Activism works. As Isabelle Ferreras said in our first panel moderated by Harjeet Singh, “the struggles of activists are the only thing that has ever changed society for the better.”
Most of the time, this is how we view history’s activists: pivotal game changers that broke systems of inequality and corruption. So why does society see the climate activists of today largely through a lens of discontent and petulance? Together with our partner, Silencio Paris, Kite Insights set out to give activists a platform to make their case, in their own words, and ignite within all of us, the desire and courage to act.
How can people think it’s a lifestyle choice? asked Camille Etienne. It’s the imperative of human dignity. “We didn’t wake up one morning thinking climate activism would look cool on our TikToks.” We do it because we wouldn’t be able to look at ourselves in the mirror otherwise.
Meanwhile, said Camille, “we are living a dystopian fiction where staying alive has to be attractive enough for people in power to consider doing something.” They must see profit in it, or the promise of election. Clover Hogan quoted last year’s Deloitte study which found that the no. 1 perceived benefit of sustainability action for business leaders was not solving the climate crisis, but public perception. In other words, whether through greenwashing or inaction, leaders of global companies could be the business equivalent of the musicians playing on the sinking Titanic.
“Corporations are the only ones playing a smart storytelling game right now,” said Dan McDougall. Climate storytelling is failing. The media is still blocking the human realities of climate impacts while encouraging among the general public a childlike state of Twilight Knowing, or, ‘preferring not to engage’ with what’s in front of them.
“The most insidious threat we face,” said Clover, “Is not the assault of the fossil fuel industry, but rather, the illusion that people in power will stop them.” The collusion of policymakers, business leaders and media moguls failing to report “that oil and gas companies are making record-breaking profits while people are unable to heat their homes”; choosing, instead, to call environmental activists ‘terrorists’ and dismiss eco-anxious young people as the snowflake generation.”
To combat the dark language of failing leaders – which seeks to distract and suppress, rather than mobilise, our attention – there are some climate insiders in the business world who challenge the status quo every day. “As a corporate activist,” said Alexandra Palt, “I always ask the difficult questions, bring in perspectives from other stakeholders, and enable action for others.” This means “activating existing levers of change” and listening to activists – rather than waiting for worldwide systems collapse.
If the last weapon of choice is despair, let ours be imagination. Our current failure to imagine a fairer and healthier world, said Disha Ravi, will cost us our humanity. “We have dismissed ideas and actions around degrowth, around fossil fuel phase-out, and reparations as impossible. We have failed to imagine a world where we are extensions of nature, where there’s no ownership of land, but responsibility over land and people. We have failed to consider that what we are fighting for, is each other.”
This mindset has in fact existed for a very long time, and persists in the Global South. “Without putting a name to it,” said Vanessa Nakate, “My mother taught me the value of saving food for later […] of the people who grow our food and make our clothes […] The value of water […] She taught me sustainability.” What we need, clearly, is a combination of facts and imagination: climate and human data, and regional stories, propelled by the daring to imagine something better. That’s why Vanessa’s entrepreneurship in Ugandan schools can be considered activism, too: she simply dared to imagine a clean energy transition for a group of local people.
“The climate crisis is the greatest creative challenge in human history,” said Dan. If leaders aren’t listening to reason, why not prioritise emotion and tell the right stories, like this one? Activism does work, but even the climate movement itself could benefit from a stronger narrative of unity. “Who knew there could be so many corners on a round planet?” Isabelle asked.
Technology can help round those edges in a contemporary world, added Harjeet in summing up the first panel. By allowing us to extend our reach and intensify our impact, he said, “We can ignite a sense of community, foster empowerment, and broaden the canvas of our collective activism.”
In our second panel, Putting People First, moderated by Juliette Deshormes, climate activists Greta Thunberg, Helena Gualinga, Mitzi Jonelle Tan and Ineza Grace presented a united front; showing us what imaginative activism looks like when entire populations face disappearance and governments are doing nothing to prevent it.
“I don’t call myself an activist,” said Helena Gualinga. The actions of her indigenous community in Ecuador came from “the natural response you get when your home is being attacked.” In 2002, when the world had no knowledge of the crimes perpetrated by oil companies in the Amazon, her community of 1,200 people (as many as there were in the audience that afternoon) began to fight back against Chevron, eventually taking them and the Ecuadorian government to an international human rights court. They dared the impossible, and they won.
Mitzi Jonelle Tan also claimed that her climate activism was not a choice, when, every year, the Philippines are hit by an average of 20 super-typhoons. “My reality growing up was seeing entire communities flooded and consumed by these storms. But no one told us in school that it was climate change.” Similarly, when Ineza Grace saw populations being continually displaced by the storms in Rwanda, she wasn’t seeking activism per se – only access to the decision-making processes of her government that would allow and encourage women to adopt leadership positions within their communities. She labelled herself an ‘eco-feminist’ to remind everyone in each room she walked into that they should treat both agendas simultaneously, and educate themselves on their interconnectedness.
Greta Thunberg, meanwhile, was “very shielded from the impacts of the climate crisis,” which weren’t as “obvious” as they are in the Global South. When she first looked it up, and realised that things were “really bad”, she thought “someone should do something,” only to conclude that “I am someone, and I can do something.”
We all can “do something.” Activists can take many forms, and we know it works. What doesn’t work, is waiting.
And impatience is growing. Whether manifested as “conscious quitting” as coined by Paul Polman, or in our own research at Kite Insights showing that 83% of employees are ready and willing to act on climate, there is a growing disconnect between companies and their people when it comes to the climate crisis.
That disconnect can be turned into opportunity if it is nurtured and channelled in the right ways. I see so much good intention on both sides: people and companies. I fear it will be wasted; but I am hopeful the call to action is beginning to be too loud to ignore.
So let’s emerge from our respective corners and remember that justice, joy, and joining in, are words we can choose and act upon. This is the decisive decade. We are the decisive generation.
And we are not alone (WANA for short, said Isabelle). Each of us – all 1,200 in the Théâtre du Châtelet – left the event with a sense of shared responsibility. Not only to the climate, but to each other.
Watch this pivotal conversation below:
The event was organised and curated by Kite Insights and Silencio Paris. Together, we are launching a new platform, Debatable, which seeks to revive thoughtful and respectful public debate across all societal issues.
We are grateful to the Théâtre du Châtelet for hosting this important conversation.
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