Sophia Axelsson – a diving climate activist

10 May, 2021
Sophia Axelsson
Sophia Axelsson loves the sea and likes to dive – both to pick up rubbish, but also to get closer to life under the surface.
Photo: Alexandre Gobatti Ramos

“I think it’s important that you speak up and raise your voice for what you think is important. But even going on strike is something I kind of have to do. Not that I have to do it for anyone else, but I have to do it because I can do it. I have the means to speak up, I can do it for all those who can’t.

Sophia had long been interested in climate and environmental issues before she began a school strike in January 2019. She took the step to actively join Fridays For Future to show the outside world that she was serious in her involvement, it wasn’t just an interest. In addition, strikes, historically speaking, have led to change, she says.

“By going on a school strike, we show that we are giving up something. That it is not only something we do in our free time, but also in our precious school days. There are many different ways to demonstrate, but going on strike is something that felt like you could do and it was an easy-to-understand enough concept so that more people could catch on.

Sophia is one of a handful of young people who have organized the major general strikes for the climate in Stockholm, in which tens of thousands of people participated. Since Greta Thunberg left the Riksdag in August 2018, the school strike movement has expanded and exists today in over 100 countries. Although the majority of the strike time for Sophia was to shiver seven hours every Friday, she misses the time at Mynttorget.

“It’s not as fun anymore. I used to meet my friends and feel like I was doing something concrete. Today you post a picture on instagram and then maybe you go back to bed,” she says.

Sophia has long bubblegum pink hair. The stripped-down nail polish goes in the colors of the rainbow. Sometimes the school strikers almost feel like the punks of the 2020s: they are often seen in worn denim jackets with emblems and glossy pins. Checkered carpenter’s trousers or a leather jacket that is too large also belong to the uniform. The state and capital are the enemy. Revolution is the solution. But in the headphones, not Thåström’s voice is heard, but K-pop.

“Before the pandemic broke out, I was 18 years old for a few months. Then I stuck out with my friends and danced to K-pop or other narrow bands at different clubs. We didn’t know the lyrics to the songs, but we sang along anyway. We didn’t drink or anything like that, I don’t like alcohol, we just danced ourselves sweaty. Then we went home.

You must be able to afford to be able to strike

If you scroll through Sophia’s instagram feed, texts about being young and engaged often come up. She likes to write caption texts about feminism, class issues or racism. Climate justice, as she herself describes it, permeates her and Fridays for Future’s work. To have the right to strike, to demand different amounts from different people, is something Sophia has reflected a lot on.

“In a way, it’s a privilege to be able to strike, you have to be able to afford to be able to miss your student aid. Not everyone is able or has the financial security to do so.

Today, Sophia has almost 2000 followers on instagram. I ask her if it might not be more effective to actually have the strike online now. It feels like a winwin – she can reach out to more individuals while not having to stand outside in the cold.

“I might reach out to more people through my instagram, but it’s also a filter bubble. Most of the people who follow me there are already climate activists, feminists or marine biologists. It will be the same people who see my pictures every Friday, while at Mynttorget there are new people passing by all the time. Although there may be fewer in number. And then the politicians must also see us, they cannot avoid us like online.

Sophia mentions that sure, sometimes some of the politicians respond to the movement’s demands or calls online, but that’s not enough.

“When I started getting involved, I was more confused. Now I’m frustrated. Politicians know what to do, many know how serious it is. But they don’t do anything. They’ve mostly come and patted us on the back, taken a picture and then done nothing.

What do you wish they had done instead then?

– Debated about it in the Riksdag, developed an action plan that shows how we should achieve the Paris Agreement. Changed his policy.

At the same time, she notices how the narrative around the climate issue has changed since she began to get involved.

“So the climate has definitely been talked about more, especially in the media and in advertising. Everybody kind of talks about it. Just look at potato chip bags, they’re talking about their carbon footprint. They never used to. So it has definitely become much greater to know what your climate impact is. And I think that’s a really important step in getting to this change, that people are starting to realize that we’re in a crisis.

Sophia
Since the start of the pandemic, the majority of the school strike has taken place online. Sophia describes that today the strike is more of a manifestation than an actual strike.
Photo: Alexandre Gobatti Ramos

Started picking up garbage – from the seabed

The lack of doing anything more tangible during the pandemic meant that Sophia this summer began to get involved voluntarily in the organization Rena Mälaren. The organization consists of a group of divers who dive into Lake Mälaren and the Baltic Sea to clear the seabed from debris such as shopping carts, electric scooters and car tires.

“I needed to feel like I was doing something proper and diving with Rena Mälaren is a lot of fun. But the water is very cloudy. Besides trash, the only thing you see is barnacles and any fish sometimes. And scab.

Scab?

– Yes, scab. Saduria entomon. Really cool and small gray swimming around in the water. I can send you a link!

Sophia Axelsson is, as I said, only twenty years old, but it is noticeable that she is already deeply knowledgeable about climate and environmental issues. During the interview, she not only throws herself accustomed to Latin names of animals or plants, but she likes to talk about the anthropocene (human) impact on marine resources. Today she is studying biogeoscience at Stockholm University and is already in her fourth semester. Before university, she studied marine biology for three years at Gullmarsgymnasiet in Lysekil.

“I moved there myself when I was fifteen years old. It was amazing, then I could be by the sea every day. I had been interested in marine biology since I was like five years old, so it was something that I longed for.

Where does that interest come from, have you been out by the sea a lot with your family growing up?

– No, not at all. But I remember being at Kolmården with my family when I was five years old and seeing dolphins in a dolphinarium and being so fascinated by them. But then, like a year later, I realized that dolphinarium wasn’t good. And then I started reading more to understand how things stand with the sea, all the animals and…

Wait, you got involved and enlightened about the dolphins’ plight when you were six years old?

“Yes, maybe seven years. I saw it in a nature documentary at home, I think. We didn’t get to watch TV much when I was growing up, but once we watched TV, we got to watch nature documentaries, so that’s probably where I learned it. Then I got lots of books about dolphins and whales and stuff.

Today, it is not dolphins that fascinate as much, there is already a lot of research on them, says Sophia. Instead, she wants to focus on the deep sea, whales and, in particular, killer whales.

– Killer whales are main predators, apex. Thus they have no other natural enemy besides man, which is so awesome. If an orca from the Arctic meets a killer whale from another sea, they do not understand each other, they have their own languages. Then they hunt food in unique ways depending on whether they eat seals, penguins or fish.

“I think some of us were burning out”

Sophia’s corners of her mouth are drawn to her ears as she describes killer whales’ unique abilities. It turns out that her leisure life is also characterized by her interest in water. Sophia is an elite athlete. She plays underwater rugby, a sport similar to the land sport of rugby, although it takes place under the surface. A fairly narrow sport that today has about 400 active participants in Sweden and a World Junior Championship where only 15 countries participate. Sophia plays fullback in the Swedish junior women’s national team.

It’s hard to understand how she manages everything. Being an activist, recreational diver, elite athlete and studying marine biology full-time feels overwhelming. In the past, there were also interviews and media requests on the assembly line. The holiday was used to go to climate conferences in Europe or give speeches at large galas. I ask her if the pandemic break was welcome in that way, that she had more time?

– I think some of us in Fridays For Future were burning out, yes. Many were close to the border. We were a small group that arranged a whole big strike almost entirely ourselves and just when it was finished we planned the next one and then the next one.

Sophia
Fridays For Future doesn’t just require those in power to achieve the 1.5 degree goal. They also want to see climate justice.
Photo: Alexandre Gobatti Ramos

But now the media attention around the youth is much less. Understandably, as we are in another crisis of fate. I ask Sophia if she has reflected anything on the crisis management of the two crises.

” So, we have always said that we should treat the climate crisis as the crisis it is. And we can see that the whole world has changed a lot during covid. It has taken time for it to work well and for it to be adapted in a good way. But politicians have now shown that it is possible. We can do something, we can do something if we need it. And it can be quick.

Although Sophia’s faith in the future falters, she herself describes how she often cries when she thinks about her future, so she continues to educate herself. Her big dream is to become a researcher and work with marine biology full time. But knowing that there isn’t much work for marine biologists and the future is so uncertain, she also has a plan b: high school teachers.

But isn’t that ironic for someone who is on a school strike?

– I don’t think so at all? So the school strike is about protesting that the state is not meeting its climate goals. It has nothing to do with the school in that way. I love education.

But surprisingly, as a high school teacher, she hadn’t called on her own students to go on a school strike.

“It’s a political issue. School should not be political. I want to contribute facts about the world that they themselves can make decisions from. Then we talk about something that happens far into the future, hopefully school students will not even have to strike then.

Speaking of which, you mention that you often cry when you talk about your future. Doyou have any hope for the future?

– Hope is a strange concept. There are many who say: “Oh, we get hope from watching you!”. But I have no hope as long as politicians continue to be inactive on the issue. If we started acting today, the way we need to, then I could get hope back. But as it stands now, if we continue, I don’t think there’s much hope. But there’s always some hope left, otherwise I wouldn’t have done this.

If someone were to say to you: “Sophia, everything that Fridays For Future has wanted to achieve is now achieved. You don’t have to be an activist anymore.” What would you feel then?

“It would mean that our activism has worked. We are not in a crisis anymore, we are past the crisis and we will manage. And that’s what we want: for us to get by on this planet. We should not destroy for others, we should not destroy for ourselves, we should not destroy the earth’s ecosystem. If we’ve achieved that, that would be the best feeling, I think. Then you wouldn’t have had climate anxiety anymore and it would have been super nice.

Text: Fanny Jönsson
Photo: Alexandre Gobatti Ramos

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