Political Disengagement and the Climate Crisis
Green Party member, Rajiv Sinha, recounts his own frustration with politics, how he deals with it, and why political disengagement amongst young people is a problem. We cannot address the climate crisis if we do not reengage in our democracies.
Growing up in London, I spent most of my life dismissing politics and challenging any idea of civic duty. I didn’t yet have the courage to get into something I knew would be very consuming. It was much easier to be apathetic and deflect onto others by saying “what difference would my vote make?”, “what difference would it make to me if a different party is in power?”, or “it’s all corrupt anyway”.
Only around the age of 19 did I start to take an interest as I found myself at university doing a politics degree. I had a crisis in my last couple of years at school - I didn’t work very hard and calculated that applying for politics was my best bet of getting into a good university. I’m not saying these courses are easy to get into (they’re not), it was just a good fit for me.
Ever since this whimsical decision, I have become more politically involved, aware, and proud. But it has been a constant effort. It is difficult to deal with the fact that there is truth in all the deflective statements I mentioned earlier.
Our horrendous electoral system does reduce the power of an individual vote, the subsequent two-party system does mean that there is less variation between the main parties than there would be under a system with a higher number of electable parties, and there is a high degree of corruption in the UK, which is hugely understated. I have to remind myself regularly to be motivated by these facts rather than disheartened.
In democracies, politics (theoretically) relies on the population’s engagement. People vote, lobby, protest, pay tax, petition, and campaign. There is a case to be made for actively abstaining from these things, but generally political absenteeism is a problem: without engagement, the system dries up and causes issues.
If we stop interacting with politics to punish it, we end up feeling the worst effects as the disjunction between us and our representatives deepens and our preferences are accounted for even less. Short of revolution, the only way to improve politics is through it.
In a 2018 Hansard Society study of people between the ages of 18 and 24, around 44% of participants said they had a “fair” amount of knowledge about politics; 35% said getting involved in politics would be effective, and; only 23% said they were satisfied with the present system of governance. Even if you disagree with the participants, the numbers show that there is a problem.
Bertolt Brecht famously said that from ‘political non-participation comes... the abandoned child, the robber and, worst of all, corrupt officials’. In many places today voter turnout is ever-decreasing, institutions are degrading (as well as trust in them), and decision-making processes and systems (electoral systems, to name one) are failing to represent people accurately.
These are trends that have preoccupied scholars for over 50 years now. Political theorist Larry Diamond declared a decade ago that democracy was in global recession. (He also said recently that COVID-19 is accelerating this.)
Young people are at the forefront of this. In the UK’s 2017 general election, the turnout rate amongst 18-24-year-olds of 42% was the lowest of all age categories. Whatever reason we have for turning out to vote less than other generations, we need to channel our discontentment in other ways.
In politics today the stakes are high and we need to stay motivated. It is easy to despair at things being bad, especially as it is not the fault of young people, but we are going to have to be the ones to solve the problems.
Raising political engagement amongst youth and minorities would give democracies an overdue update and help address the climate crisis. Sustainability - in a sense, the hunt for human longevity - should be at the centre of politics. It is young people that will get it there.
Some will think I’m downplaying recent efforts. Boris Johnson’s recent Ten Point Plan for a “Green Industrial Revolution,” for example, might have sounded good, but we can do better. We need stronger measures to ensure we reach net-zero emissions and build up sustainable employment channels sooner.
Voting gives you a say in events that will play out over your life and promoting sustainability creates domino effects that will multiply hugely over time. Hence the importance of good habits and behavioural change. Political engagement is broad - it’s not just about voting, you can campaign, communicate, educate, even set up a small business to put your skills and ideas to good use.
Given that high costs are a common barrier to sustainability, any effort to make zero-waste and renewable energy usage affordable will go a long way. This means bringing business, young people, and politics together into one focussed endeavour. This isn’t as difficult as it may sound; platforms like Scoop UK do just that and are growing in number all over the world.
This decade, grassroots projects that succeed in promoting sustainability and raising political participation, whilst reducing people’s costs, will form a large part of how we overcome the climate crisis. A new idea or technology isn’t enough, it has to be made accessible to develop and grow. It is exciting to see what young people will do in the coming years to address their concerns.
In the words of scholar Laura Wray-Lake, “As we move through turbulent sociopolitical times now and in the future, we must take seriously the notion that young people can play a meaningful role in addressing society’s problems.”
This article is written by Rajiv Sinha.
Rajiv Sinha is the Treasurer of the Young Greens and Fundraising Officer for London Campaigns of the Green Party, UK. Aged 23, Rajiv is passionate about increasing youth political engagement, climate politics and the need for a more inclusive green movement. Reach out to him on LinkedIn or Facebook if you have any questions or ideas.