Teachers and politicians seem preoccupied with what the consequences will be for these children's futures - but isn’t that rather the point?
(Cover image: Wikipedia)
On Friday 15th February 2019, thousands of schoolchildren across the world put down their pens, walked out of lessons, and went to their nearest major city to protest about the lack of action on climate change and its consequences for their future.
Their demands are, broadly:
The school strike for the climate movement has been gradually gathering momentum since August 2018, when Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg began leaving school every Friday afternoon and protesting outside the Swedish Parliament building. Since then, it has become a world-wide phenomenon, spreading to all six habitable continents.
Here is why the protest is totally appropriate, and, more importantly, why we must listen:
Whatever you say about this protest movement, it has been effective in its goal to get people talking.
Climate change is a huge (endangered) elephant in the room, and it can sometimes feel maddening that it hardly features on any major party manifesto. It is a major step finally to address that elephant, and keep addressing it, in a meaningful way.
Many politicians have focused on the legality or appropriateness of young people missing school, which in itself draws attention to what’s going on. However, arguing over the legality or appropriateness of it misses the huge opportunity to sit down and listen to the concerns of people who will have to live with the consequences of climate change for far longer than the people currently in power.
Anybody can stand outside parliament and get noticed by wearing a clown costume, but that doesn’t mean they will be taken seriously.
As the protest gathered momentum in Belgium, politicians attempted to appease young people by suggesting they could help the planet by spending time cleaning up their own school. This was little more than a transparent attempt to fob off young people and completely avoid the issue.
"These kids couldn’t possibly be serious." So they thought.
Yet the fact that so many young people are not only willing to show up on a regular basis, give up education time - potentially breaking the law in doing so – and have also developed a clear list of demands make it clear that they are utterly serious about the issue they are bringing to the table, and cannot be pacified with simplistic appeasements.
There are many important people who have been vocal in their support of the strikers, these include their own parents, their teachers, and prominent scientists.
Their reasons for encouraging them vary, but the vocal support of some of those considered to be responsible for young people is a legitimising factor, and an important boost to anyone considering joining the movement.
Civil disobedience is one of the most powerful and dignified manners of protest. This form of civil disobedience is simple and is something that all young people can participate in on a regular basis, making it the perfect vehicle for a mass movement.
In addition, in terms of harm or inconvenience to others, it is far less extreme than, for example, Extinction Rebellion, who are actively obstructing areas of society in order to get their message across.
School striking is a passive rejection of a society that is actively shaping us to participate in our own destruction.
Granted, the protest does impact teachers' ability to educate effectively, but the impact on teachers is far less than the impact on young people themselves.
In a sense, a school strike is comparable with a hunger strike, in that the people who will be affected the most by the strike are the strikers themselves. Yes, it is far less extreme, but the principle is the same.
Self harm is the last resort of the disempowered and disenfranchised. People who have no other means of expressing their political will must ultimately act against themselves or their communities to be heard.
The genius of the school strike lies in this: politicians, parents, school teachers, ‘grown-ups’ collectively will say, “You are throwing away your future.”
The reply of the striker is, “No, YOU are throwing away our future.”
It’s not that young people are saying school doesn’t mean anything in the face of the climate crisis. Quite the opposite. They are saying that it means a great deal, for them to risk giving it up in order to have their voices heard.
In this way, the medium of the school strike effectively encapsulates the message that we need to act now to address climate change and involve young people in the conversation.
Politicians like the UK's Andrea Leadsome grossly misunderstand this concept:
Adults frequently complain that students don’t know enough about the real world, and then complain when students try to get experience of the real world.
Many of the school strikers, aged 12, 16, 18, are attending their first protest and are becoming involved in politics for the first time, which is essential to a healthy democracy. It will also undoubtedly produce future political and environmental leaders.
Indeed, many of their parents and teachers have rightly been thrilled by the prospect of their charges going out into the world, getting to grips with how a society actually works and, crucially, how to make your voice heard.
A 16 year old girl walked out of school in August 2018 and told her story on Twitter. Now, thousands across the world have joined her.
Unthinkable just 10 years ago, the ubiquity of social media nowadays and young people's adeptness at harnessing its power has been instrumental in organising and connecting people across the world.
There has been no political advertising, no fake news, no dubious Russian involvement. The message that has spread is clear, simple and powerful: we must listen and act now to protect our future.
"There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come." —V. Hugo
Fossil fuel companies and politicians in their pocket have fought long and hard to steer the conversation around climate change. But from a voter’s perspective, it seems outrageous that politicians rarely talk about it, and even more rarely act on it. We are constantly being fobbed off and told we are moving forwards, making various changes to reach nebulous sustainable goals, etc., etc..
From the weight of this protest, we can see that climate change means a great deal and, actually, a great many people are pretty unhappy about it. It is empowering to see other equally passionate people make their voices heard about what many agree is the most important challenge humanity currently faces.
As JRR Tolkien wrote:
“Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”
A future on a warming planet seems utterly bleak, and good news is received rarely, if at all.
Seeing thousands of young people show up, have their say, and inevitably influence the political discussion has given a sliver of hope to everyone (and there are many of us) who thinks that the world must act on climate change now.
If that seems like a small point in the fight for a better future, with more animals, more pristine coral reefs, and more responsible environmental stewardship, it's worth considering that there is nothing more important than knowing how to hope.
Thousands are taking to the streets around the world to voice their concerns over the climate. How do you know when you're ready to join them?
Sign up to our weekly digest of interesting things we've found in conservation around the world.
Expect one email per week and no spam.