Why we should put friendship at the heart of Canada’s climate movement

OPINION: Activism is demanding. The realities of climate change are distressing. If environmental organizations want people in it for the long haul, they should prioritize community
By Gideon Forman - Published on Oct 29, 2021
Activities such as birdwatching can strengthen activists’ bonds with one another (Bob Hilscher/iStock)

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In a recent Guardian profile, writer Simon Hattenstone asks Greta Thunberg whether she feels solidarity with her fellow activists. 

Sweden’s most famous environmental leader replies, “Definitely. We have daily contact. We don’t just campaign together; we are also friends. My best friends are within the climate movement.” 

Later in the article, she says, “I know lots of people who have been depressed, and then they have joined the climate movement or Fridays for Future and have found a purpose in life and found friendship and a community that they are welcome in.” When Hattenstone asks, “So the best thing that has come out of your activism has been friendship?” Greta replies, “Yes.”

These are wonderfully rich statements and, I would argue, reveal a central truth not just about climate activism but also about social movements in general: what sustains them over the long haul is not only, or even primarily, the “cause” but rather the affection that movement members feel for one another.  

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People become environmentalists in part because they want to mitigate the destruction of nature. But crises don’t sustain us. It’s tremendously difficult to keep protesting year after year unless we have beloved companions at our side. The work is too demanding, the reality too dispiriting, to tackle on our own. 

Many have written that one obstacle we face fighting climate change is humans’ proclivity to address problems that are immediate. Climate impacts down the road seem less urgent. But we need people to join the movement now, not in a decade. An obvious solution is offering them something for which they hunger at present: community and attachment.  

We activists focus on public education. We strive to make citizens more knowledgeable about threats and solutions. This is valuable. But if we want to build a movement — rather than simply awareness — we need to pay more attention to our members’ inner lives. In fact, we have to place this at the centre of our work. We have to remember the loneliness and isolation that many currently feel and make our events into gatherings of friends. 

That’s why I believe that, when planning public-outreach activities, environmental organizations should adopt a “friendship-first” approach. Instead of focusing initially on law, policy, and government regulations or on organizing a canvass or petition campaign, they should consider a simple question: “How can we ensure participants enjoy one another’s company?”  

What if the climate movement first offered us opportunities to go birdwatching or hiking together, to cook in each others’ kitchens, to play street hockey and basketball, to join a choir? These activities might become venues for strategic discussion, but their primary purpose would be strengthening activists’ bonds with one another and breathing joy into their lives. 

Is this asking too much? I don’t think so. If the movement can organize demonstrations, it can organize sports events. It can put together communal meals. It can create Sunday-afternoon singalongs.  

There is a role for standard activities — webinars, debates, marches, and the like — but often we give them the wrong emphasis. We obsess about their political content. We focus on getting the right speakers, correctly framing our demands, and giving our members homework (such as writing their MPs). We use the language of catastrophe. Some of this is useful, but, generally, it looms too large in our thinking. Our events should have a minimum of speech-making and ideology and focus more on games, food, music, and time in nature. 

These are the things folks love to watch and participate in. These are the spaces in which companionship flourishes. This is the place to address the climate crisis.   

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