In 2019, the international climate strike movement Fridays For Future took Berlin by storm. While Luisa Neubauer was the leader of Germany’s movement nationally, 19-year-old Clara Mayer became one of the more recognisable faces (and voices) closer to home in Berlin. And now, after six months of Corona-induced hibernation, Mayer and the climate kids from Fridays will finally be back with another demo and school strike this Friday, September 25, including an 11am sit-in at Brandenburger Tor.
Alex Pichaloff caught up with organiser Mayer to chat about climate, Corona and whether e-cars really are the solution.
When you think back to last year, this Friday’s demo will feel very different. It must have been quite an experience to see everything take off first-hand.
At the beginning we were a fairly small group of 30 people organising strikes in Berlin, now we’re 300. It was amazing to see how the strikes just got bigger and bigger. At the beginning we were like, ‘Oh my god, 100 people have showed up.’ And then it was 200 and 300. Suddenly 1000 people showed, then 2000 people, and our expectations were topped every single time.
Then of course there was the big one on September 20 last year.
We all had bets on how many people would come. And I thought maximum 40,000 – maximum. I was doing press work that day, giving interviews, and my friend came up to me and whispered, ‘Clara, we’re already 80,000.’ And you have to wait for the final number because if you give journalists updates they’ll just use the first one you give them. So I was just sitting there thinking, ‘Oh my god.’ That same friend came up to me five minutes later and said, ‘We’ve got new numbers, we’re up to 120,000.’ I couldn’t believe it, so my friends lifted me up onto a railing, and you couldn’t see where the masses started and ended. I still get goosebumps when I talk about it. But at the very end they said there were 270,000 people. I just did the numbers in my head and thought, ‘That can’t be, there must be something wrong.’ I’m still just completely overwhelmed when I think about it.
What is it about your generation? Why were so many compelled to hit the streets?
We were born into this crisis, we had no choice. While we had no influence on the climate crisis, we grew up in this extremely individualist society. We were born into extremes: the extreme of the climate crisis and the extreme of individualisation, and I think a lot of young people just needed to break out.
You became somewhat of a face for the movement here in Berlin. What was it like dealing with all the extra attention?
For the most part, it was amazing. People would come up to me on the streets and say, ‘Aren’t you one of the people organising the Fridays For Future movement?’, and everyone was so willing to engage.
But the negative side of things?
I have so many people sending me rape threats and deaths threats that I can’t say where I work.
That is really horrific.
It has become the norm to me. There are 20-minute videos from Nazis online where they stand in front of a German flag and say why I’m a bad person. I went to an anti-Nazi protest and a popular right-wing YouTuber posted a video online saying: ‘Clara Mayer – Exposed.’ And I thought, ‘I’m not exposed, of course I’m against Nazis. What a surprise.’ Anyway, the video went viral in the right-wing scene and it had 80,000 clicks within 24 hours. It was insane. I had to basically give away my social media.
How does that affect you? It must be so confronting to have to deal with.
In my opinion, when Nazis have something strongly against you, you’re doing a lot right. At first it actually felt like a compliment. The fact that they feel intimidated enough to send me those messages proves that I’m doing the right thing. And it also means that my protest has an impact. Experiencing sexualised violence online is nothing new to women and I’m the unlucky one that was the target this time. But it’s a pattern, and it makes me extremely angry to see the same thing happen to other strong female political leaders. But it’s strange, because you get all those nice young girls between 12 and 14 who text me the loveliest things and say, ‘Oh my god, you’ve inspired me to pursue my activism.’ And then the next minute there’s another DM with a rape threat.
It’s clear that you’re an inspiration to others, but what inspired you to get into activism?
I was always pretty politically interested, particularly in feminism and social justice. Feminism especially, because sexism is what I experienced from a young age. Just the simple things, like the teacher in gym class said that boys are stronger, so then I just had to prove that I could do more push-ups than the boys. Things like that, where people don’t believe in you because of your gender, not because of your performance.
Looking back at the past few months, what do you think Corona has done to the broader debate about the climate?
The problem I see is that a lot of politicians who preferred not to talk about the climate crisis used Corona as an escape. A lot of people don’t see that the two crises are fundamentally linked, because the same people that are primarily affected by the Corona crisis, the people who are socially and financially disadvantaged, are the same people who will suffer predominantly through the climate crisis
I suppose you wouldn’t have been happy with the government’s Corona bailout package then?
No, I wasn’t. As terrible as this Corona crisis has been, it has given us a huge opportunity to invest in the right things and the right companies, to really create a resilient, climate-just society. But our government, for some reason, thinks it’s okay to invest in companies that do very little to stop the climate catastrophe from happening. When we protect a company like Volkswagen, and just give them money without putting any restrictions on how they have to act concerning the climate crisis, then the company will just do the same thing over and over again.
Corona has once again triggered the debate between e-growth and de-growth. Do you think there is a role for so-called green industries, or do we actually just need to shut down a lot of economic activity?
There are certain industries that I think can grow in a green way. Like certain parts of the tech industry – programming, for example. But yes, most industries will not be able to become carbon neutral – it’s a lie. We need to actively target the centres of exploitation, and those are the same as the centres of carbon emissions. Individuals are never responsible for the climate crisis; the largest 100 companies are responsible for 70 percent of CO2 emissions in the world. We need to target that, we need to pass legislation to control those companies, to take the burden of the climate crisis away from individuals and to give it to the people who are actually causing it, which are capitalist companies, the majority of which make their money by exploiting people in either the Global North or the Global South.
Ok, well what about e-cars? Is it fine to just switch over to electric-powered cars, or do we just need to stop making so many of them?
Both are actually correct. There’s not one solution for all of Germany. It really depends where you live. We won’t be able to abandon cars completely from the countryside. People who live there still need the opportunity of movement. What we can do is abandon cars where it’s the easiest, which is cities. E-cars won’t change the situation we have in cities. In Berlin, instead of waiting in a traffic jam with our diesel cars, we’ll be waiting in a traffic jam with our electric cars.
And again, electric cars are not really CO2-neutral, because their production costs are immense and the metals in those cars currently come from Africa, where children are often part of the system of exploitation. Instead of putting every single German in their new electric car, can we work on ways to transport people together? One example would be if we abolished diesel subsidies, then we could make the public transport free across the whole of Germany.
So, how do we make those changes? We’ve just seen the launch of Radikal Klima, a new political party. There’s also Klimaneustart, who are trying to set up a climate assembly in Berlin’s parliament, and then there’s Fridays with street demos. What’s the best strategy?
I don’t think there is one way. We need people in all parts of society. We need teachers who teach students about the climate crisis, we need activists on the street who go to demonstrations and hold up signs, we need politicians who annoy the heck out of other politicians that do nothing to solve the climate crisis. We also need people who are strong enough to perform civil disobedience, who use their bodies and their freedom in a certain way.
But there’s not just one way. I think criticising one way or the other is extremely counterproductive, because not everyone feels the same way, not everyone is the same person and we need so many dots that are connected in society.
We’ve just seen the coal phase out law, which was a huge blow to climate campaigners, and the Corona bailout package, which is supporting these big polluters. How much faith do you have in the political system to actually achieve change?
I think my generation was a lot more optimistic last January, because we thought, ‘We’re new, we can do this, we’re a huge movement.’ But we’ve seen time and time again how politicians have betrayed us, how they have acted against the interests of so many people in this country. It is frustrating, and of course we’re thinking of other ways to stop this crisis, but at the end of the day, passing legislation is just such an effective way of solving this crisis that hanging on to that method still seems the most effective way to go.
Should Fridays become a political party then?
I would say no, because other parties like the Greens needed decades to become established in parliament, and they have just the smallest say in policies, so how long would it take for us to have that same influence? How much would we have to change for that to happen? Would we still be the same? So no, I don’t think becoming a party is the most effective thing for us right now.
I hope that other parties that have sprung up underground will succeed, as long as their goal is climate justice. The Greens, by the way, are not the way to go – at all. I would never ever tell people to vote for the Greens, because they don’t even have 1.5-degrees conformist policies, which is the bare minimum. But then again, what choices do we have?
Elections are coming up next year. Who the hell will you vote for?
I really don’t know. The only hope I have is that Fridays For Future and other people will pressure politicians and parties into passing new party programmes that are climate just to a certain extent, so that I don’t feel completely lost in the voting booth. But for that to happen, we really need everyone to engage in this topic right now.