It was a sight to behold: the hundreds of St Andrews students who formed a front against climate change on West Sands almost two weeks ago, united in unanimous acknowledgement that we, the human species, are killing almost everything that we can: be it trees, sea life, or each other. All of this through the ignorance of, lack of care for, and insufficient awareness of just how bad our climate-killing lifestyles have become. It’s a very uncommon occurrence to find someone of our generation who doesn’t believe in climate change and, furthermore, doesn’t want to actively work against it.
However, a few days after the West Sands demonstration, I was approached on the street and asked to sign a sheet of paper. “A petition to demand that the university declares a climate emergency,” so I was told. I hadn’t yet heard of this, but it peaked my interest, and so after having kindly refused to sign, I returned home to see if this petition had an online counterpart. It did. One which has been signed by, as of the time of writing, just over 1400 people. Several pressing questions came to mind – and this was before reading some of the more questionable reasons for signing.
The first: what’s the point? During a year in which Greta Thunberg has taken a week-long transatlantic voyage to the US, in which Extinction Rebellion have glued themselves to roads to the frustration of commuters and public services up and down the country, and in which the UK has gone a full fortnight using no coal-generated electricity, what more is a declaration from our university going to do, realistically? For some reason, I highly doubt that those who brought themselves to sign the petition are ever going to be lifted towards the skies, by those of us too cynical or doubtful, in a moment of bitter recognition for their valiant efforts in the emergence of a long-awaited, wholly ecological New World Order – one that people have campaigned for, without success, since the 90s – that has spread across the globe from the quaint and secluded bubble of St Andrews. But if such a scenario were to come about, I’d be the first to partake in the celebrations.
Secondly, as is all too common with petitions of this nature, a minority of those who sign may be actively campaigning and raising awareness for the cause. Yet what about the majority? It’s doubtful that they are doing the same. Thus petitions, for this reason, typically allow those who sign them to daintily dance around the topic without acting to find concrete solutions, leading to inaction and sedentarism, as we’ve seen recently: a national petition demanding a 2nd referendum on EU membership, for example, received over 4 million signatures before being swiftly rejected; another amassed 1.7 million signatures in demanding that parliament not be prorogued earlier this year – and we all know how that turned out. I’m not at all suggesting that these petitions should have changed government tack – their numbers are too few, petitions such as these can easily be hijacked, and they simply don’t stand up when faced with real, in-the-flesh democratic exercises such as voting or physical protest. Petitions allow those of us who sign to express our opinions, certainly, but they very rarely provide any palpable driving force.
On this note: isn’t this just ‘slacktivism’? As I’m typing, one glance out of my window brings into view countless plastic bottles, cups, and wrappers strewn across the St Andrews green. Hence, things must start closer to home. Words, official declarations, and new-fangled well-sounding environmental policies are perfectly fine, but they pale in comparison to what we can do ourselves – be it not not throwing rubbish wherever is convenient (it’s tragic how many people do), using the correct bins (it’s tragic how many people don’t), or just not buying so much useless plastic because supermarket chains don’t seem to care as much as we do. These are only the first steps in what is to be hopefully a key turning point. But first, let’s ditch ineffective petitions and let’s lead by example rather than by inaction.