At the age of 19, Sebastian Österman became the main organiser of People’s Climate march in Helsinki. Now, four years later, he sticks by the mantra that when you get the chance to act, it’s best to take the opportunity and throw out all those little fears of not being experienced or educated enough.
"I remember walking down the main shopping street in Helsinki, Aleksanterinkatu, and just looking at all the people marching behind me. All I could think was “wow”. In high school I started subscribing to newsletters from organisations that try to stop climate change and just by being on a mailing list, I got the opportunity to apply to be the head organiser of the People’s climate march in Helsinki 2014. On just one months notice, we had managed to spread the information and get so many people to show up. In 2015, ahead of the Paris agreement, I organised the march again and that time it was even bigger.
It was amazing to play a part in this global movement, especially since pictures from the climate marches were shown in the UN:s climate negotiations in Paris. Marches were organised in over 2000 cities around the world. It had a direct impact that the politicians saw so many people being active and marching around the world, since the marches were constantly referred to at the climate conference.
We tend to have a mindset that I need a bit more experience, or a bit more education before I’m ready to make an impact. When I decided to apply to become the Finnish head organiser for the climate march I was initially a bit nervous, but I also realised that we’ll never feel fully ready for a task making an impact, however important it may be. The best way of learning is to just throw yourself out of your comfort zone!
The fact that I just grabbed that opportunity had a profound impact on my life. After that I got invited to panel discussions, workshops and all these events where I got to work with people who all strive for the same thing. I see myself as a climate activist but that does not mean I’ve done any violent protests or otherwise controversial things. There are so many ways one can be an activist! Today I’m also a third year student of biology, mostly neurobiology, at the University of Helsinki but this year I have not studied as I have been a part of the student union’s board.
I try to “practice what I preach”. For example, I fly very little and try to eat vegan food when possible. I think the only positive thing I see in climate change is probably that it can give one’s life a higher meaning to do something good for the world by tackling the greatest challenge humanity has ever faced.. There are increasingly many people trying to act climate friendly, but unfortunately I am painfully aware of the large masses who currently do not.I think nature has incredible and inherent value regardless of whether it benefits us or not.
That’s a great motivation for me to try to protect it. I don’t want a future where all these amazing plants and animals animals currently facing extinction can only be seen in movies; a future where rhinos and polar bears fall in the same category with dinosaurs.
How far will individual climate actions help us? I could compare it by stopping a disease just by asking people to kindly get vaccinated, some people will do it and it will help a bit, but to really stop the disease you need the authorities to have a very well coordinated programme for stopping a disease. That’s why climate activism and of course education is needed, so we can get the climate goals into our legal system and policies.
Climate action for me means both the concrete and individual decision we make, but it also means involvement in broader society. There are some areas where individuals can have a greater impact, for example by choosing what to eat, but in many areas we need policies to make it possible to choose sustainably. Infrastructure for bicycling and public transport are examples of this. This doesn’t mean that the individuals can’t have an impact though, we live in a democracy after all! After voting or putting pressure on politicians as an activist to get that new cycling lane built, you will suddenly be able to make more sustainable choices yourself by riding that bike instead of relying on other means of transport.
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