Jan 21, 2019
Like Martin Luther King, who is celebrated on 21 January, we can all have a dream to make the world a better place. Writer Meryl Batchelder here convinces us that members of society do have an impact when we believe in a better world and take a stance on an issue or cause we truly believe in – and working towards the Sustainable Development Goals are the perfect way to bring about a better world for everyone.
I am an armchair activist. Over the past year I have: written to my MP to argue against fracking; approached the Chief Executive of my county council to stop open cast coal mining; emailed the Department of Education about school cuts and DEFRA about protecting bees; signed countless petitions; and joined a group calling for action against climate change. All this activism takes place from the comfort of an armchair in my living room. An activist is a person who campaigns to bring about political or social change. So, if you write to your MP requesting change for a better world then you are an activist too.
Creating a vision
In times of uncertainty it is important to create a vision of what life might be like if things were different. It can help you make plans, take action and implement change to achieve a goal. One man who famously had a vision or ‘a dream’ of a better future was Martin Luther King Jr, an American Baptist minister and activist (1).
He was leader in the US Civil Rights Movement from 1954 and is remembered for advancing civil rights through nonviolence and civil disobedience. He helped organise the 1963 March on Washington, where he delivered his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. In 1964, King won the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality. He was assassinated on 4 April 1968. On 21 January 2019, it is Martin Luther King Jr. Day (MLK Day) in the United States, a federal holiday marking his birthday; this year he would have been 90 years old.
In addition to the American Civil Rights movement there have been several other historic, non-violent revolutions based on visions for a better future: the plebeians of Rome in 494 BC; the woman's suffrage movement in the early 1900s; the Solidarity struggle in Poland in 1989; and the ongoing Arab Spring uprisings. Socio-political activism can be successful such as the Indian independence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi whose actions prompted the end of British Rule in 1947.
An international vision for a better world
A truly international vision of a better future is The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2), adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, which provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are an urgent call for action by all countries, developed and developing, in a global partnership. They recognise that ending poverty must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.
What have the SDGs achieved so far?
Although all countries have signed up to the SDGs, because each country is different The Agenda does not give an exact plan of action to fully implement the goals. There are many local successes, from minimising plastic use to protecting ancient woodland to developing transport networks, but no country is on track towards achieving all SDGs (3). For example, SDG1 aims to achieve No Poverty and overall global extreme poverty is decreasing (4). However, in the UK the number of children living below the poverty line has recently been rising (5). In fact, despite many good news stories, almost half of the world's net wealth now belongs to the top 1% (6) so we are fundamentally not yet managing to Reduce Inequalities (SDG10).
Another goal, SDG13, calls for Climate Action. At the recent 24th Conference of the Parties (COP24) in Katowice, members refined the Paris 2015 Climate Change Agreement to identify how governments will measure, report on and verify their emission reducing efforts but they didn’t stipulate how countries will achieve their targets on cutting emissions. On current projections the world is set for 3 degrees C of warming from pre-industrial levels, which scientists say will be disastrous.
A key deadline is 2020, when countries must show they have met targets set a decade ago for cutting their emissions, and when they must affirm new, much tougher targets. Most countries are not on track to meet emissions targets and we are already seeing some of the effects of climate change; rising sea levels, sustained drought, catastrophic forest fires and increasing hurricane intensity.
Action for change
Civil unrest is driven by social inequalities and environmental stress. Recent lack of progress on Climate Action has initiated movements such as Greta Thunberg’s School Strike for the Climate. Her demands are that the Swedish government reduce carbon emissions as approved at the Paris Agreement. She is protesting by sitting outside the government offices on Fridays and makes regular updates on her activities on Twitter.
Historically uprisings tended to be focused in a specific region against a local authority. Social media is starting to allow global movements to become easier to coordinate. Protests inspired by Greta have now been organised in other countries, including The Netherlands, Germany, Finland and Australia.
Extinction Rebellion, an international social movement that aims to drive radical change, through nonviolent resistance in order to minimise species extinction and avert climate breakdown, was set up in October 2018. In a few months events have spread from London to 27 other countries including Ireland, Canada, France, Germany and the United States. On 17 November 2018, in what was called "Rebellion Day", thousands of people took part in a coordinated action to block the five main bridges over the River Thames in London for several hours, causing major traffic disruption.
As part of another movement in France over the last months of 2018 the Gilets Jaunes or yellow jackets are demanding economic justice to reduce inequality. The activists have had some success and President Macron has just adapted the planned tax initiatives to try and placate the protesters.
Strength in numbers
The School Strike for the Climate, Extinction Rebellion and the Gilets Jaune are all attracting large numbers of members and many people are willing to take radical measures to make their voices heard. One of the defining elements of all of the historic uprisings such as the American Civil Rights movement or drive for Independence in India is that there is real strength in numbers; the more people who share the vision and join the uprising the more successful it is likely to be.
A shared dream with the SDGs
Through the SDGs we have a shared dream such as no poverty, reduced inequalities and action to protect us from climate catastrophe. They are, like Martin Luther King’s dream, achievable but they won’t succeed without governments changing policy. Given the dire warnings by climate scientists at some point soon, unless global authorities act, it might be time to get out of my armchair too.
Take this into your classroom
- Find out about the Suffragettes.
- Mahatma Ghandi – learn more about Mahatma Ghandi’s activism and life.
- You can learn more about the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development here and The World’s Largest Lesson has some useful and relevant resources to help communicate the sustainable development goals to your children.
- If you want to encourage your pupils to take action and show they can make a difference, why not link up with your local food bank and help take action towards achieving SDG 1 – No Poverty.
- Read about the School Strike for the Climate here and explore the motivations behind Greta and her fellow activists around the world.