Rising tide: Young climate activists and signs of change

How climate strikers are borrowing words and images from 1960s counterculture to influence the hippies of yesterday that stand in the way of climate action today.


A little over a year ago, an image took the world by storm. It was of a girl outside an old building, beside her a white board with hand-painted black capital letters on it: ‘SKOLSTREJK FÖR KLIMATET’. I probably don’t even need to show it, or tell you how powerful the image is.

Since then, Greta Thunberg has inspired millions of people worldwide to go out into the streets with their own homemade climate change signs. In one week of global protests in September 2019, it’s estimated six million people united to demand urgent climate action. These marches, coordinated by the Fridays for Future group, stem directly from Thunberg’s actions a year beforehand.



The globalisation that fuels climate change also enables the exchange of ideas and an ability to assemble using digital networks—and the imagery of protest signs is playing a vital role in communicating across timezones and cultures.

Sign language

It’s easy to spot the similarities in these signs—found materials, youthful handwriting and an innocence that belies their worldly conscientiousness. These kids have made a worthwhile observation: ”Why should we go to school if you won’t listen to the educated?” When I attended a local march in Dublin this past September, I was overwhelmed by the volume of children and the heaviness of their message. I see the anxiety the next generation has about the future, and I feel it too.



But these signs aren’t for my generation, they’re for my elders—those in power who have the ability to change the policies and systems that can enable a dramatic shift towards reducing carbon emissions. The generation currently in power grew up in the 1960s, and are no strangers to the images and materials of protest.

One of the most highly documented examples of activism comes from the 1960s in America, which fostered a counterculture that stood against war. These images remain embedded in our global memory and our contemporary visual culture—a visual culture that is self-referential and takes existing materials as the ingredients of a world defined by shared ownership. Climate protesters are using the very language of those they’re trying to communicate with.



Sign of the times

Homemade signs, being unpolished pieces of design and scrawl typography, subvert our expectations of a 21st Century visual language that’s slick and saleable—they’re anti-establishment by nature. And it’s not just the sign that makes the impact—it’s the photographs we take of them, the places we post them online. Technology is enabling the counterculture to reach a massive audience, to create critical mass, to shift the balance. And it’s hard to ignore this many people in speaking up in unison.



Greta Thunberg understands the power of her sign. It sparked something. She has carried it around the world with her as part of a recognisable visual language that communicates a whole movement. It’s black and white, it’s plain and simple, and it gets to the point.

These signs are not necessarily new, but our hyper-connected world is. The simple protest signs of the late 1960s are back, but the fact they can be shared around the world on social media now makes them a much more powerful force for change. If you care about something, find some cardboard and markers, draw up a sign, and share it with the world. If you can’t protest or march, spread the messages you believe in online. Simple.


Follow Gael on Instagram at @gaelwelstead

Photo credit: Leonard Lenz (featured)