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Protests as a Tool for Environmental Activism

Throughout history, environmental and animal rights movements have been aided by mostly left-orientated political ideologies. A long time ago, the aforementioned movements would have been inconceivable, and yet to this day they are having a monumental impact on the way in which the general public sees and treats animals. It’s highly likely that these would have been ignored in previous times.

Protest movements are essential in expressing what may be quite disorganised or even undiscovered perceptions or instincts surrounding various aspects of life in a way that is coherent, logical and easily understood. Formulating moral beliefs and sharing them not only helps each individual solidify their political stance but also boosts their own spirits through their benevolence and altruism. This could be correlated with a religious ritual, whereby our moral judgements are expressed through allegiance with others of the same beliefs. This can ultimately be brought to life through actions. A protest could be considered the new way in which non-religious and religious alike can express their moral standing, implying that the protester is becoming an increasingly important character in our modern society. Most forms of protest will not be accepted by society as they are often fighting a part of our "normal" society that needs to change.

A success story - CFCs

The environmental movement has created considerable global change: the most staggering being the banning of the use of chlorofluorocarbons, better known as CFCs, after discovering its effects on the ozone layer. We know that the ozone layer is the very reason we are able to step outside without burning to a crisp. This is because it is made up of O3, which absorbs most of the ultraviolet radiation hitting the earth from the sun.

In 1974 the scientists Paul J Crutzen, F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario J. Molina, all atmospheric and environmental scientists, discovered the effects of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a chemical used in aerosol sprays, refrigerants, and the creation of synthetic materials on our atmosphere. They discovered that CFCs break down when they enter the stratosphere and produce a chlorine atom, which then contributes to breaking down the ozone layer. All these scientists published their findings in a scientific public journal called Nature in 1974 as well as local and international news sources.

Newspapers and magazine journals like ‘Nature’ were a great way of releasing information to the general public. However they had little effect on any social change since their science was being dismissed by powerful CFC companies and lobbyists. These scientists knew their discovery was one of great importance and so fought against the companies. They started campaigning towards the government and businesses with constant letters to no avail.

However, further proof of its effects arose in 1985, when the English Antarctic Survey leader Joseph Farman and his team noted a drastic depletion of the ozone layer over the Antarctic, now known as the ozone hole. The depletion was, at least periodically, far greater than expected from earlier calculations of the CFC effect. The debate amongst the scientific community and the industrial community then grew with strong opposition from the chemicals industries, who protested that the financial cost of replacing CFCs was too much to bear. In response to this, the United Nations created the 1985 Vienna Convention, which established a method for negotiating and creating international regulations on CFCs and other ozone-depleting substances (ODSs). Despite their efforts, this was not considered sufficient for the recovery of the ozone layer.

This led organisations like Greenpeace to begin a campaign to end the international use of CFCs. They chose to act in a way that might be considered outrageous, with the intent of attracting press, presenting both the businesses involved in the production of CFCs and those regulating it in a negative light. They demanded that companies and countries repay victims of ozone-depletion. For example, their methods included labelling Hoechst’s CFC tanks with stickers that read ‘Environmental Devil’ and put a blue ribbon on a DuPont water tower in New Jersey, sarcastically commending the company for producing the largest amount of CFCs. This prompted the DuPont company to announce that it would phase out the use of CFCs in the next twenty to thirty years in a surprise concession.

This demonstrates the effectiveness of small protests and actions against specific targets. In 1987, however, the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was instated. Greenpeace declared this treaty as playing into the hands of the chemical companies by not calling for a stricter time limit and for allowing companies to transition from CFCs to other harmful chemicals. This provoked further outrage and protest from Greenpeace, but this time, focusing on governments and law-making bodies. Between 1987 to 1990, among an array of strategies, Greenpeace placed a huge pair of sunglasses on the Sydney Opera House in Australia and blocked the entrance to Environment Canada, with refrigerators that used CFCs.

By 1989, 193 countries had signed the Montreal Protocol, which phased out the production of CFCs. The Montreal protocol forced a massive change. In the United States, the Clean Air Act of 1990 (US EPA, 2018) mandated that NASA and NOAA monitor the ozone hole. By 2011, every nation in the world had signed the Montreal Protocol and since then the ozone hole has continued to shrink, up until 2017, as scientists believe a new industrial chemical could be slowing down the recovery. Ironically, one of the key groups of replacement chemicals is hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). While HFCs are considered to not cause damage at a local level, they have now been found to create greenhouse gases thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide and are therefore a leading contributor to climate change.

Present day protests - Extinction Rebellion

Around the globe, human beings are facing a wealth of challenging environmental problems every day, often hitting those living in poverty first. Some of them are small and only affect a few ecosystems, but others are drastically changing the landscape of what we already know. Pollution of air, water and soil require millions of years to mitigate. Humans are now creating such a monumental impact on the planet that we are considered to have entered a new era, known as the Anthropocene (the time of humans). The planet we are lucky enough to share with millions of other species is being poisoned by so many of our activities. Production of plastic, competition for resources, poaching, chemical use, illegal pet trade, pollution, invasive species, disease, climate change and human-wildlife conflict are just some of the negative effects we are having as one species on millions more. Due to the multifaceted nature of these issues, there is clearly no one answer to the sixth mass extinction we are now facing.

In saying this, humans are very much aware of many critical actions that need to be put in place to save what we have left but most of these need to be implemented systematically by the government and industries. One of many organisations, that vows to push for this movement is Extinction Rebellion. They believe that the government must act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025. Following the release of the 2019 IPCC report, the government has been given a number of actions and solutions that need to be put in place by a global team of scientists. Extinction Rebellion is asking that the government listen to scientists in an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. So far the movement has gained a lot of traction with hundreds of thousands of people across the globe coming together to perform civil disobedience in aid of putting pressure on the government to act.

Extinction Rebellion’s April 2019 protests were an enormous success. Together with the BBC’s David Attenborough documentaries and the school climate strikes, they created a surge in public concern about the environment. The climate emergency is now established in the top five most important issues facing the UK today, at around the same level as the economy. Since the April protests, the government has legislated for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. However, as the second round of protest continues, the press has changed its tune on the group with many countries putting protests groups down as Terrorists. This has been seen over and over again as a new tactic by politicians to stifle civil unrest, especially with minority groups, including Native Americans rights fund, and now Antifa during the Black lives matter movement. For there to be a social change you need make sure there is social, institutional and economic well-being. In other words, there needs to be a motivation for the people, for the government and the business at that time and place. Protests have a way to rally the people and put pressure on the government and businesses to change. With unlimited communication worldwide via the internet and access to a huge amount of information, the people have the ability to come together to learn and to push forward a campaign. Businesses now rely on favourable reputation and advertisements. If there is a large movement trending, it is in their interests to join in and gain a better reputation (greenwashing etc) with the public. You have power as a consumer to also protest against those that don't change; companies that would fire models for being "too political" or continue to use unsustainable palm oil and lie about it. If one of the three sectors did not want the social movement, it has the power to suppress it. With this in mind, I'm intrigued to see how far we can come as a society.

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