiness and togetherness that reminds us of the social creatures we are, and how it was sometimes unimportant things that make us selfish.


It is the kind of positivity that can endure. Waves of negativity that still exist, are being held back by a tide of continued kindness and understanding. The needle is moving, and on top of positivity itself, there is the support for those who are being positive. Where we see negative voices, more of us are speaking up in support, and not being afraid. We are becoming less afraid to stand up and explain why our shoes are different to the person next to us. The confidence to to disagree but try to understand, without tension and with respect that we all have difficult choices to make right now, and have to do the best we can.


This positive cycle also seems to mean that where we see others in trouble, we try to help as much as we can, because we are not feeling their exact pain but we are feeling pain in other ways. We seem to be understanding privilege more in relation to others, and being more consistent in our help, because we are receiving consistent kindness in other ways ourselves. Even when we ask each other how we are doing, it feels less of a reflex lately, and that we really mean it.


When others participate in their own way, it it gives me the confidence to also. This trend of thinking about what something means to me and my people, to what it means to us and our community, might just be what changes the world.

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