Between the 8th and the 10th of December 2022, the class for Post-Carbon Futures and Radical Hope (IDST 4150Y) travelled from Peterborough, which is located in Nogojiwanong on the traditional territory of the Michi Saagiig Anishnaabeg, to Montreal, which is located in Tiohtià:ke on the unceded traditional territory of the Kanien'kéha, to protest at the United Nations Biodiversity Conference of the Parties (COP) 15.
Much of our course up to this point had revolved around a critical diagnosis of the ecological crisis, as did the promotional materials circulated by the Anti-Capitalist and Ecologist Coalition Against COP15 calling people to action for Friday, the 9th of December 2022. In brief, we identified the colonial capitalist extractivist society we live in as the cause of the ecological crisis, and no solution proposed that is still embedded in this system as effective. COP15 claimed that the very actors who perpetuate colonialism and capitalism, nation-states and corporations, could somehow guide us out of the ecological crisis of their own creation using furthered greenwashing tactics. We, along with the many groups that joined in the march with the Anti-Capitalist and Ecologist Coalition Against COP15, think this line of thinking is a farce; only through a systemic change of our capitalist societies and only through decolonization can we even attempt to resolve the ecological crisis.
Julie Wilson (2018) argues that disimagination is one of four consequences of neoliberal truth, wherein “our capacities for critique and radical thinking” (51) are destroyed. Our class wanted to inspire hope by reinvigorating people’s capacity to think and wanted to challenge people to imagine new ways of living beyond the current extractive capitalist system we live in now. We used the slogan “We deserve change,” which, although a small sentence, was specifically selected for several reasons. One, the use of “we” invites onlookers to feel included in what we were marching for and recognize their own liberty as potentially articulated in our demands. Two, the use of “deserve” calls on people’s entitlements to a good life and a just future not as an unreachable utopia but as a very real and much-needed shift that is able to be reached and to which we should aspire. Three, the use of “change” explicitly refuses any reform of the current system we live under and instead points out the need for systemic transformation.
James Fergurson (2009) criticizes progressive scholarship that only focuses on opposing current systems and “anti” politics. He asks, “What if politics is really not about expressing indignation or denouncing the powerful? What if it is, instead, about getting what you want? Then we progressives must ask: what do we want?” (167). While we had our opposition, our class also wanted to inspire images of a new world, specifically relating to biodiversity, that already exists but needs to be appreciated and enhanced. We decided to collage over our critical diagnosis with pictures cut out of old National Geographic magazines, showing the multiplicity of solutions and alternatives that already exist, the need to lean into plural ways of opposing the current system and building a new system, and the existing vision of justice and progress that we could be pursuing.
On our way to Montreal, our class connected with Carleton Climate Commons, a group of students who were also travelling to Montreal to protest. On Thursday, the 8th of December, we worked on poster preparations together, and before the protest on Friday, the 9th, we ate lunch together. This opportunity to get to know other students who were also passionate about resolving the ecological crisis was an incredible chance to forge relationships and make human, caring connections. This is one part of protest I believe is not considered in the dominant narratives of protest: how people come together to learn from and about one another. Protest gave us the chance to acquaint ourselves with other like-minded people and to work and walk alongside them.
Working in Solidarity
Scientist Rebellion introduces themselves as “activists from a variety of scientific backgrounds, calling on our communities to stand in resistance to the genocidal direction of our governments” (par. 1) and argue that “[b]y bringing scientist and activist communities together, both are empowered” (par. 2). This is an example of scientists and activists working in solidarity with one another. Protests are a way for diverse groups to unite around a common issue and topic, and from their separate positionalities, form a diverse pluriversal vantage point from which to advocate for justice and social change together.
A Public Forum for Civic Engagement
Protest creates a public forum, where people visibly have something to say and will make sure it is heard. During our protest, we were interviewed by various media outlets who wanted to know why we were marching and what our demands were. We were able to present our critical diagnosis of the ecological crisis as our current extractive capitalist socioeconomy, critique COP15 as greenwashing state capitalism, and push for holistic systemic change that will actually protect biodiversity. The impact of the protests meant hopefully people were drawn to tune into the news to hear why people were marching, and the impact of the media outlets being on the ground engaging people meant hopefully people were being drawn into the discourse from new angles to which they may have previously not been exposed.
A protest is not a collection of atomized individuals who happen to be walking together. It is groups walking in solidarity with one another, working together to enact social change. The teamwork that goes into planning, organizing, facilitating, and attending a protest necessitates collective action, but this often goes unseen or unmentioned by the media. While walking the protest, our class shared poster duties among each other, so we could make sure everyone was contributing and that everyone had a chance to rest as best they could between shifts. Care work is imperative to organizing successful action, as the best work can only be done when we work together and make sure the work is sustainable. If we had burnt ourselves out by all trying to carry individual heavy posters, we would not have been able to walk the protest for as long as we did by making sure we were depending on each other. Interdependence is essential in building collective movements.
Uplifting and Invigorating
Protest arises from feelings of being unheard, from frustration, from anger, and from commitment to social change. However, this does not mean that protests are not hopeful spaces to be in. Rather, my experience in this protest was an uplifting and invigorating one. Being surrounded by that many people who were as passionately devoted to the ecological crisis cause as we were reaffirmed that through collective action, we can make an impact and we can make a change. In the second protest, on Saturday the 10th of December, me and a member of the Carleton Climate Commons actually had a fun time dancing in the crowd, playing protest songs on the speaker, and inviting people to dance with us. Protests can be rejuvenating spaces, wherein participants and bystanders can renew their belief in people power.
An Opportunity for Art
One of the surprising aspects of the protest, even for me, was how much art it inspired. There was a myriad of puppets that people created specifically to bring with them to the protest, such as this large black snake emblazoned with the words “LAND BACK”, representing the oil pipelines that threaten and violate Indigenous lands. There were countless puppets representing the biodiversity at risk due to the ecological crisis, as well as others representing the ineffectiveness of the UN deliberations. Protests provide a space for art to be recognized as a form of activism alongside the mainstream understanding of protest as activism. Here, pluriversal understandings of what activism is work together to challenge the dominant understandings of protest itself.
Reclaiming Public Space
In between protests, on the morning of Saturday the 10th of December, our class wheat-pasted posters around Montreal. We reused our protest slogan, “We Deserve Change,” and anyone who scanned the QR code on the poster would be redirected to our blog, where we wrote a mini-manifesto. Between protests and wheat-pasting, we found ways to reclaim public space and the city. Instead of advertisements for COP15, and the capitalist bureaucracy that goes into approving what can happen or be distributed in urban spaces, protests and postering defied authority and instead relied on true democracy, the power of people deciding to take charge and take action, and make the spaces in which they live in their own.
Overall, attending the protests was my first experience in such a large social mobilization for action and change. My ideas and understandings of what protest is and could be definitely expanded over the course of these few days, and I hope my photo essay has inspired you to rethink protesting as a form of activism for social change.
Works cited Wilson, J. (2018). Neoliberalism. Routledge.
Fergurson, J. (2009). The Uses of Neoliberalism. Antipode, 41(1), 166-184.
Scientist Rebellion (2023). About Us. Scientist Rebellion. https://scientistrebellion.com/about-us/