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"I am afraid of growing up on a dying planet", reads the poster held by the Extinction Rebellion protester in Warsaw, Poland.

Picture by: Stanisław Urbaniak / Extinction Rebellion

The scared sitters, a new formation in the environmental struggle

A fiery-haired girl with porcelain skin sits in the middle of a busy street, looking at something beyond the border of the picture.

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The Extinction Rebellion (XR) has been recently flooding the streets of Warsaw in protest of fossil fuel consumption. They’re easy to recognise – groups of teenagers sit in the middle of roads in the city centre, blocking oncoming cars and forcing passersbys to notice their signs. “I’m afraid to grow up on a dying planet” is written in blood-red font on a piece of cardboard, held by the girl from the picture.

Blockades force raging drivers to exclaim their annoyance with air-thrown fists, whilst helpless policemen sink into the everlasting ennui as they watch over the frail children positioned on the road.

The teenagers however, are powerful in their anger and to a great extent, correct in their fears. Since 1970, carbon dioxide emissions have increased by 90 percent, now exceeding any tolerable levels. The report ‘Existential Climate-Related Security Risk’, produced by an Australian think tank; the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration, argues that by 2050 ‘thirty-five percent of the global land area, and 55 percent of the global population, are subject to more than 20 days a year of lethal heat conditions, beyond the threshold of human survivability’.

The urgency of the issue is apparent, but how to cure the tortured planet is not clear. The scared sitters offer an interesting approach – “I’m afraid” seems to be their only motto. Hand-held signs and Instagram posts are overwhelmed with a profuse fright, exclaiming volatile uncertainty for humanity’s survival. But what are they beyond fear? And is this fear powerful enough to raise awareness?

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The movement’s main aim is to compel governments towards action through non-violent civil disobedience. In the West it has had some success, particularly in the UK, the place of its establishment. Environmental protests motivated the Labour Party, as well as some councils and local authorities, to declare a state of climate emergency. Nonetheless, actual legislative leaders, Conservative party, seem unconvinced by the claims of rebelling environmentalists.

Boris Johnson famously called the XR a bunch of “uncooperative crusties” while the energy minister at the time, Claire Perry, said she worries “that many of [XR’s] messages we are hearing ignore the progress that is being made”. It seems, XR’s actions have very little influence on political processes even where the movement is most successful. However, when it comes to the ability to raise awareness or impact politics on a global scale, the case of XR appears even more fragile.

The anarchic movement’s negligible impact is more visible when put in the context of a peripheral country, such as Poland.

What does it take for the Polish government to treat any protest seriously? The 2020 Women’s Strike was famously attended by more people than the 1989 protests against Soviet rule. Whilst official numbers are unconfirmed, a group of fired up 100,000 dissidents marched in October of 2020 through the capital in protest of the overly restrictive abortion laws. Even a protest this large failed to motivate any government action – abortion laws remain the strictest in Europe to this day.

If a movement of this scale failed to achieve its goal, can a handful of teenagers sitting on the street change anything? It is doubtful.

Top-down fear, as Nicolo Machiavelli argued, is a proven machinery of building support for political action. Poland is the perfect example, with its nationalistic government endlessly installing fear in its constituents. Migrants, the LGBT community, the European Union, all seem to be the object of aversion of the PiS (Law and Justice) party supporters.

Bottom-up fear, however, generally does not manage to impact politics at all. Attempting to change the world through expressions of dismay is, thus, poorly rooted in what we know about political processes and widely inefficient. While it exhausts the helpless teenagers, it ironically desensitises the public.

Why then did the red-haired girl from the picture, sit bravely in the middle of a busy Warsaw street? If the XR’s aims are unrealistic and their means inefficient, what is there to sit for? While we cannot read her fiery-coloured mind, we can assume that her motivation is not political in essence, but rather ethical. Scared sitting gives calm. In the midst of the planet descending into the abyss, at least she did something. She was aware, she was fighting – she tried.

The efforts of the Extinction Rebellion might not be giving results in political terms, but perhaps they offer some sense of ethical security. To the bypassing driver, she might just be another troubled teenager. But to herself, she is an insurgent defending the future.

Written by:

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Mary Stabińska

Politics & Society Section Editor

Warsaw, Poland

Co-founder of Harbingers' Magazine

Born in 2004 in Warsaw, Poland, Mary Stabińska is currently preparing to complete A Levels in Politics, French, History, and Polish. She speaks English, Polish, and French fluently. At Harbingers’ Magazine, Mary writes and edits the Politics & Society section.

Edited by:

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Levon Nurijanyan

Politics & Society Section Editor

Armenia / Poland

Co-founder of Harbingers’ Magazine

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