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This month the Climate Strikes rang out around the world with millions of people taking part in activities, protests, and marches.
Two organisers from Fridays for Future in Sweden – Andreas Magnusson, 15, and Ell Ottosson Jarl, 18 – spoke to one of the founding members of Greenpeace, Rex Weyler, 72, about what got them into the movement, what keeps them going, and some tips for building resilience. We were lucky enough to be in the room.
Do you remember the moment you first decided you had to take action? What was it?
Andreas Magnusson (AM): I always lived close to the forest and nature and it was always nice to go out there and to just be. My father took me out there every day since I was a child. I started learning about things like climate change in school but then they went to the next topic and continued. And I thought … that film you showed just told me we are going to die in 30 years and you are continuing [with the class]? I’ve been reading and watching documentaries and learning and I felt so sick, thinking what can I do about this? Now I’ve been an activist for over a year and it’s been a hell of a year.
Ell Ottosson Jarl (EO): I watched a YouTube video about mass extinctions. It was something I didn’t know about before and I got really interested, so I started researching and I found lots of papers on a bunch of different things, so I binge-read for about two weeks straight.
I read the IPCC report and a lot of other things and I understood it at a new level. It was an “oh fuck” moment. You distance yourself a lot; I go a bit numb from it and don’t feel it. But there are times when you hear something and it hits you like a brick. This was such a moment for me. I was like “oh it’s real, I need to act now” and I felt a little bit braver and I decided to go out.
Rex Weyler (RW): I first became politically active in the peace movement. I was in university and I was a physics student and in the summer I was working for the aerospace industry, which was making weapons among other things. I was a young engineer and I never knew what I was working on. We would just get an assignment to design a circuit or something but we didn’t know what it was going into. That made me feel uncomfortable.
The first summer I was at university, the Vietnam war was going on. There was no internet, there were no videos, but we did have television and I remember seeing pictures of the war. I specifically remember seeing pictures of poor children from little villages – villages burning and children running down the road and crying and mothers holding their babies and I think that was the moment for me. That was the moment I said, “I don’t want to have anything to do with that world, I don’t want to be involved in any way. I don’t want to work as an engineer, I want to do something to stop this. This is insane, this is crazy.” So I started going to more peace marches. And when military recruiters came to our school we occupied the building.
It’s not always through logic that you come to this. You realise at an emotional level this is totally wrong – and I feel the same way now with what’s happening with global heating and the acidification of the oceans and the disappearance of so many species.
It’s totally wrong and we can’t as a civilisation keep going like this.
It can be difficult to maintain your energy and hold all of this horrifying information in your head. What do you do to help take care of yourselves and keep going?
AM: I talk to my friends. I talk to friends in Australia and in the US and I talk to Luciana in Switzerland and I talk to Ell in Stockholm. That’s how I manage to keep it up. I can write to them and say I must talk about this. That’s how I vent. You need to get it out sometimes. To get everything out of my head and have it out there and then you’re ready to take in new information. Being able to talk to friends all over the world is helping a lot.
EO: Anger is quite a big motivator for me. I get pissed off that I have to do this. I shouldn’t have to deal with all of this. This gives me quite a lot of energy to just get this done. We need to fix this now – it’s not fair. Whatever I’m feeling if it’s sadness or feeling overwhelmed or tired it always grounds me because I think I shouldn’t have to sacrifice my whole peace for whatever it might be. That drives me.
RW: I have felt overwhelmed many times. It is so huge and the system moves so slowly. A lot of what drives me has been anger at the slow pace and the stupidity of some of the people in positions of power and authority. Not just the stupidity, but the greed and selfishness. I think in a way I’ve already gone through so much depression and being overwhelmed that I know how bad it is, so I don’t have to go there. I just keep going. I know how bad it is, I know how dysfunctional human society is.
Activism itself gives me energy – if I was just sitting and not doing anything I think I would go crazy.
AM: Yes – me too.
RW: But when I am active on something I realise I can’t do everything in the world, I can’t fix the whole world but I can do this thing I’m doing and I stay focused on that. I think being active is like a medicine for the frustration and the depression. Also the community – your friends and family all over the world who are all working and doing their part – we stay in communication with each other, we give each other energy and support. It’s the community and it’s staying active.
Rex Weyler: You’ve done so much in a year: how do you see your life going forward? How do you imagine keeping all this going?
EO: Oh, it can be quite overwhelming at times. The future is so unpredictable. We have no idea if what we are doing is going to work. I feel like I will prioritise this over anything – everything – in my life. This is the one thing we need to fix otherwise nothing else is going to matter. So just keep going and see what happens and where we end up.
AM: I feel the same. This is the one thing I will prioritise and I will continue to work on. I feel some kind of responsibility to keep this pressure on world leaders, but to continue to lay that pressure on all the time is a hard thing. That’s why we have all these people around the world to talk to and exchange ideas with and learn from. You know Belgium managed to get their environment minister to resign – how did they manage to do that?
It’s some kind of responsibility to keep this pressure because if we lose the pressure we lose the movement and I don’t want that to happen so I will continue with that. It’s my future.
EO: It can feel quite heavy sometimes, like the world relies on us. But there’s a lot of us now. Which makes it a lot easier than it was in the beginning. People are starting to wake up and to want a change. I notice ads on TV are starting to have a lot more greenwashing – and for me I actually think that’s quite a good sign because it means that more people want that thing that they’re trying to get at. I try to find positive things everywhere I can.
AM: And there are positive things everywhere now. People are talking about it and Tweeting about it and writing Facebook posts and they’re getting a lot of media attention and that is a positive thing.
That is what drives us I think; when we see there is an article about Greta or us our about the movement, it’s positive news – we are getting the attention we need. We managed to get Trump a bit angry the other day because he isn’t getting the attention that he wants. So he doesn’t like us now. And that got us even more attention and that’s good. It’s exactly what we need.
Ell Ottosson Jarl: When you were organising in the early days of Greenpeace, was there a lot of fighting between the chapters?
You said there were a lot of offices that started to pop up around the world, how did you get it connected? This is something we are struggling with now. We are a grassroots movement and everyone wants such different things so getting everyone connected internationally is really hard. Do you have any tips?
RW: We should start a university for this! Yes, there was a lot of fighting, a lot of disagreements. There were different ideas, different priorities, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with that. It’s a good thing, there’s diversity and diversity of opinion. The difficult part, in my experience, is people, individuals have other personal priorities. Even unconsciously. They want to be recognised, they want to be important, they want their wounds healed, they want to feel better, they want people to listen to them as much as somebody else. They will see somebody who is very good at speaking and has charisma and people want to talk to them and they will want this notoriety for themselves. People see someone and they might think “why should they have all this notoriety and fame, we are working as well”. So people get jealous, you have seen this I’m sure.
It’s normal, it’s natural, and it’s what happens when you have a large movement because suddenly you’re working with real people. People have insecurities and selfishness and all of those things. Things were hard in the early years of Greenpeace. It took us about 10 years to develop the international coalition and there was a lot of infighting and bickering.
AM: Hahaha, so nine years to go now?
RW: Nine years to go! A lot of bickering. But here’s what I think is needed. It’s important for the leaders of a movement to really work on their own selves. Meditate. Study other leaders who have done this.
The goal is to become a better agent of change yourself and to encourage calming the ego. One of the biggest obstacles to success in a movement is ourselves. How are we at bringing people in, helping them feel useful and wanted and helping them participate, let people contribute.
Then you have to manage all the desires of people to want to be more important or whatever. To help people calm down emotionally. To understand that if we are going to have an international movement each one of us is only going to be a tiny part. How can you have a movement of millions of people if you’re not just a tiny part? Help everyone get used to being a tiny part. And if there is conflict you work with that. You can’t just say, “that person is crazy, get out of here” you have to actually take the time.
For me I did a lot of meditation. I know many of the people in the early Greenpeace like Bob Hunter did a lot of meditation. We studied Buddhism and the Daoists and Martin Luther King and Gandhi. I think the most important thing is to learn how to quiet the ego and to help other people and to become an example of somebody who has learned to quiet your own ego as an example to other people. It’s a very, very difficult thing.
People are wounded, and angry. Anger to the world might turn on you. These are the wounds of every person. Every person has wounds that they want to heal and cure in their work and in the world. That’s a long and delicate process. I would say practice and learn how to help people calm down their own ego.